Saturday, November 24

Annapolis Summit – to be a Total Failure or Limited Success

There are only a few days left before the Annapolis Summit gets under way. The press hype from all sides will increase in its ferocity about its impending failure or limited success. On the eve of this summit, it is only natural for those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to predict as to what the result of the proceedings will bring. It is fair to remind all those who seek a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians to give support to the leadership of both Israelis and Palestinians, despite their known weaknesses, for the success of Annapolis.

The odds weighing against the success of this summit are varied and many on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. I have written about the problems in a previous article. Nothing has changed. Despite all these misgivings, it is the only show in town whereby two leaders (even though both are very weak in the eyes of their people) of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples will be meeting despite the fact that they have not even presented a Joint Declaration of Principles before the summit.

It is perhaps a good sign that the Saudis have announced their attendance, so has Syria according to a report in Al Jazeera. That is the good news. Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan, who have signed peace treaties with Israel, will also be there. The bad news is the lack of support by Hamas and Iran (which is no surprise!).

Both PM Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas have their hands tied by the extremists in their respective countries. This means that the “core issues” – the real basis of the problems that have perpetuated the conflict will not be discussed. This weakens the summit as both main players and their representatives will achieve very little apart from a joint declaration to carry on negotiating about substance that will be procrastinated almost indefinitely. This will be Olmert’s tactic to maintain the right wing Yisrael Beitenu and Shas Parties in his overburdened coalition as well as the Labour Party. It will be a tight rope walk for Olmert but at the end of the day the coalition will remain intact while all the “core issues” will be placed under the carpet for discussion at a future unspecified date.

It remains to be seen how the Palestinians will accept that after the summit ends. It will weaken Mahmoud Abbas even further in the eyes of his people. They will say that he sold out to the Israelis and the US and this could strengthen Hamas’s hand and pose a danger to Abbas’s moderate leadership in the West Bank which is rather shaky anyway.

The Israeli right wing, by its opposition to discussing “core issues” is playing into the hands of Hamas by weakening Mahmoud Abbas even further. The Hamas are relying on this tactic. This makes Hamas and the Israeli right wing very strange bedfellows indeed – each for their own narrow reasons. If by some miracle, the “core issues” are discussed and a formula is found for a fair solution that is suitable to both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, Hamas and its terrorist allies will be weakened and so will the right wing in Israel be weakened. Surely this is desirable for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

If extremists on both sides could be neutralized, the chances of a successful Annapolis Summit would be far greater. It is an unfortunate reality that this is far from the case. The agenda will be so watered down resulting in a platform for neutral, meaningless declarations of no substance that will allow both sides to claim success. This will result in procrastination being the thief of time and many will view this summit as a total failure rather than a limited success.

Saturday, November 17

Israel – a Jewish State?

At the beginning of the past week, Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, rejected on Monday 14th November 2007, the government's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Erekat said that "no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity." This caused a storm in a tea cup and of course grist to the mill to the right wing in Israel. Surely, the reaction to this is rather exaggerated!

Erekat’s statement may be true about western world countries. The nationality of citizens of these countries is determined by their country of birth or naturalization not by their religious affiliation. It is not true when referring to Arab countries. In many of these countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and a host of other Arab countries, there are no Jewish citizens as many have been expelled in the past. In most Arab countries national identity is linked to religious identity which is Islam. Some other examples of countries that are referred to as Islamic republics are: Islamic Republic of Pakistan (since 1956), Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

However, be this as it may, while Israel has a Jewish majority; there is a sizeable non Jewish minority (approximately 20%). This being the case, the government of Israel should represent all Israeli citizens irrespective of race, colour or creed.

Shulamit Aloni, who was Minister of Education in late PM Rabin’s cabinet, wrote a thought provoking article “Still a Democracy?” on this issue:

“The government of Israel, with all due respect, does not represent the Jewish people but rather the citizens of the State of Israel who elected it. Israel is a sovereign state, which is still considered a democracy. In other words, it is a state for all of its citizens. Therefore it must not demand of the Palestinians to recognize it as a Jewish state, because in that way it would be declaring that any citizen whose mother is not Jewish or who did not convert with our strict Orthodox rabbis is a second-rate citizen, and his rights as a human being and a citizen are not ensured.

The Jews are a people but not a nation, they are a religious ethnic group or as respected a tribe as may be. The Jewish citizens of Britain, including the Orthodox among them, are British, and that is what is written in their passports and in the British population registry.

The same is true of France; the Jews there are French. In Canada, they are Canadians, and in Holland they are Dutch. They uphold their Jewish lives in their communities, since in democratic nations there is freedom of religion and freedom from religion. If they were to register the Jewish citizens in these countries as "Jewish" in the nationality category, we would accuse them of being anti-Semitic.

There is a difference between a people and a religion and a nationality, since nationality is decided by citizenship - a people as opposed to a nation - and therefore citizenship is nationality. The affinity of a citizen to the state is based on citizenship and not on religion; it is not based on the tribe or on the heritage of the genes of the mother.

If among the cabinet ministers there are those who feel that they are more Jewish than Israeli, that is their right, and they can uphold all the religious precepts and pray all the prayers. But that is not relevant to the ties between the State of Israel and its neighbors.

There are people among us who like to repeat that this is a Jewish state and not a state of all its citizens. It is strange that the demand has been raised of the Palestinians, as a condition for ending the occupation, to recognize a state where some 20 percent of its citizens have inferior status.

In the past it was a great joy to be an Israeli. Israel was father to the nations. The word "Jewish" does not exist in any of the prayers. There is: "And I will restore the captivity of my people Israel." And there is the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the God of Israel and the daughter of Israel, who with the Jews is also a second-rate person.

The state of Israel was established as a civilian state, as a state of law, and not as a state of Halakha (Jewish religious law), by the "representatives of the Jewish yishuv and the Zionist movement." Not by the ultra-Orthodox to whom the cabinet ministers enslave themselves, and whose masses they release from military service, from working, and from tuition fees, and even pay them a monthly wage.

In the document establishing the state, it was promised that there would be "complete equality of rights for all its citizens regardless of origin, race or gender." And another reminder: On the Day of Independence, we light 12 beacons, the number of the tribes of Israel.

Let the cabinet ministers feel at home as Jews as much as they want, let them raise their voices in prayer and let them lay tefillin (phylacteries) - but they must remember that they serve the government of Israel, which still represents itself as being democratic. In other words, they are the representatives of all its citizens and are responsible for them.

Therefore it would be better to demand of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a sovereign state, and not to coerce them with what the citizens coerce us - religion and its rabbis.

The existing arrangement was suitable for the Catholic Spain of Isabella and Ferdinand at the end of the 15th century. This was the year of expulsion of non-Catholics from Spain, since Spanish nationality was granted only to the Catholics or to those who converted to Catholicism.

If it is more important to be a Jew than it is to be an Israeli, why do we demand of the Jews of the world to come here at a time when they are having it good in the democratic countries in which they live as Jews?”

Shulamit Aloni is correct in her article. This has nothing to do with whether Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries are considered Moslem or not. This is irrelevant. Does one refer to England as the Christian state of England? Israel is a country that belongs to all the people living in it.

Yoel Marcus of Haaretz has put it concisely in his article of 16th November 2007, “A Stupid Demand” where he wrote: “The whole world has recognized Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab countries that attacked after Israel's Declaration of Independence did so because it was a Jewish state. Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan in spite of being a Jewish state. If there is anyone who needs recognition, it's the Palestinians. Their leaders over the generations have goaded them into hating Jews and killing Jews, which has gone on without stopping, but left them without a state of their own.”

The upcoming Annapolis Conference will probably not reach the desired result in any case. Is the idea of putting emphasis on recognizing the Jewishness of Israel so important? The nature of Israel’s identity is well known and there is no reason to re-emphasize that in peace negotiations.

According to an editorial in Haaretz on 15th November 2007, it is easy to speak about a Jewish state, but difficult to find the political courage required doing what it takes: Settlements scattered in the heart of the Palestinian population make it impossible to separate between Israel and Palestine along a plausible and viable border. With each passing day and each passing year, every settlement expansion, every outpost and every road built to reach it disrupt the chance to separate the two nations.

Therefore suspending construction in the settlements is not a prize for the Palestinians ahead of one agreement or another, but a life-saving medicine for Israel. It is already difficult to delineate a border between the Etzion, Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim settlement blocs as the building boundaries within them keep expanding, with a wink at Washington.

Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but they should direct this demand at the Israelis. Another conference, more negotiations, more trips and another draft agreement, another escape from addressing the core issues, as though there is anything else to negotiate. The Israelis, not Palestinians, are making the vision of the Jewish state impossible. A law tying the government's hands vis-a-vis concessions in Jerusalem passed the Knesset in a preliminary reading, as though Israel's interest is to annex East Jerusalem with its hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

For religious fanatics on both sides, the existing solution is charmingly simple. Islamists want a Muslim state on all the area they consider sacred. Right-wing religious Israelis want a halakhic Jewish state on all the area they regard as sacred. The only problem is, both mean the same "holy ground." So the longer partition is postponed, the nearer draws the possibility of bloody messianic chaos.

Avoiding a debate on the core issues in Annapolis is not an Israeli achievement. It is an escape from the main issues, stemming from political cowardice. Every additional round of futile talks is pushing Israel farther away from determining its borders and fate.”

Apart from this, the moment one attaches a religious label on a state, that state cannot be a truly democratic state. The laws that are passed automatically favor the dominating religious group over the minorities. There can never be true equality between all the religious groups.

There are a number of apartheid-like decisions in Israel. An outstanding example is the land laws concerning purchase of land by Arabs show a remarkable similarity to the notorious Group Areas Act of apartheid South Africa. Israel’s rule of law in many respects is governed by Halacha which has become part of the state machinery. Another example is state interference in marriage partners when the one partner is not Jewish. There is no civil marriage in Israel while in progressive democratic countries provisions are made for civil marriage. The whole idea is to prevent assimilation of the Jewish People by preventing intermarriage. There are other examples but it is not the purpose of this article.

Israeli society is composed of all its citizens and this includes Arab Israelis. Peace is to be made with the State of Israel and its people.

Saturday, November 10

Problems with the Annapolis Peace Conference

Most peace loving people would like to see this conference ending in success. However, there are so many factors going against the Annapolis Peace Conference even before the delegates enter the conference venue for its first meeting. This is sad but one has to be realistic. It is really Hobson’s choice for both Prime Minister Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas. It is a matter of both sides not being allowed to be winners or losers each for their own reasons.

If Abbas, by some miracle, is successful, he will be condemned by Hamas which will emphasize Abbas’s role as a traitor to the Palestinian cause and he will be viewed as a US-Israel collaborator. This could result in a threat to his leadership as well as to his life.

If Abbas fails, the Palestinian people who wish to see an improvement in their lives as well as an end to the occupation with its check posts and the resulting humiliations from it will remain under occupation with all that it entails. This time there will be no face savers if there is failure.

If Olmert fails, the Labour Party coalition partner could bolt the government resulting in its fall. If Olmert succeeds, his right wing partners – Israel Beitenu and Shas could bolt the government and it would fall as well. So both sides will be at a conference which will be accompanied by much press hype and is doomed to failure.

No matter how one views the prospects of this conference, both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership are weak and have their hands tied by their electorate or coalition partners.

According to a report in Haaretz, November 9 2007,

"Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed that any future agreement between them would be conditional to the implementation of the first stage of the Road Map, which includes Palestinian counter-terrorism operations and a freeze on construction in the settlements. The agreement, which follows two weeks of stalemate in the negotiations between the two sides, may pave the way to the drafting of a shared declaration that will be presented at the Annapolis peace summit later this month.

In talks between the two negotiating teams in Tel Aviv yesterday, it was agreed that "any implementation of agreements in the future will be conditional to both sides carrying out what they must in accordance with the first stage of the road map." It is expected that a similar formulation will appear in the joint declaration the two sides will make at Annapolis".

It remains to be seen whether the two sides will be able to make a joint declaration before the Annapolis Peace Conference commences.

Israel talks about peace but is still expanding settlements in the territories at the same time.

Another point as far as the Palestinians are concerned is the freeing of prisoners. The Palestinian leadership will press for a wide scale prisoner release including those prisoners with blood on their hands. Anything less than that would be unacceptable to them. Core issues, such as the refugee problem, will not be discussed because it would result in Olmert’s right wing coalition partners bolting the government. The problem with Hamas is another factor that cannot be overlooked. Hamas rules Gaza today. Abu Mazen’s team does not represent Hamas-ruled Gaza. This means that the West Bank is the decision-maker as Palestine is divided into two entities in practice – Fatah-ruled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza. The latter does not have any recognition by the EU, US, UN and Russia nor will it be represented. One cannot deny that Hamas has wide support and is a threat to the Fatah leadership in the West Bank. This non-recognition strengthens Hamas’s resolve to put a spanner in the works of Annapolis. Overlooking Hamas is a great mistake and it will not ensure the success of Annapolis. How can this peace summit succeed with so many factors working against it? Hamas is uncompromising in its attitude towards recognizing Israel’s right to exist and in ceasing its terrorist activity against Israel. Hamas is also not prepared to negotiate with Israel. This in itself creates a very serious problem for Hamas representation at Annapolis. It is doubtful if Hamas would have accepted an invitation to attend the conference had an invitation been issued to it. If Hamas had accepted the invitation to attend it would be tantamount to recognition of Israel and all that it entails. This is unacceptable to Hamas if one judges by their rhetoric and their deeds so far.

As far as both Olmert and Abbas are concerned, they are both in a Catch 22 situation whether they succeed or fail. If there is success or failure, Olmert’s coalition will eventually break up. Mahmoud Abbas is in a similar predicament. He cannot sign an agreement with Israel while Hamas breathes down his neck. If there is no agreement, the Palestinians stand to lose as there will be no chance of giving up the occupation, easing the check posts and no chance of economic improvement as well as a better standard of living for the Palestinians.

A far better alternative to the ill-fated Annapolis Summit would be investment in building viable Palestinian institutions that would ensure stable government and law enforcement. This is actually one of the provisions stated in the first phase of the Road Map. Now there is total anarchy in the West Bank with crime rates reaching a zenith.

Whatever concessions Abu Mazen manages to get from the Israelis, if any, will never satisfy Hamas and its allies. Hamas is dead set on sabotaging the results of the conference at all costs.

If Annapolis fails and the chance of that is not remote, the whole idea of a two-state solution to the conflict will be destroyed. This means that the idea of a binational state or a federation of Israel and Palestine as one entity will come up for debate. There are no other solutions.