Saturday, February 23, 2013

The nutcracker dilemma

Part 1 - by Beate Zilversmidt

The elections were after all an earthquake. The blocs were broken up.

The Israeli multi-party system had more and more developed into a de-facto bi-partisan situation, with fixed right of center and left of center blocs. The ultra-orthodox (Haredi) religious parties were before 2000 still sometimes changing course, thereby acquiring much power as king-makers. But they seemed to have found their destination on the right. New parties trying to become recognized as "center parties" got crushed, or ended up being labeled "left wing". Kadima, the party created by Sharon just before he got the stroke from which he didn't recover was meant to be a center party. The remnant of it was considered in the 2013 elections as belonging to the left bloc.

But the blocs are no more. The anti-Haredi bond between the extreme right "Bayit Yehudi" and the center-left "Yesh Atid" is overriding other loyalties. What the nationalist-religious and the secularists - both led by new political stars - have in common is their dislike of the Haredi privileges. For the secular Yair Lapid it would be enough when Haredim will  be conscripted to the army. For Naftali Bennett there is one more target: to riggle the chief rabbinate out of Haredi hands. (If Bennett and Lapid would both enter the government and  succeed to break the Haredi privileges, they would soon stop being allies as they hold totally different ideas about  the elephant in the room, Israeli-Palestinian relations.)

Without the fixed blocs and though his party lost big, Netanyahu seemed still the only one who could be asked to form a government coalition. Now he is doing everything to avoid being crushed in the nutcracker - under coordinated pressure from the two novices, from left and right simultaneously. Therefore he needs everybody else's support.

From the point of arithmetic it should not be so difficult with Lapid and Bennett together holding not more than 31 seats of the Knesset's 120. But Netanyahu and his Likud are encountering some other hurdles. Though originally a "peoples party" the Likud became under Netanyahu  identified with hard-line economic liberalism. And exactly now the Labor Party (15 seats), under Shelly Yechimovitz, is taking its name seriously and demands a totally opposite economic policy.

Still, Netanyahu could probably gather together 57 out of the 120, with Tzippy Livni already in, and for whose 6 seats he was willing to emphasize the importance of the two-state solution;  Kadima (only 2 seats but still toughly negotiating); and the Haredim (two parties, together 18 seats) so to say "in Netanyahu's pocket". Added to that the 31 of the  Likud-Beyteynu alliance Netanyahu would still not have a majority in the Knesset, but it doesn't seem likely that anybody else could garner more without new elections being held.

If Israel would be a different place altogether there would be left a way for Netanyahu to make the 57 into 61, without any problem of having to compromise on such touchy matters as religious privileges and economic course. In an Israel different from the really existing one it would at least be considerable to include also Israel's Muslims. The Ra'am-Ta'al party (4 seats) would not create any problems on the issues Netanyahu singled out as crucial.

But, including an Arab party, appointing an Arab minister, and thus out of the ruins creating some new hope for Israel, of course Netanyahu would never do such a thing, not even out of despair.

The nutcracker dilemma

Part 2 - by Adam Keller

Uri Elitzur, who had been secretary general of settlers’ Judea and Samaria Council and Netanyahu’s chef de bureau and later became an influential columnist of the Israeli right-wing, is very enthusiastic about the political alliance forged between Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. He writes: "There is something exciting that two people completely new to politics, both in their forties, are at the head of two big parties. Aside from their age and the enthusiasm of something new starting, there are other significant things that are common to both of the parties behind Lapid and Bennett. For example, an awareness that the old debate between Left and Right on the future of the Territories is not necessarily the most important of issues. A new generation has arisen, which is tired of this division and which sees a lot of important and urgent matters on which Left and Right can work together."

Apparently, this new generation considers the issue of forcing upon Haredi youths recruitment to military service as far more important and urgent than    the question of what duties and tasks the State of Israel imposes on its army.  And it is a fact that the opinion polls which made ​​headlines in the weekend papers predict great success for Lapid and Bennet and their respective parties, were repeat elections held in the near future.

Still, over there - behind the fences and walls, very close geographically but worlds away from the hearts and minds of the majority of Israelis – are  living millions of people who are far from tired of the debate whether Israeli occupation continues or ends. They care little if it is devout Haredim or irreverant  Atheists who don the IDF uniform and go out to harass drivers at checkpoints on Palestinian highways, guard the ever expanding settlements built on Palestinian land and shoot tear gas at protesters and demonstrators.

This week, an increasing wave of demonstrations and protests throughout the Palestinian territories, culminating on Friday at the East  Jerusalem’s Temple Mount  mosques, at long last forced the Israeli printed and electronic media to pay some attention to what is going on among Palestinian prisoners held in Israel’s prisons. Already soon after last year’s prisoner exchange, the security services found various pretexts to start re-arresting an increasing number of the Palestinians released in exchange for Israeli soldier  Gilad Shalit. Lacking other recourse, four of these re-arrested prisoners turned to a prolonged hunger strike endangering their lives – which makes them into heroes in the eyes of Palestinians regardless of political affiliation. 

On Thursday, Samer Al-Issawy, who had gone  without solid food for more than 200 days, appeared in court in a wheelchair. He was charged with having “violated the terms of his parole by leaving the boundaries of Jerusalem” -  having gone to a garage at a Jerusalem suburb which has not been annexed to Israel and is legally part of the West Bank. For this he was condemned to eight months imprisonment, the term deemed to have started with his arrest on July 7, 2012.

This would set him free in a few weeks from now - but that may not be the end of the matter. Through hastily enacted regulations, any breach of the law by a Palestinian released in the Shalit Exchange could lead to re-imposition of the original, years-long term. In the case of Issawi, who is determined to continue his hunger strike until he is free, this would be tantamount to a death sentence.

In several previous cases, Israeli authorities showed themselves wise and flexible enough to set hunger striking prisoners before any of them could die in prison. Hopefully, they would act as wisely this time, too. Which in itself is far from enough to avert outbreak of the often predicted and talked about Third Intifada.

Palestinians feel that the world has forgotten them and abandoned them to open-ended Israeli occupation and the steady encroachment of Israeli settlements, and are far from being impressed by Netanyahu reiterating his verbal commitment to the two-state solution and getting the famous Tzipi Livni to represent him in negotiations, if and when they are resumed. Lacking a real reason for hope, any chance spark could light the dry tinder. Exactly twenty five years ago, a pure accident – an Israeli driver hitting Palestinian pedestrians – was enough to set alight the fires of the First Intifada. Would President  Obama, in his visit scheduled for next month, provide a measure of real hope – or will still another disappointment be added to the combustible mixture?

Meanwhile, there is at least one young Israeli who is not “tired of the old debate between Left and Right on the future of the Territories”.  Nathan Blanc, a 19-year old Israeli from Haifa, is already for many months going in and out of prison due to a particularly firm position taken in this old debate.

Blanc’s cycle has so far repeated itself six times. He comes to the Induction Center, is ordered to join the army,  says "I will not serve in an army of occupation" and gets sent to another month at Military Prison 6. Gets out of the prison - and straight again to the Induction Center, refuses again and goes  back through the revolving door to prison. So it has gone on, and without an end in sight. The army has patience, the military authorities strongly insist that this young man must surrender and serve. But Nathan Blanc also has patience and perseverance, and he certainly does not intend to capitulate. Another month in prison and yet another, and the saga continues.

This morning, hundreds of activists of the Yesh Gvul Movement climbed on the mountain opposite Military Prison 6, to celebrate the Purim holiday together with with Nathan Blanc and his fellow prisoners. Artists came voluntarily to perform, and strong loudspeakers carried the sound of singing into the  prison courtyard. And meanwhile, the name of Nathan Blanc is becoming increasingly known internationally. In Switzerland a poster was published with his photo, the student newspaper at Emory University in the United States published an article praising him as a hero, When I was a month ago in at Hiroshima in Japan, I found that there, too, peace activists have already heard of Nathan Blanc.

Blanc has already rejected the option of getting psychiatric discharge.
If more months of imprisonment accumulate, what is waiting him is a court martial where he could be condemned to years in the harsh military prison conditions.  Then, also he may enter the headlines and the news broadcasts of the mainstream media around the world – another victim of the occupation.