All of us at Meretz USA – Officers, Board, and Staff – send you heartfelt greetings for this New Year. May the New Year bring you health and happiness and may it bring us all – our brothers and sisters in Israel and throughout the world, and our cousins in Palestine and everywhere – peace, shalom, salaam.
With the Jewish Year 5767 having ended, this News Review directs its focus to the twelve months gone by so that we can remember (and perhaps learn from) the events of the year past.
Israel and Palestine: Can Palestinian disunity help the peace process? Perhaps the most important factor this year in Israeli-Palestinian relations has been the rivalry and conflict between Fatah and Hamas.
When 5767 began, Israel was helping maintain the international boycott of the Hamas government, leaving only the most meager room for contacts with the Palestinian Presidency of Mahmoud Abbas. Internal Palestinian tensions ran high, as Hamas and Fatah used their respective power bases to jockey for control of the Palestinian Authority. The peace process was at a standstill.
Prodded and pushed by Saudi Arabia, the two warring parties seemed to end their power struggle in February when they signed the Mecca Accord and entered into a power-sharing unity government. Though some viewed the Accord as a way to restart Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy (the unity government ambiguously agreed to respect the agreements signed by the PLO), both Israel and the US maintained their refusal to deal with a government in which Hamas was the senior member.
Unable to break the continued international boycott, the Palestinian unity government began to implode, as the worst of the Hamas-Fatah fighting erupted in Gaza in May and June. When Fatah’s forces in Gaza were routed in June by a surprise Hamas offensive, President Abbas used the opportunity to disband the government and set up an interim emergency Cabinet led by moderate Salam Fayyad, and devoid of Hamas members.
The Hamas victory in Gaza, and heightened concerned that Hamas could soon take control on the West Bank as well, have recently propelled the US, Israel and Abbas’ Fatah towards more concerted action. President Bush has called a peace conference, scheduled to take place in mid-November, and US diplomats are trying to enlist public Saudi support.
After ignoring Abbas at the beginning of his Presidency (before Hamas’ election victory in legislative elections in January 2006), Israel began exploring the possibility of dialogue, and Olmert and Abbas are now trying to work up an agreed “declaration of principles” that would form the backbone for a future peace agreement.
On the West Bank, the Fatah party has gone on the offensive against Hamas, rounding up its operatives there and shutting down many of its affiliated charities. In Gaza, meanwhile, Fatah supporters have begun waging a battle for public opinion, holding a series of Friday protest prayers demonstratively outside the walls of the Hamas-controlled mosques.
Israel and Syria – Moves for Peace, Rumbles of War: The year 5767 once again taught us to take the opinions of the pundits – even when a near-consensus reigns among them – with more than a grain of salt. All through the year, commentators in Israel predicted a Syrian-Israeli war over this past summer as if were almost an inevitability. Fortunately, however, both the Israeli and Syrian governments showed a bit more sense and moderation than what the prognosticators gave them credit for.
This is not to say, of course, that the leaders in Damascus and Jerusalem have fully embraced the peace option. As always, the political reality is neither black nor white. The months gone by have seen a curious, almost surreal combination, of sabers being rattled and olive branches being extended – at one and same time. The speeches of Syrian and Israeli officials have seemed well-nigh identical at times: We sincerely seek peace, each country tells us, but we stand ready to repulse the other side should it commit an act of aggression.
Nor has the US Administration lived up to its commitment to advance the peace process. As Prime Minister Olmert himself has indicated, the United States had made it clear to Israel that America is adamantly opposed to Israeli-Syrian peace talks – lest Damascus find a way to wriggle out of the diplomatic isolation to which Washington has committed it.
But 5767 also delivered some positive signs: It was revealed in January that between September 2004 and July 2006, Israel and Syria had been unofficially negotiating a peace deal, employing unofficial negotiators Alon Liel and Abe Suleiman to draft an unofficial, non-binding “non-paper”. Although the talks broke down amid last year’s war and Israel’s reported refusal to move these talks to an official level, the non-paper helped lay the foundations for peace talks at a future time.
Arab Minority Pushes for Autonomy; Right-Wing Pushes Segregation: The most profound development in 5767 from the standpoint of Jewish-Arab relations within Israel was the series of documents produced by Israeli Arab think-tanks and NGOs that tried to energize the debate over the unequal status of Israel’s Arab community. Foremost among these papers was “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” produced by The National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities in Israel.
The “Vision document” issued an important call for a restructured Israeli polity in which all citizens were accorded full legal, political and socioeconomic equality – in practice as well as in theory. Unfortunately, however, the document also contained a provocative introduction that drew all public attention away from this core message: Referring to the Palestinian Arabs as the only indigenous people in the area, the document treated Zionism as an alien, colonialist project and hinted at the illegitimacy of Israel’s creation.
In the short term at least, the Vision document seems to have boomeranged – creating increased suspicion of and hostility for Israeli Arabs, even among centrist and left-of-center Israelis. It is perhaps this changed atmosphere that gave right-wing Knesset Members (with support from some Labor and Kadima MKs) the courage to push the “JNF bill”, which endorses state-sponsored discrimination in the sphere of land-leasing.
The bill is making its way through the legislative process and is shaping up to be a major issue when the Knesset returns from its summer recess. The question of Jewish-Arab equality in Israel will certainly remain a central challenge for Israel, as it seeks to maintain the balance between its Jewish and democratic characteristics.
Women in Israel – Sex Offenses in High Places: The year 5767 was a year of shame in Israel in terms of the treatment of women in the workplace. Remarkably, two of Israel’s most senior politicians, outgoing President Moshe Katzav and Minister Haim Ramon, were both found guilty of sexual offenses committed against their female employees. And, much to the chagrin of women’s organizations throughout the country, both politicians seem to have escaped with less than maximal punishment.
Ramon was convicted in January of forcibly kissing a female employee. However, an appeals court later ruled that, due to his record of public service, Ramon would serve no jail time, and his crime would not be considered one of “moral turpitude”. The “absence of moral turpitude” decree enabled Ramon to resume his work in government. In fact, Ramon even won a promotion, returning to the Cabinet in the new role of Vice (no pun intended) Prime Minister.
Although Moshe Katzav was escorted out of public life, suspending himself from the Presidency in midyear until his term ended in July, he, too, managed to emerge relatively unscathed. Although the initial indictment sheet against Katzav included counts of rape, blackmail and obstruction of justice, the now ex-President managed to strike a plea bargain with the Attorney-General. Katzav agreed to plead guilty to lesser counts of sexual harassment and acts of indecency, and to receive a suspended jail sentence. Tens of thousands of Israelis turned out to a rally in Rabin Square to protest the deal.
Israeli Politics: To paraphrase Mark Twain, “the reports of Ehud Olmert’s political death are greatly exaggerated.”
When 5767 began, Olmert was a failed Prime Minister, who had mismanaged the war in Lebanon, and whose public-opinion ratings were in the single digits. As 5767 ends, the situation is not entirely different. However, much to the surprise of the pundits (once again), Olmert is still standing. And, to a certain extent, he’s even managed to bounce back.
The interim report of the Winograd Committee (late April), which looked into the handling of the Lebanon War II, managed to rock Olmert’s boat, but not sink it. The Committee accused Olmert of a “serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence”; newspapers called for Olmert’s immediate resignation. But Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni’s brief attempted rebellion from within Kadima never got off the ground. And the promises issued back in May/June by the two rivals in the Labor Party primaries, Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon, to lead the party out of the Olmert government turned out to be empty election slogans. Months later, both are members of the same government – Barak as Defense Minister, and Ayalon as Minister without Portfolio. Olmert’s position seems solid for now.
Labor’s lack of enthusiasm to leave the government should come as no surprise, though: Back in October, Olmert’s addition of the far-right Avigdor Lieberman to his government drew no more than the feeblest protests from his Labor colleagues.
As 5768 begins, we once again hold out the hope that the Israeli and Palestinian people will choose the path of co-existence, not the path of mutual enmity, rejection and destruction offered by extremists on both sides. And we look forward to seeing an American administration that realizes the importance of active US engagement for the sake of Middle East peace. We wish for all of Israel a year of peace with its neighbors, and a year of civil rights, without the scourges of sexism, racism, homophobia and religious intolerance. Y’hi Ratzon!