Tony Blair set the stage for the schmaltzy, over-the-top, joyful and endearing tribute Tuesday night to Israeli President Shimon Peres on his 90th birthday. “We in Britain have our Queen,” the former British prime minister said, “and you have your Shimon.”
Indeed, it felt like a coronation of sorts, an odd mixture of loving familiarity and the sort of fancy production that would have made the founding generation of the state of Israel cringe. The thousands of invited guests — mostly Israelis, lots of Americans, and a sprinkling of others — were dressed to impress, reflecting the newly acquired wealth in the start-up nation. One of the only men I saw without a suit was an American rabbi. The days of kibbutz-style gatherings are clearly over.
The program was nationally televised, featuring popular singers like Eyal Golan and Shlomo Artzi, lots and lots of adorable children, videos from near and far, recorded birthday messages from the leaders of France, Germany, Spain, Russia, the United Nations, and more. Barack Obama sent his regards. So did Bono.
And it was all about Peres. The length of his extraordinary career has allowed him to reinvent himself again and again — much to his critics’ dismay — and on this occasion it was Peres the peacemaker who was celebrated. A rousing chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” sung by hundreds of young Israelis made that point, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an otherwise touching tribute, made sure to emphasize the need for a strong defense.
The following items appeared in the Israeli media this month: Superland, an amusement park outside Tel Aviv, makes a policy of reserving separate days for Israeli Arab high school classes and separate ones for Israeli Jewish classes. A Jewish community pool in the Negev refused to admit a group of Bedouin children with cancer because, in the words of the manager, the patrons have a problem with that “sector.” In a hidden-camera investigation by Channel 10 news, branches of Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest bank, refused to allow three out of five Israeli Arab customers to transfer their accounts to a branch in a predominantly Jewish area, while routinely allowing all the Jewish customers to do so.
I have to admit, I am surprised. I didn’t think it was this bad.
I didn’t think the racist practices against Arabs in Israel — not Palestinians in the West Bank, but people who live in “Israel proper” as citizens — were so deeply entrenched. Unless I’m extremely mistaken, this sort of thing doesn’t, couldn’t, go on in the United States, or Canada, or other Western countries that Israel likes to think of as its peers in the democratic world.
No doubt a lot of Jews would say: Israelis have a long history of terror and hatred from Arabs, what do you expect? In return I would say: Arabs have a long history of violent subjugation and hatred from Jews, what do you expect?
But let’s put that duel aside and keep in mind who we’re talking about: Bedouin kids with cancer. Arab youngsters wishing to go to an amusement park. Random Arab adults trying to switch their bank accounts.
The tables were well and truly turned at the Western Wall this morning, as the Israeli Police, which until this spring detained women holding communal prayers, executed a mass operation to protect them and facilitate their worship.
Until April 25, the police treated the monthly gatherings by the feminist alliance Women of the Wall as illegal, and as a result detained its members. However, on that date a Jerusalem district court ruled that this interpretation of the law wasn’t correct.
As a result, at their service a month ago, they were allowed to hold their communal prayers. However, the scene was chaotic, with large numbers of Haredi protestors doing much to disturb the prayers, and some of them throwing projectiles at the women.
At today’s service, however, the scene was very different. Haredi leaders, keen to for their community to avoid the bad press it received a month ago, and instructed youngsters to keep away, in a bid to keep hotheads at bay. But the biggest difference was the punctilious organization by police, who took their obligation to protect the women exceedingly seriously.
While just a couple of months ago it was the objectors to Women of the Wall who had the upper hand at the Wall, today, they were kept away from much of the women’s section as WOW gathered. Police escorted women in to the prayer area from their buses. If you hadn’t arrived on a bus, officers asked where you were going, and only if you were participating with WOW were you allowed near their gathering. The officers covered a special walkway with tarpaulin, so that WOW participants couldn’t be seen by Haredi demonstrators — and in a worst-case scenario of object being throw wouldn’t be harmed.
Like many urban legends, the myth — and now mess — of the Jewish National Fund’s supposed agreement to pay former President Bill Clinton $500,000 in charitable funds to speak for 45 minutes to an exclusive group of Israeli dinner guests began with an incorrect press report — which then got repeated until it was “fact.”
On May 31, Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli Minister of Education, published an opinion piece on-line in Haaretz in which he informed his readers that Clinton would be the keynote speaker at a gala dinner to be held in honor of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Peres Academic Center on June 17. The dinner, a celebration of Peres’s 90th birthday, was to be an exclusive event for a select list of invitees, Sarid wrote. And each guest would be required to donate $828 to the Peres Academic Center’s scholarship program.
Infuriated by the high cost, Sarid, who was himself an invitee, made some phone calls, and learned that Clinton’s 45-minute speech would cost a half a million dollars, to be paid to Clinton’s charitable foundation. He also heard from his sources that the Jewish National Fund, a co-sponsor of the exclusive gala event, would be paying Clinton’s fee.
Now Sarid was even more angry. Why was the JNF, an organization created to collect money from Jewish donors to build and improve the state of Israel, using its funds to enrich Clinton’s philanthropy, with its quite separate charitable agenda? Effie Shtenzler, chairman of JNF-Israel, had no clear answers for Sarid when the latter called asking about this. So Sarid published his op-ed, and the story exploded.
Over the next few days, other media outlets, including the Times of Israel and Yedioth Ahranot, crucified the JNF for supposedly betraying its mission and misleading donors.
It was only later that follow-up reporting by the Forward and others clarified what really occurred.
When the Forward contacted JNF’s New York office, which collects donations from American Jews and transfers them to JNF-Israel, the New York office explained, a bit beseechingly, that it was a separately incorporated U.S. affiliate and was not responsible for any decisions made by JNF-Israel.
But when we contacted JNF-Israel officials they, too, passed the buck, so to speak. The officials admitted that JNF-Israel had, indeed, signed on as a co-sponsor of the gala event at the Peres Academic Center. But they insisted, “The Peres Academic Center… invited [Clinton], came to financial terms with him and paid him, a long time before [JNF-Israel] were part of it.”
And that turned out to be the case. Officials with the Peres Academic Center, a small, relatively little known social science school in Rehovot, confirmed to the Forward that, yes, they were the ones who had engaged Clinton and were putting up the cash.
But the saga was far from over. When Peres learned through the press reports that what was supposed to be an evening to honor him was doubling as a fundraiser, he announced he would not attend since Israeli regulations prohibit him from participating in money raising events. The Peres Academic Center (which is named after Peres but is not related to him in any way) realized its blunder. You could not very well have an evening in honor of President Peres without President Peres. So the school retreated from the idea of the event doubling as fundraiser, and announced all invitees would now enter for free.
In other words, the school is now eating its costs for bringing in Clinton, leaving its donors, perhaps, as the ones who should be asking tough questions.
But thanks to the original erroneous press reports, that was not enough to get JNF off the hook. As the criticism went global and reached potential donors worldwide, JNF announced this afternoon that it was backing out of any participation in the gala event. It would therefore take back from the Peres Academic Center any funds that it had already provided for the event.
Bottom line: The Peres Academic Center, with JNF as a co-sponsor, tried to dance at two weddings simultaneously — honor President Peres and raise funds for its own purposes. Media found out and lambasted JNF, while basically ignoring the Peres Academic Center. JNF backed out and left the school with a reported bill of half a million dollars. And Yossi Sarid will be able to hear President Clinton’s speech for free.
A rare joint rally sponsored by both of the dueling factions within the Satmar Hasidic movement could bring upwards of 20,000 protesters to downtown Manhattan this Sunday, according to Satmar insiders.
The Satmar factions, led by two warring brothers who each claim the title of rebbe, rarely cooperate. Yet activist supporters of both sides are said to be in the final stages of negotiating a deal to both endorse the same massive protest against Israeli efforts to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli military.
A committee within the Israeli Knesset agreed on draft legislation early this week that sets quotas for the number of ultra-Orthodox men expected to join the military, and raises the possibility of criminal penalties for draft dodgers.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States and in Israel oppose the draft. While Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States are not Israeli citizens, and would not be subject to the draft, many have close family and communal ties in Israel. Young ultra-Orthodox men from the United States often study at yeshivas in Israel, institutions that they worry would be shuttered if their Israeli counterparts are drafted.
Followers of Aron Teitelbaum, the Kiryas Joel-based Satmar rebbe, first called the protest, which is permitted to begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Manhattan’s Foley Square. Followers of Zalman Teitelbaum, his Brooklyn-based brother, then offered to lend their support. Negotiations are reportedly ongoing.
Assuming the deal between the Satmar factions is finalized, and assuming other ultra-Orthodox groups join in as expected, attendance could surpass 20,000 people, according to one activist follower of Aron Teitelbaum. Without Zalman’s support, the follower estimated an attendance of 10,000 people.
Last May, the support of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including Zalman Teitelbaum but not Aron Teitelbaum, drew 40,000 Orthodox Jews to an anti-Internet rally at CitiField in Queens.
When Israeli female soldiers get saucy, some Israelis can’t help but applaud. Columnist Halleli Jabotinsky published newly surfaced photographs on her blog, and declared that they actually performed an “important service” by humanizing the Israeli military and also looked “cute.”
In the photographs, which went viral in social media, new recruits exposed their thongs under their uniform, and in a separate image posed in helmets and a tiny amount of combat equipment.
The military has disciplined them, but over at Haaretz Allison Kaplan Sommer has some sympathy for them as young women “who don’t necessarily have any desire or natural aptitude life in the military, but are doing their duty, and decided to relieve the boredom in a silly way.” She wrote: “If these girls were living the life their American peers, they’d be just another bunch of airheaded sorority sisters pushing the limits of good taste on Facebook. Sure, their campus might be buzzing about them, but the Washington Post and New York Times wouldn’t be into their business.”
But army bases aren’t the same as university campuses, and anybody who cuts these girls slack for their very feminine prank should check that there isn’t some patronizing gender-politick at work.
Jabotinsky’s views, which are common, are underpinned by a chauvinistic attitude towards female soldiers. She would have us believe that they should be applauded for looking good, and that they did well by illustrating to the world that girls, even in the IDF, will be girls. The subtext is: What do you expect from women; leave the real soldier-work — the serious stuff — to the men. But in the army rules are rules, uniforms aren’t to be sexualized for public consumption on social media, and nobody should praise soldiers for doing so — even if they think, as Jabotinsky does, that it ultimately gives the IDF a good image.
I appreciate Hillel Halkin’s passionate response to a cartoon that supports the boycott of Israel, promotes anti-Semitism, and advocates a viewpoint that he insists must not be permitted in a Jewish newspaper.
Unfortunately, that is not the cartoon I drew.
My cartoon pilloried the absurdity and intellectual vacuity of hasbara, the public relations effort by Israel and its supporters to disseminate the Israeli point of view. It was a satire of chauvinistic Jewish discourse on the issue of Israel in light of the recent uproar against Stephen Hawking, and it made no comment either for or against what Halkin calls “the Israel boycott movement.”
To be sure, Halkin alludes to the actual content of my cartoon in order to summarily dismiss it, insisting that the most jingoistic critiques of Hawking — particularly of the “He Should Discard His Israeli-Made Intel Voice Chip” variety — were fringe and marginal. Hillel Halkin’s claim is not supported by fact. But having made this claim, he goes on to insist that my cartoon can only be read as a championing of boycotts. “It is a pro-boycott cartoon,” Halkin concludes about a satire of contemporary Jewish debate.
If Halkin would prefer to discuss the boycott movement rather than a cartoon about hasbara, he might be surprised to learn that I am not an advocate of boycotting Israel for the same reason that I am not an advocate of censoring items from Jewish newspapers based on ideological filters. I have faith in open discourse, I have confidence in the capacity of people to reason and grapple with opinions they might not agree with, and I feel that when we start outlawing the free exchange of ideas, we sacrifice much more than a single cultural exchange or cartoon.
Last weekend, I was detained for 10 hours and then deported back to the U.S. after flying to Panama for a weeklong vacation. I’m starting to get over the sheer frustration about the experience, which was caused by a Panamanian rule that visitors must have at least three months on their passports to gain entry to the country. In truth, it was my fault for not knowing the rules of the country I hoped to visit.
Frustration aside, it was a learning experience for me. Ironically, I’m in the midst of promoting a campaign to get the Israeli government to release African asylum seekers from detention, where they are being indefinitely imprisoned without any chance of applying for refugee status. The campaign is called Release Now!
During my hours in detention in Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, I saw some things that really made me angry. I was treated particularly well in comparison to everyone else in detention. But that was obviously because I was able to lobby for my rights; and also because I kept mentioning that I’m a human rights activist. Thus, I was allowed to get food twice and to make phone calls three times, while others were not given such privileges.
What upset me most was the treatment of black men from Africa and elsewhere who were the majority of detainees — a potent reminder of the racism they face around the world, including in Israel.
There was one man from South Africa who was actually a Somali with full refugee status in South Africa. He worked in the tourism industry and was being sent to Panama by his company for two weeks. He had visited the Panamian consulate in South Africa and they had given him permission and documentation to enter the country. The authorities at the airport chose to deport him but did not explain why.
Another man from Haiti did not understand that he was being taken to a hotel overnight and then deported the next day. He only spoke French.
“The Pines is to gay people what Israel is to Jews. It’s the spiritual homeland.”
That’s how journalist-turned developer Andrew Kirtzman described The Pines, a largely gay male enclave on idyllic Fire Island, the 31-mile-long strip of land just south of Long Island, about a 1-1/2-hour drive east of New York City.
“There’s just a sense of history in the air, almost tangible but not quite,” Kirtzman told The New York Times this week as Fire Island continues recovering from Hurricane Sandy. “You just feel like you’re part of some kind of grand creation meant solely for gays.”
How do Fire Island and Israel stack up? With Kirtzman’s claim in mind, The Forward investigated.
Size: 31 square miles
Anthem: Fire Island, (Village People, 1977)
Daily ritual: High Tea at the Pavilion
Boldface names: Calvin Klein, David Geffen
Getting there: Ferry $8.25
Real estate: 2 BR bungalow $595K
Slogan: The Gayest Island in the World
Michael Lucas porn film: “Fire Island Cruising”
When the Church of Scotland decided to revise its controversial and borderline anti-Semitic report on Israel and the Palestinians, it only really had to do three things.
First, the Kirk, as the church is widely know, had to make clear it understood what Zionism actually is. Not, as they originally stated, a solely religious ideology. But rather, a diverse movement encompassing a multitude of dreams including many secular ones.
Second, it had to repeal all claims that smacked of Christian supremacism.
Third, it needed to delete or at the very least rewrite the passages on the Holocaust, ones which previously asserted that Jews must “stop thinking of themselves as victims and special” and ‘repent’ for the displacement of Palestinians during the Wars of Independence.
The revised version of “The Inheritance of Abraham” has just been made public, and it comes up short on all three tests. Despite the stubborn shortcomings though, at the very least, the report’s new preface indicates that the Church of Scotland knows it did something very wrong the first time around.
“The country of Israel is a recognised State and has the right to exist in peace and security,” it now states as a matter of fact. “We reject racism and religious hatred. We condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We will always condemn acts of terrorism, violence and intimidation.”
It’s not much, but it needed to be said.
A Romanian opera singer dressed like Dracula and wailing falsetto. Dancers in a Perspex boxes and drummers dosed in baby oil. Moustachioed Greeks dancing and singing about the joys of free alcohol. A Russian plea for world peace in three minutes with a key change.
In case you missed it, that was the Eurovision Song Contest, Europe’s annual festival of music, costumes, and lights that at once unites, divides, and simply baffles the continent. And the winner wasn’t half bad this year. Denmark’s Emmilie de Forest sang “Only Teardrops,” a steady tune with a smattering of drums and Celtic pipes, and won 281 points, including the maximum points from eight countries, beating out Azerbaijan and the Ukraine respectively.
Absent once more from the spectacle was Israel. Since Harel Skaat placed 14th in the 2010 final with “Milim” (“Words”), Israel has failed to make it out of the semi-finals on three successive occasions. This year, Israel entered the talented if unknown reality show winner Moran Mazor, and her ballad “Rak bishvilo” (“Only for him”) fell flat in the semi-final, finishing 14th out of 17 acts.
For its size, Israel has a very strong record in Eurovision. Since it first entered in 1973, Israel has won on three occasions – including back-to-back in 1978 and 1979 with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” and “Hallelujah” – and has come second twice and third once. This is more remarkable given Israel hasn’t even submitted an entry every year, missing the contest when it has fallen on the memorial days Yom HaShoah or Yom Hazikaron.
Israel has the highest poverty rate in the developed world. Some 21% of Israelis were poor as of 2010, more than in any of the other 33 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, its new report reveals.
Compare this figure with where Israel stood in 2000 and the picture is stark — back then the poverty figure was 15%.
The question is, where does Israel go from here/ Israel’s cabinet has just passed an austerity budget that curs spending across government ministries, and will eat away at some important welfare payments.
Israel was delighted back in 2011 when it was admitted to the OECD. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that it was a “seal of approval” for Israel’s economy. But what of the critique that the kudos came with?
“Countries get the poverty rate they are prepared to pay for,” Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-general, said at a roundtable with Israel’s then-finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, just over two years ago. “If Israel is to cut poverty and reduce inequality, it will have to not only shift the composition of social spending, toward more cost-effective benefits, but also increase its investment in this area.”
Have poverty figures dropped since Israel joined the OECD? The new figures don’t tell us, but given that changes in policy to decrease inequality have been minimal, it looks unlikely. And with the austerity budget about to pass, gaps looks set to widen.
One of the new budget’s clauses is a cut in child allowances — payments that the Knesset Research and Information Center has just reported represent a staggering 28% of the income of Israel’s poorest decile.
Three years in to Israel’s membership of the OECD one can’t help but feel that it has taken the prestige of OECD membership and run with it, the country hasn’t done so much listening and learning.
British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking waded into the Israel debate last week by announcing his decision to boycott an academic conference. Eli Valley, the Forward’s artist in residence, offers his own unique graphic take on the controversy.
Got wheels, Mr. Hawking?
Israelis are about to be taxed to death — literally.
Israelis are furious at the austerity budget, and thousands took to the streets last night to demonstrate.
You may have read about the planned spending cuts or the planned tax increases, but you probably haven’t heard about the cemeteries plan.
The government wants to impose property taxes on graves. According to the plan, grave owners will be liable for the tax while they are living, which if they bought young and go on to live a long life would end up costing far more than the value of the plot itself.
Once people are interred their families will be expected to pick up the cost. It is unclear how long the liability will continue, and whether it will be applies on existing graves.
Property taxes in Israel are paid to the local municipality, and help to meet the cost of a range of services that — at least according to information currently available to us — are enjoyed exclusively by the living, such as parks, cultural services, refuse collection etc.
The new plan raises an intriguing possibility. Over the years many Diaspora Jews have chosen to be buried in Israel for what they perceive as its spiritual value. Could we start to see some casket traffic in the other direction — Israelis going to be buried in the Diaspora to avoid an eternal tax burden?
Are the days numbered for second-class citizenship for women in Israel?
Following two announcements in two days, it seems the exclusion of women from Israel’s public sphere may finally be nearing an end. The Attorney General Wednesday recommended criminalizing behavior that stops women from receiving “public services with equal conditions.” And today, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that she is starting work on the legislation.
Israeli politicians should write Haredim who demand segregated buses a letter of thanks. They have provided them with the ultimate fits-every-occasion always-grabs-a-headline cause for whenever they need a bit of love from liberals or for when news is quiet. Women’s exclusion was never a popular story until it became about the ever catchy “back of the bus” and there is a seemingly endless supply of political points for anyone who condemns them.
But in the past we have seen the issue of gender exclusion disappear from the headlines as suddenly as they appeared. At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 gender segregation and women’s exclusion topped Israel’s national agenda. “They will be huge issues in the next general election,” went the common prediction. Yet soon after the international community finished its New Year vacation and news picked up again, it became yesterday’s story.
Now, once again, the “back of the bus” story has been wheeled out. The changes being promised are important and welcome. The subject is better for the government than having people talking about Syria or Prisoner X.
But will it survive the next big new story or will it just fade away? Only time will tell.
The company made waves this week when it changed the geographic tagline for the Palestinian version of its search engine, Google.ps, to read “Palestine” instead of “Palestinian Territories,” Foreign Policy reported.
“We’re changing the name ‘Palestinian Territories’ to ‘Palestine’ across our products,” Google spokesman Nathan Tyler said in a statement to the BBC. “We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries.”
“In this case, we are following the lead of the UN, Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], ISO [International Organisation for Standardisation] and other international organisations.”
In November, the U.N. General Assembly voted to recognize the Palestinian Authority as a non-member state.
Dr. Sabri Saidam, an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the BBC that the Palestinian Authority had asked Google and other international companies to use the term “Palestine” instead of “Palestinian Territories” after the U.N. vote.
“Most of the traffic that happens now happens in the virtual world and this means putting Palestine on the virtual map as well as on the geographic maps,” he said.
It comes as no surprise that Israeli officials weren’t pleased.
“Google is not a political or diplomatic entity, so they can call anything by any name, it has no diplomatic or political significance,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel.
On Twitter, some saw the name change as a significant step:
Google is de facto recognizing a state of Palestine. bit.ly/12wVNC4ampmdash; Cassandra Vinograd (@CassVinograd) May 3, 2013
Others thought the company could have gone further:
And some users who disagree with the tech giant’s decision won’t be Googling anymore:
What do you think about Google’s decision?
Warren Buffett, the famed investment Oracle of Omaha, is in love with the Israeli economy, or at least with one company.
On Wednesday, shortly after announcing his purchase of Israeli cutting tool maker Iscar for $2 billion, a move that would complete his takeover of the company, Buffett sat down with Israeli reporters at the modest corporate headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway investment company in Omaha, Nebraska.
“It’s 2 billion votes of confidence in Iscar and in the Israeli economy, you can’t separate the two,” he told Israeli TV’s Channel 1, “when we put $2 billion into Iscar, we’re putting $2 billion into Israel.”
Buffet made his first investment in Israel exactly seven years ago, buying 80% of the company’s shares for $4 billion. Seven years later, Iscar’s value has doubled in the remaining 20% ownership were sold for $2 billion, reflecting an estimated company value of $10 billion.
In back-to-back interviews with Israeli reporters, days before he holds the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting followed closely by investors across the world, Buffett showered praise over his Israeli partners. Asked what he found most impressive in doing business in Israel, he said: “If I could take our managers from Israel and clone them I would feel very, very good,” he said. “They have brains, they have energy, they’re never satisfied with where they are today, they always think things can get done better and they don’t get discouraged when the world economy slows down, they just try harder.”
Skeptics point out that all that happened yesterday was that Arab leaders acknowledged what everyone already knows — that if and when Israel makes a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, it won’t return exactly to 1967 borders.
This is true. When the Arab League indicated that it is updating its position from its Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, to accept some degree of land swapping so that Israel won’t have to return to 1967 borders, it was really just a matter of its leaders coming closer to earth and recognizing that the Green Line won’t become a border. The Palestinian Authority and the international community have long realized that Israel will cede land in its sovereign borders in return for holding on to parts of the West Bank.
In fact, when the so-called Palestine Papers were leaked in 2011, they showed that the Palestinian Authority had been prepared to deviate significantly from the 1967 lines, at least in Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, stating the obvious can be important. The road to peace is obstructed by taboos from both the Israeli and Palestinian side, and the breaking of each and every taboo is an important landmark. Only when key players publicly break a taboo can the discourse start to shift, closer to agreement. The fact that the Arab League has shown willingness to revise its “1967 lines” mantra, and inject some flexibility in to the take-it-or-leave-it Peace Initiative could, if capitalized upon, present an opportunity.
There is still a huge gulf that divides Israel and proponents of the Peace Initiative, with massive differences in important areas. But the latest development updates it from an offer frozen in its time to one that could potentially be revived and form the basis of talks.
One of the most interesting questions is how, if this leads somewhere, will Hamas react. Hamas’ ideology is uncompromising, and doesn’t lend itself to the idea of agreements. However, in the scenario that the Arab world, represented by the Arab League, moves forward, there could be significant pressure on Hamas not to stand in its way. Hamas has kept its reaction to the plan in check in the past, resisting the temptation to vote against it at an Arab League summit in 2007 and instead abstaining.
But there’s another less obvious factor that could prove relevant. It was Qatar that met with John Kerry and announced the openness to land swaps. Hamas is increasingly reliant on Qatar for donations and political credibility. In October the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza - giving the regime kudos by going there and promising $385 million, for building projects. This gives Qatar obvious leverage withHamas.
Yesterday’s development is by no meant a fast-track to a peace agreement, but it could simplify a still-difficult route.
Bah humbug, it’s Lag B’Omer.
I’m usually game for Israel’s national and religious holidays, eating the correct patisserie items on the correct days (honey and cheese cake on Rosh Hashanah and Shavuot respectively), sweating in a succah on Succot, and even finding a certain comfort in the melancholy of the Fast of Av.
But I’m a Lag B’Omer Scrooge.
And here’s why. Every festival has good traditions apart from this one, which has two common customs: lawless scavenging and superstition.
Jewish children across Israel, religious and secular, have filled the skies with smoke with their traditional bonfires. And for the days before Lag B’Omer, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is a temporary suspension of the laws of theft in the State of Israel where wooden items are concerned. If it’s not screwed and bolted down, it’s seen by some as fair game. Well brought up children who would never dream or of taking what isn’t theirs most of the year can be seen gathering up burnable items which aren’t exactly theirs. Damage is wrought in forests; palettes on building sites grow legs.
And many of them light up without the necessary precautions. Several fires have gotten out of hand this year.
Yesterday, Israel’s cabinet passed its first reform of the new Knesset, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced afterwards: “The goal of the reform that we approved today is to lower the prices of flights to and from Israel and to increase incoming tourism… We will continue to advance reforms to lower the cost of living and increase the efficiency of services to Israeli citizens.”
The reform in question was the signing of the so-called Open Skies agreement with the European Union, which will increase competition in flights to and from Europe and, it is expected, bring down the price of flights.
The cabinet’s resolution has prompted a strike by Israel’s three airlines, which has meant that thousands of people scheduled to travel are unable to do so. The strikers, backed by the Israeli trade union movement, say that the agreement will put Israeli carriers at a disadvantage and lead to the loss of Israeli jobs.
There are pros and cons to the Open Skies agreement. But what should be noted is that it is being billed as the first big achievement of the new government in bringing down the cost of living — a priority placed on the political agenda by the social protest movement.
In the summer of 2011, a Facebook campaign protested the high price of cottage cheese in Israel. Within a few weeks thousands of Israelis were in tents and out on the streets protesting the overall cost of living.
And so today, as the social protests become a distant memory that left Israel the legacy of Finance Ministry Yair Lapid who triumphed electorally on the promise of lower living costs, and as the prices in supermarkets, including the price of cottage cheese, creep back up, those Israelis who can afford to fly are promised that the cost of their air travel will drop.
Never mind “let them eat cake.” In Jerusalem they declare “let them eat airline meals.”
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