[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

January 27, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

Over there

 

The most dramatic thing that happened in Israel this week is of course what happened next door to Israel in the Palestinian Authority.  Democracy prevailed and the Hamas won a huge victory.  President Bush, with his puppy dog face, applauded the wonders of democracy and the competition of ideas.  Most Israeli politicians wondered if Bush would have allowed Al Qaeda to participate in democratic elections in Washington and if a party associated with Al Qaeda did participate would Bush applaud the competition of ideas being presented to the American people.  Most critics of the Israeli government inside of Israel ponder the question of whether or not Israel could have prevented the Hamas from participating in the elections.  Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that this is what he wanted to do and pushed for, but that Prime Minister Sharon was too slow to act and was perhaps under pressure from Washington. 

 

Apparently the Israeli security services were also working under the assumption that it would not be possible to prevent Hamas from participating in the elections because then the elections would be canceled.  Most Israeli security people believed that the elections were essential in order to empower Mahmoud Abbas and to increase his legitimacy.  Of course, Israel did almost nothing to empower Abbas prior to elections. So given that, one must ask today were the security folks right?  Once again, the intelligence community has a lot to answer for.  How is it that they were so wrong in their predictions of the outcome of the elections?  I met several senior intelligence officials this past week at the Herzliya conference.  I queried them on their assessment of the expected outcome of the elections. They were all quite fluent in their ability to regurgitate the assessments, analyses and numbers of the Palestinian public opinion polls.  They all said that Fatah would win with a slim majority. They all thought that I was off-based when I suggested that from my analysis of the situation on the ground there would be a significant Hamas victory - I mentioned the number 55% for Hamas.  I told them that from the results of the past four rounds of municipal elections, the inability of Fatah to organize itself, the multiplicity of independent candidates, the internal discipline of Hamas, the amount of green flags and Hamas posters around the West Bank and Gaza, the overwhelming belief in the territories that Hamas brought about the Israeli evacuation from Gaza – all this and more, led me to believe that Hamas would win a victory.  How is it that the Israeli intelligence community including the Shabak, the IDF intelligence, the Mossad and more were completely incapable of predicting something that seemed so obvious to me?

 

In light of the intelligence failure, it is also worthwhile asking once again the question regarding the Hamas participation in the elections.  Former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, democracy activists and religious Muslim Dr. Anwar Ibrahim told me that in his opinion no party that supports terrorism, does not respect human rights, is armed and uses its arms should be allowed to participate in democratic elections.  I asked him how it is possible to prevent groups such as Hizballah and Hamas from participating in democratic elections. He said to me that democracies must be allowed to protect themselves through the rule of law and that the rule of law cannot allow those who threaten democracy to exploit its openness to further its own non-democratic goals and agenda.  He said that the Palestinian Authority has a law which prohibits non-PA security personnel from holding arms. He said that the PA must enforce its own law.  If the PA wants to hold elections, it must ensure that all of those parties participating in the elections abide by the law; otherwise there is no legitimacy to the Authority and to the rule of law. This is not President Bush speaking – it is one of the leading personalities in one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.

 

Who can deal with the Hamas?

Rabbi Menechem Froman from the settlement of Tekoah in the southern West Bank has been engaging leading Hamas personalities in dialogue for years. He even held a series of talks with Sheikh Ahmad Yassin when the Sheikh was behind bars in an Israeli prison.  Froman believes that it is possible to make peace with the Hamas but that the talks must be conducted by religious leaders.  Froman is a very interesting personality, a bit bazaar for my personal taste, but he raises an issue of great importance.  There have been attempts by religious groups to create a different kind of dialogue here between Jews, Christians and Muslims on a religious basis.  Most of those attempts have been far from successful.  Usually the participants have represented people who are quite marginal in their own communities – Rabbi Froman is one such person.  Usually the Jewish participants are Reform or Consrevative Jews from the United States, the Christians are Western Christians – also usually foreigners and the Muslims, usually the fewest in numbers are esoteric Sufis who have no real following.  The one really significant attempt of creating an interfaith dialogue with authentic representatives of the established religious authorities was the famous Alexandria meeting in Egypt that was convened by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury in October 2002.  That meeting produced a very positive statement about Jerusalem as a city of the three religions. 

The statement was:  In the name of God who is Almighty, Merciful and Compassionate, we, who have gathered as religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, pray for true peace in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and declare our commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right of life and dignity.

According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of His Holy Name, and defames religion in the world. The violence in the Holy Land is an evil which must be opposed by all people of good faith. We seek to live together as neighbors respecting the integrity of each other's historical and religious inheritance. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred and misrepresentation of the other.

1. The Holy Land is holy to all three of our faiths. Therefore, followers of the divine religions must respect its sanctity, and bloodshed must not be allowed to pollute it. The sanctity and integrity of the holy places must be preserved, and freedom of religious worship must be ensured for all.

2. Palestinians and Israelis must respect the divinely ordained purposes of the Creator by whose grace they live in the same land that is called holy.

3. We call on the political leaders of both peoples to work for a just, secure and durable solution in the spirit of the words of the Almighty and the Prophets.

4. As a first step now, we call for a religiously sanctioned cease-fire, respected and observed on all sides, and for the implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet recommendations, including the lifting of restrictions and return to negotiations.

5. We seek to help create an atmosphere where present and future generations will co-exist with mutual respect and trust in the other. We call on all to refrain from incitement and demonization, and to educate our future generations accordingly.

6. As religious leaders, we pledge ourselves to continue a joint quest for a just peace that leads to reconciliation in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, for the common good of all our peoples.

7. We announce the establishment of a permanent joint committee to carry out the recommendations of this declaration, and to engage with our respective political leadership accordingly.

Almost all of the participants were attacked by their communities when they returned home and since then, they have not been successful of repeating the positive outcome of that one meeting.

 

It might be wise to see how some credible religious people might be able to advance a dialogue with moderate Hamas personalities who are willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and who denounce violence.  One Israeli personality who might be a good choice to explore such a dialogue is Rabbi Aryeh Deri – the former Shas leader.  Deri’s name came up several times this week and he was interviewed in a lot of the newspapers and electronic media not connected to Hamas but only to Shas and the upcoming elections.  Deri claims that if he were to head Shas or to create a new political party, according to polls in his hands, he would receive 15 seats – this is significant in light of the 9-10 seats that Shas has been getting in all of the polls. Deri was known to be a sharp and very talented politician until he got caught illegally transferring funds to religious institutions from the Ministry of Interior that he headed. But Deri paid his debt to society and has remained on the sidelines since being released from prison.  During his tenure in politics he did arrange several meetings between Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – the Shas spiritual leader and Palestinian leaders including Arafat.  It is also believed that Deri was instrumental in the famous Religious edict of Rabbi Yosef concerning the willingness to give up territories in order to protect human lives.  Deri could perhaps play a positive role in this new era.  Something to think about anyway.

 

Herzliya D.C.

 

The premier political event of the year in Israel is the famous Herzliya conference. Headed by Dr. Uzi Arad, the former head of the Research department of the Mossad and the former political-security advisor to PM Netanyahu, Arad has for the sixth year running brought together the entire political and security elite of the country for three and a half days of very intensive talks and lectures.  The most outstanding aspect of the conference, other than the list of participants and speakers, is the discipline in keeping to the schedule.  This year a new element was added – an electronic ticking clock on a large plasma screen facing the audience and the speakers so that they know how many more seconds they have to speak. 

 

The conference is well known for being a platform for what could easily be described as an Israeli neo-con agenda.  One of the neo-con issues brought to Herzliya this year for the first time was Arad’s Patriotism Barometer.  Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua was more than outwardly disturbed by what he interpreted as Arad’s attempts to grade the Israeli public and various groups within the public on their level of Israeliness. Yehoshua said that feelings of patriotism for him waver based on how Israel behaves.  He said that when Israel sends troops as a rescue mission to Nairobi to held trapped miners, he feels proud of being an Israeli and when Israel demolishes Palestinian homes he feels embarrassed of his Israeliness.  Arad, equally disturbed by Yehoshua’s  wavering nationalism lost his cool and publicly insulted Yehoshua.  Yehoshua was ready to explode, but kept his cool.  I am sure that this is the last time that the famous acclaimed Israeli author will enter the Herzliya conference. 

 

Herzliya brings out all of Israel’s politicians and everyone wants to be seen there.  It is also the place where Israel’s leaders make major political speeches that normally would be made in the country’s Parliament.  Labour candidate Shelly Yichimovitch called Herzliya :the privatization of the public discourse in Israel”.  She may be right because some of the speakers at Herzliya pay their way in by sponsoring sessions. Nonetheless, Yichimovitch was there and got the headlines in the news by being there. 

 

I was also there.  In a certain strange sense, I have similar feeling sometimes in Herzliya that I feel when I visit Washington, D.C. There is a clear sense that the power of the country and the decision makers are there and that if one would like to have influence, it is important to be there to network.  That is what I do at Herzliya.  For me it is also an educational opportunity where I get to exchange ideas with a lot of people I don’t usually have easy access to.   So I expect that next January I will return to Herzliya DC.