For some time now challenges have been directed at the ultra-Orthodox way of life especially when it comes to the role of women.
Last Monday's arrest of 10 members of Women of the Wall, including two female American rabbis, was not the first time the group has met opposition at the Western or Wailing Wall. They have been protesting their exclusion from worshipping there in the traditional prayer shawl for 24 years.
Back in 1989, they were attacked by ultra-Orthodox men wielding metal chairs. The then Director General of the Ministry of Religious Affairs said nothing could be done to help the women hold prayer services—the prohibition against them doing so, he said, "is tradition in Israel, and this tradition is law and can't be changed."
This time, the group of about 200 were supported by Israeli paratrooper veterans from the 67 War. The Jewish Agency's Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet Jewish dissident, is trying to resolve the conflict at P.M. Netanyahu's request. He admits it will not be easy—"we Jews chose to be not-easy people, and to live in a not-easy place, and to do not-easy religion.”
This is one more example of clashes over matters of identity with religious and ideological roots. The Western Wall has long been the center of such struggles. In the past, it was the entire Jewish community in Palestine that wanted access and only slowly over the years did that come about, most notably as a result of the '67 War. Now that the State of Israel has possession, contention over the Wall comes from a group within its own tradition.
Yair Lapid, leader of Israel's new Yesh Atid party.
The secular mainstream in Israel scored in the recent elections with the success of the new party Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by talk-show host Yair Lapid. Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s party won, Lapid emerged as a power broker. One of the planks in his platform is the demand that ultra-Orthodox students serve in the military or suffer sanctions. The Supreme Court has already nixed a law giving exemption to such students, but the government has not followed through on bringing them into the military.
This is only part of the battle that has been developing in Israel over the role of ultra-Orthodox religion in civil society. Other related issues include gender equality, taxes and government aid. Though its adherents (Haredim) represent only about 10% of the Jewish population in Israel, they wield disproportionate political influence. The polity is split into many fragments such that no single party can gain a clear majority, but the ultra-orthodox parties have been present in most coalitions since 1977. This time around two Haredi parties have a combined seat total of 18 to Lapid’s 19. This suggests that if Lapid pursues an aggressive secular agenda at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox, he will face a lot of opposition and deepen a growing rift in Israeli society
His position on Jerusalem could also become an issue. In the campaign he took up the traditional Israeli election rhetoric of “undivided Jerusalem.” This wins votes. Yet his record shows a different side. In 2008 he gave an interview to Der Spiegel indicating support for the division of the city with the Palestinians. This past week one of his security advisors, Jacob Perry, answered a question about Lapid’s inviolability of Jerusalem stance indicating that it may be the starting point for negotiations. In other words, compromise may be necessary.
About 12 years ago I interviewed the mayor of the Israeli West Bank settlement, Maale Adumim. Benny Kashriel told me then that his city would eventually become part of Jerusalem, being linked to it by annexed contiguous land. Indeed he regarded Maale Adumim as part of the Jerusalem metroplis even then and had publicity brochures that proclaimed as much. The still open and barren land separating the two cities is known as Development Area EI (East 1).
Now it is back in the headlines following the upgrading of Palestine to non-member observer state by an overwhelming UN vote. Seemingly in retaliation, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu revived Israeli planning activity in the E1 sector making way for construction of up to 3400 housing units there and in other parts of Jerusalem. As tensions rise in this tit-for-tat scrapping, attempts at Middle East peace are once again on hold. The reality is that if E1 becomes a developed area between Israeli-held East Jerusalem and the 40,000 Israeli residents of Maale Adumim, the possibility of a Palestinian State with meaningful access between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank and with East Jerusalem as its capital, becomes a much more complicated prospect and perhaps moot if compromises over road connections fail.
It was the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin that created the E1 area in 1994 in support of Maale Adumim (which Rabin had authorized in 1976). The city is regarded as a gateway to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. As a result, it seems unlikely that any Israeli government will give up the strategically positioned enclave, preferring rather to enhance its security by connecting it materially to Jerusalem.
Olmert's successor as mayor, Uri Lupolianski, was arrested Wednesday. According to the BBC, "A judiciary spokesman said Mr Lupolianski was suspected of receiving bribes, money laundering, fraud, breach of trust, tax avoidance and conspiracy, in connection with the Holyland property development." Bribes totaling more than $800,000 have been mentioned. Lupolianski was deputy mayor under Olmert from 1993-2003 and mayor till 2008. He has claimed that "A deputy mayor has no responsibility. ....The mayor is the one who decides... ."
East Jerusalem can yet become capital of the Palestinian state
Reuters reported an interview with Ehud Barak aired on Al-Jazeera television. Barak said, "We can find a formula under which certain neighbourhoods, heavily-populated Arab neighbourhoods, could become, in a peace agreement, part of the Palestinian capital that, of course, will include also the neighbouring villages around Jerusalem."
This is, of course, no surprise. It's just that the continuing impasse in public covers up what has already been agreed in principle by various negotiators over the past few years.
Despite other reasons often given, Jerusalem remains central to resolution of Mid-East conflict
According to Ahmad Qurei, the veteran Mid-East negotiator and former Palestinian prime minister, Jerusalem remains the issue that will not go away and without its resolution peace will not come. This has been a consistent theme in Vision's coverage of the more than one century-long conflict. In a Vision interview, Qurei (Abu Ala) made it clear that the Jerusalem Question is the sine qua non.
Tuesday's meeting of Abbas and Olmert Seems to Confirm Rumors of Slow Down
The two leaders have met twice a month since Annapolis with little apparent forward movement. The New York Times reported today that PM Olmert's coalition problems mean that if Jerusalem appears on the agenda at this point, he will lose an essential conservative partner, the religious Shas Party.
JERUSALEM, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians need to pick up the pace of peace negotiations if they hope to reach a deal this year, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said on Tuesday.
Palestinian president denies agreement to forestall discussion of Jerusalem.
President Mahmoud Abbas has denied coming to any agreement with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to delay discussing Jerusalem in the current round of meetings.
As we have noted many times on this blog, Jerusalem is a major, if not the, sticking point.
I came across the following statement from Israel's long-time UN ambassador, the late Abba Eban. Although it's addressing the idea of the internationalization of the city, it captures the issue well when it comes to the identities and ideologies of Jerusalem's people:
“The idea of a separate international regime for Jerusalem has always been a fantasy, and its bizarre anomalies have been exposed in every attempt to put it into effect. It rests on a false picture both of Jerusalem and of the United Nations. Jerusalem is not an ethereal abstraction revolving in a vacuum of history. It is a city of living men and women with sharply defined national allegiances and identities. It cannot be anything that the majority of its citizens do not want it to be.” (Personal Witness, 206)
Israeli foreign minister opposes
her prime minister's delay of Jerusalem issue
Tzipi Livni agreed
with her PA counterpart, Ahmed Qurei, that without Jerusalem on the
table negotiations would go nowhere. Annapolis was an agreement to
discuss all issues, she said. Haaretz commented, "This
means that the order of debates on the core issues is insignificant, as
without an understanding on Jerusalem, any understandings reached on
other issues, like borders and refugees, are meaningless."
David Hulme holds a Ph.D. in International Relations with an emphasis on the Middle East. As publisher of Vision and president of the Church of God, an International Community (COG AIC), Hulme's message is one of hope, restoration and peace.