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.
Having been away from this blog for a while, apart from moderating some fine comments on the perplexing Gaza prisoner situation of Gilad Shalit and his Hamas captors, I'm sure it is time to ramp up efforts again in light of increasing concerns.
I was impressed by the very recent video interview of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, by the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. It is wide ranging, both interviewer and interviewee handling the complexities well, but unraveling little.
According to Bowen:
"President Bashar al-Assad has the air of a man who thinks matters are going his way--even though he shares the common Middle Eastern view that the region is getting more dangerous.
Israel, the US and Britain are convinced that not only is Mr. Assad arming Hezbollah, but that he is also sending bigger, better and more accurate weapons than before.
And he seems in no mood to respond to US attempts to woo him away from Syria's long-term strategic alliance with Iran."
Helena Cobban has written a lot over the years on the ME. In this link she has a very detailed run down on the latest Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over prisoner releases that could free key Hamas and Fateh militants from Israeli hands, and one Israeli soldier held in Gaza since 2006. All of this could be the precursor to declaration of another truce between Hamas and Israel on Wednesday. Reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh also seems to be on the cards. Meetings in Cairo indicate progress toward shared responsibilities and new elections.
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.
Quartet envoy speaks to British MPs about his role and the current situation
Former prime minister Tony Blair returned to the Palace of Westminster today to answer questions before a select committee in his role as Mid-East envoy.
The salient points included his observation that "[the] humanitarian situation [in Gaza] is dreadful." He also commented on joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial projects, the distance between Hamas and the Israel government, and water rights as part of a settlement, especially in the Jordan valley. He noted that the Middle East is far more important than he realized as prime minister and that it must become a central focus for the next US president. Whoever that will be will need to consider the 60-year history of the Israeli state.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the official founding of the State of Israel and the war that broke out immediately afterwards as Arab armies attempted to destroy the UN-sanctioned Jewish state at birth. In this report, Vision publisher and Mid-East scholar David Hulme analyzes the events leading up to the 1948 war.
Of particular interest is their connection with Vladimir Jabotinsky. The urbane, literary, charismatic leader of an early break in Zionism that became today's Likud and Kadima parties is the subject of a section in Identity,Ideology, and the Future of Jerusalem.
The books reviewed by Wheatcroft are:
Jacqueline Rose THE LAST RESISTANCE 256pp. Verso. £16.99 (US $29.95). 978 1 84467 124 3
Colin Shindler THE TRIUMPH OF MILITARY ZIONISM Nationalism and the origins of the Israeli Right 272pp. Tauris. £39.50 (US $85). 978 1 84511 030 7
David Goldberg THE DIVIDED SELF Israel and the Jewish psyche today 256pp. Tauris. £19.50 (US $35). 978 1 84511 054 3
Victoria Clark ALLIES FOR ARMAGEDDON The rise of Christian Zionism 331pp. Yale University Press. £18.99 (US $28). 978 0 300 11698 4
Yakov M. Rabkin A THREAT FROM WITHIN A century of Jewish opposition to Zionism 224pp. Zed Books. Paperback, £18.99 (US $34). 978 1 84277 699 5
Jimmy Carter PALESTINE Peace not apartheid 288pp. Simon and Schuster. Paperback, £8.99 (US $15). 978 1 84739 154 4
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.
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.