Israelis jockey and make speeches as new peace talks approach
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM — As I was still wondering who I was early this morning, I heard the 6 o’clock news report that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had used his weekly sermon to curse the Palestinians and wish an early death for their leaders. “Abu Mazan and all the other evil ones should perish. May the Lord strike them with a plague, them and all those Palestinians who do evil upon Israel.”
The followers of Rabbi Ovadia view him as a holy man and a genius on the law of Torah. He had a term as the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was the creator of the ultra-Orthodox party SHAS, and remains its spiritual leader. The pious kiss his hands when they are fortunate enough to get close. Political leaders and those who aspire to leadership seek the opportunity to don skull caps and enter the Rabbi’s rooms for a conference and hopefully a blessing.
The Rabbi is about to celebrate his 90th birthday, and is inclined to murky and outlandish comments. Usually one of his handlers is quick to correct or explain something likely to embarrass the community. So far we have not heard from a handler on these comments, perhaps because they are close to the sentiments of other party leaders.
Some years ago Rabbi Ovadia staked out a position of accommodation with the Palestinians. In order to save Jewish lives, it would be appropriate to make territorial concessions. He has returned to that theme, but more often has expressed himself on the hawkish side of the spectrum. He condemned the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza. Eli Yishai, the leader of SHAS MKs and Minister of Interior, is one of the most outspoken members of the government expressing skepticism about the upcoming talks with the Palestinians, and supporting a resumption of building in Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank.
Explanations of SHAS’s move to the right include the wave of violence that began in 2000, and the recognition of their voters’ tendency to distrust Arab intentions. SHAS supporters tend to be working class Israelis from families that came from North Africa, with memories of Arab hostility and being forced from their homes.
If leaders do not follow their supporters, they risk the loss of leadership.
There is also the matter of housing. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have lots of children, who marry young and have lots of children. Land is limited and expensive in the established ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. When Rabbi Ovadia made his initial comments about territorial concessions to save Jewish lives, there were no ultra-Orthodox settlements in the West Bank. Now there is Betar Ilit and Modiin Ilit, each with tens of thousands of residents and more building underway. Ramat Shlomo is an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem where plans announced for further construction during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel upset the Obama administration.
There is pessimism in both Israeli and Palestinian communities in advance of the talks scheduled to be celebrated this week in Washington. 88 percent of the 1,751 people who have so far expressed themselves on a question asked by a popular Hebrew language internet site selected, “The conversations are destined to fail and collapse.” 12 percent chose, “The conversations will reach a formulation for a peace agreement.”
The Economist expressed guarded optimism about the talks, but noted that “Hamas is still absent from the table. This means that half of the Palestinian movement would not be party to any deal and will try hard to sabotage one.”
The campaign in behalf of the soldier held captive in Gaza also suggests that the Israeli population is more skeptical than optimistic. There were several days of paid commercials urging people to attend a rally in Jerusalem to mark his fifth birthday in captivity, and organizers hired 70 buses to bring people from all parts of the country. One media report noted that hundreds appeared, several mentioned thousands, and one estimated 6,000. The Israeli metric for a serious demonstration begins at 100,000.
Shalit’s mother used her speech at the rally to call on Sara Netanyahu, recently featured as asking her husband not to deport 400 children of illegal immigrants, to show similar concern for Gilad. Sara responded with a comment that her heart went out to the Shalit family, and that the prime minister worked hard to secure his release. The prime minister has indicated repeatedly that Israel would not pay the price demanded by Hamas as long as it included the release of terrorists likely to engage in further violence if set free.
A back bench member of Knesset expressed the hope that the prime minister would raise the issue of Shalit as part of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The journalist interviewing her noted that Shalit was held by Palestinians who opposed the peace process. The MK’s response was something like, “I guess that is a problem.”
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University