Category Archives: Jerusalem Post Articles

A Step in the Right Direction

Is a new plan for economic development in Arab towns a shift from politics to pragmatism?

Street view of Kafr Kassim, one of the Arab towns earmarked for funds under the new development plan (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

Originally Published in Jerusalem Post, Weekend Magazine Edition, 25/5/2012

The complex reality facing Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens today is often obscured by the constant political controversy revolving around the current crop of Arab politicians.  As the rhetoric becomes more fierce and incendiary, the divisions and mutual distrust between Jews and Arabs has also tended to widen, contributing to an overall sense that the Arab population will never truly become part of Israel, nor have any desire to do so.

But is this picture really accurate?  While the political grandstanding and Knesset dramatics grab all the headlines, a quiet economic revolution, spurred on from the heart of the Israeli government, is also taking place.

Back in February 2007, and to little fanfare, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) established a special governmental “Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sector” to operate within the PMO’s departmental framework.  The objective of the Authority was to “maximise the economic potential” of the three Arab communities by stimulating employment opportunities, enhancing its business and commercial sector, upgrading transportation and communication infrastructure, and finally building new housing facilities specifically for Arab citizens.  By March 2010, “Decision 1539” was approved by the government, committing 778 million shekels across 5 years for the economic development of 13 Arab towns and villages throughout Israel.

One concrete example of where these funds have been spent so far, is on the brand-new “one-stop employment center” in Tira, a “village” of 22,000 people situated in the middle of Israel’s central Sharon region close to Kfar Saba.  The Tira pilot center is the first of twenty two of its kind to be implemented countrywide, providing a variety of courses in vocational Hebrew, computer skills, English, and assistance in creating and refining CVs.  The courses are particularly valuable for Arab women says the Director of the Center, Nibras Taha.  “In the last two or three decades, the Arab society as a whole has undergone a series of changes,” he explains.  “It is no longer taboo for woman from traditional families to work.  The economic reality in Israel today means that it is imperative for both spouses to be employed.”

Nevertheless, serious challenges still remain.  Efforts to create greater economic opportunity may be a step-in-the-right direction, but it is clear that emotional issues still present a major barrier to progress and better integration.  When the Mayor of Tira, Mamoun Abd Alhai was asked in a recent press conference organised by the PMO’s Government Press Office whether he would support making two-year national community service for Arab youth compulsory (instead of military service), the Mayor expressed some misgivings.  Although he said that the purpose behind the idea was well-intentioned, he also stressed that he would be more comfortable if the organization of national service programs took place through the “Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Welfare”.  As such programs are currently connected to the IDF and the Ministry of Defense according to the Mayor, there will always be a “dilemma” among Arab youth on whether to take part, especially as long as the wider Israel-Palestinian conflict goes unresolved.

However, there are others who believe that the softly-softly strictly economic approach coming from the Prime Minister’s Office is the right way to go, even if the big political issues stay unresolved.  Ibrahim Habib, Director of Regional Development at the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector, told me that ensuring proper government investment in Arab communities should not be left to the politicians but rather economic professionals who can use the clout of the Prime Minister’s Office to influence decisions.  “The Arab sector doesn’t receive enough financial assistance from the government at the moment,” said Mr Habib, “but its better to accept one shekel now and request another later rather than rejecting everything out of hand, which is what politicians from the main Arab parties have done in the past.”

Mr Habib, himself an Arab-Christian, also told me that he sees growing disillusionment among the ordinary people of Israel’s “Arab street” towards the established Arab parties in the Knesset.  “When the delegation of six Israeli-Arab MKs met with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in April 2010 for example,” he recalls that this was a really big turning point.  “People began to ask, how can they associate with such a leader and adequately represent our real-life needs and problems.  Are they living in the real world?”  Habib also says that the Muslim segment of the Arab population in particular is beginning to drift towards support for the mainstream Zionist parties – “even Likud”, although at present they are unwilling to admit the fact publicly.

Professional officials such as Ibrahim Habib are not sentimental about their involvement in the Israeli government, nor the very real achievements they are providing for their community, but appear to simply want to put politics to one side while the real work gets done.  At the local level at least, even the politicians of the Arab sector seem keen to steer clear of partisan political squabbling.  When I asked Mayor Mamoun Abd Alhai of Tira which party he belongs to, the answer was none, atzmai, “independent” he replied in perfect Hebrew.

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Ripe for Change

ASAF ZAMIR (Photo by Daniel Easterman)

Originally Published in Jerusalem Post, Weekend Magazine Edition, 23/12/11

Asaf Zamir, the youngest Deputy Mayor in Israel’s history says change is possible – but only through greater involvement by ordinary Israelis in the political process.

Asaf Zamir is an unlikely success story in Israeli politics.  In 2008, at the age of just 28, Zamir, a virtual unknown in the political arena suddenly achieved what many thought was impossible.  His newly founded Rov Hair party (Majority of the City) swept the Tel Aviv municipal elections, became a major coalition partner with the ruling party, and Zamir himself became the youngest Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv in living memory.

So how did a junior-trainee lawyer without any formal political experience seemingly come from nowhere and catapult himself into one of the most senior positions in Israeli local politics?  “I am a 4th generation Tel Aviv resident says Zamir proudly.  “I love this city.  Before we set-up Rov Hair, we were well-known in the city, particularly in the young arts and nightlife scene of Tel Aviv.  I think that we were successful because we ran a true and honest grassroots campaign focusing on the issues that matter most for young people in this city.”

But there was also a relatively novel element in Zamir and Rov Hair’s 2008 campaign, which by Zamir’s own admission, was instrumental in gaining so many votes.  Their use of social media and in particular Facebook at the time was revolutionary.  “To my mind, 2008 was one of the most influential years for Facebook in terms of politics,” says Zamir.  “It was also the start of the Presidential elections in America, Obama-fever and everyone was optimistic about politics and the potential of social networks.” By getting famous personalities and celebrities to support their campaign through YouTube videos that subsequently went “viral”, they were also able to raise political consciousness and activism, particularly for young people, to much higher levels than previously seen.

However, not everyone was entirely supportive of Zamir’s decision to give up a promising legal career and enter into politics.  “When I said I wanted to do this: set up my own party and run in the municipal elections, my father said I was crazy,” confides Zamir.  “During the campaign itself, almost no one official from the municipality wanted to deal with us – not because we were controversial, but because people thought we were basically irrelevant.”

Article as it originally appeared in the hardcopy of Jerusalem Post Magazine, 23/12/11

As Zamir has gotten used to life as an incumbent over the past three years and pushed through an ambitious policy program covering everything from housing to education to arts and culture to technology, it is clear that he and his party have been anything but irrelevant.  After witnessing firsthand the possibility of swift and dramatic change at the city-level, the young Deputy Mayor has also partially turned his attentions to the national drama taking place on the streets of Tel Aviv and throughout the country.  At the height of last summer’s social protest movement, Zamir, along with two other young political leaders, Ofir Yehezkeli and Ofer Berkovich, decided to found a new grassroots movement called Mitpakdim.  The aim of the movement is to encourage Israelis of all political stripes to become more involved in politics by signing up for party membership –allowing them to vote in party primaries and have a say over who is put forward by the party to be a candidate at the general elections.

“When the whole tent protest movement started”, says Zamir, “in a way I felt like I had jumped the gun.  I was a progressive voice already part of the establishment if you will, and already in the business of governing as part of a coalition”.  “Having said that, personally I felt that the social protest movement was not really going in the right direction.  In my mind, the only way things can really change is if you actually become involved in the political system.  This provides you with the legitimacy and of course the capacity to decide how things will look.  For all its faults, the system itself is in fact ripe for change for those who actually want to be actively involved in it.  However, Middle Class Israel has simply decided not to be involved at all.”

Zamir continues, “The protest movement was so afraid of being labeled ‘political’ that they were not even prepared to say: wake up!  If we aren’t prepared to be part of the system, then the system will continue to do whatever it wants as it is built in such a way that it will ‘feed’ the people that are part of it.  The problem today is that the vast majority of Israel are not part of it.”

Indeed, the current data of Israeli participation in party primaries makes for depressing reading.  While a respectable 65% of the population votes in the general elections, just 116,000 people (2% of those eligible to vote) are members of parties. “If all of the 400,000 people who came out to demonstrate a few months ago in Kikar Hamedina would register for party membership,” says Zamir, “this would change the political map forever, thus changing the whole policy agenda of the country as a result.”

Despite his meteoric rise in local politics, for the time being at least, Zamir is happy in his current position and does not entertain any future aspirations to run for national office.  “There is still a great deal to do in the city of Tel Aviv and I am already starting to think about re-election so we can to continue to implement all the good work we have done so far.”  In true Israeli fashion, Zamir concluded by describing himself as a “doer” rather than a “talker”.  Only time will tell if more Israelis will heed Zamir’s call and “do” by finally joining a party rather than talking and invariably complaining from the sidelines of the political arena.

Water: The Promise of a Bountiful Peace?

GIDON BROMBERG AT THE SEA OF GALILEE (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

Originally Published in Jerusalem Post, Weekend Magazine Edition, 1/12/2011

A voracious appetite for change in Israel and the wider Middle East seems to be all around us these days.  From the comparatively sedate tree-lined boulevards of Rothchild to the unforgiving desert warfare of strife-torn Libya, the region is clearly undergoing a state of almost never-ending flux.

Into this wider drama, steps Gidon Bromberg of the non-governmental organization, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME).  An organization long treated by the mainstream Israeli media as just another “greenie” NGO, has much grander ambitions than simply improving the environment.  Where the received wisdom sees water as a source of conflict, Bromberg sees it as source of cooperation, and his organization has the record to prove it.  Through the implementation of joint initiatives centred specifically on the issue of water, FoEME has successfully brought together neighbouring Israeli and Jordanian communities and neighbouring Israelis and Palestinians to work together on a number of cooperative enterprises.  These have included everything from rainwater collection projects, to water conservation for public buildings such as schools, to joint hikes along each other’s shared water resources.  But FoEME’s efforts have not been limited to the grassroots level.  One of the sites Bromberg took us to was a sewage treatment plant in mid-construction next to the River Jordan.  In this case approval for the plant came through the more traditional “top-down” approach of lobbying top decision makers at the local and national levels.  Bromberg insists that a combination of “bottom-up” and “top-down” methods is critical in order to achieve meaningful change.

Ben Goldman, video expert extraordinaire at the Jordan Peace Park. In the background are the remains of the abandoned train station part of the power station, which is now the peace park site. Goldman took the outstanding footage featured here (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

Ben Goldman, video expert extraordinaire at the Jordan Peace Park. In the background are the remains of the abandoned train station part of the power station, which is now the peace park site. Goldman took the outstanding footage featured here (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

The “Peace Park”

Perhaps the most compelling place we visited with Bromberg as our guide was the somewhat dubiously named “Jordan Peace Park”.  Its principal purpose at the moment is to provide a common space for Israelis and Jordanians to meet without undergoing the onerous restrictions and paperwork common to other border zones.  The park is also earmarked to be a major tourist attraction for bird watching due its unique ecology.  Today the site is essentially comprised of the eclectic mix of an abandoned hydroelectric power station from the 1920s, and a border station zealously guarded by Jordanian soldiers. Although it is officially under Jordanian sovereignty, as part of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, Israelis can visit the park without the need for a visa or even a passport.  Nevertheless, the form that we did need to fill out at the neighbouring kibbutz was checked vigorously as we waited at the imposing entranceway proudly adorned with giant portraits of the current King Abdullah and his father, the late King Hussein.

Once we finally entered the park, the place seemed to be a huge and cruel metaphor for the state of the peace process itself.  A vast empty space, seemingly filled with unrealised promise awaited us, punctuated by a series of dilapidated buildings from a different era entirely.  As we surveyed the valley below from our position on a raised hilltop, Bromberg suddenly pointed to a tiny and solitary rubbish bin, located incongruously in the middle of the enormous open space.  “Isn’t that cute!” he quipped.  There it was, not a relic from a forgotten time, but a modern solitary object, standing there all by itself, defiantly unaware of the present reality all around it.  Perhaps in that impossibly tiny rubbish bin was the seed of something – at once highly practical and highly symbolic at the same time.  Here was a humble but nevertheless important part of the infrastructure necessary to absorb visitors, but also a symbol, defiantly striving against all the odds and holding out hope for a better future.  The contrast between the minute rubbish bin and the gargantuan border edifice displaying King Abdullah’s portrait couldn’t have been greater.  But, in the face of the might and power that the official structure represented, once we looked closer, we could make out the appearance of tiny cracks slowly emerging from behind the thin veneer of white paint coated throughout the construct.  Change is clearly afoot in our region, the question is, after years of neglect, can we have any say or influence in managing the impending collapse and build something meaningful and positive in its wake?

Gidon Bromberg at Peace Park (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

Gidon Bromberg at Peace Park (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

Peacebuilding and Regional Diplomacy

Detractors of FoEME and projects such as the Jordan Peace Park argue that such grassroots efforts are pointless since it seems that dramatic changes to all the established regimes of the Arab World are just around the corner.  Take a look at the peace with Egypt for example they say: for years under Mubarak we had a cold peace with very little benefit to Israel.  Now that the Mubarak regime is gone, the whole peace treaty is in jeopardy and we are not any more secure than we were when we started.  In response, Bromberg contends that it is precisely because greater efforts were not made at the grassroots level to build ties between Egyptians and Israelis (in large part due to opposition from Mubarak), that the peace was not allowed to develop.  Instead of relying purely on the high diplomacy of an abstract treaty, more focus should have been on encouraging the warmth and inherent tangibility of person-to-person contact and cooperation.  Bromberg sees in water a unique opportunity to develop these kinds of ties through joint projects and mutual understanding of the other’s “water reality”.

Article as it originally appeared in the hardcopy of Jerusalem Post Magazine, 1/12/2011

Article as it originally appeared in the hardcopy of Jerusalem Post Magazine, 1/12/2011

Somewhat prophetically, a few days before we were due to meet Gidon Bromberg, a young Israeli approached me outside a video store.  After sharing our mutual frustration that the store was closed, he soon found out that I was an oleh hadash (new immigrant).  When I expressed the sentiment that in certain situations, things were just “the way they are”, he sharply corrected me.  You shouldn’t have this attitude coming from outside Israel he told me, “when you see things that need to be changed, try to change them, and do it whenever you can!” In Bromberg, we see an individual that lives by this mantra on a day-to-day basis.  Back in 1994, he latched onto the seemingly divergent issues of water and peace, and perhaps said to himself: these things need to be changed, and I believe it is possible to change them!