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As Israel-Iran Cold War Heats Up, Old Friendship Provides Rare Insight into Iranian Strategic Thinking

Former Iranian diplomatic consultant and media professional now turned academic says Israel is not the real enemy of Iran; main goal is to compete with Turkey for regional power.

The Iranian Embassy in London (photo credit: CC BY 2.0 license,  Snapperjack flickr user)

The Iranian Embassy in London (photo credit: CC BY 2.0 license, Snapperjack flickr user)

Filled with a sense of trepidation, I set out on a bright autumn morning in London for a reunion of sorts with an old university friend. Far from a normal social engagement, my companion was Iranian while I have been an Israeli citizen since birth.  This of course wouldn’t have presented such a problem if Farhad Shirazi (not his real name) had been one of the many Iranian dissidents living in the West and a critic of his country’s government.  But in this case, not only did he live in Tehran at the time, but he was also a self-professed supporter of the Islamic Republic.

When the meeting took place late last September, tensions between Israel and Iran were not what they are at present.  The threat of all-out conflict did not loom as large, and the tit-for-tat secret war of assassinations and bombings were also not common-place.  But even back in September when I told friends and family what I was planning to do, they strongly advised me against it.  “Far too dangerous” they said. “You haven’t seen him in years, he’s been living in Tehran all this time, he could have been recruited by Iran’s secret intelligence services or even the Revolutionary Guards.”

They had a point.  As an Israeli abroad, I was potentially a “soft” target and there had been hushed rumors that the Iranians still might be planning a revenge attack for the Israeli assassination of Senior Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyah back in February 2008.

But despite the dangers, I persisted, determined to go ahead with the meeting.  I am not sure exactly what was compelling me to do it: was it simple curiosity or a grander notion that such a meeting could serve as a small gesture towards building understanding.  Whatever it was, the main question driving me was how did the regime in Iran really think and what was their real attitude towards Israel?  As Shirazi had apparently risen up the ranks in the state-run media, and moved in pro-government academic and diplomatic circles, I was sure that his perspective would be especially valuable.

Indeed, he did not disappoint.  The young Iranian hadn’t really changed since university and was his usual candid and controversial self, providing insights which broke with normal perceptions of Iran in the West.  In recent discussions he had with high-level Iranian diplomatic officials for example, Shirazi told me that Tehran did not view Israel as its main enemy in the region.  Instead they were far more concerned with the recent emergence of Turkey as a major regional competitor.  In fact, Shirazi said that these officials viewed confrontation between Turkey and Iran at some point in the future as “inevitable”, regarding it as a natural return to the historic rivalry between the Persian and Ottoman empires of old.

“Ideology is merely a tool of influence for Iran”, said Shirazi. “Its not the main factor motivating its behavior on the international stage. Iran’s anti-Israel statements invoking the Holocaust do not stem from some crazy theology propagated by a couple of mad Mullahs sitting in Tehran. Instead it’s the logical result of a cold calculated policy by the political class attempting to pander and win support for Iran in the Arab world.”

At other times in our short conversation, Shirazi had a great deal to say about Israel and how its weaknesses are viewed in Iran. “The problem with Israel, is that it has no self-sustaining organic life-force. It is totally dependent on outside US military aid, and in economic terms, overly reliant on exports – mainly diamonds and a small high-tech sector.  Israel has failed to integrate itself naturally into the Middle East and therefore it can never become a serious regional contender.”

But his criticism was not just reserved for Israel.  He was also scathing of the systemic domestic problems facing Iran.  “Iran simply does not function properly today,” said Shirazi.  “It is a country beset by nepotism, corruption and mismanagement, and yet still has vast ambitions for regional power and dominance in the Middle East.  At the end of the day, the only thing that really works in Iran is oil and security.”

When asked whether there were any limits to Iran’s pursuit of power and hegemony in the region, his response was at once both humorous and ominous: “Its like asking a fat kid if he wants more cake”, he replied.  “There is always the desire for more”.

And so in the end my somewhat irrational fears concerning my personal safety turned out to be unfounded. On a personal level, the friendship seemed to have endured the test of time and the great political tension between our two countries throughout the years. But with the region still in turmoil, particularly in Egypt and Syria, and no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future relations between Israel and Iran today remains as uncertain as ever.

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PREVIEW: Protesters Plan Night Of Darkness To Replace T.A. Mayor’s “White Night” Cultural Showcase

Municipal government in vulnerable position as Meretz party quit, Rov Hair (Mayority of the City) party of the youth, also under pressure to resign

Scene from last summer’s social justice protest movement in Tel Aviv (photo credit: flickr, cc-by-sa-2.0)

The Israeli “social justice” tent protests, also called J14, as July 14th was the date the movement started, swung back into action with a vengeance last week.  It all began last Friday afternoon when demonstrators tried to return their tents to Tel Aviv’s famous Rothschild Boulevard as they had done the previous year.  But this time the authorities were instructed to assume a policy of zero tolerance as local and border police, together with municipality “inspectors” swooped in to intercept any tents being constructed on the street.  In the ensuing melee, several protestors were arrested including most notably, Daphni Leef, the face of last year’s movement and the most recognizable leader of the protests.

Then, on Saturday evening, confrontations with police and security forces escalated to new levels.  Another demonstration on Rothchild, this time against homophobia quickly swelled and transformed into a general protest against the police’s heavy-handed tactics on Friday.  The authorities were ill-prepared , unequipped and outnumbered as protestors marched from Rothchild all the way to the major Ayalon highway, blocking off the main road to traffic.  The evening’s disorder culminated in the smashing of the windows of several banks, something unprecedented in what was once a relatively mild movement.

The question is whether the protests will now be discredited in the eyes of the public, or if the government will take the demands of the demonstrators more seriously.  Will the violence return this evening (Thursday 28th June) as the Tel Aviv municipality, which many hold responsible for the police’s actions, kicks off its annual Lyla Levan (White Night), all-night citywide cultural extravaganza?

Already, the consequences of last week’s violence are being felt at the formal political level.  The left-wing Meretz party quit the Mayor’s municipal government coalition on Tuesday, with strong pressure also being placed on the Rov Ha-ir party of Asaf Zamir, who I interviewed in the Jerusalem Post last fall.  At the time of writing, Rov Ha-ir has resisted calls for the party to resign from Mayor Ron Huldai’s government.

“It is a very sad decision”, said Alon-Lee Green, one of the main organizers and speakers at last summer’s tent protests.  But he also added that the choice to stay in the coalition was not yet final and was still hopeful that Rov Ha-ir will soon come to the conclusion that the party’s continued presence in the coalition is untenable.  Such a decision would reduce the municipal government by half, thus putting greater pressure on Huldai to step down, which Green says is now the goal after the actions of the police on Saturday.

Alon-Lee Green speaking at last year’s protests (photo credit: courtesy subject’s facebook page)

But other more moderate members of the overall protest movement such as Ofir Yehezkeli of the group, Mitpakdim, disagree saying that Rov Ha-ir should continue to influence the Mayor’s ruling faction from within.  He also argues that Rov Ha-ir has achieved a great deal in various policy fields since they were first elected in 2008 and should be allowed to continue their valuable work for the city of Tel Aviv. Yehezkeli’s Mitpakdim calls on ordinary Israelis to get involved in institutional party politics by signing up for party membership and voting in internal elections.  Despite numerous campaign videos on youtube involving actors and TV celebrities, and attempts at drawing attention through publicity stunts, so far Mitpakdim’s message has failed to gain serious ground.

In response to Yehezkeli’s comments, Mr. Green countered that as his compatriot in the movement does not live in Tel Aviv (according to facebook, Yehezkeli lives in Herziliya), he is not qualified to understand the current situation for Tel Aviv-Yaffo residents.  Green says that in key local policy areas such as housing, education and public transportation, all are under-funded and substandard, while money pours into catering for the needs of wealthy American and French tourists who reside part of the year in luxurious apartment blocks.

Ofir Yehezkeli, leader of Mitpakdim (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)

In terms of what is in store for Thursday night, Green predicts that the evening’s events will go off without incident and serious violence will not return to the streets of Tel Aviv.  “The police will be on their best behaviour”, says Green, “because there will be too many people present who the authorities do not want to see their harsher side”.

Several counter-events to the official White Night have been planned including a march from Ha-Bimah square from the northern tip of Rothchild Boulevard to the South of Tel Aviv, and a sleep-in at Rabin Square from 3am onwards.  In addition a number of smaller art and cultural events have also been planned in some of the impoverished southern neighborhoods of the city.  It remains to be seen if the self-styled “Black Night” can peacefully coexistence with the establishment’s traditional White Night, or if tempers will fray again and the police will clash violently with social justice demonstrators.

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OPINION: The real motivations behind the Mofaz “zigzag” and the new national unity government

Mofaz’s controversial political manoeuvre may be part of a plan to radically undermine the ultra-orthodox stranglehold on power.

Official Announcement of National Unity Government by Netanyahu and Mofaz yesterday (screen grab from channel 2 video)

Official Announcement of National Unity Government by Netanyahu and Mofaz yesterday (screen grab from channel 2 video)

The Israeli media was full of criticism and outrage yesterday (May 8 2012) at the perceived “dirty trick” carried out by Netanyahu and Mofaz in the early hours of Tuesday morning when the whole political map was redrawn, a massive 94 seat national unity government was formed and early elections were called off at the last possible moment.

The indignation by analysts and commentators has been particularly pronounced against Mofaz, accusing him of acting purely for personal interests and losing all credibility in what many see as a spectacular turnaround.  Israeli television has played ad nauseum previous statements by Mofaz just days before claiming he would never form a government with Netanyahu and calling the Prime Minister a “shakran” (liar).

Most analysts from Haaretz, Ynet and the like have provided a very superficial explanation for Mofaz’s motivations in joining the Netanyahu government, arguing that he simply desired to be at the centre of power at all costs and took the move to postpone his Kadima party’s inevitable poor showing at the next elections.  Others have speculated that a national unity government will provide the added support Netanyahu needs to launch a military strike against Iran.

Shaul Mofaz in 2003 as Minister of Defense at a meeting with his counterparts in Washington. Today Mofaz assumes the considerably lower position of "Minister without Portfolio".

Shaul Mofaz in 2003 as Minister of Defense at a meeting with his counterparts in Washington. Today Mofaz assumes the considerably lower position of “Minister without Portfolio”.

One cannot help but see a hint of racism in the unrelenting criticism that Mofaz has been subjected to.  One commentator on Channel 2 News for example said that Mofaz had behaved like “a stall-holder in Mahane Yehuda (market) selling his produce at bargain-basement prices before Shabbat-eve closing time.” Any serious observer of Israeli politics and society can detect that these comments poke fun at Mofaz’s Mizrahi-Persian background, something which is unacceptable in this day and age.  The pundit obviously did not bother to delve more deeply into why Mofaz would accept the lowly cabinet position of Minister without Portfolio or in Hebrew “sar bli tik” (literally minister without a bag) when he could have held out for so much more. (More on this later).

This is not the first time such thinly veiled racism against Mofaz has been voiced in the Israeli media.  Months before during Mofaz’s primary race with Tzipi Livni, Haaretz opined in Hebrew that he did not stand a chance at gaining the Kadima chairmanship as such an outcome would prompt an immediate “white flight” of Kadima members from the party.  Alas, this Haaretz analyst was proven wrong: in the end Mofaz triumphed over Livni and the “white” members did not flee in haste from the “dark” Iranian menace of Mofaz as the commentator so brazenly predicted.

But of course some of the worst racism against Mizrahim in Israeli society has come from some in the Ashenazi Ultra-Orthodox community and the harmful teachings of their rabbis.  This was the chief reason for example that the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef left the Askenazi United Torah Judaism party (formerly Agudat Yisrael) to form Shas.  And here on the subject of the Haredim, I return to the question of why Mofaz was prepared to accept such a minor cabinet position in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition.  In my view, Mofaz saw a historic opportunity to remove the perpetual stranglehold of the Ultra-Orthodox over Israeli politics.  For the first time in a long time (perhaps in the whole history of the state), the Haredi parties can no longer blackmail the Israeli government by threatening to bolt from the coalition if their financial demands are not met.  They simply do not have a significant enough number of seats with Kadima sitting in the government.  Lieberman too loses his kingmaker privileges and cannot hold the government to ransom over settlements if he desires.

While the talking heads endlessly discuss the renewal of the Tal Law, the real prize lies in changing the electoral system.  If Mofaz and Netanyahu can use the 18 months and their new-found majority to push through dramatic electoral reforms (to something resembling a British-style first-past-the-post system for example), they can change the whole rules of the game, and eliminate the Ultra-Orthodox’s disproportionate influence permanently.

Mofaz knows he may not stand a chance facing the Israeli voting public at the next elections with his credibility still in tatters, but at least he knows that if he works hard to implement far-reaching electoral reforms, he can safeguard the future for his children by undercutting the exploitative power of the Ultra-Orthodox for good.  If he achieves this, the Israeli public may forgive and see that maybe it was not political expediency which was motivating him after all.

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UPDATE: Haaretz reports that Helen Thomas award ceremony may lead to censure by U.S. Congress

http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/diplomania/congressmen-to-abbas-medal-awarded-to-helen-thomas-may-damage-u-s-assistance-to-pa-1.423563

The award given to controversial journalist Helen Thomas by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sparked anger not only in Israel, but in the U.S. Congress as well. Two senior Congressmen sent Abbas a letter denouncing the award and hinting that such a move may hurt U.S. assistance to the PA.

דעה מעולה חדש: האח הגדול בטלוויזיה הישראלית – המשמעות של הפוליטיקה

שים לב: המאמר המקורי הופיע באנגלית, זה לא תרגום מקצועי, אבל עיקר הטענות צריך להיות ברור בטקסט זה

באמצע ויכוח עם המתמודדים האחרים בבית של האח הגדול, לחץ על התמונה עבור וידאו מלא עם כתוביות על ידי ערן ורד

סער סקלי באמצע ויכוח עם המתמודדים האחרים בבית של האח הגדול, לחץ על התמונה עבור וידאו מלא עם כתוביות על ידי ערן ורד

התוכנית הריאליטי, האח הגדול, בין אם בישראל או בכל מקום אחר, לא ידוע בדרך כלל כפורום לדיון פוליטי סוער. השנה זאת הייתה שונה. כאשר ככל הנראה הרבה השמאלית סער סקלי ראיין מקום בתוכנית הישראלית הוא לא התיימר על כוונותיו. עבור סקלי, המטרה היתה ברורה: הוא ישתמש במראה שלו על האח הגדול לדבר על הסכסוך המתמשך של ישראל עם הפלסטינים הכיבוש הצבאי של הגדה המערבית.

כמו עמי קאופמן מציין ב – 972 mag.com המפיקים של חברת הטלוויזיה קשת של ישראל היו יותר מוכנים לשתף פעולה עם הגישה פוליטי מובהק של סקלי. בניסיון לכאורה כדי לשפר את הרייטינג, קיבל קשת סקלי לתוכנית בדיוק כפי שעשו בעבר עם אחרים “קרייזי” אנשי שמאל. אולי הם חשבו כי סקלי יהיה טוב לצחוק מהירה ושהוא להצבעה בקרוב את הציבור הישראלי בכעס מוכן להקשיב פטפוטי אבל ההשתוללויות של “לפטי” נפגע.

עם זאת, באופן מפתיע למדי עבור כל הנוגעים בדבר, זה לא כמה אירועים התרחשו. למרות נכונותו להתמודד עם כמה נושאים פוליטיים שנויים במחלוקת ביותר של היום, בדרך נס, סקלי זכה על חסדיה של הציבור והוא הגיע פרק הסיום של הסדרה. העובדה שהוא מהיר תפיסה, נואם רהוט יש כמובן לא נפגע הונו כאן.

בעוד קאופמן רואה בבירור במאמר שלו על הנושא של האח הגדול סער סקלי כמו קצת מוך קלילה הקלה, אני נאלץ שלא להסכים איתך. קליפ הדיון של סקלי עם המתמודדים האחרים האח הגדול חשוב מכיוון שהוא מספק תובנה כנה ומשכנע את רוח הזמן הנוכחי של הזרם המרכזי בחברה הישראלית.

בכל הכנות, התגובה הראשונה שלי כאשר אני הנצפים קליפ היה להתפעל ההגנה רטורית זריז של סקלי נגד מטח של התקפות על ידי המשתתפים האחרים. אבל בסופו של דבר מצאתי את הרשמים וההערות של חבר קרוב שלי להיות הרבה יותר חושפני. התגובה שלו לא היה אחד אופטימיות חיוביות. להפך זה היה זעם: לא את הדעות שהשמיעו רגישים סקלי אבל הסירוב טהור ידי חלק מחברי הבית כדי אפילו להקשיב למה הצעיר “השמאלנית” היה צריך לומר.

בשלב מסוים בסרטון, סקלי מספר במיוחד אירוע מטריד בבילעין מפגין כאשר נפגע ונהרג על ידי זריקה ישירה של רימון גז מטווח קצר כזה כי זה רק יכול להיות מכוון. ברגע זה, אחר האזנן מרחוק במהירות מתערב, והאשים סקלי של משמיצים את כל החברים שלו בצבא הישראלי כ”רוצחים”.

המצלמה ואז חותך משם לקבוצה אחרת דנים את המצב בתוך הבית. אחד אומר, איך הוא יכול לצאת בטלוויזיה מול כל ולהיות – נגד בני עמו – בני עמו. מבחינתי, הרגע הזה הוא המפתח לחלוטין המחשה לבעיה רחבה הרבה יותר.

כיום קונסנזוס הזרם המרכזי בישראל עובר לקראת צפה שזה פטריוטי לחקור את המדיניות של הצבא או הממשלה. אני טוען ההיפך הגמור. דיון חופשי, פתוח ונמרץ הוא דם החיים של כל חברה דמוקרטית בריאה. זה לא צריך להיות משהו זר לישראלים. למעשה, הנוהג של חקירה ודיון הוא בלב ליבה של לימוד המסורת היהודית. זה יכול להיות לא נעים לשמוע כמה עובדות סקלי יש להציג, אבל ברור שהתשובה אינו טמון התקפות אישיות הסירוב להקשיב.

העובדה סקלי נשאר בתחרות ארוכה זו היא הוכחה כי הציבור הישראלי פתוח מידע ודעות אשר לאתגר את הסטטוס קוו. למעשה, הייתי אומר, הישראלים משוועים זה.

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Opinion: The PA’s Disgrace

The latest shameful episode involving Helen Thomas shows that emotions are important: either as the basis for advancing relations between Israelis and Palestinians, or causing yet another setback on the road to peace 

Helen Thomas (photo credit: CC BY-SA rachaelvoorhees, flickr)

Helen Thomas speaking at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (photo credit: CC BY-SA rachaelvoorhees, flickr)

The news this week that the PLO mission to the United States honoured the now infamous 91-year old veteran White House reporter, Helen Thomas, at a lavish journalism award ceremony, is incomprehensible just as it is outrageous.  As a progressive-minded Israeli still defending the possibility of peace against impossible odds, this latest piece of news is yet another cruel slap-in-the-face, providing further ammunition for an ever-strengthening right-wing camp, bitterly opposed to peace at all costs.

For those who need reminding, back in 2010 Thomas shocked the American public and the “inside the beltway” crowd when she told Rabbi David Nesenoff of the website, rabbilive.com that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.”  When the Rabbi politely asked where they should go now after over 60 years of statehood, Thomas snapped back that they should simply go “home” to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

From the moment that Thomas uttered her vitriolic, simplistic and highly insensitive remarks, there was widespread consensus that what she said went far beyond the pale.  In Washington D.C, where the powerful AIPAC lobby and its message of unquestioning support for Israel is all-consuming, even informed and well-grounded criticism of Israel is rare.  But to suggest that the Jews of Israel should return to Europe, the scene of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust strikes a visceral emotional chord with Jews everywhere and of all stripes.  It doesn’t matter if we are of European (Ashkenazi) or Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) descent, left or right. Even in Iran, the only Jewish member of the 290-strong parliament, who describes himself as an Iranian first and a Jew second, openly condemned President Ahmadinejad in 2006 for similar statements on Israel and the Holocaust.

The point here is that Thomas’ comments were not just anti-Israel, they were anti-Jewish.  How exactly her remarks represent a distinguished journalistic career of “supporting Palestine in the west” as per the PLO’s official statement, is a complete mystery to me.  It seems that animosity between Israelis and Palestinians at the diplomatic level today means that anti-Jewish comments such as these are automatically interpreted as pro-Palestinian.  They are not.

But, why does it matter that the once venerable “doyenne” of the White House press corps has been honoured by the Palestinian Authority in this way?  The fact is, after decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, emotions matter.  And what moment in history touches Jews the world over more than the Holocaust?  Lets face it, we Middle Easterners are an emotional people: this can either manifest itself as unrestrained hatred and anger or unrestrained warmth and love.  Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time here in Israel/Palestine knows that Scandinavia, it is not.

That is why new Palestinian voices such as those of Aziz Abu Sarah are so important. Recently he told a J Street audience that he doesn’t, “see us as Palestinians vs Israeli or Arabs vs Jews anymore, we are standing on the same side.”  On a very basic level this is emotionally powerful for me as a Jewish Israeli. To see a Palestinian who has suffered so much personally, make the transformation in his own words from “anti-peace” to “pro-peace” while stating clearly that there is no contradiction between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, can only be described as inspirational.  It is this emotional-inspirational basis which we need to capitalize on and galvanize our respective populations, in order to move forward.  If we don’t, we risk leaving the news agenda to the hollow diplomatic ceremonies of the Helen Thomases of this world.

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Opinion: Israeli Big Brother TV Show ‘Does’ Politics

‘Left wing’ reality show contestant Saar Szekely sparks intense debate, challenges the ‘consensus’ and gains popularity

Screen Capture of Saar Szekely in the midst of debate with other Big Brother contestants

Screen Capture of Saar Szekely in the midst of debate with other Big Brother contestants (click on image for full video with subtitles by Eran Vered)

The reality show Big Brother, whether in Israel or elsewhere, is not usually known as a forum for heated political debate.  This year however has been different.  When the apparently far-left Saar Szekely interviewed for a place on the Israeli show he made no pretense about his intentions.  For Szekely, the aim was clear: he would use his appearance on Big Brother to talk about Israel’s prolonged conflict with the Palestinians and the military occupation of the West Bank.

As Ami Kaufman points out in 972mag.com, the producers of Israel’s Keshet television company were more than willing to play along with Szekely’s distinctly political approach.  In an apparent bid to improve ratings, Keshet accepted Szekely into the program just as they had done in the past with other “crazy” left-wingers.  Perhaps they reasoned that Szekely would be good for a quick laugh and that he would be soon voted off by an exasperated Israeli public unwilling to listen to the rantings and ravings of an aggrieved “lefty”.

However, quite surprisingly for all concerned, this is not how events have transpired.  Despite his willingness to grapple with some of the most controversial political issues of the day, by some miracle, Szekely gained the affections of the public and has made it to the show’s finale.  The fact that he is a quick-witted, articulate debater has obviously not harmed his popularity.

While Kaufman clearly sees his own article on the subject of Big Brother and Saar Szekely as a bit of fluff and light-hearted relief, I respectfully disagree.  The clip of Szekely’s debate with the other Big Brother contestants is important because it provides a candid and compelling insight into the current zeitgeist of mainstream Israeli society.

In all honesty, my first reaction when I viewed the clip was to marvel at Szekely’s nimble rhetorical defense against a barrage of attacks by the other participants.  But in the end I found the impressions and comments of a close friend of mine to be far more revealing.  His response was not one of optimism and positivity.  On the contrary it was outrage: not at the sensitive views voiced by Szekely but at the pure refusal by some members of the house to even listen to what the young “leftist” had to say.

At one point in the clip, Szekely recounts one particularly troubling occurrence in Bil’in when a protestor was hit and killed by a direct shot from a gas canister at such close range that it can only have been deliberate.  At this moment, another housemate listening from afar quickly interjects, accusing Szekely of slandering all his friends in the Israeli army as “murderers”.

The camera then cuts away to another group discussing the situation inside the house.  One says, how can he come out on television in front of the whole and be “neged am shelo” – against his people – his own people.  For me, this moment is absolutely key and illustrative of a much wider problem.

Today the mainstream consensus in Israel is shifting towards the view that it is unpatriotic to question the policies of the army or the government.  I would argue the complete opposite.  Free, open and vigorous debate is the life-blood of any healthy democratic society.  This should not be something alien to Israelis.  In fact, the practice of questioning and debate is at the very core of Jewish learning and tradition.  It may be unpleasant to hear some of the facts that Szekely has to present, but clearly the answer does not lie in personal attacks and the refusal to listen.

The fact that Szekely has remained in the competition this long is proof that the Israeli public is receptive to information and opinions which challenge the status quo.  Understandably, after years of disappointment, war and terror, public opinion has hardened rightwards.  But perhaps Szekely’s new-found popularity is a small sign that things are changing.

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Israel’s Secular Airforce Elite Believes Power May be Slipping Away

EXCERPT FROM HAARETZ: “As a fighter pilot in the air force (Israel’s equivalent of divine provenance ), D. was of the same generation as the air force’s previous commander, as well as the current commander and the one to come. It was another kind of army then, before the chief rabbi of the air force took office, before the religious takeover of aircraft hangars, and their takeover of the rest of the Israel Defense Forces.”

The army needs to fight back –  Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

The army needs to fight back - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Peace Through Shas?

New voices from Shas suggest the party is moving back to its former pro-peace position.  However, if the Centre-Left wants to form the next government, it must look to the Arab parties as their future coalition partners.

SHAS SPIRITUAL LEADER, OVADIA YOSEF IN 2007 (Photo by Michael Jacobson)

Listeners of the popular Kol Rega radio station heard the startling revelation earlier this month that Shas MK and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Yitzhak Vaknin would support a peace agreement based on the 2003 Geneva Accords. But how can this be I hear you ask?  If we roll back the clock to nine years ago, Yossi Beilin, hardly a natural friend of Shas, signed the non-official Accords calling for a two-state solution with his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed-Rabbo in Geneva.  According to the received wisdom, Shas is supposed to be a “right-wing” party, so how is it possible that one of their MKs – and a Deputy Speaker at that – not only supports the Accords but says he would sign it with “both hands”?  True, Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai has clearly stated that there should be no limits to construction in all the Land of Israel, but despite his lofty temporal role as Deputy Prime Minister, he is not the final arbiter on Shas party policy.  That role belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the elderly Spiritual Leader of the party.  Although Rabbi Yosef also has a reputation for making controversial comments regarding the peace process, he is known to be more sympathetic towards the idea of land for peace and essentially provided Rabin with his own Halachic (Jewish-legal) justification for the Oslo Accords in 1993.  Could Vaknin’s comments be a signal of a shift back to this previous policy as sanctioned by the great Rabbi himself?

INTERIOR MINISTER, ELI YISHAI

But first a little recent history.  Back in 1999 Shas was a major player in the Israeli government.  With 17 seats in the Knesset, the party was riding high and in a position to exert real influence over the country.  This newfound political strength derived partly from the introduction of the new electoral system providing Israelis with two separate votes – one for the Prime Minister and one for the Knesset.  This resulted in many Sephardic and Mizrahi voters of the “masorti” (traditional) persuasion splitting their vote between Likud for PM and Shas for MK.

At the critical juncture when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was due to travel to the ill-fated peace talks at Camp David in 2000, Shas politicians suddenly decided that they were not satisfied with the level of funding for their separate education system.  Coincidence we ask?  Not likely.  In the end, even if Shas had remained in the government at this important moment, it would not have made a difference in terms of Barak’s Knesset majority, as two other major coalition partners – Yisrael B’Aliyah and the National Religious Party (NRP) also resigned at the same time.  Nevertheless, Shas’ dramatic defection on the eve of the Summit was a serious hammer blow to Barak’s legitimacy and massively undercut his political support among a large swathe of the Israeli population.

Fast-forward to the present day: a recent poll from Yediot Ahronot on the 9th of January indicates that in the next election Shas’ support is stable at the rather modest figure of six mandates.  And yet, in the event of a post-election standoff between left and right over who will form the next government, these six mandates could prove critical.  For all the talk that Netanyahu is a virtual “shoo-in” to be Prime Minister next time around, surprise surprise, it is Shas again that holds the keys to his future political destiny.  If we assume that Likud gains the support of its “natural allies” of Yisrael Beiteinu, Jewish Home, National Home and even the distinctly non-Zionist Haredi United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Netanyahu will still fall short of the required 61 by yes, you guessed it, 6 if Shas doesn’t join.

FORMER SHAS HEAD, ARYEH DERI (Tipped to form his own party in next elections)

But when it comes to the formation of a potential centrist or centre-left government, Shas is not likely to be in a similarly influential position.  If Kadima, Labor and Lapid want to head a government together, and manage to attract the support of Shas, Aryeh Deri (former Shas leader) and UTJ, they will also fall short, achieving just 54.  Adding Meretz to the mix with their 4 mandates, to which Shas, UTJ and probably Deri are outright hostile doesn’t improve matters – resulting in 58 – still 3 short of the absolute minimum needed.  The only thing that will take a new centrist-moderate government over the top is by finally breaking once and for all the historic taboo of including the Arab parties in a broad-based coalition.  Such a government would make peace negotiations towards a two-state solution a national priority and would have the full institutional backing of the Israeli parliamentary system to support it.  Even without Meretz, with the extra 11 mandates provided by the Arab parties and Hadash, the government would have a stable Knesset majority of 65.  Contrary to the claims of other commentators, the arithmetic works.  The only question is whether the leaders of the centre and left, ie. Livni, Lapid and Yachimovitch are willing to reach out, make peace a priority, and take the historic political decisions necessary to achieve it.