Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Travel Blog: Day Two in Israel - Peace and politics in Jerusalem

My second day in Israel was also spent in Jerusalem. This day was a little more heavy on briefings, and a little less heavy on the tourism. A few of the briefings were off the record so I can't share the details. They did, however, provide some insights both on Canada's development activities in the West Bank (active around justice) and Gaza (negligible due to inability to work with Hamas), as well as the Israeli government perspective on lawfare and Canada's policy on the Middle East. I can't share specifics, but it will help to shape my later conclusions.

The day begin with a briefing and a tour of Israel's Supreme Court. The contrasts to the Canadian system were very interesting. Their justices are appointed by a panel that includes both government and opposition politicians, current judges, and learned members of the legal community. The politicians are a minority on the panel; some want to change that due to the sweeping power of the court here, while others argue against politicization.

The court heard 12,000 cases last year, a number which I'm sure would put our Supreme Court to shame. There's two reasons for the high number. One, most cases aren't heard by the full court. Most are heard by three-judge panels, although the chief justice can select larger panels of any odd number for more complicated cases.

The second reason for the high number is that, in addition to being the court of final appeal for criminal and civil cases, anyone, including non-citizens, can bring a complaint against the Israeli government to the court and be heard. For example, many cases have been heard by the court, and more are pending, on the controversial security wall Israel has built between it and select Palestinian territories. It has caused much hardship, with many Palestinians cut off from their land and their neighbourhoods by the wall/fence. The court has upheld the security necessity of the wall, but in a number of cases has ordered costly reconstruction and relocation of the wall, or compensation, when it's placement caused a burden where the hardship imposed outweighed the security necessity, and it was felt the line was drawn more for ease of constriction than security reasons.

Next we headed over to East Jerusalem, the Arab-dominated half of the city that could become part of a Palestinian state in any peace settlement. We went to the American Colony Hotel, a really cool, Hemmingway-esque facility, to meet Khaled Abu Aker. He's an Israeli-Arab and the director of Amin Blogs. It's a blog site for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that's designed to allow the citizens to bypass the Palestinian media and publish stories the press won't.

It's not about blogging for blogging's sake, said Aker. It's about blogging for change, and using citizen journalism as a tool for social change. And he said it's about more than just ending the occupation. Bloggers criticize the Palestinian Authority over internal management and mismanagement, issues, things that impact daily life.

While blogging is still in its infancy here compared to other Arab countries, Aker said it has the potential to be an important tool for social change, and instilling democratic values, although it's still to early to gauge the influence. But he noted 51 per cent of Palestinians have regular Web access. And they can't rely on the local media, which he said routinely self-censor. There may be reason for hope though, as he said on a recent press freedom day event at his offices in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority PM Salam Fayad stopped by unexpectedly to lend his support for press freedom.

On larger peace issues, Aker said the Swiss model just won't work here. He said Israel is becoming an Apartheid State because it has no choice, and it's only getting harder with the difficulty in making peace and balancing security issues. He said he'd like to see Israel take more responsibility for the Palestinians as it did pre-Oslo, rather than ceding it to the PA. He said most Palestinians don't reasonably expect a full right of return, and most don't want to return to live in any Israeli-state anyways. What he said they want is a symbolic right of return to be negotiated and implemented.

Lastly, Aker took a different view on Obama that the Israeli-Jews we've spoken to, saying he feels Obama is prepared to listen to both sides, marking a return to the Clinton-style from the less balanced policy of the Bush years.

Later in the day, we visited the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, and met with Labour Party MK Einat Wilf. Although traditionally a left-wing party, Labour is part of Likhud's governing coalition and Wilf's leader, former Prime Minister Ehud Bark, serves in the coalition as defence minister.

Wilf delivered a fairly frank and wide-reaching message, in-line with what we'd heard earlier from Halevi about the decline of the Israeli left, and the blurring of left/right distinctions in the country. Even for a member of a governing coalition, she delivered what from a Labour MK was a pretty strident defence of the Likhud and Netanyahu line, more strident than probably necessary by coalition loyalty alone.

She began by talking about U.S. policy under Barrack Obama, a popular topic over here, and Wilf made clear that she feels the Obama administration has made a strategic policy change to out the settlements issue front and centre. It's a change she said has nothing to do with any alleged insult of Joe Biden, and one that requires an Israeli policy response. She added the current government had frozen settlements where others had allowed expansion, but that this government got no international credit for that because it's not sees as being as committed to peace as its predecessors.

Moving on, Wilf said over the last decade she, like many Israelis, has grown disillusioned wit the peace process. The Israeli people want two states, but they wonder if some/many Palestinians will ever accept the existence of a Jewish state. She employed a break-up, scorned lover metaphor. The Israeli people were deeply hurt, she said, and aren't keen to jump into a new relationship. So if someone (like the U.S.) wants to push them into one, it had better work out because if it ends badly, they could close off their hearts for a very long time.

Iran is a popular topic over here; Israel views a potentially nuclear and stridently anti-Jewish Iran, arming terrorist groups like Hezbollah, as a real and serious threat. Wolf again here took issue with U.S. policy, saying Obama favours process and talk over actual results.

Finally, we asked a few questions on the Israeli left, and why, by and large, the left around the world tends to have strong issues with Israeli policy. Wolf made some pretty colourful comments here. She said the Israeli left is actually staunchly Zionist, while the global left is anti—Zionist. She went on to add two-thirds of the countries in the world make less sense than Israel, but no one questions them. She added the Israeli left feels isolated from the rest of the world. She said we're not just fighting about real estate here, it's about societal values, and to those who say it should just be an Arab-dominated country, she said as a woman she wouldn't want to live in any of the Arab countries in the neighbiourhood, and she wondered why the global left isn't talking about that issue (women's rights under Arab governments.)

We ended the day over dinner with Sara Miller, the editor of Haaretz.com, the Web site of the country's largest English-language Web site. Much of the conversation went of on a bit of a tangent about Web site monetization and search engine optimization I won't recount – suffice to say they seem a little ahead of Canadian media. When we got around to politics, Miller probably provided one of the first defences of the Israeli-left we'd heard on the trip at that point. As Steve recounted, she said the left has actually proven influential in that now all of the country, even the right-wing Likhud, now accept the inevitability and necessity of a two-state solution. She was also more optimistic on the prospects for peace than others, although not any time soon.

That's it for today. Tomorrow, a primer on Israeli politics, a security tour of Jerusalem, and dinner with a right-wing Israeli-Arab journalist.

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