From the Desk of Dr Ron Weiser AM – June 2017.

Mamilla Mall. credit:The Real Jerusalem Streets

It’s pretty hard to beat walking around the streets of Jerusalem with crowds everywhere, restaurants full and a clear mixing once again of Jews and Arabs in places like the Mamilla Mall and other common seam lines as positive signs of the political temperature cooling, if not the hot summer sun.

It’s also great to be here and counter intuitively for many, to hear that vis-à-vis “the conflict” at least, sanity prevails and to realise yet again that the vast bulk of the Israeli population are firmly in the political centre.

Wanting a separation from the ‘Palestinians’ but fearing the security consequences.

Whilst it may make for better entertainment to hear debates in Australia between people representing the smallest of minorities at either extremist ends of the spectrum, it is somewhat disconnected from the reality.

Although “settlements” are such a big topic outside of Israel, you can actually get by quite well here, not hearing the word for days at a time.

The reality is that not much is happening on settlements, in fact if one raises the topic it is usually to hear the that the right wing are bitterly complaining that Netanyahu has enforced – depending on who one speaks to – either a partial or almost complete settlement freeze – yet again.

Whilst in the past Netanyahu was able to blame this on Obama’s overt opposition to all settlement building anywhere, now it is under the subtle public and not so subtle private pressure from Trump, at least until he decides if his dream of “the ultimate deal” either goes ahead or falls apart.

With one major difference.

A differentiation now by the US between building within the blocks that it is generally agreed will remain inside Israel under any potential future land swap arrangement and building outside those blocks.

This week the kippah wearing insider, former Major General Amidror, who was also Netanyahu’s Security Advisor from 2011 to 2013, said that whilst he thought the current ‘Palestinian’ leadership and the volatility of the current Middle East do not present the conditions for a peace deal:

“Israel must preserve the possibility of a two-state solution in the future. That means only building in areas Israel hopes to keep via land swaps in a final status deal with the ‘Palestinians’. Israel should limit settlement building to the blocs or the boundaries of existing settlements and reserve the remaining area for discussion at a time when there might be a different ‘Palestinian’ leadership.”

The number one bestselling nonfiction book in Israel today is by Micah Goodman whose translated title is “Catch 67”. The book however is so far available only in Hebrew.

As Haviv Rettig Gur put it when reviewing the book, Goodman basically says that:

“The pro-settlement right failed to convince most Israeli Jews that acquiring the land was worth the risk of becoming an ethnic minority — or even only a small majority — in their country.

But it succeeded in instilling its second argument: that withdrawal from the West Bank, especially after the bitter experience of Gaza and Lebanon, would endanger Israelis.”

The peace-making left, meanwhile, failed to convince most Israelis — again, especially after bitter experiences such as the Second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal — that its “religious” yearning for reconciliation was reciprocated on the other side. But it succeeded in its second argument: that Israel could not afford to absorb millions of ‘Palestinians’.”

In other words the need as Goodman sees it, to take ideology, or as he calls it “dreams”, out of the equation and return to the pragmatic question of demographic security vis a vis physical security.

Needless to say, the ideologues on all sides are attacking Goodman for his views and assessment.

In a response to criticism for instance by Ehud Barak, Goodman wrote:

“For most Israelis, to deny the existential security danger of withdrawal from the territories sounds just as ridiculous as the denial of an existential demographic danger sounds to Barak… He expects Israelis to surrender their strategic judgment to a security figure… for most Israelis, memories are more powerful than their impulse to obey. The territorial withdrawals that ended in the rise of new strategic threats are etched deeply into Israelis’ collective memory.”

Debate on his suggested proposals themselves however, is minimal.

The final section of Goodman’s book puts the proposition that there is in fact no solution on the horizon, but that that does not mean that there are not many steps which can be taken to improve the situation for both sides.

However, whether looked at from the perspective of either Israel or the ‘Palestinians’, avoidance of blame for the potential failure of steps towards Trump’s “deal” appears to be the only real game in town at the moment.

If nothing much changes, perhaps Goodman’s proposals will get a second look.

Where insanity reigned supreme here though, was the unfathomable decision by Netanyahu to allow the Haredi proposals on the Kotel and the proposed Conversion Bill to restrict conversion authority exclusively to the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate, to be brought before the Cabinet last Sunday.

And for his Cabinet, with the exception of Lieberman, to cave into Haredi pressure. All of them, even the modern orthodox party led by Bennett.

Ironically it is the status of the modern orthodox Rabbinate which is even more affected by this Bill than the Reform or Conservative.

On the Kotel it meant reneging on a previously agreed to arrangement.

In regards to the Conversion Bill it meant that the conversions of all streams, other than those under Haredi determination would cease to be valid and to place into their hands the discretion to retrospectively invalidate previously approved conversions.

The normally politically astute Netanyahu would surely have preferred to not have these two controversial decisions made right during the gathering of the representatives of world Jewry at the Jewish Agency meetings, for whom it was in some way fortuitous that it occurred whilst we were in Israel and when able to muster a unified and significantly large pushback.

It was frankly quite embarrassing to hear from one minister after another that either they had not read the proposals thoroughly or had not understood what they had voted upon.

And they seemed genuinely shocked at the storm they had created.

Aside from all of the repercussions that follow from these decisions it raises two great Zionist questions.

1 – How much longer will the State of Israel continue to tolerate important decisions about the Jewishness of the State and the Jewish status of her citizens being made by the Haredi leadership who in effect do not actually believe in the State in its current form and/or as we know her?

Yet, despite this, whose future they are bent on determining.

2 – What should the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora look like?
From time to time Netanyahu and others like to say that they represent all Jews, inside and outside Israel.

Bezalel Smotrich MK said for example, that after returning from a trip to the USA he indeed came back better understanding that he represents Jews all over the world.

But when asked about the actual issues, he reverted to type and stated that he was elected by the citizens of Israel and was answerable to them.

So which is it? Israel or the whole Jewish world?

Clearly the relationship and how to manage it and how to determine even which issues get treated in which way, are yet to be determined.

120 years after the first Zionist Congress it is about time we tackled these challenges.

Perhaps the current Israeli government decisions, which in any case will surely be amended, may bring forward that exciting opportunity.

Shalom from Israel

Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW. 

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