Paris Lights: Facts & Figures in Jerusalem

As noted in last week's column I played hooky on Sunday the 17th; instead of following election night in France, via the Net, I gave a talk to a select panel of guests in the Jerusalem-elegant home of Max and Suzanne Singer.

I had promised our Israel editor, Allison Kaplan Sommer, to check the tally at 8 PM Paris time and call in, but my evening got off to a bright start, questions were as fresh and abundant as the refreshments, and there was no dead space until we parted company three hours later, promising to get together soon, here or there ...when will you be back in Israel, when will you be in the States...the usual doorstep conversation, suddenly broken by a sobering agenda: "...a memorial march for our son, who was killed 20 years ago...the army...his art work."

I lifted my eyes to the artistic expression of his abruptly terminated life, hid my tears, and walked into the fragrant Jerusalem night.

The next day, a pleasant walk through Independence Park leads me to the Beit Agron Government Press Office and one of my favorite straight talkers, GPO chief Danny Seaman. My man hangs in there, warding off varied and sundry militants and freeloaders trying to wrangle press credentials, and resisting pressure from a Foreign Office that thinks giving-in is a way of making friends and influencing people. We go over the latest developments in Gaza, he deplores the wasted opportunity. "Israel should give Hamas an ultimatum, release Gilad Shalit in 5 days or we'll cut off the electricity, shut down the water supply..." The Foreign Press Association is already negotiating with Hamas --"safe" passage into Gaza in exchange for "fair" coverage. And how about this zero-approved Israeli government? The left wing media and establishment won't let Netanyahu win. It doesn't even matter anymore. We need Giuliani in the US, Sarkozy in France, Merkel in Germany... They're starving in Gaza? So why don't they smuggle in food instead of weapons? Gaza will be the first successful Muslim Brotherhood country; all the surrounding Arab nations will be endangered if it succeeds. I leave with these and other words of wisdom, and a temporary GPO press card, renewable at each visit to Israel.

Displaying the aforesaid press card, I go through the Knesset (Parliament) checkpoint and reach the cigar-smoked--shades of Michael Ledeen--office of MK Ariyeh Eldad. The gentle physician, who gave up his medical practice to devote himself to the survival of Israel, speaks quietly, with sincere eyes. We must say it again and again: the 2-state solution is no longer an option. It is an existential threat to Israel. If Israel falls, the whole Western World is in danger. The Olmert government should be replaced, either as a result of the Winograd Commission report [investigation into the failings of the 2006 Hizbullah war] or by a criminal lawsuit for his financial misdeeds. There will be new elections at the beginning of 2008. But it would be better if he were replaced now. The Arabs will exploit our weakness as long as he is in office. Barak will be an improvement as Defense Minister, but a negative factor if he is used to extend the life of this government.

Netanyahu is the best of the winnable candidates but far from the best PM we could hope for. He voted for disengagement [from Gaza]! He backs down under pressure.

Would Eldad run for PM? He is not sure he has all the required characteristics, but he definitely does not back down. "I will have to aim at being PM, otherwise I will not be able to defend my ideas. I hope Netanyahu will win with a right-wing coalition so he will feel pressure, and keep straight. The Left discovered they could pressure Sharon because of his financial corruption. That's why he withdrew from Gaza. He also shares responsibility for failures in last summer's war; because of his spoils system, incompetent people were in positions of authority everywhere. Sharon kicked out Bogey Ya'alon because he spoke out against the withdrawal. I was on the Knesset FA and Defense committee...Dan Halutz asked, "What if we have a real war?" Sharon replied: "Don't worry, I am here."

Well, he is not "here." And look what happened. Condi Rice takes advantage of Bush's weakness to push her own agenda.

I knew 20 years ago that Sharon was corrupt but I supported him because he was building the settlements. Later I realized you shouldn't accept anything from a corrupt person; you never know when he'll have to switch policies to save his corrupt skin."

Dr. Eldad left, reluctantly, to attend the next Knesset session; he extended a warm invitation to pursue our conversation in the near future.

I just had time to return to my (gorgeous) hotel room, meet up with Writing the Wrongs hasbara wizard Chana Givon, and zip over to the American Colony Hotel for a Media Central panel discussion featuring Palestinians for democracy and civil society, and chaired by MC director Aryeh Green. With a quick glance at East Jerusalem, which resembles a Moroccan street scene, and a longer look at the pasha hotel, I conclude that the international media love this place because it confirms their illusion that Israel belongs to the Arabs. The walls are decorated with old newspaper clippings about Arabs murdered in 1938. CNN didn't invent anything.

Aryeh Green announces that at least 20 journalists phoned at the last minute to say they couldn't attend because they had just received authorization to enter Gaza [and report fairly, n'est-ce pas?]. Green's colleague [and former FPLP member] Walid Salem, director of Panorama [the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development], said that recent events may well be an opportunity to shift focus from the conflict with Israel to progress in Palestinian civil society. Whatever.

Natan Sharansky spoke briefly. He would leave it to the Palestinian speakers to tell us about Palestinian democracy. He has just returned from the Democracy & Security conference in Prague, where nobody dared say democracy is impossible in this or that country...because the dissidents were there, present and accounted for. He reminded us that two weeks after the Oslo agreement was signed, he published his first critical article, predicting it would fail because Rabin counted on Arafat to take care of Hamas without scruples. Whenever we refuse to make the link with democracy and civil society, we get into trouble. Is there an opening for progress today? Should we now give incentives, concessions, and material benefits to Abbas? Not if he goes on with his old ways. Only if he shows he is going to foster civil society.

Sharansky's intervention was greeted with stony silence. Shortly afterward he fielded a call on his cell phone, and left the room. (We met up with him again in the lobby 40 minutes later and had a brief chat and exchanged business cards.)

Here is what he "missed."

Walid Salem: The path to Palestinian democracy was initiated with the Oslo process -within a limited jurisdiction-- but has not yet reached its destination. The path was blocked when that jurisdiction collapsed with the Intifada in 2000. Arafat was asked to deliver security to Israel, so democracy was set aside. Since 2000 the international community has been asking Palestinians to develop democracy inside the cage. You can't have democracy under Occupation. Arabic countries put many restrictions on personal freedom but the liberal democrats are an elite, disconnected from average Muslims who have been left to the extremists. Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? Yes. Just as it used by others to foster terrorism.

Aryeh Green notes proudly that a member of Panorama has been named Justice Minister in the Abbas government.

Mohamed Dajani, chair of American Studies at Al Quds University: What do Palestinians want? Freedom, an end to Occupation, a Palestinian state with half of Jerusalem as capitol, economic opportunity, a decent living. They trusted in Fatah to achieve these goals. Fatah moved from armed struggle to negotiation. Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize. Palestinians romanticized Fatah but the leaders grabbed everything for themselves, the people were disillusioned. They chose Hamas, not for its irredentist platform but for promises of reform. Now they are disappointed again. In the 50's, faced with a choice between Communism and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinians chose Islam, the middle path. Sura 143: "you are a religion of the middle [way]." Jihad does not mean setting off bombs. That is totally against the ideals of Islam. Today we are creating a new Islamic movement that will be looking for moderate forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. (I missed something about the configuration of this movement but I got the point that it is based on a [forced] parallelism between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim extremism.)

Moderation? Moderates? I'm not hard of heart. But I'm not hard of hearing either. Sorry, I don't swallow these soft-sell narratives that integrate the same accusations, excuses, and phony explanations as the hard-sell narratives that, by the way, prevail and materialize in ugly actions. (I compared notes a few days later with Tom Gross, who'd linked me to the Media-Central event. The Prague Conference, he said, was a real show of democracy and free exchange of ideas; the participants understood that democracy is about giving, not just griping, asking, taking.)

Chana and I slipped out, conversed briefly with Sharansky in the lobby, and took a cab to the B'nai B'rith building on Keren Heyesod where we were greeted by Henri Rebibo, soon joined by his wife Jaqueline, followed by Léa Marcou, Claude Frankfurter, president Pierre Caïn, and other members of the Robert Gamzon francophone lodge. The assembly hall filled to overflowing. The air conditioning didn't work because...get this...the outdoor units had been stolen!

I was an add-on to the original panel -- Father Michel Renaud, Pastors Malcom Lowe and Claude Duvernoy, and scholar Yohanan Manor-who had contributed to a collective work published by B'nai B'rith in reaction to the 2001 Durban Conference. With an updated edition of "Nouveaux visages de l'antisémitisme" forthcoming, we were asked to give an update on the "passion-hatred" of anti-Semitism. Is it still burning 7 years later? The generally mild, low key, positive and faintly hopeful tone of the first two speakers was literally smashed by the premeditated contribution of Duvernoy whose impressive Zionist credentials should dispel--or might awaken--all doubts. Quoting an obscure passage from the Talmud, Duvernoy demanded that we condemn and a vulgar unholy insult against Jesus, comparable to the despicable antisemitism he has personally fought to eliminate from... I missed the precise reference but I clearly remember that it was not the Gospels. Duvernoy attributed centuries of anti-Semitism to this offensive passage. Martin Luther, for example, discovered it and became virulently anti-Semitic. (However, Duvernoy wrote in February 2007: "Instead of preaching that the death of Christ is also for Israel, the Church had preached that 'the Jews killed Jesus' as if they were solely responsible, when actually God predetermined the death of His Son to provide redemption for all. Instead of preaching that the blood of Christ can bring forgiveness to the Synagogue.... Through the gross and merciless judgments without appeal of the Church fathers, Luther and many, many theologians until our own days, the Church has paved, doubtless without intending to, the road towards the Nazi persecutions.")

Deaf to protestations and explanations from the audience-the passage in question is insignificant, usually censored, and never taught-Duvernoy scolded and abjured. I was in a tight spot: how could I, as a fellow panel member, express my indignation at the suggestion that centuries of persecution could be explained by this virtually non-existent slur? Fortunately, one of the last questions from the audience provided an opening, and I said what had to be said. Mission accomplie.

Just enough time to pack my bags and run over to the Israel Project-GPO Press conference at the David Citadel before checking out of Beit Shmuel and going "down" to Tel Aviv. Warm welcome from my IP friends, Rachel Fishman and Leah Soibel, who introduced me to their new director Marcus Sheff, formerly of the IDF spokesman's office.

Opening the conference with a word in memory of revered military journalist Ze'ev Schiff, who died suddenly that night, Dany Seaman gave us facts and figures of humanitarian aid shipped into Gaza. Journalists are free to enter, via the Erez crossing. But we can't guarantee that they'll be able to get out. To date, Israel is allowing free flow of utilities. A journalist asks if dual nationals can go to Gaza? The answer is no, it's off-limits to Israelis.

In the limited space left for this dispatch, I cannot begin to summarize the highly informative review of events leading to the current Hamas takeover of Gaza, presented by Dr. Ely Karmon (senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counterterrorism at IDC Herzliya. Consult the site for another version of failed democracy in Palestinian society. Karmon explains how "moderate Fatah" is committed to the eradication of Israel while "extremist" Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

A few trenchant details that emerged during the Q & A session: Hamas is not all-powerful. They gave an ultimatum but still can't pry Alan Johnston away from his jailers. Al Qaeda's "Palestinian last" strategy conflicts with Hamas' "Palestine first" policy. International aid is funneled through UNWRA, whose personnel are Hamas, to avoid channeling aid through Hamas. Hizbullah rearmed under the blindfolded eyes of UNIFIL is waiting for the occasion to launch its missiles against Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ben Gurion airport.

In a few days I'll be taking off from Ben Gurion, my most beautiful airport with the best duty-free shop. My next dispatch, Reality Show in Ra'anana, will be filed from Paris, where I will finally get a close look at La France Nouvelle.

P.S. I came upon a reference to the passage cited by Duvernoy ("Flies and elephants," Jerusalem Post June 26). Gershom Gale, reviewing Peter Shäfer's Jesus in the Talmud says "the few scattered words... (most referring not to 'Jesus' but rather to one 'ben Stada' or 'ben Panthera') [are] academic flies," to be measured against an "elephant," ignored by Schäfer: the doubtful New Testament version of Jesus' trial before the SanHedrin, which contravenes the bylaws of that strictly governed court.