Thursday, May 17, 2007

Israel: The King Who Led Them to It

A few years ago, The Onion had a story about how the TV series Israel was being cancelled because of its increasingly implausible plotlines. These, of course, were based on real news events of the time. Today, one could make the same joke about just the Israeli government itself, without going into the conflict with the Palestinians. So far in 2007, the president has been suspended for alleged rape, while the attorney general has resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. The Knesset leader of the Labor party was arrested after getting into a barfight. A recent nominee for the post of Minister of Tourism had to withdraw after it was revealed she had never graduated from high school. Even at lower levels of government service, there is the now-former ambassador to El Salvador, who was recalled after police found him lying on the street naked and tied up while wearing bondage gear. It's really a fascinating crew they have running this place.

By the far the most popular venom, however, is reserved for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He actually lives not to far from me, in an upscale district called Rehavia filled with narrow streets winding along the side of a hill, streets lined with densely packed trees and fenced-off multi-story residential buildings mixed with the occasional small grocery/newsstand. His exact block is sealed off by barricades and policed by armed guards, though you can walk down it, except I think when he is actually coming and going. I read somewhere that his neighbors were really annoyed when he became prime minister because of all the disruption it entails. They must be even more ticked now that he is almost universally considered the worst prime minister in the nation's history. Polls usually show his approval rating in the low single digits; there aren't any Olmert dead-enders of the sort that seem willing to prop up American politicians so that they seldom fall below 30%.

As with any political leader, some of the issues he gets criticized over are, in the larger scheme of things, fairly minor. The current most salient "minor issue" is university reform. Students have officially been on strike since early April over plans to reduce the heavily government subsidies at the public universities while implementing a system of grants and low-interest loans to enable students to pay. I have no strong opinions on the matter, mainly because the numbers involved don't mean anything to me given how little I know about incomes and the cost of living in different areas of the country, as well as Israel's overall budget situation. Several protests have bene held in downtown Jerusalem where I live. One was a series of displays and musical acts set up around noon on a small square by the intersection of Ben Yehuda and King George. The strikers were clearly having fun with it; at one point a group of about a dozen female fresh army recruits wandered past in their green uniforms and a girl playing the clarinet and a guy on a snare drum immediately launched into what sounded like an Israeli version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," to the intimindation of the suddenly spotlighted soldiers.

Much larger was a group that gathered to block Jaffa Road, one of Jerusalem's main arteries, last Thursday night, the start of the Israeli weekend and the busiest night downtown. Traffic came to a standstill as a few hundred students wearing the red T-shirts of Israel's student unions sat or stood chanting slogans around amidst their fellows waving red flags, some of them with the hammer and sickle of Marxist movements the world over, and a couple with Israeli flags meant to lend the demonstration an air of patriotism and acknowledgement of Israel's socialist heritage. Because the event was apparently done without coordination with the authorities, they were surrounded by a line of police followed by a line of some other security service, with riot police standing by and several mounted police officers waiting some distance away in case things got out of hand. Traffic was snarled, and emergency vehicles were not spared. A fire engine came down the street with sirens blaring, but the students did not budget, and after a minute or so it retreated to a side street. Later an ambulance came from a different angle; thankfully the students there made way for it to pass.

These protests, however, are blending into far more serious ones which unite all Israel around a call for Olmert to resign as Prime Minister in the wake of the interim Winograd Report on what went wrong during last summer war, which two different government committees spent several months deciding should be officially called the "Second Lebanon War." Lebanon, it would seem, has a way of bringing out protestors. In 1982, in the largest protest in Israeli history, 400,000 people turned out in what was then called Kings of Israel Square against the invasion of Lebanon in the First Lebanon War. The Thursday after the interim report was released, something less than 200,000 came out to call for Olmert's resignation. The crowd seemed to run most of the gamut of Israeli political spectrum, though I didn't see any hijabis, suggesting an absence of the Arab sector. The most striking thing, however, was the sheer diversity of the crowd. In the United States, a protest such as this would most likely attract a bunch of experienced activists and college students. They were there, but the mosaic was so varied no single group stood out. As I passed through the crowd, I saw Meretz activists in light green T-shirts, beer-bellied men in wife-beater shirts, kippah-wearing men dressed nicely and carring briefcases, old ladies pushing themselves around in wheelchairs, a bunch of guys who looked like Hell's Angels wannabees, women seemingly in their 50's eager to point me toward good pictures of what they predicted would be a historic occasion, a sprinking of Haredi in their black hats and suits, some guys carrying a purple banner, families with children and young couples holding each other while they listed to the speeches, and even a few dogs whose owners were possessed to bring them to the rally, too. There were also some Knesseteers, though no one whose picture I've seen enough to recognize.

The signs were varied, and often creative. The most common were white-on-blue signs, stickers, and banners that said simply, "Elections now." Some people had made their own and printed them out on their computers, though sadly without Hebrew I couldn't read them. Several were carrying signs in the shape and style of the Ten Commandments tablets, while one creative guy had a bread theme going, though again I don't know Hebrew and didn't get the chance to ask him about it. I did talk to one person advertising the memory of the three IDF soldiers who are currently prisoners of Hamas and Hizbullah, and there was at least one sign in English about Olmert going to sleep, probably a reference to this Daily Show clip which many in Israel have seen.

While the one song I recognized was Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," this was not a peace rally. Incompetence was really the only unifying complaint, and when one speaker criticized the occupation, many began booing. Although the report did strongly suggest going to war was a mistake in the first place, I've been told that Israeli TV is only focusing on the parts related to things Olmert did wrong in executing it. Some might be skeptical and say many people came for the free performances by the musical acts who performed before and in between speeches. When circulating among the crowd, I didn't get much of that at all, except from a few people near the very back. Even if that was what tipped people into going, they seemed clearly to support the rally's aims. Among those I talked to was a group of middle school-aged kids in matching white T-shirts from Sderot, a town near the Gaza Strip which is routinely struck by barrages and seen as a symbol of the government's inability to protect the country. I also ran into several people carrying signs related to the three Israeli soldiers currently held by Hamas and Hizbullah, with some also including Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying on the U.S. for Israel during the Cold War.

If I might show some political bias, as an American liberal, I was riding a sort of vicarious thrill since even though IMHO Bush has done far worse than screw up a war, such as trying to install a (lack of) civil liberties regime on some issues comparable to what Israel does only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he still has that 30% or so of solid support that doesn't seem likely to go away unless he is caught in an extramarital affair. Trying to think strictly from the Israeli perspective, however, I think it's a valid question of whether people aren't turning on him for failing to resolve in his policies issues Israelis as a whole haven't dealt with in their conception of the state, though they have as blocks of that state. Olmert came into office wanting to withdraw from parts of the West Bank as Sharon had from Gaza; his incursion into Gaza and assault on Lebanon were meant in part to establish that Israel could protect itself from attacks based in areas after it left them. It's worth exploring the degree to which the whole "Olmert mess" is really an "Israel mess" laid bare.



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