President Shimon Peres sent Ramadan Eve greetings to Muslims around the globe via some 5,000 Arab World websites and blogs on Wednesday. The message was yet another attempt at outreach to Arab and Muslim individuals in the hope of convincing them that Israel is interested in peace and reconciliation.
In addition Peres invited representatives of the Arabic media to a press conference at his residence with the aim of spreading his message even further. In line with this he also invited internet surfers from throughout the Arab world to put questions to him of which he would answer three at the press conference.
According to the President's spokeswoman Ayelet Frish, there were hundreds of responses.
The turn-out for the conference was smaller than that of last year, and the overwhelming majority of non-Jewish participants were Israeli Arabs who work for foreign media outlets.
The dearth of Palestinian journalists from Ramallah and West Bank villages may be attributed to a boycott called on Tuesday by Palestinian Journalists Syndicate chairman Abdul Nasser al-Najjar.
The boycott was in response to the humiliations suffered by Palestinian journalists at the hands of Israeli security personnel when attempting to cover the visit to Jerusalem on Monday by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Numerous Palestinian journalists participated in a protest demonstration on Tuesday in front of the US consulate’s office in Ramallah. They claimed that there was severe discrimination against Palestinian journalists in comparison to security checks on Israeli journalists and foreign correspondents.
Not everyone was aware of the boycott, and of those who were not all obeyed the edict.
Mohammed Najib, who was one of the very few journalists who came from Ramallah, had not heard of the boycott, but even if he had known about it, would probably have ignored it. "I'm a foreign correspondent," he explained, drawing the line between people who report for Arab media and those who report for global media. Najib works for Jane's, the weekly defense publication.
Another foreign correspondent was Najwan Simri of Al Jazeera who in January last year was subjected to over zealous security screening at the prime minister's annual New Year meeting with the media, and asked to remove her bra. She, made it into the President's Residence without incident this year as did Nidal Rafa, a known pro-Palestinian firebrand, who used to work for CNN, but is now a freelancer. Though born in Haifa, Rafa identifies passionately with the Palestinians and uses every possible opportunity to speak out against the occupation.
When asked by The Jerusalem Post why she had not joined the boycott, she replied that she had come because she had something to say about liberty and freedom. "The problem is the occupation and the solution is the occupation," she declared. Though usually tempestuous and impatient, Rafa waited quietly during the Q&A session until she was permitted to ask a question, but then was unable to contain herself, causing Peres to remark on her fiery temperament. For all that she had stood up in respect when he entered the room, and when he put out his hand to her, she accepted it and shook it.
Brig. Gen. Hasson Hasson, the military secretary to the President, did not wear his IDF uniform, but came dressed in dark pants and a bright orange sports shirt. He had doffed his military attire he said, out of respect for the guests. As a Druze, he understands the Arab mentality better than most of his Jewish colleagues, and the gesture was designed to take any sense of a military presence out of the event.
The problem was that he had forgotten what the color orange symbolizes to the settler movement, and was thus inadvertently giving out the wrong signals.
In a wide ranging address that touched on several regional issues including Egypt, Jordan, Libya, the Palestinians, Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and the Israeli Arab sector, Peres repeatedly emphasized the role of science and technology in a changing world, the importance of maintaining peace with those Arab countries with which Israel already has peace agreements, and sparing no effort to expand that peace to the whole region.
"All of us prefer peace to war," he said. "We have to bring an end to war not just a beginning to peace." Peace is essential he elucidated, not only because it saves so many lives, but also because it helps to develop the economy. "The more money you spend on wars, the less you spend on social and civilian needs." Peres stressed the urgency of the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He was confidant that once negotiations start the (political) climate and the attitude of people will change.
He could not say when there would be a meeting between him and Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, but stated that Israel is always open for dialogue. The basic assumption he said, is that peace between the two countries should continue.
Peres who has spoken out many times against the tyranny and bloodshed in Syria, did so again, saying that no-one could be indifferent to the sight of the coffin of a baby who has been killed by its own dictator.
"We should not be indifferent to murder, oppression and bloodshed," he said.
Israel cannot intervene in the Syrian strife for obvious reasons, said Peres, but other countries can and should he opined.
Peres shared his thoughts about a creative means of dealing with the Syrian problem. The United Nations should give a mandate to the Arab League to create an Arab peace keeping force, he said.
"What Syria needs is peace, and not just a change of who will kill whom. Arab problems need Arab solutions, with the support of the rest of the world."
As he has done many times before, Peres clarified Israel's attitude to Iran. "We do not consider the Iranian people as our enemies. We don't have any hatred for Iranians. What we are against is the policy of the Iranian leadership. We are against Iran threatening to destroy others. They want to be in charge of the Middle East they want to expand their hegemony and they want to destroy Israel and maybe the US."
Peres charged Iran with converting Hezbollah from a religious organization to a terrorist organization. "They don't pray. They shoot. Hezbollah has become a war machine In addition to all this he said, Iran is building a nuclear bomb and disbursing its terror agents throughout the world. "Iran hangs like a heavy cloud on the future of the Middle East."
The first question put to Peres was by Al Jazeera's Simri who wanted to know on the point of universal service why Arabs who suffer discrimination should ne placed on the same level as haredim who don't. Arabs in Israel don't have the same rights as haredim, she said, and therefore should not be expected to have the same obligations. A similar point about discrimination was made by Jackie Khoury, the news director for Radio A-Shams in Nazareth, who said that there are Jews in Israel who protest the presence of Arabs in the country, and whose anti-Arab demonstrations are rife with racism.
Khoury also asked that if Arabs had to join an army as part of their national service, whether instead of joining the IDF, they could join the UN sponsored Arab peace keeping force that Peres had proposed.
Peres said that as far as national service goes, there cannot be bias with regard to any sector of the population that would make it possible for some to serve and others not to serve.
Haredim have taken unfair advantage of Ben-Gurion's agreement with rabbinical leaders, he said. From a concession that a few hundred Torah students would be exempt from military service, the number has grown to thousands, he remarked. He discounted the possibility of Arabs being drafted into a UN force instead of the IDF.
Peres acknowledged that it was difficult to escape the inequality between Arabs and the rest of the population, and said that he had tried to remedy this by establishing an umbrella group of high tech companies that are willing to hire qualified Arab academics. Several hundred such academics have already found jobs, he said. He is also encouraging the establishment of high tech plants in Arab villages along with greater investments in high tech in general in the Arab sector.
Peres pointed to hospitals as places where Arabs, be they doctors, nurses or patients are on an equal footing with their Jewish peers.
He noted that there are also a lot of Arab lawyers and that Arabs are beginning to make their mark in sports.
When it was finally Rafa's turn to ask a question, she began it with a statement: "The best Ramadan is when we finish the Israeli occupation, when people from Gaza and the West Bank cities can enter Jerusalem to pray. People want to live in dignity and freedom." For Peres it was a perfect opportunity to yet again make his point about peace.
"The whole purpose of negotiations is to reach peace," he told her.
"We won't rule the Palestinians and they won't rule us." Israel doesn't want occupation he continued, but every day there is someone who wants to kidnap an Israeli soldier or to stab an Israeli civilian, he said.
"We have no choice but to defend ourselves." He understood the desire of every Palestinian Arab to feel free and equal, he said, and it was therefore important for Palestinians and Israelis to find a common path to get rid of terrorist elements.
"Terrorists bring damage to the Palestinians as well as to us."