Last Wednesday the German Speaker of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, addressed the Knesset in German. His speech was anything but unfriendly. On the one hand he expressed his understanding for Israel’s positions, but on the other also voiced the criticism that is shared by many (perhaps most) of the members of the European Parliament over which he presides, regarding Israel’s settlement policy, and policies toward the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As was widely reported, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett decided to leave the plenary hall with his parliamentary group in protest against what he termed “lies” included in the speech. The Jerusalem Post quoted Bennett as saying in an interview soon after the incident: “When he [Schultz] said Palestinians get 17 liters of water for every 70 Israelis get, it was a total lie. It’s preposterous. All the ministers were perplexed. I stayed quiet at first, but then he criticized the Israeli blockade on Gaza and said it caused pain to the Gazans.
“Did he forget that we expelled 8,000 Jews from Gaza? ...Did he forget that [Gazans] shoot thousands of missiles at us? And then he criticizes us about the very place we vacated? ...Our national honor as the State of Israel isn’t mine or the ministers’. It belongs to all of the people of Israel. I won’t sit in the Knesset and hear a European, certainly not a German, saying such things.” Pungent words.
The only problem is that Bennett apparently didn’t really listen to what Schultz had said.
“Two days ago I spoke to youngsters in Ramallah,” Schultz said. “They want to live in their country, with freedom of movement and without restrictions... There was a question there that stirred me. Without my being able to verify whether the data are correct, I should like to ask you, is what they said correct? One youngster asked me, how can it be that an Israeli may use 70 liters of water, and a Palestinian only 17?” Later in his speech he spoke of debates that take place in the European Parliament on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“And, of course, we always speak also of the Gaza Strip... The blockade on Gaza is your reaction to the attack on citizens, and I can understand this. But there is another point: the blockade leads to a harsh economic process, which does not enable development, and I want to ask you: doesn’t the despair that results from this assist the extreme locals, and might even bring more insecurity than security?” With regard to the water issue, the reality is, of course, much more complicated than Schultz’s naïve question suggested. The truth is that on average the Palestinians in the West Bank are allocated 60-70 liters of water per day, though there are areas in Zone C where there is no running water and the daily water consumption is only 20 liters per day. According to Mekorot (2011 figures), the average water consumption in Israel is 100-230 liters per day (including desalinated water).
There are no official figures regarding the average water consumption of the Jewish inhabitants in the territories (why?), but it is assumed to be much higher (some say even double) the figure for Israelis within the Green Line.
In the field of water there is formal cooperation between the water authorities of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, even though the balance of power is like that between a mule and its rider. Israel is the one that sets the rules, and the Palestinians are totally at Israel’s mercy. True, Israel is careful to act within the parameters of the agreements signed within the framework of the Oslo Accords, even though these are 20 years out of date. In fact, occasionally Israel is generous enough to top its formal obligations.
However, within area C Israel also actively destroys Palestinian water cisterns, wells and reservoirs because they are allegedly “illegal,” which is what much of the international community says about most of what Israel has done in the West Bank since 1967, and as the saying goes, “he who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones at his neighbors.”
Though the PA itself is at least partially responsible for the water distress in the West Bank, all the international agencies that are trying to assist the Palestinians claim that Israel places endless bureaucratic obstacles on efforts to improve Palestinian water infrastructures. So the truth is complicated, and as Shultz insinuated in his question – there is a serious water problem in the region that must be resolved in a more just manner than is currently the case.
As to Gaza, it is difficult to deny that Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip after the Hamas came to power, though due to international pressure and humanitarian reasons the blockade is only partial. And yet Bennett claimed in a post on his Facebook page last Wednesday that the claim that a blockade exists is a lie. If that is the case, why did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declare the other day, in reply to a message from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Israel refuses to lift the blockade on Gaza as a condition for normalization in Turkish-Israeli relations? One cannot escape the conclusion that Bennett was actually looking for an excuse for a provocative act of protest against the Europeans in general and the European Union in particular, and that he was determined not to let the facts deter him.
Though he might have gained points within his own constituency, he undoubtedly caused damage to Israel’s relations with the friends and well-wishers it still has in Europe, of whom Shultz is said to be one.
When I first read about the commotion caused in the Knesset around Shultz’s speech I was reminded of another incident in the Knesset plenum, on December 26, 1984, when the presence of a delegation from the newly formed German Green Party, sitting in the visitors’ gallery as guests of the Arab Progressive List for Peace, met with protests from Likud and Tehiah MKs. The MKs thought that Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel (Labor) should have banned the Greens’ visit to the Knesset, because upon crossing the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, the leader of the delegation issued a statement in which he criticized Israel’s occupation of the territories.
As soon as the Greens entered the gallery, MKs Geula Cohen and Raphael Eitan raised banners reading, “Braune Grüne” (Brown Greens), which caused quite a stir both in the Israeli and the German media at the time.
Following this incident our Foreign Ministry organized a meeting in Germany between German-born MK Mordechai Virshuvsky (Shinui) and the leadership of the Green Party, including Otto Schilly and Yoschka Fischer (who in 1998 were appointed interior minister and foreign minister, respectively, in the government of Gerhard Schröder). The intention was simply to prevent the incident from getting completely out of hand, and to the best of my recollection, that goal was achieved.
I hope that following last week’s incident the Foreign Ministry once again went into emergency damage- control mode; unless it has simply given up trying to come to the rescue every time one of our honorable ministers “puts his foot in it.”
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.