Israeli Arabs to Peres: Help end ‘economic intifada’

Soup on menu is biggest head-turner at traditional presidential Iftar dinner.

By
August 23, 2011 03:37
Shimon Peres at Iftar dinner

Peres Iftar 311. (photo credit: Marc Neiman/GPO)

 
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With only minor variations the script repeats itself year after year at the Iftar dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres for kadis, imams and heads of Arab towns and villages.

He talks about peace and some of the positive developments in Israel’s Arab sector, and a spokesman for the Arab communities lists some of the main grievances that Arabs have against the establishment.

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Peres is very respectful of his guests and speaks to them in a tone that is conciliatory rather than patronizing. His guests respond no less respectfully but make no bones about what they consider to be Israel’s discriminatory practices.

Many of the guests, after not eating or drinking since before dawn, come great distances from the North and South of the country to Jerusalem to break the Ramadan fast at the President’s Residence.

In previous years the guest list included ambassadors of Muslim countries, but there were no ambassadors present in the president’s garden on Sunday night. Some were out of the country, and some countries have not even appointed an ambassador since the recall or conclusion of duty of their particular ambassadors to Israel. And some simply chose to decline the invitation.

However, despite the tensions in Israel-Egypt relations, Egypt’s deputy chief of mission, Moustafa el-Kouny, did attend.

Jordan’s charge d’affaires, Ali Daifallah al-Fayez, was also present.

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The Iftar menu includes traditional Arab delicacies as well as a plate of dates. Muslims traditionally break the fast on the fruit of the palm tree, because dates have a high level of natural sugar that restores energy to the system.

While speeches at state dinners are usually made before the start of the meal or immediately after the first course, Peres waited till after the main course to make his remarks so he could be sure his guests were well-sated. The menu also included soup, which is almost never included in the menu of a state dinner.

As he has done previously, Peres drew a parallel between Ramadan and the Jewish High Holy Day period in which individuals introspectively turn to God, ask for forgiveness for their sins and for the chance to become better people in their future relationships with others.

Looking back at peace treaties reached by Israel with Egypt and Jordan, Peres reflected on how beneficial these agreements had been to the region and echoed the famous declaration by Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat “No more war, no more bloodshed,” he quoted Sadat.

“We had seven wars and we lost so many people on all sides. Who needs war?” said Peres, who spoke of the respect Israel has for both the Jordanians and the Palestinians.

As for Egypt, Peres, also related his speech to the turn of events in the Land of the Nile.

“We pray Egypt will be free and economically stable, and Egyptian children will have the promise of a better future.”

Turning closer to home, Peres acknowledged there are still problems of equality in relation to Arab citizens, but he was eager to point out the situation is not stagnant and significant progress has been made.

“We always talk about the flaws,” he said. “I want to talk about the achievements.”

There is no hospital in Israel today without Arab doctors, as well as Arab patients side by side with Jewish doctors and Jewish patients, noted Peres – painting a picture of an almost idyllic coexistence.

“If we’re at peace with each other when we’re sick, why not when we’re well?” said Peres.

While Arabs continue to complain about discrimination in the education system, Peres preferred to emphasize the rising standards of education in the Arab population. Every year, 40,000 Arab students can be found in Israel’s universities, he said.

“There is no Arab village today without a university graduate.”

He was pleased to report that almost every swearing-in ceremony of new judges includes Arab appointees.

“On a per capita basis, the ratio of Arab lawyers is more or less equal to that of Jewish lawyers,” he said.

He was also proud of Arabs excelling in sport, but particularly proud of the Peres Peace Team of Israeli and Palestinian Australian rules football players who are currently in Australia, where they are getting a lot of publicity, and where they all put on black arm bands following the hostilities in the South of Israel.

Where there is a huge gap, Peres stated, is in the hi-tech area, not because Arabs lack the education, but because they lack the opportunity to put that education to use.

Peres has already taken Israeli hi-tech entrepreneurs to major Arab cities and towns to show them the potential that exists, as a result of which a $160 million fund has been established for the creation of hi-tech centers in areas populated largely by minorities.. There is a further plan afoot, said Peres to take more Arabs into existing Israeli hi-tech enterprises.

“If we invested in our children what we’ve invested in war, our children would be very happy,” he said.

Still keen to renew peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Peres said: “I want to tell our Palestinian neighbors the differences of the past are over. Most Israelis believe a Jewish State and a Palestinian State should exist side by side – in peace. What we have already agreed on amounts to much more than what remains in dispute. I believe when we make peace with the Palestinians, it will lead to peace in the whole region.”

Sallah Suleiman, the acting chairman of the Union of Local Authorities and the mayor of Bueina Nujidat, took issue with Peres, pointing out that 10,000 qualified Arab teachers are unemployed and can’t find jobs, and that there is hidden unemployment in Arab villages, because the women, though well-educated, have not been able to obtain work in their respective fields.

Suleiman warned that unless there is some dramatic improvement to stop what he termed “the economic intifada” with its rising water and electricity rates, coupled with the high cost of food and the growing unemployment in development towns, as well as Druse and Arab villages, the ULA would probably mount a strike in September.

ULA representatives had met with the prime minister, the finance minister and the minister for the interior, but to no avail, he said.

Fully cognizant that Peres is trying to help them, Suleiman told him the ULA and Arab leadership will continue to nag him, “because the government does not answer our pleas.”

He also asked for Peres to intercede in the matter of prayers at the Al-Aksa Mosque during Ramadan.

“If this is a democracy, why should there be an age limit on Arab worshipers,” declared Suleiman. “All they want to do is pray and go home. No one wants to cause any trouble.”

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