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.
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
“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
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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