Eleven years ago, on Purim night, IDF soldiers entered the West Bank city of Jericho. Led by Col. Moti Elmoz, then commander of the Jericho Regional Brigade and today head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, the troops were on a clear mission – apprehend Ahmed Sadat, leader of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine.
The thing was that Sadat, the mastermind behind the 2001 assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, was not in a home, restaurant or office building.
He was in a Palestinian Authority-run prison – albeit in a cell with a TV, phone and side room to receive guests.
But on March 14, 2006, the three British security guards who were stationed in Jericho to monitor the prison, picked up and left the city. The IDF was waiting. For five years, Israel had wanted to get its hands on Ze’evi’s killers but didn’t do anything as long as there was a British guarantee that Sadat would remain behind bars. Once the monitors left, the guarantee went out the window and Israel decided to go in and get him.
During the daylong standoff, IDF tanks and bulldozers surrounded the prison while helicopters hovered above, at one point firing a missile at a prison wall. The army feared that a raid could end in mass casualties after intelligence indicated that prisoners had taken over an armory. So the soldiers waited, using bulldozers to knock down walls and artillery shells to scare the wanted men. At the end, the Palestinian prisoners walked out of the demolished prison with their hands in the air. Sadat had surrendered.
A visit to Jericho this week makes that day seem a lifetime away. Today, the IDF is nowhere to be found in the Jericho vicinity.
Instead of a military checkpoint at the entrance to the city, there are four Palestinian policemen, armed with AK-47s, waving at cars as they drive past the Oasis Hotel and the attached casino, closed since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.
Jericho has always stood out as something of an anomaly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict scene, likely the result of the city’s dependence on tourism as the engine of its economy. It was the first city Israel vacated in 1994 when Yasser Arafat was allowed back to the West Bank and again the first city the IDF withdrew from in 2005 after it had reconquered most of the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield three years earlier.
And this past September it was the scene of a rare Israeli-Palestinian parley when Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi visited Jericho alongside Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh to participate in the launch of a Japanese-sponsored, $300 million industrial park.
Together with other members of The Jerusalem Post editorial board, I visited Jericho on Wednesday for a meeting with Jibril Rajoub, the feared retired Palestinian general and current head of the PA’s Football Association and Olympic Committee.
While Rajoub’s gold-plated business card claims his focus is sports, he is intimately involved in domestic and foreign affairs and is a senior member of the Fatah Central Committee. With 17 years in Israeli prisons under his belt – and now a crowd-pleasing sports perch to speak from – Rajoub is popular on the Palestinian street and is rumored to be a leading candidate to one day replace Mahmoud Abbas, the aging Palestinian president.
Rajoub’s remarks were what could be expected from a senior Palestinian official.
He blasted Israel’s “occupation of the West Bank” and the settlements, which he referred to as a “malignant cancer.”
Like other Palestinian officials, he repeatedly referred to Yitzhak Rabin, the one Israeli leader, he said, who truly treated the Palestinians with respect. Rabin, he claimed, never would have allowed the settler population to grow to the 400,000 that it numbers today.
We met Rajoub at the office of the Jericho Governorate, one of 16 Palestinian districts in the West Bank, corresponding to the large cities. This was the same building where Arafat had his first office in the West Bank. His bed – with a pastel-colored bedspread tightly tucked on the corners – is still there on display alongside photos from when the IDF laid siege to the Mukata in Ramallah back in 2002.
Despite his yearning for past leaders, Rajoub claims he is really focused on the future. He believes that the presidency of Donald Trump could be exactly what Israel and the PA need to get peace talks back on track. While he slammed the settlements, he didn’t rule out the possibility that the PA would accept an agreement, if reached between Jerusalem and Washington, on some construction, a clear break from its demand that talks cannot restart before all settlement construction is frozen.
But, he said, Ramallah would first need to understand the deal. “We can’t name the baby before it is born,” he said.
Rajoub doesn’t spare theatrics when speaking. He pauses at the right moment, refers to his interlocutors as “brothers,” half winks when he wants to make a point and even resorts to quoting from Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers – to explain the need to resist the Israeli control of the West Bank. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” he asked.
Once a convicted terrorist, Rajoub is focused now on upping his international profile and will travel next week to New York to participate in an event hosted by the Israel Policy Forum.
What is next for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains to be seen. A lot depends on what the Israeli government decides to do and how much pressure Trump decides to exert. A few hours after we left Jericho, Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to the conflict, arrived to watch a military parade in an American-funded training facility in the city.
Based on the current makeup of his coalition and Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be able to make far-reaching concessions without first showing real viability for a peace deal.
That leaves the option of a complete freeze on settlement construction off the table, which means that before any talks – direct or proximity – are resumed with the Palestinians, a deal will first need to be reached between Jerusalem and Washington over where Israel is allowed to build and where it cannot. The Palestinians will need to accept this framework, since if they don’t, while the US could use its financial assistance as leverage, the deal won’t mean that much for Trump in the absence of peace talks.
What exactly Netanyahu is planning remains unknown. As in the past, the prime minister is holding his cards close to his chest. While he has spoken openly about a “regional deal” that would include peace with the Palestinians alongside normalization with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Ramallah dismisses that option as nonsense. No one in the Arab world, Rajoub explains, will normalize ties with Israel if the conflict with the Palestinians is not first solved.
Considering the issues that loom large he might be right. The status of Jerusalem, refugees and settlements are just some of what would need to be negotiated all over again if peace talks were to be resumed.
And then there is Abbas, the PA president who will celebrate his 82nd birthday later this month. How much longer he will remain in power remains a mystery, as does the date of elections which have not been held for over 12 years. His rejection of Ehud Olmert’s peace proposal in 2008 is difficult to forget, considering that it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu – or any other Israeli leader – could offer him more.
If Abbas rejected what Olmert offered, how could he accept anything less now? Rajoub is worth listening to since by the end of the year, he could be the leader of the Palestinian Authority. While that would be a nice title, the question is whether Rajoub, or anyone of his rumored competitors, will be able to compromise where Abbas failed to before them. Judging by the past, the chances are not great.
Sandy Koufax led the Los Angeles Dodgers to victory in the 1965 World Series, pitching in games two, five and seven at the end of which he threw a three-hit shutout to clinch the championship. He was the first major league pitcher to throw four no-hitters and the eighth to pitch a perfect game. He had 2,396 career strikeouts, ranking, at the time of his retirement in 1966, as the 7th best pitcher in major league history.
Despite all of these records and achievements, what is Koufax best remembered for? Not playing in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. The best Jewish pitcher is not remembered for his stats. He’s remembered for the game he never played.
This is worth keeping in mind after Team Israel lost to Japan on Wednesday, ending its amazing, fairytale run in the World Baseball Classic.
Koufax was a great pitcher, a true Hall of Famer. But his real fame came from doing something that made him stand out – exhibiting his Jewish identity proudly and without shame.
The people – mostly Israeli - who cynically criticized Team Israel for having hardly any players with Israeli citizenship, were factually correct – only two Israelis played on the team. The rest were American Jews who met the criteria to play on the team since they are eligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
These critics missed the lesson learned from Sandy Koufax’s baseball career. All of the players who donned the Team Israel hat with a Star of David emblem and sat in the dugout next to a mascot called “Mensch on the Bench” did so because they were not afraid to display their Jewish identity. They were proud Jews and had no problem showing it off to the world.
Team Israel might have ultimately lost its World Baseball Classic bid but it won by achieving what Koufax did in 1965 – spreading Jewish pride across the globe.
For that alone, Israelis owe the players a debt of gratitude.