Diplomacy: Where demos and diplomacy intersect

The demonstrations of the past few weeks have revealed issues everyone feels, and will not disappear.

Protesters on Rotschild311 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Protesters on Rotschild311
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
‘There is a need to look the public in the eyes and tell the truth,” Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, the head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said on Israel Radio Tuesday morning. “There is a danger that September will turn violent and painful, and the results are not clear. Now everything is quiet, but it is a deceptive calm.”
The events surrounding the Palestinians’ apparent intention to seek statehood recognition at the UN, warned Mofaz, a former chief of General Staff, could even require the mobilization of reserve units: “The IDF is preparing for a wide range of scenarios, including preparing itself for a reality that will necessitate the support of reserve forces.”
What Mofaz has done is paint the following picture: Come September, and the possibility of violence resulting from the Palestinian push for statehood recognition, those same protesters sleeping in tents on Rothschild Boulevard or demonstrating in the streets of Haifa, Afula, Jerusalem and Beersheba will be asked to trade in their T-shirts and shorts for uniforms, guitars for guns, and civilian sleeping bags for IDF-issued ones.
What Mofaz didn’t say, but what is clear, is that the reservists – as they always do in times of crisis – will show up.
Indeed, one of the slogans of the three weeks of protests is that the demonstrators represent the silent majority of the population that carries the country on its back – that works, does army and reserve duty, and pays taxes. You can’t mouth the slogans, but not walk the walk – at least not without sacrificing integrity. And no self-respecting protest movement wants its integrity sacrificed.
Yet when September turns into October, November and December, and when the reservists – if they are indeed called – are released, it is also likely they will trade back in their uniforms and return to the tents, or at least to the streets, for an occasional Saturday night protest. Because the demonstrations of the last few weeks have revealed issues on the nation’s agenda that are felt by all and are not going to disappear.
The cost of living here is extremely high. Period.
That is not a statement from the Left or from the Right, from the religious or the secular, from immigrants or native-born Israelis. It’s just a fact.
Renting a two-bedroom, 70-square-meter apartment in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood should not cost NIS 4,000 a month ($1,156); a 2- liter container of chocolate milk at the neighborhood grocer should not cost NIS 19.93 ($5.76); a liter of gas should not cost NIS 7.22 ($7.88 per US gallon); and taking a family of four out for an average-sized burger at McDonalds should not cost NIS 160 ($46.24).
Those prices will not be washed away by a security or diplomatic crisis that may or may not push the protest movement off the headlines for a few weeks. Protests are not new to the country’s landscape – especially in the summer, when a lot of people (mostly students) have a lot of time on their hands. Just think back a year, when thousands marched from Mitzpe Hila in the Galilee to Jerusalem for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
But what makes this protest different – even from the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959, or the Black Panthers in the early 1970s – is that it is much broader in scope and contains a wider cross-section of the population: doctors, teachers and students; Ashkenazi and Mizrahi; secular and, increasingly, religious.
As Ra’anan Gissin, former spokesman for Ariel Sharon, quipped this week, it’s like a Roman slave ship. There are two levels on the ship, the bottom deck and the upper deck. On the bottom deck are those people chained to the oars, doing the hard work – toiling, sweating, crying, propelling the ship forward. And on the upper deck are those eating grapes and enjoying the fruits of the labors of those below. Now the rowers want to move up a deck.
The protesters/reservists – if they are called up in September – will return home afterward with the same sense of wanting to move up a deck, only this time buttressed by a heightened sense of righteousness: “See, we showed up for duty when called, we did our part, we now want our share of the pie.”
No, the genuine grievances fueling this summer of protest will not go away with a security crisis.
But the possibility of the protesters laying down their signs to take up arms is not the only place the street demonstrations and the country’s diplomatic and security challenges intersect.
There are cynics among us who say that for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, September and all the dangers it contains is nothing less than a blessing, as it will divert the nation’s attention from the domestic cost-of-living issues.
Those voices even made it to the op-ed pages of The New York Times this week, in the form of a guest piece by Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah, Israeli and Palestinian bloggers respectively, claiming that Netanyahu held “two possible trump cards” in dealing with the protests: “a sudden breakthrough in the negotiations to free the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, held captive in Gaza, or a sudden escalation of armed conflict.”
Some trump cards.
Indeed, that claim attributes a remarkably high degree of malevolence to Netanyahu, as if he were not concerned about Schalit until now, and would only bend to Hamas’s demands and free hundreds of terrorists to save his political hide; or that he is willing to spill blood – Palestinian and Israeli – merely to detract attention from protest leader Daphne Leef.
There is, of course, another option, one that Reider and Abu Sarah didn’t seem to consider: that he could come up with an earthshattering, hurdle-breaking peace initiative, the type of initiative that also would divert attention from Leef – the same type of initiative, for instance, that Sharon carried out six years ago this month with the withdrawal from Gaza.
Then, too, there were cynics among us (though their words appeared less often in the op-ed pages of elite US newspapers) who claimed Sharon’s motive was a desire to deflect attention from his mounting legal problems, and to keep his son Omri out of jail.
Those claims, too, attributed a high degree of malice to an Israeli leader, insinuating – no, actually coming out and saying – that he was willing to destroy living communities, forever disrupt lives and place neighboring towns and cities in constant rocket range, just to keep his son out of prison (something that didn’t work in any event).
But so goes the discourse in, and about, this country. Everyone is too smart by a half. Sharon can’t leave Gaza because he believes it is the right thing to do, and Netanyahu can’t face down the protesters without bringing about a regional war. There must be some other wicked motivation involved.
Indeed, when two Palestinians were killed during an IDF arrest operation in Kalandiya this week, and when there was a firefight in the North between the IDF and the Lebanese army, there were those who immediately saw Netanyahu orchestrating a crisis (never mind that the Lebanese fired first).
Interestingly the prime minister’s comments the same day that he would accept a return to negotiations with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, if the Palestinians agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state – a sign of movement in his position – was interpreted by absolutely no one as an effort to push the diplomatic process forward to take the focus off the streets.
It’s August, the cucumber season, but much is still percolating here.
Cost-of-living protests now, security and diplomatic crisis lurking around the corner with the Palestinian bid for statehood in September.
One is not dependent on the other, and one won’t resolve the other.
Get the protests off the street, and you don’t fix the Palestinian issue. Resolve the Palestinian issue (if you can; it’s not only dependent on us), and you don’t narrow the largest economic gaps in the developed world, despite wishful thinkers who blame all the country’s woes on the settlement enterprise.
Both problems will be here well beyond September. And Netanyahu, like the country, is on the cusp of a complicated period during which he – and we – will artfully have to juggle more than one ball at a time.