Grapevine: New initiative for the Middle East

Tony Blair doubts that a binational state would be acceptable to either the Israelis or the Palestinians.

President Shimon Peres meets with Quartet envoy Tony Blair in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YOSEF AVI YAIR ENGEL/PRESIDENT’S RESIDENCE)
President Shimon Peres meets with Quartet envoy Tony Blair in Jerusalem.
■ Just a few hours after Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and, until June this year, Middle East envoy of the Quartet, shared his vision of a new approach to the Middle East peace process with members of the Foreign Press Association, the tentacles of the turmoil in the region, which have spread to engulf the whole world, once again struck into the heart of France.
Blair, who on June 27, 2007, resigned as prime minister, announced on the same day that he had accepted the role of the official envoy of the Quartet. Essentially, his mandate was to advance the economic development of the Palestinian Authority.
After eight years in the position, Blair submitted his resignation to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May of this year and left at the end of June. That doesn’t mean that he’s given up on the peace process, but he believes that the approach should be different, and he is now acting in a private capacity to advance his own Initiative for the Middle East, he told the association last Friday.
Blair, who was on his 147th visit to Israel since becoming the envoy of the Quartet, had essentially come to speak at the annual Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv, but made it his business to come the following day to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the association traditionally hosts such meetings.
The peace process remains fundamental to the region, said Blair, adding that he continues to believe that the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of two states. He doubted that a binational state would be acceptable to either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
The conventional strategy to attain peace has suffered setbacks, said Blair, suggesting that Israel and the Palestinians give up on the conventional approach.
From his own close connections with the Palestinians, Blair is convinced that there is still a deep-rooted desire for peace and that the objective is still there, but that there is a sense of disillusionment. In his view a regional approach to attain a two-state solution would be more credible.
Involving the region in reviving the peace process and taking the Arab initiative as a framework would be a more sensible approach, he said.
Blair also emphasized the importance of changing facts on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank to improve people’s lives. Changes for economic purposes would also have political implications, he said, stressing that economic development would give people a sense that the establishment of a Palestinian state is a reality, but that this can come about only through a political process.
“Economics only works if politics works,” said Blair. “You’ll never have economic peace without the political process.”
He acknowledged that it would be difficult for a peace agreement to be reached without the unity of Palestinian politics and declared that Fatah reconciliation with Hamas must be on the basis of promoting peace. The reconciliation process will be easier if the region is involved, he said. So many positive things could happen in the region if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved, generating hope instead of despair, Blair asserted.
Blair’s regional plan, while involving Hamas, does not include Iran.
“Iran’s policy toward Israel is one of such hostility that it’s hard to see how they can play a role in the peace process and bring about a two-state solution,” he said, unable to imagine Iran doing anything constructive in this respect.
As for the rest of the region, Blair advocated broadening the regional dialogue, saying that because of the turmoil in the region, and because so many states in the region are fighting extremism, a broad-based regional dialogue is easier today than it was before.
Even the issue of Jerusalem can be dealt with effectively, if the right political climate is created, he opined.
But Jerusalem, he noted, is part of the final-status agreement, and what is of greater urgency at the moment is a united effort in fighting Islamic State, which is “brutalizing, terrorizing and murdering people” and has headquartered itself in Syria as a result of the vacuum left by non-intervention in the Syrian conflict, said Blair. It is in the interests of the whole world if Islamic State and similar groups are fought against in an allied effort, he said. “It’s not just our duty to fight this. It’s in our interests.”
While now his own man in working toward Middle East peace, Blair will raise funds for the purpose in the same way as he raises funds for various charities with which he is associated. Over the years he has built up relationships in the region, he said, and since leaving the Quartet, it has been easier for him to have conversations which are much more frank than when he was the representative of the Quartet.
“I feel more liberated,” he said.
■ BLAIR WAS accompanied by his media and political adviser Karen Kaufman, who held that role during his last 18 months as Quartet envoy, and has remained with him in his new Initiative for the Middle East. Prior to working with him, she spent just over a year as director of international relations for Israel’s Association of Civil Rights, and before that was for seven years spokeswoman for, and media adviser to, the British government in Israel, reporting directly to the ambassador.
■ IT WAS to be expected that former president and prime minister Shimon Peres, who is arguably Israel’s foremost Francophile, would participate in the solidarity rally to honor the memories of the victims of last Friday’s terrorist attacks in the heart of Paris.
Peres has in recent weeks been occupied with personal and public tragedies: He was one of the speakers at the initial commemoration in the series of events marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. A week later he was among those who delivered eulogies at the funeral of his very dear friend and colleague Yitzhak Navon; and almost a week after that was among the speakers who congregated in Rabin Square to speak out against the bestial cruelty of terrorism.
The nations of the world must put aside their differences and unite in the war against terrorism, he said after the rally. Anyone who says that terrorism cannot be conquered is wrong. It can be conquered with a united effort. At the rally itself, Peres, speaking in French, said France will remain great as ever.
Patrick Maisonnave, the ambassador of France, has said on several occasions in recent days that he is heartened by the outpouring of sympathy, solidarity and support on the part of Israelis. He witnessed it yet again on Monday, when he attended a luncheon at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, hosted by Danish Ambassador Jesper Vahr.
Denmark is NATO’s Contact Point Embassy in Israel till the end of 2016, having taken over from Italy in January this year. Guest of honor at the luncheon was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Israel is a member of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue.
The luncheon was attended by ambassadors of NATO countries who are stationed in Israel, including United States Ambassador Dan Shapiro. All those present observed a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the barbaric terrorist attacks in Paris. During the luncheon, they discussed common security challenges and NATO-Israel cooperation.
■ FOR SOME of the ambassadors at the NATO luncheon, it was not only a long day in Jerusalem but also a long day at the King David, as several of them had attended a breakfast meeting in the morning with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, hosted by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
Among the ambassadors who had journeyed from Udim, Herzliya Pituah and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem early in the morning were Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the head of the delegation of the European Union, Croatia’s Pjer Simunovic, Serbia’s Milutin Stanojevic, Poland’s Jacek Chodorowicz, Malta’s Simon Pullicino, Slovakia’s Peter Hulenyi and Slovenia’s Barbara Susnik. Obviously, Hungarian Ambassador Andor Nagy was also present, as was Ambassador to Hungary Ilan Mor.
Szijjártó went around the large head table shaking hands with everyone, which is not always the habit of visiting dignitaries, and then he went to meet various Hungarian expatriates in the room. In his address, he was amazingly frank and disdainful of political correctness, which many of those who heard him pronounced to be refreshing.
■ SEVERAL OF the above-mentioned will be back in Jerusalem on Wednesday, this time at the Waldorf Astoria, for the annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference.
The keynote speaker is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who – following his visit to Washington last week and his joining forces with France and other countries of the free world in condemning the brutality of terrorist organizations in general, and the barbarous act of terrorism that took 132 lives in Paris last Friday night – is bound to have a lot of pertinent things to say.
Netanyahu, who will interviewed by the paper’s political correspondent Herb Keinon, who was with the prime minister in Washington, and has traveled with him extensively, has always been a captivating speaker, but with the world in such chaos, and with Israel living in what is widely considered to be a very dangerous neighborhood, Netanyahu is bound to be even more eloquent and possibly more passionate than usual.
Three diplomats will be among the speakers.
Given Israel’s relations with the United States and the European Union, it goes without saying that Shapiro and Faaborg-Andersen would be invited to address the conference.
But in view of the fact that Israel identifies so strongly with what France is experiencing, it was only natural that Maisonnave should also be invited to speak.
The Jerusalem Post, since its inception in December, 1932, has reached out to the world by virtue of the fact that it is published in one of the most widely known of languages.
For almost 83 years, it has informed readers of what is happening in this region and simultaneously informed English-language readers in Israel of what is happening around the globe. In a digital age it reaches out around the globe in real time, something that is particularly appreciated by people interested in Israeli politics, economics, environmental issues and religious affairs involving one or all of the three monotheistic faiths.
■ WHAT MIGHT have been a national scandal was narrowly averted by an eleventh- hour decision for a two-hour break during Wednesday’s Knesset vote on the budget. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein had initially ordered all MKs to be present during the voting and the raising of objections.
This would have meant that Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog as well as several MKs would have been unable to attend the annual memorial ceremony in Sde Boker for founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, leaving only Israel’s ninth and 10th presidents, Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin, to pay their respects.
The first-time absence of a sitting prime minister and of the leader of the Labor Party would have cast an indelible stain on national values.
■ AT A time when Israel’s tourist industry is hurting, all signs of solidarity from abroad are doubly welcome. Among those visitors who did not hesitate to come is a 10th-anniversary, 22-member Mitzva Mission led by Rabbi Craig Scheff from the Orangetown Jewish Center in Rockland County, New York.
Scheff, a lawyer-turned-rabbi of a Conservative congregation that is involved in an extensive variety of social, charitable, educational and outreach programs, has brought a group of congregants to Israel every year for the past decade, and is celebrating the 10th anniversary of bringing Orangetown Mitzvah Missions to Israel.
Rather than simply tour, the group takes on projects aimed at making a hands-on contribution to Israel and strengthening people- to-people contacts. This time around the itinerary included Kfar Ahava, a foster village or mishpahton, as it is known in Hebrew. The village, in Kiryat Bialik, just outside of Haifa, has 20 families with 13 children per family, some of them the biological children of the parents, plus others from dysfunctional backgrounds who are in foster care, but who are given a sense of belonging at Kfar Ahava, the village of love.
The group has also engaged in a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund project and spent time working with Gan Felicia, a nursery for children of refugees and foreign workers in south Tel Aviv.
There is one ring-in – Simone Wilker, who is not from Orangetown but from Bergen County, New Jersey, where she is a member of Temple Emanuel in the Pascack Valley.
Bergen County borders Rockland County, where Wilker’s sons attended the Solomon Schechter School, so she is familiar with the community and has many friends there.
She happened to be sitting next to Scheff at dinner during a meeting of the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, and he told her about the mission. She has a son living in Israel, so the mission was an opportunity to see him. Even though she’s been to Israel many times, she is enjoying being with people who are extremely upbeat in their attitudes toward Israel, and who feel privileged to be able to help in any way possible.
Widowed just over a year ago, Wilker was looking to do something useful, and Scheff provided the opportunity for her to do that in a warm social milieu in which everyone is on an emotional high.
■ FOR THE partners and spouses of diplomats to learn about the countries in which they are temporary residents is no less important than it is for the diplomats themselves. Very often, the spouses can have more in-depth experiences, because they are not pressured for time, and because their focus is wide-ranging rather than limited to the type of information that has to be conveyed to ministries of foreign affairs back home.
The Diplomatic Spouses Club, currently headed by Julie Fisher, the wife of the US ambassador, has 150 members, of whom some 70 last month attended the monthly lecture series headlined “The Journey to Israel: Stories of Survival.” The event, hosted by Fisher at the US residence in Herzliya Pituah, featured Hugo Marom and Yael Artsi. The spouses were fascinated by their remarkable tales of escaping from Czechoslovakia and Morocco.
Marom was born in Czechoslovakia to a family of five. When the war broke out, his parents contacted the kindertransport and Nicholas Winton (who many years later rose to fame) and arranged for Hugo and his brother to escape to England. When the war was over, Hugo returned to Czechoslovakia and attended university in Brno. He then moved to Israel where in 1948 he fought in the War of Independence.
The spouses regarded it as a special privilege to personally meet with one of the last remaining survivors of the kindertransport.
Marom is considered to be one of Israel’s most knowledgeable experts on Israel-Czech relations, and several diplomatic spouses from the Embassy of the Czech Republic, including the ambassador’s wife, Eva Schwarzova, made it their business to attend.
Yael Artsi was born in Morocco and moved to Israel at the age of 22, settling in Kibbutz Sdot Yam. While in Morocco, she risked her life to help others make the dangerous journey to freedom. After escaping Morocco herself, Artsi went on to become a sculptor of international renown, and her artwork is now on display around the world. One of her most famous pieces sits in Rabin Square, and she designed the Peace Sculpture Garden in Eilat.
■ THE CENTER Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel (COHSI) – an umbrella for 54 Holocaust survivor organizations, which is headed by former diplomat and former Knesset member Colette Avital – recently received the Tikkun Olam award from the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project. It is not widely known that during the Second World War, Haiti provided a haven for close to 300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The project is the brainchild of Bill and Harriet Mohr from the San Francisco Bay Area.
A child Holocaust survivor, Bill Mohr is a retired Hewlett-Packard manager who spent 10 months in Haiti when he was four years old, prior to immigrating to the United States. He became interested in his family’s wartime history when he joined the planning committee for a reunion of people born in, or descendants of Jews from, Furth-Nuremberg.
His interest in reconnecting with his past was enhanced when he saw television coverage of Israelis in Haiti bringing medical aid to the Haitian population following the devastating earthquake. It struck him how interesting it was that Haiti had shown compassion for desperate Jews, and 70 years later Israelis were repaying that kindness.
He and his wife wanted to make people more aware of Haiti’s role during the Holocaust, and thus the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project was born, and with it the Tikkun Olam prize, which was awarded to Avital, who is also a child Holocaust survivor, and to Avi Rosenthal, the CEO of COHSI.
Last week, on the eve of Kristallnacht, COHSI was also among recipients of Awards of Light citations from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel which is headed by former culture and sport minister Limor Livnat. The award ceremony at the Knesset was also attended by MK Avi Dichter, the former chairman of the foundation, who is the son of Holocaust survivors.
■ IN THE forefront of Israel’s humanitarian assistance to Haiti was IsraAID, which is hosting a conference on “Can Haiti Grow? Haiti and Israel – Partners in Recovery and Development,” at which speakers will include former prime minister of Haiti Laurent Lamothe and world-acclaimed actor, director and social activist Sean Penn. The conference, to be held at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv on November 30, will address key issues concerning Israeli humanitarian response in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and will examine where Haiti is today.
■ WHAT MAKES literature Jewish? Is it the ethnic or religious affiliation of the writer? Is it the subject matter? Is it both? Or, for that matter, is it the language? Is literature written in Yiddish or Hebrew Jewish by definition? These and other questions will be raised next week at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Beit Avi Chai, and Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem at Kisufim, The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets, which will bring together authors, poets, publishers and intellectuals from Israel and around the globe on a fourday multilingual expedition into identity and otherness, with an emphasis on the significance of Jewish culture in Jewish life.
The meeting of the minds and on the page will bring together what might be construed as a literary melting pot, but for the fact that each of the writers has his or her individual styles, techniques and themes, and not all of them have a common thread or language.
Among the participants who will initially come together on November 23 are Israeli writers Haim Be’er, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and Sami Michael, along with visiting writers Jennifer Barber and Marcia Falk (USA), Michel Eckhard Elial (France), Gabi Gleichmann (Hungary-Sweden-Norway), Ilya Kaminsky (FSU-USA), Kari Klemel (Finland), Myriam Moscona (Mexico), Tomislav Osmanli (Macedonia), Mehmet Yashin (Cyprus-Turkey) and Galina Zelenina (Russia).
During the four days of the conference, there will be workshops, discussions on many Jewish-oriented subjects, as well as public readings of poetry and prose and presentations of awards. After all, for a writer, there is no higher accolade than being recognized in the presence of other writers, some of whose works have become international best-sellers.
It’s a polyglot conference with discussions and workshops in Russian, English, Spanish, Hungarian, French, Serbian, Romanian, Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Arabic, Ladino and Yiddish. Hava Pinhas-Cohen, the founder and artistic director of Kisufim, will certainly have her hands full.
One of the more interesting events for Yiddishists will be Yiddish Now on November 25, with readings of contemporary Yiddish writings. For close to 70 years now, Yiddish has been considered a dead language. But it hasn’t expired yet, and is still a vehicle for creativity.
■ ALTHOUGH IN liquidation, the Israel Broadcasting Authority proved last weekend that despite depleted staff and budget, it can still rise to the challenge of presenting news as it happens, not only by reporting but by interviewing relevant political and military experts, witnesses, etc., with regard to the game-changing terrorist attacks in the heart of Paris last Friday night.
The IBA instantly shelved most of its scheduled programs and maintained open-wave broadcasts to keep viewers and listeners abreast of developments and reactions in France, in Europe and around the world.
Although Israel Radio’s Pe’erli Shahar could not refrain from interrupting seasoned broadcasting, military and political experts such as Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai, by putting in her own two bits or asking inane questions, Amir Ivgi on Channel 1, while obviously empathetic, was businesslike, thoroughly professional and comprehensive in the nature of the interviews that he conducted.
Ya’akov Eilon, the former star news presenter of Channel 10 and before that of Channel 2, whose appointment as the key presenter of Mabat News was announced last December, was not part of the weekend broadcast team.
When he joined the IBA, he replaced Ivgi and Ivgi’s co-presenter Merav Miller, each of who occasionally anchored the news when Eilon was not available. While Eilon uses gimmickry such as the raised eyebrow or the leaning into the camera, Ivgi simply sits up straight and tells it as it is and, unlike Eilon, is not dismissive when he concludes an interview. Ivgi has been badly treated by the IBA over the years, but has not allowed this to interfere with his attitude to the job.
He spent much more time on air on Saturday evening than he would normally do on Mabat, reporting and juggling interviews.
One would have thought that under the circumstances, Eilon would have been called in to help – but apparently he wasn’t needed.