My Word: Burning issues in the Biden era

The size of the job awaiting Biden will only become apparent once he is safely ensconced and working in the Oval Office.

A supporter holds figures of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris outside a barrier in front of the US Capitol in Washington on January 20. (photo credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)
A supporter holds figures of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris outside a barrier in front of the US Capitol in Washington on January 20.
(photo credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)
“Politics is like a wheel; sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. The main thing is to stay on the wheel,” the late Ariel Sharon used to say. It’s as inextricably identified with him as a second well-publicized quote from a Yehudit Ravitz song, first attributed to him when he became prime minister: “Dvarim she’roim misham, lo roim mikan,” “Things you see from there, you don’t see from here.”
The combination of the end of the presidency of Donald Trump in the US and yet another election cycle in Israel brought the image and song back to mind. Joe Biden is no stranger to the pressures of the White House, but one assumes he will also find things have changed since he served as vice president four tumultuous years ago.
I’m wondering whether politics is less of a wheel and more of a pendulum, one that seems to have been swinging from one side to the other with no middle ground.
Biden’s speech, naturally, included a tribute to democracy and a call for unity, inclusiveness, and healing in every sense. The size of the job awaiting Biden (and US Vice President Kamala Harris) will only become apparent once he is safely ensconced and working in the Oval Office.
It was something that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that continued to reverberate with me. Pelosi, urging Republican lawmakers to support ousting the president from office following the storming of the Capitol by extremist Trump supporters, chose to quote an Israeli poet. Justifiably praising the late Ehud Manor, she recited some lines from a perennial favorite song “Ein Li Eretz Aheret” (“I Have No Other Land”).
“I can’t keep silent in light of how my country has changed her face, won’t quit trying to remind her. In her ears, I’ll sing my cries until she opens her eyes,” she read out. But different lines came to my mind.
This was not the first time Pelosi has quoted Manor and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about this poem. The first time I discussed it was March 2008 when I noted the opening lines that Pelosi ignored: “Ein li eretz aheret, gam im admati bo’eret,” “I have no other country, even if the ground is burning.”
I was writing after a Hamas terrorist opened fire on in the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, killing eight people, all but one of them teenagers. A few days earlier, two IDF soldiers were killed during an operation in the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping escalating rocket attacks.
The song is a tribute to Manor’s brother, Yehuda, who fell in the War of Attrition in 1968. He wrote it in 1982 at the start of what was to become the First Lebanon War, but it was only released in 1986. Corinne Allal composed the music and performed one version although it ultimately gained popularity only after Gali Atari recorded it. The song – a piece of social history in its own right – was initially considered an anti-war anthem, but gradually it was adopted across the political spectrum.
This week while the world’s eyes were on America, more rockets were fired from Gaza in the direction of southern Israel. Yet again, I wondered how many rockets are considered acceptable? What you see from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem is not what is seen from the White House in Washington DC, to paraphrase Sharon and Ravitz.
I was reminded of US president Barack Obama’s first acceptance speech in November 2008. In the middle of coverage of the historic moment of the US electing its first black president, Israel Television suddenly switched to report on an operation in Gaza, uncovering a terrorists’ tunnel. Boom. Gone were the scenes of jubilation in what was meant to be a more-than-ever-United States.
This was our reality where the question was not the color of Obama’s skin but his unknown future policies in the Middle East. By the time of his inauguration in January 2009, the rocket fire from Gaza had increased so much that Israel had been forced to go to war. Operation Cast Lead took place between December 27 and January 17. But it’s hard to say that it was over when Obama came into office, being hailed as a savior of sorts.
In January 2009, Israel was also deep in another election cycle, and I mused with a friend in the US about how the topics here and there differed. I noted, however, that Obama faced the challenges of an economic meltdown and the global threat of terrorism.
Watching his inaugural speech, I didn’t at the time think Obama would put the Israeli-Palestinian issues close to the top of his agenda. The same is now being said of Biden.
Faced with the social and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic and the tensions following Trump’s term in office and defeat, Biden has other things on his mind. Nonetheless, the role of a rapidly nuclearizing Iran, supporting the terrorists in places ranging from Gaza, the Gulf, Lebanon and Yemen, is probably right up there.
There is a paradox for Israelis at the end of the Trump era. Clearly he was a divisive personality who split the US and created domestic instability. Yet, in the Middle East he achieved what many didn’t think possible – Israel signed four agreements with Arab countries: The Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and treaties normalizing relations with Morocco and Sudan.
Trump also avoided determining policy according to the demands of the Palestinians to be recognized both as perpetual refugees and having their own state. PA head Mahmoud Abbas this month announced that he would (finally) hold elections. Don’t hold your breath. Stunningly, he is now in the 16th year of a four-year term.
Buoyed by Biden’s ascent and Trump’s defeat, Abbas and his supporters in the EU and UN are already putting pressure on a return to tying the fate of the Middle East with Palestinian whims. Just this week, the EU denounced plans to build in the Jewish neighborhood of Givat Hamatos in Jerusalem. (They never object to the plans to expand a nearby Arab neighborhood.)
Biden won’t return the US Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Israel is assured. But let’s see whether he reopens a consulate for Palestinians in east Jerusalem rather than locating it in a clearly Palestinian city such as Ramallah.
The ongoing rocket attacks are a reminder that Sharon’s decision to withdraw all Israeli forces from Gaza and uproot every Jewish community there did not solve the country’s security problems. On the contrary.
THIS WEEK marks 30 years since the start of the First Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein launched rockets on America’s ally, Israel – while Palestinians celebrated from the rooftops. Israel hasn’t forgotten that – and neither have the Gulf states. For all the talk of solidarity with their brethren, the memory of Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait is not easy – or wise – to erase.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir acquiesced to calls by US president George H.W. Bush for “restraint,” an act which was praised by the Americans and perceived as weak by Israel’s many enemies. Looking back, it was Menachem Begin’s decision in 1981 to bomb the Iraqi nascent nuclear reactor that made Israel safer during the Gulf War rather than Shamir’s restraint.
Thirty years – and thousands of rockets later – I faced a very Israeli dilemma when choosing a topic for this week’s column. The Gulf War anniversary on January 17; the US presidential inauguration on January 20; International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is commemorated on January 27 and Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, which starts at sundown that night – all were worthy topics.
Under the circumstances, through the ups and downs, it seems fitting to give Manor the last words. The lyrics are open to interpretation, yet there is an infallible truth in the refrain: “Kan hu beiti” “Here is my home.”
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