Akiva Eldar
October 6, 2009 - 12:00am

One minute they were getting ready at the City of David complex and the next, the prime minister was not coming. Maybe the American rescue over the Goldstone report had a price Last Wednesday passersby noticed considerable bustle on the outskirts of Silwan at the foot of the Old City walls in Jerusalem. Security guards were prowling hither and yon and workers were there was lot of business with tables. A sign announced the City of David would be closing. A rumor spread that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be coming soon with people from his bureau to have a peek at the new tunnel excavated between the edges of the Palestinian neighborhood and the Temple Mount / Haram al Sharif.

What could be more suitable for the Days of Awe than some nice Jewish team building in the shadow of the rock of our existence, the Dome of the Rock?

Journalists who tried to find out what was happening from the Prime Minister's Bureau were answered with a denial - "there is no basis to the rumors to the effect that the prime minister was going to dedicate a tunnel in Silwan."

However, the statement had a continuation: Netanyahu might be coming to a bureau staff event in the City of David. (The Prime Minister's Bureau, like most Israelis, has grown so accustomed to the name "City of David," it has apparently forgotten this is only the name the Elad settlers' association stuck onto a Palestinian neighborhood that Israel annexed 42 years ago).

What the statement didn't state was that a report of the planned presence at the volatile site reached Washington, and the order came to cancel the event with lighting speed. The security guards decamped, the tables were folded and (relative) quiet returned.

The sequence of events between the time the site was being prepared for the prime minister's visit and the folding up of the tables is an example of the folding of a certain person who believed he put one over on United States President Barack Obama.

It turns out that the rescue operation from the Goldstone report has a price. Obama's relinquishing of the demand for a total settlement freeze has also been inscribed in the presidential ledger.

A senior person from the National Security Council at the White House recently told Jewish leaders that Obama had mustered all his charm to convince Arab leaders to offer Netanyahu a series of gestures.

It all ended, said the official, when the prime minister decided to approve construction of 450 housing units in the West Bank. The president, to put it mildly, was not amused.

An opinion piece by Ziad Asali in Arab News, the most widely distributed English newspaper in the Middle East, reflects the mood in Washington, despite the trumpet blasts of victory from Netanyahu's people after the New York summit. Asali, head of the Palestinian-American peace organization called the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote that Netanyahu won in the skirmish over the freeze but lost in the big war over peace.

The United Nations General Assembly took note that another American president was saying the settlements are not legitimate, and that the time has come to end the occupation begun in 1967.

The happenings in Silwan show that the carrots Netanyahu is getting from Obama can easily turn into sticks. After the relinquishing of the freeze, the Arab pressure in the matter of normalization, the rescue from the Goldstone report and the toughness vis-a-vis Iran, who will dare wave Obama's middle name at him?

On the Way to the Third World

A new non-profit organization called Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality is trying to take over the spot the politicians have abandoned. Its founders, Rabbi Uri Regev and Stanley Gold, have launched a public campaign against the yeshiva industry. Gold, the president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings (the Roy Disney family's private investment company) warns that if there is no significant improvement in ultra-Orthodox participation in the workforce here and drastic changes are not introduced into the curriculum of the ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, the Israeli economy will degenerate within the next 10 years to the level of the Third World. He defines the situation as a "strategic danger."

Gold accuses the secular politicians of mortgaging the future of the Jewish state for the sake of easy political gains.

In a public opinion poll conducted for Hiddush by the Smith Institute (on a sample of 1,200 from the adult Jewish population), it emerged that a decisive majority of the Jewish public is opposed to the politicians' stance: 71 percent of the public support decreasing government funding for yeshivas and families with many children so as to get ultra-Orthodox men into the job market.

When the respondents were made aware that in London and New York, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men go out to work, the proportion of support for cutting such funding rose to 75 percent. A large majority (84 percent) oppose exemption from military service for yeshiva students. Of these respondents, 31 percent believe that all yeshiva students should be conscripted to regular military service and 31 percent suggest obliging yeshiva students to do national service.

The survey reveals the Jewish public here is more pluralist than its leaders; the vast majority is not satisfied with the monopoly the political establishment has granted the ultra-Orthodox; 83 percent believe freedom of religion and conscience should prevail in Israel (94 percent of the secular respondents and two-thirds of the religious public, as compared to 53 percent of the ultra-Orthodox public, who opposed pluralism in the area of religion and conscience).

Two-thirds of the respondents support instituting civil marriage in Israel and/or Reform and Conservative marriage. Fifty-three percent of the Jewish public (74 percent of the secular respondents but only 47 perrcet of the immigrants) support allowing the possibility of same- sex marriage or civil unions.

And to dispel any doubt among politicians who have become accustomed to courting ultra-Orthodox party hacks, the survey showed 43 percent of the Jewish voters promise that a party actively promoting issues of religious freedom has a better chance winning their vote.

The survey found that tension between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews is the second most important tension in Israeli society after the tension between Jews and Arabs.

Amos Oz has a different ranking. In an online lecture for the launch of Hiddush, the author said that "the prime struggle in Israeli society now ... [is] the struggle between tolerance, open-mindedness and pluralism on the one hand and fanaticism and hatred on the other."

Oz found a warning sign of this in Deputy Prime Minister Ya'alon's "virus speech." Oz recently told an audience of 100 American rabbis (of all stripes) that we all remember under what nauseating regime human beings were defined as viruses.


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