03/31/2009, 00.00
ISRAEL – VATICAN
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Netanyahu, peace problems and the Pope’s visit

by Arieh Cohen
Israel’s new government, which takes offices today, is raising fears and concerns among Christians over entry visas and among average Israelis over relations with Iran and the Palestinians. The “peace process” seems now dead in the water. In May Benedict XVI will visit a land that appears to be sliding ever more into desperation and war.
Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – Israel’s new government led by Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to take office this afternoon. For the Church, one fact in particular stands out about the new Israeli Government to be headed by Binyamin Netanyahu: The fundamentalist party Shas will once more control the Interior Ministry. Last time a Shas member was the Interior Minister, earlier this decade, there was a complete cessation of the issuance and renewal of entry and residence permits, “visas”, to Church personnel.

Visas for Church personnel

It took a very great deal of heavy international pressure to induce the Ministry to start issuing such visas once more, and when it did, it was on noticeably worse terms than ever before. Meanwhile scores of priests and men and women religious were reduced to the status of  “illegal aliens”, several were stopped in the street by immigration police, and none could risk leaving the country, for whatever reason, for fear they might not be allowed back in. The “visa” question, a series of difficulties and recurrent “crises” has never actually been properly resolved, and now there is concern in ecclesiastical circles that it may become, once again, even more acute. The hope is, of course, that this will not actually happen, and that instead the issue will be settled by an agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel. Such agreement has been on the agenda of negotiators for the two sides since their 1993 Fundamental Agreement, but other issues have had to be dealt with first.

Israelis too, especially the well-educated and the more secular Israelis (the “elites”, as they are called by right-wing populists) are welcoming the new government with expressions of worry and not much expectation of progress on peace with Israel’s neighbours, particularly the Palestinians. Incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu has famously refused to speak of a Palestinian State, even as a long-term goal, let alone as a subject of actual peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This is why Israel’s largest party, Kadimah, the party of outgoing Prime Minister Olmert and outgoing Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, has declined his invitation to join the governing coalition. Olmert and  Livni have been speaking for some time now of the need to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories which began in 1967.

War or peace with Iran

Surprisingly, the once-dominant and now much-reduced Labour party (only 13 out of 120 members of parliament) has nonetheless joined Netanyahu’s coalition. The unnatural alliance between this social democratic party and the right wing parties, which form the rest of the new governing coalition, has been the subject of much comment, perplexity and even deploration. Yet the presence of Labour’s ministers, alongside those of the extreme right and the fundamentalists,  is also reassuring. The expectation is that they will be able to prevent the worst excesses that the ultra-nationalist and fundamentalist elements of the government might otherwise be capable of.

To many in Israel it is particularly reassuring that Labour’s leader, Ehud Barak, will continue to be at the head of the powerful Defence Ministry. This is especially so since many are saying that the most crucial task of the new government will be to decide what, if anything, to do about the perceived threat from Iran. The chief of military intelligence has recently warned that Iran would be able to build an atomic weapon within a year, and all Israelis, whether left or right wing, religious or secular, are extremely anxious about this prospect. There is wide-spread disgust with the insufficient determination of the West to prevent Iran’s military nuclearisation by effective sanctions. More and more is it being said that Israel will now be facing the terrible choice between simply resigning itself to living henceforth in the shadow of a nuclear threat from a country that is publicly committed to the annihilation of the Jewish State – or taking direct military action to neutralise Iran’s military nuclear capacity, with unforeseeable and possibly devastating retaliatory consequences to Israel itself.  Labour party advocates of joining the government – and of ensuring General Barak’s place at the head of the Defence Ministry – have made much use of the argument that Israelis will feel much safer that way than if Netanyahu were left to his own devices. Israelis well remember Mr. Netanyahu’s worrying handling of national security matters when he was last the head of the government (1996-1999). It was then, for example, that he gave the order to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mesh’al in the streets of Amman, the capital of a friendly Arab State (Jordan), and then, when the assassination was botched, Mr. Netanyahu panicked at the reaction of King Hussein. Netanyahu went out of  his way to appease the King: First Netanyahu sent to Amman the antidote to the poison injected by the failed agents into the body of Mr. Mesh’al, saving his life to continue to direct terrorism against Israelis; then he freed from prison the founder and ideologue of Hamas, Ahmad Yassin, who used his freedom to preside over even more terrorism against Israeli civilians. A failure of judgement in the matter of attacking (or not attacking) Iran could of course be much costlier, and Israelis will be less nervous about such a possibility with Mr. Barak in the government as Defence Minister. Or so the argument is being made.

Mr. Netanyahu is well aware of his image-problems at home and abroad, and has been working hard to deal with them. Bringing Labour into his government is an important part of his efforts. So is his talk of improving the daily lives of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, under the heading of “economic peace” (without political freedom). But he is certainly not helped by his choice as foreign minister, Mr. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a largely secular nationalist party, Israel Beiteinu,  notorious for his extreme rhetoric against Israel’s Arab minority, and for aggressive statements about Egypt and its President Hosni Mubarak.

It is not certain though how long Mr. Liebermann will be able to remain at the foreign ministry. He is the subject of several police investigations on suspicion of corruption and money-laundering, and may well have to face criminal charges within weeks, or so the press reports.

Benedict XVI’s visit

The feeling in Israel is that the season of actively seeking peace, the “peace process”, which was inaugurated by the 1993 “Oslo accords” is now definitively over. This is reinforced by the renewed prospects, on the Palestinian side, of “reconciliation” between President Abu Mazen’s Fatah movement and the Hamas organisation, which rejects the “Oslo agreements” and with them, the possibility or desirability of a definitive peace with Israel.

This is the context in which the Holy Land is awaiting the arrival, in May, of Pope Benedict XVI. In 2000 John Paul II came into a Land that was believed to be on the cusp of a definitive end to the bloody conflict between  the two Nations that call it home. Then was a time of great hope and high expectations. Very little of that remains. Yet precisely in this present time of disillusionment and anxiety, the Pope’s witness to Him Who is our Peace is surely more urgently necessary than ever.

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