Monday 31 October 2011

Why Should Israel Help Fatah?

The prisoner swap deal which saw Gilad Shalit released, played right into the hands of Hamas.  The prisoners who were released, as well as those set for release in the second stage of the deal, are names given by Hamas.  At least for now, Hamas has gained public relations points in the Palestinian world.  The organisation has shown itself to be able to stand up to Israel, and to extract value for the Palestinian street despite Israel’s statements that this would never happen.  At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party has achieved a resounding failure.  Abbas returned from his visit to the United Nations empty-handed following his application to the UN to admit Palestine as a full member.  This situation has brought some Israelis to call for a “gesture” to Fatah, to try to dilute the way in which Hamas has been strengthened by these events.

For some time now, Israel has been playing a game of trying to weaken Hamas by strengthening Fatah.  Throughout the time that Mahmoud Abbas has been president, and even dating back to the days when Yasser Arafat held the position, Israel has been taking steps to promote Fatah’s interests in order to help its standing amongst Palestinians whose loyalties are split between Fatah and Hamas.  The reason for this is that Fatah has demonstrated itself to be more willing to enter into a dialogue with Israel, interpreted by Israel to mean it represents a possibility that it may reach a negotiated peace agreement.  Hamas, on the other hand, has remained steadfast in its objectives of trying to destroy Israel, and not agreeing to negotiate.  As ironic as it may seem, Fatah is simply the better of the two evils, and hence Israel’s attempts to promote its cause.

Despite the fact that it has tried to present itself as a genuine political party, Fatah has never really given up on its terror activities, even while continuing to sit at the negotiating table.  This was particularly true in the days of Yasser Arafat, who lied unashamedly about giving up on violence with Israel while continuing to orchestrate terror activities in the background.  Abbas has seemed more serious about foregoing the terror route, but has still not completely given up on this or eradicated it from his people and the territory under his control.  The fact that Hamas has never agreed to forego violence against Israel has presented greater appeal to the Palestinians.  Hamas’s strategy is to escalate violence against Israel and never agree to recognise or negotiate with the government of the Jewish state, until it achieves the destruction of the State of Israel.

Israel’s response to this situation has been to continue trying to negotiate with Fatah in order to try to extract greater security for Israelis, while responding to Hamas’s violence and terror using military solutions.  It is in Israel’s interest that the Palestinian street will embrace the route of negotiations and support Fatah, while rejecting the route of violence pursued by Hamas.  It is for this reason that Israel has been trying to prop up support for Fatah over the years by allowing it to show fruits for its strategy of negotiating with Israel.  Negotiations are long-winded affairs (especially in the Middle East), and show few results along the way.  This has proved to be tiresome for the Palestinians, who are eager to see instant results or some evidence of the fact that their chosen route has short-term advantages.  The Hamas-led campaign of violence has succeeded in bringing this to the people in a much more blatant way.  Palestinians have rejoiced to see rockets destroying Israeli homes and threatening Israeli lives.  The perceived success of standing up to the might of the IDF has been a rallying force for Palestinians.  The fact that Fatah succeeded in opening a road or removing an Israeli checkpoint after a lengthy negotiation, seems somehow less exciting and not the same level of achievement.  To counter this perception, Israel has acted to release Fatah prisoners remain incarcerated in Israeli jails to so that it can be associated with benefits of negotiations.

With Hamas’s standing on the up and up after its success in securing the release of hundreds of its prisoners as part of the exchange for Gilad Shalit, there are those who feel that these events could serve to alienate Fatah and reduce its standing amongst Palestinians.  Some Israeli politicians have called for a release of Fatah prisoners as a gesture to Mahmoud Abbas to try to redress the situation.  Abbas himself, desperate for any success he can lay his hands on, has mentioned the fact that former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered a release of Fatah prisoners in the event that Gilad Shalit was released.  Olmert has confirmed this verbal undertaking, although I suspect that the promise was made on the basis of the expectation that Abbas would actually do something to help to secure Gilad’s release.

In truth, I do not understand why Israel would choose to release Fatah prisoners at this stage.  At the time that the final details for Gilad’s release were being negotiated, Abbas was at the UN in New York seeking full membership for the Palestinians.  This action by Abbas served to undermine the entire notion of a negotiated settlement.  Abbas’s tactic is to get a seat in the UN, and then approach the UN to grant him and his people an independent homeland.  If he succeeds, he will achieve this without having to make any concessions that are inherent in a negotiated deal with Israel.  This is surely a massive snub to Israel’s efforts to help Fatah over the years.

Now that Gilad has been released and, along with him, hundreds of Hamas prisoners, Abbas is feeling left out and alienated.  The problem is that he is responsible, at least in part, for his own situation.  His continuing refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and to make the required concessions at the negotiating table, and his acts to try to unilaterally declare an independent state have not helped his cause.  They have damaged his standing on the Palestinian street, and with his Israeli counterparts.  There should be no reason in the world for Israel to reward him with a release of prisoners.

Israelis should never be duped into believing that Fatah is a true ally of Israel or a friend the Jewish people.  It just so happens that we have a common enemy, Hamas, which causes us to come together in opposition to the threat that Hamas presents.  As was evidenced by his recent actions at the UN, Abbas will use any opportunity to go behind Israel’s back and pursue his own agenda at Israel’s expense.  The continued refusal by Fatah to remove the clause in their constitution calling for the destruction of the State of Israel is evidence of the fact that Fatah’s true intentions may be concealed to the world, and that it may be playing a double-faced game with Israel.  While continuing to pursue a path that will ultimately bring peace and security to her citizens, Israel is forced to respond with caution and suspicion to everything that Abbas does.

The time has come for Israel to treat Fatah with a great deal more suspicion and contempt.  While it is acknowledged that having a Fatah government in the West Bank is preferable to one controlled by Hamas, this is still not a bed of roses for Israel.  Gestures by Israel to Fatah should be matched by gestures on Fatah’s part to Israel.  This is the only way to ensure that Fatah will value Israeli gestures.  The time for freebies should be over.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Gilad is Finally Home, But the Controversy Rages On

Israel experienced its highest-ever TV ratings over a one day period last week on Tuesday, when captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit finally returned home.  The nation was glued to its TV sets as we watched events unfold over the day, finally culminating in a weak-looking Gilad returning to Israel and to the waiting arms of his family.  He had spent 5 years and 4 months held in captivity by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Representatives from Hamas have made public statements about how well Gilad was treated.  It is claimed that he was well fed during the years of his captivity, and allowed access to media including Israeli TV and radio broadcasts.  Although they have also claimed that he was not subject to torture at their hands, Gilad's father Noam has expressed doubt about this.  He does, however, concur with the Hamas statements that Gilad was treated better in the latter years of his captivity.  Noam's comments allow us to believe that the first years were not easy, and may well have included torture.  The facts on the day of the prisoner transfer, however, speak for themselves.  It was difficult not to notice the stark difference in the conditions of the 477 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel, when compared to that of Gilad.  The Palestinian prisoners looked well-fed and physically in good health as they sat on buses and smoked while waiting for the exchange deal to proceed.  They had been granted access to members of their family and international organisations as required by the Geneva Convention.  The same could not be said for Gilad, who walked with difficulty after being kept away from daylight for most of his years in captivity.  Neither his family nor members of the International Committee of the Red Cross were allowed access to him for more than 5 years, despite repeated requests.

As Gilad tries to get to know his family and friends again at his home in Mitzpe Hila, the debate rages through the pages of the Israeli press and around the world about whether the prisoner exchange deal that secured his release was justified.  With 477 Palestinian prisoners already released, and a further 550 slated for release in 2 months' time as part of the deal, there are those in Israel who feel that the price paid for the return of just one prisoner was too high.  This view is even further enhanced when considering the crimes committed by those who have been set free.  The list of released prisoners includes murderers and terrorists who collectively succeeded in killing hundreds of innocent Israelis.  The incidents in which these attacks took place range from the detonation of a bomb in pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem to an explosion at a hotel where thousands celebrated the Passover holiday, and more.  It is perfectly understandable that the family members of the victims of these attacks are suffering anguish as a result of these killers being set free.  There are those who believe that the release of these terrorists, many of whom have vowed to return to their old murderous ways, increases the security risk to Israeli civilians.  There are many naysayers who are literally waiting for the next wave of terror attacks to hit Israel in order to justify their resistance to prisoner exchange deal.  Yet others are opposed to the deal because they believe that it represents capitulation to terrorists, and encourages them to kidnap Israeli soldiers or civilians in the future in order to secure similar deals.  This prisoner exchange agreement, they say, shows a weakness on the part of the Israeli government and her citizens.

Most of the points for and against the exchange deal are fairly well-known, and have enjoyed broad discussion in the Israeli and international press.  There are, however, additional considerations that have come to my mind, and which are perhaps less widely discussed.  The first point is that the concept of a prisoner exchange deal of this nature is not new.  The truth is that Israel has been doing such deals for many years.  The only thing that has differed from one deal to another, are the names and the numbers.  Over the past 30 years, Israel has released some 7,000 Palestinian prisoners and released the remains of many more.  In exchange Israel has received 19 Israelis and the remains of 8 others.  Looking back over the years, I don't believe that this has weakened Israel in any way, or shown that it is capitulating to terrorism.  On the contrary, Israel has increased its defences against terrorists in a variety of different ways to strengthen its opposition to the vile actions taken against innocent civilians.  At times, Israel has employed fairly extreme anti-terror defences, including a policy of targeted killings against those orchestrating terror activities or carrying them out.  This surely demonstrates that Israel is not getting soft on terrorists.  While agreeing to enter into prisoner swaps on the one hand, Israel has shown itself to be extremely tough on terror in many other ways.

Instead of interpreting exchange deals as showing weakness to terrorists, it is my belief that Israel is showing strength by adhering to basic principles and values which are fundamental in the Jewish religion.  These same principles are the same ones that most reasonable people around the world would identify with.  These are the principles of attaching value to the life of each and every citizen of Israel, particularly those who have fallen into captivity during the course of serving in the country's army.  This makes an important and powerful statement, not only to those serving in the army and their families, but also to our enemies.  Often, a strong set of values and principles is more important than military strength.  Armies around the world will tell you that it is tougher to fight against an enemy which has strong fundamental beliefs in its cause and in its values, than an enemy that does not.  This has not gone unnoticed in the Arab press.  A reporter writing in Abu Dhabi's English language Gulf News wrote, "It is not a secret at all that the value of an Arab person in the stock-exchange of Arab regimes is sort of nil ....  Have you ever seen an Arab regime trying to get its captives out of Israeli prisons?  Forget about it.  Most Arab regimes have no problem at all letting their nationals die in Israeli jails."  I believe that such actions do not serve to strengthen a society.  It is my view that this attitude shows greater weakness than being prepared to stay to true to a country's citizens, even if this means having to release terrorists.

Israel has a few weak spots in its history of valuing and securing the release of its citizens held by enemies.  Three soldiers, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were captured by Syrian authorities in their tank in the Golan Heights in 1982.  They have not been heard from since then, and are presumed dead.  No evidence has been produced to support this view, however, and the three are listed as missing in action.  A similar story is the one of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, which captured the attention, imagination and sympathy of the world.  Navigator Arad bailed out of his plane over Lebanon, and was captured by the enemy in 1986.  He was known to have been alive as late as 1988, after having been "sold" by Hezbollah to the Iranians.  Israeli attempts to free Arad came to nothing, and there is a strong suspicion that he died during the course of his captivity.  For 25 years, his wife and family have been unable to move on with their lives as there is no official pronouncement of life or death.  Officially, he is missing in action.  These are stains on Israel's record, and all Israelis know this.

Every nation at war is called upon to make tough decisions.  Sometimes, these decisions involve the possibility of "sacrificing" soldiers or other individuals in the interests of a greater good, or the safety of a large number of others.  In the case of Gilad Shalit, I think that any decision to sacrifice him in exchange for keeping 1,027 terrorists in prison would have been one of the toughest for anybody to make.  In due course, we think we will know the price of not sacrificing him, but it is still difficult to say that any terror activities that may occur over the coming months and years would not have occurred if the 1,027 had remained in prison.  It is my belief that there are enough "terrorists in waiting" out there to make the impact that the 1,027 may make, look insignificant.

On balance, given the alternatives between another Ron Arad situation or the current Gilad Shalit situation, the choice for me is an easy one.  We are obliged to value the life that we know that we can rescue.  In this respect, the government has made exactly the right decision.  We are also obliged to ensure that those who are released, are not allowed to cause any further damage or bloodshed.  I am sure that the IDF is on a close look-out for this.  And even though many will interpret the release of the terrorists is to be an insult to the memories of those who were killed at their hands, it is really a clear statement of the value of life.  Even if it is only one.

It is my wish that Gilad will enjoy a quick and full recovery to everyday life, and that he and his family will enjoy many years of health and happiness together.  It is equally my wish that the memories of those who were brutally murdered by terrorists, will be for a blessing.  Perhaps, above all, the fact that our society can hold this type of debate in an open and honest way, is a great demonstration of our democracy at work to build a just, caring and sensitive society.  Am Yisrael Chai - The People of Israel live!

Sunday 16 October 2011

Gilad To Be Released - The Agony With The Ecstasy

The mood across Israel was changed in a dramatic fashion on Tuesday last week when the news was made public during the early evening that an agreement had been reached with Hamas for the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.  After 5 long years during which Hamas had allowed no access to him at all, not even by human rights organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, it seems as though Gilad Shalit will finally be on his way home.

Of course, the agreement that was finally struck by David Meidan and the Israeli negotiating team comes at a high cost to Israel.  The objective behind the kidnapping in the first instance, was to extract a high price from Israel by insisting that prisoners in Israeli jails be released in exchange for any agreement to release Shalit.  This is exactly what they have achieved, even though it has taken more than 5 long years to finally reach the agreement.  Israel will release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in order to secure the freedom of one IDF soldier.  Many of these prisoners are serving life sentences, and have "blood on their hands" for murdering innocent Israeli civilians.  Among those due for release are those who planned the Sbarro and Moment restaurant bombings in Jerusalem, those who planned the Seder night bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya and those who planned the kidnap of Gilad Shalit.  There are also many others who were involved in numerous bus bombings, and others who have committed similar heinous crimes.  Along with the euphoria of knowing that Gilad will finally be returned to his parents and to the people of Israel, have come searching questions about the terms of his release.

As we sat in our Sukkah on Wednesday evening celebrating the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the conversation inevitably turned to the deal that was struck for Gilad's release.  There were some sitting around the table who felt that the price was too high, and that the deal should never have been done on these terms.  All the old concerns and issues were raised to justify why this deal endangers Israel's security going forward.  One friend said that he thought that the prisoner exchange shows a weakness in Israeli society that we are prepared to contemplate a deal that will return only one of our soldiers for more than a thousand of theirs.  It is his view that our one soldier should effectively be sacrificed in order to protect the security of Israel going forward.  The welfare of one soldier should not be allowed to destabilise the security of the entire State of Israel by placing convicted murderers and terrorists back on the streets.  This friend has a daughter currently serving her two years in the IDF.  When I asked how he would respond if the soldier in question was Heaven forbid his own daughter, he brought me the story of Joseph Stalin who refused to accept a deal with the Germans for a prisoner exchange to return his own son, Yacov, from captivity whilst a soldier in the Red army.  Yacov ultimately died while being held by the Germans.  My friend's point is that the state is larger than any of its individuals, and that the government should behave accordingly.

As expected, the prisoner exchange has come under a great deal of resistance from the families of the victims who were maimed and murdered at the hands of the prisoners due for release.  Many have already made it clear how insulted they feel by the release of the murderers of their loved ones.  We can all understand their pain, and the fact that they feel that this insults the memories of their dearly departed.  The government went out of its way to arrest and imprison the perpetrators of these horrible attacks.  Now, it seems that all is being thrown away by the prisoner exchange deal.  This view would be entirely valid if our circumstances were normal.  Unfortunately, like so many other things in Israel and the Middle East, things are never straightforward.

My view is that we should do all that we can to respect the memories of those who have fallen in the line of duty protecting their homeland, and those whose lives have been taken by those seeking to destroy our country and our people.  While doing so, however, we are also forced to confront the new realities and circumstances that arise each day.  I think that the strength of our society lies in the fact that we do value each individual as if he is the only one.  While I agree that the price seems unbalanced when we exchange 1 for more than 1,000, the message that it sends to our serving soldiers and their families can only help to strengthen the resolve and the strength of our military, and of our society as a whole.  Our security forces can operate in the knowledge that they are more than simply a number, and that the government will do all that is required to protect them, even under the most extreme situation.  The argument that, through this prisoner exchange, the government is releasing murderers and terrorists to kill and maim again is valid.  The security services have said that they can take care of this situation, and I believe that there are so many potential terrorists and murderers in the West Bank and Gaza, that the release of this motley crew does not significantly increase the risk.  And while the exchange deal does reinforce what the terrorists already knew when they kidnapped Gilad, which is that Israel values each of its individual soldiers and will be prepared to strike an unbalanced prisoner exchange deal to release him, I don't believe that this dramatically increases the risk of other soldiers being kidnapped in the future.  This is because the risk has been at the highest level for many years, and the fact that 5 years have passed without another soldier being kidnapped is not because they have not tried.  Regular attempts have been made to kidnap soldiers, and we should expect that such attempts will continue.

Israel is forced to exist under extreme and severe circumstances.  The risk of a terror or missile attack against her civilians is ever-present.  The act of rounding up those who have brought death and destruction on Israelis in the past is more about justice than it is about reducing the risk levels.  It is clear that removing such individuals from a situation where they can repeat their crimes does give some increased level of security.  I am not convinced, however, that arresting these individuals, even when related to 1,000 people, serves to dramatically improve Israel's security.  Apparently the Shin Bet security agency agrees with this assessment, and has given its approval to the prisoner exchange.  The Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen described the prisoner exchange deal as "a bad deal, but the only one available to us".  This sums it up for many in Israel.  We would prefer not to have to release criminals back onto the street, but the alternative of not doing so is worse.

The Israeli government last night released the names of the first group of prisoners set for release.  This is to allow the 48 hour period that the law requires for any legal challenges to the prisoner exchange before it goes ahead.  Objections to the exchange have already been filed with the High Court of Justice, and the court will hear these petitions during the course of today.  Assuming that the court gives its approval to the exchange, it is expected that Gilad Shalit will return to Israel during the course of Tuesday.  For one family and for many Israelis, this will be a moment of great joy and the ultimate fulfilment of the government's responsibility to each of its citizens.  For many families, it will reopen painful wounds and memories.  Our joy is tempered by their pain, and the sacrifice that these fmailies have made will never be ignored or forgotten. Unfortunately, nothing can return their loved ones, and it is my hope that they will find a way to feel the joy of the Shalit family and other Israelis.  We wait expectantly for the moment when Gilad will emerge, alive and well, into the arms of his family and the Israeli nation.

Monday 10 October 2011

The Price That is Not Worth Paying

A new and unwelcome phenomenon has been taking hold in Israel over the past few months.  The phenomenon involves attacks on Arab targets in what has become known as "price tag" attacks.  The name "price tag" comes from graffiti sprayed at the attack sites by the perpetrators, and that uses these words.  This all adds up to an attack in revenge for other events that have taken place.  The attacks that have taken place to date largely involve damage or destruction to property, and have been attributed to extremist religious Jews who have been taking the law into their own hands.

It is true that the Middle East is an extremely volatile part of the world.  It is also true that we see behaviour that would never be tolerated in other parts of the world, but here is somehow regarded as acceptable.  Despite this fact, the government of the State of Israel insists that the rule of law should prevail.  This means, amongst other things, that individuals do not have the right to summarily judge and punish others.  There is an established court system for this purpose, and individuals do not have the right to replace the court system in any way.

The price tag revenge attacks arise out of a frustration that almost all Israelis feel.  This stems from the fact that we seem to be in an almost constant state of war, and under continuous attack from terrorist groups based in the Arab countries that surround Israel.  Despite the IDF's efforts to keep us safe and their many successes in preventing attacks from taking place, the threat under which we live remains constant.  Some Israelis feel frustrated that Israel insists on behaving correctly and respects the human rights even of those who seek to destroy us, while Hamas violates every possible human right while holding Gilad Shalit in captivity.  This frustration still does not justify taking the law into one's own hands.  Certain groups, particularly religious groups, feel that the Israeli court system is stacked against them.  They believe that the courts pass judgement against them because there is too little recognition of the values and frameworks which guide their lives.  Even this cannot be used as a justification for taking the law into your own hands.  Even though there are many who will have sympathy for these frustrations, nothing and nobody is above the law.

The recent events that have particularly provoked price tag attacks have included the deaths a few weeks ago of Asher Palmer and his infant son in a car accident near Hebron.  It is reported that the car accident was caused by Arabs throwing stones at the car.  The government's actions to dismantle unlawful settler outposts in the West Bank have also provoked price tag attacks.  It should be emphasized that it is a small group of individuals who are involved in these attacks, and that they do not in any way represent the views of most Israelis in the actions that they have taken.  In fact, some religious Jewish groups have already begun fundraising to replace the holy books and repair damage done to the mosque.

When a mosque was burnt down in the Bedouin village of Tuba Sangariye destroying many religious books in the fire, Israel reacted with outrage.  The exact reason for choosing this village for a price-tag attack was not clear, but the response was clear.  This type of attack cannot be justified in a country that respects the rule of law.  President Shimon Peres and both chief rabbis of Israel visited the village to show solidarity, and to demonstrate that the establishment does not condone or tolerate this behaviour.  Over the period of Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, Christian and Muslim graves in Jaffa and Bat Yam were vandalised.  The irony of such an act over Yom Kippur hardly needs to be highlighted.  There are those who equate attacks on cemeteries and places of religious worship with the attacks that were carried out on Jewish targets during the period of the Holocaust.  Now, it seems that Jews are resorting to similar tactics to make their own point.  The Israeli government has rightly resolved to crack down on this behaviour, and has increased the police's presence in areas considered to be targets.  There is some speculation that the Yom Kippur vandals were not from extremist religious groups, but were rather hooligans looking to take advantage of the climate that has been created by the price-tag attackers.  Whatever the truth may be, none of this behaviour can be tolerated.

As much as Israel is often a country under siege due to the constant security threats to her citizens, we are forced to protect our freedom and democracy for law-abiding citizens.  This freedom and democracy also extends to Arab Israelis, even when members of their clan or family are not abiding by the law.  Besides the negative effect that such behaviour has on Israel's standing in the international community, it has a greater negative impact upon ourselves.  We need to ensure that we are not dragged into behaving as badly as our enemies have behaved towards us over the years, no matter how tempting this prospect may be.

Unfortunately, the recent price-tag attacks are evidence that we have not quite begun the year on the correct foot.  We have a great deal to do in order to take care of the way that we respond to provocations by our enemies.  Reacting in the incorrect way could potentially draw us into consequences that are more damaging than any good that could come out of this.  Allowing individuals to continue to take the law into their own hands is clearly unacceptable.  The price on this price tag is one that we do not wish to pay.

Sunday 2 October 2011

New Year's Dreams

With the Jewish New Year occurring immediately after the UN General Assembly meeting in New York as it just did, it made me take stock of Israel's current situation compared to last year (which seems like only yesterday).  In particular, I thought about where we were in our attempts to make peace with our Palestinian neighbours at this time last year, and the year before that.  As is the custom at the time of the new year, I thought about the future and what could realistically be achieved over the course of the next year.

The truth is that the peacemaking efforts have remained stagnant for many years.  Israeli leaders have come and gone, and a Palestinian leader has gone and another one come.  We have tried peace conferences in Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, Wye Plantation, Ramallah and Jerusalem.  And yet, the obstacles have not moved even one iota.  We are suffering with precisely the same issues as we have suffered with over the years, some of which seem to be beyond solution.

I heard a good piece of advice from our local Rabbi over the new year period about how to set behaviour patterns for the forthcoming year.  He said that we should close our eyes, and dream of where we wish to be in a year's time from now.  We should think about the things that we would wish to achieve by then, and then think about the stage that precedes that achievement.  By continuing to think about the step which precedes each stage, we can finally return back to our present situation with a roadmap of how to reach our goal.  Although this sounds good in theory and a little more difficult to implement in practice, the concept is a good one.  It is important to close your eyes and dream a little, and to set objectives which can serve to guide you in your work and private life.

While thinking about all of this, I spent a few moments considering whether Mahmoud Abbas may have done some of his own dreaming for the Palestinian people which he leads.  Maybe the time of the Jewish New Year is not exactly when you would expect him to be considering this matter, but perhaps he would do so after Ramadan or on Ras as-Sana al-Hijreya, the Islamic New Year which falls at the end of November this year.  If he was to close his eyes and dream of what he would like to see for himself and his people at the same time next year, what would this be?  If we are to believe his public statements, this would be an independent Palestinian state.  Clearly there are details such as the borders and capital of this state, but the "big picture" dream, we are told, is the Palestinian state.  This is what he left us believing following his actions and speech at the United Nations.  If this is true, the answer is in his hands.  The Israeli government has agreed to it, and the sponsors in the form of the US and other members of the Quartet have also accepted this point.  All that is required for him to get there, is for him to make a few concessions and to compromise by dropping the detailed demands that he is making, in return for which the Palestinian state will be his.

The problem is that the details seem to be more important than the big picture objective.  He will not accept a Palestinian state unless its borders comply with specific conditions, or until Jerusalem is handed to him as its capital amongst some of his demands.  Although the Jewish people have prayed for more than 2,000 years for their return to Zion, to Jerusalem as the holiest city in the religion, the Jewish state existed for 19 years with Jewish access to only the western side of the city.  This meant that the holiest sites, including that upon which the holy temple once stood, were out of bounds to Jews.  This fact (and the small issue of being attacked on all sides by Arab countries in the region) did not deter the Jews from establishing Israel as the Jewish state.  The truth is that the objective of having an independent Jewish homeland was bigger than any of the details, no matter how important.  I do not get the same feeling that the Palestinians have the same objective.  Somehow, the details are playing a more important role than the headline objective.

My new hope is that his experiences at the UN a couple of weeks ago would somehow change Abbas's approach to the peace negotiations.  Maybe, by some miracle, Abbas may decide that he needs to acknowledge Israel's position as a Jewish country in order to make progress with his own objectives?  I am sure that he understands the need to make this concession, and how this may give him the state that he claims to yearn for.  His refusal to acknowledge this critical point is extremely concerning.  Is it possible that holding on to his position is more important than getting his independent state?

There is a real danger that the inhabitants of the Middle East have forgotten how to dream, and are forced to be reactive in confronting daily emergencies.  This would a great pity.  In the case of Mahmoud Abbas, it is not clear whether he has stopped dreaming, or whether the dreams that he is communicating to the outside world are not the same ones as the those that he is dreaming.  Under the current circumstances, his dreams will not be fulfilled, no matter what they are.  

My new year’s dream is that Gilad Shalit will be with us and his family, for him to celebrate the new year in freedom next year.  I also dream that Mahmoud Abbas may change his dreams to create the possibility for real peace, although this may be expecting too much.  It is my wish that you will all realise your dreams in the new year, and that our nation's dream of living in peace alongside our neighbours with mutual respect will be realised.  Shana Tova.