Ed: 36: June/2011
Howard Jacobson is a master of the craft of entertaining, thought provoking and humane fiction. While his latest novel, The Finkler Question, has been applauded as the first work of humour to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, that label is a little misleading. The book is rather a wonderfully written, engrossing story featuring, interestingly, three-dimensional characters, with comic devices employed to flesh out their successes, doubts and fears.
As the author admits freely, it is a very "Jewish" novel. In fact, it is arguably the most "Jewish" English novel ever published.
Not only are many of the central protagonists Jewish, but the book revolves around the relationships of the broad cast of characters to Jews, their own Jewishness, their own perceived Jewishness, Jewish ritual, history and contemporary culture.
The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating al-Qaeda's leaders - most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn't about killing al-Qaeda members. It's about stabilising the country so that it can never again serve as the hotbed of extremism that it was until 2001, with all of the attendant national security and human rights problems that resulted.
Following a week of dramatic speeches and meetings in Washington featuring US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, two conclusions have emerged. On the positive side, the United States and Israel alliance, though not always perfect, is strong and enduring. Worryingly, however, prospects for advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians appears more elusive today than for a very long time.
On May 19, President Obama's major State Department speech outlining US foreign policy in the Middle East focussed primarily on American reactions to the "Arab Spring" sweeping the region, but also reflected US thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even in the year 2011 - as happened in the year 1948 - even a relative moderate like Abbas simply cannot bring himself to say in Arabic: "Let's share this land in a two-state solution."
Ironically, Netanyahu is taking a liberal and flexible position while Abbas is taking a reactionary, imperialistic stance. Talk about accepting the "other"!
And yet not a single professor in any university class, not a single journalist or expert in the mass media will raise or even report that point. President Obama won't pick up on it to chide the Palestinians. Nobody will start calling Netanyahu moderate and peace-seeking while saying that Abbas is extremist and peace-rejecting.
"We need to be wary of the rise of the polemicist. Polemic is different from journalism."
This simple statement from veteran journalist Paul Kelly at a session of the recent Sydney Writers' Festival seems as if it should go without saying. Unfortunately, it served as a rather ominous warning for those attending other sessions at the partially tax-payer funded Festival.
On Israel/Palestine issues, this year's Festival featured two high-profile international guests with important things to say related to the Middle East - Palestinian doctor and writer Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three daughters in the 2008-9 Gaza war, and British novelist Howard Jacobson. Both of these figures have very positive messages, promoting a genuine Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace and reconciliation. However, the program and atmosphere of the Festival managed to both prevent their positive views from being fully explored, and constantly pitted them against much more extreme Australian voices.
Was there ever a time when anti-Israel students felt afraid? Certainly, anti-Zionist fundamentalists, thuggish Israel-bashers and others have been in institutions where they have lost sympathy, debates and votes. But have they ever had to navigate an environment of threats and intimidation?
Have pro-Palestinian, pan-Arab or expansionist Islamist voices been shouted down, physically attacked, bullied or harassed on Australian campuses or in other forums?
I am not talking about anti-Muslim or anti-Arab prejudice, bigotry and racism - which does exist and can have violent manifestations - but thuggish attacks on people seeking to advocate a political position.
When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited London last month, Cameron recited the familiar mantra of Britain's "unshakeable commitment" to Israel's security. But he went on to seamlessly warn that unless Israel sits down with the Palestinians to negotiate a peace deal, Britain will recognise Palestinian statehood if the UN General Assembly votes on the issue in September.
In Cameron's bizarre view, the "Arab Spring", the killing of bin Laden and the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement had opened up opportunities not only to defeat terrorism but also to expand democracy, spread liberty, and, not least, to make progress at the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table.
If only. If Cameron's assessment were true, Israelis of all political hues would already be initialling treaties and rolling out red carpets for dignitaries who would be preparing to descend on Jerusalem for a full-blown peace ceremony.
Israel has learned in recent weeks that despite the social upheaval and political turbulence across the Middle East, Washington continues to focus on delivering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. This is what President Barack Obama made plain to Netanyahu during a meeting May 20 after which the two exchanged carefully phrased but pointed statements of disagreement during a joint appearance in the Oval Office.
Obama's call, both during the meeting and in a speech the previous day, to set the 1967 borders as a basis for future peace talks between Israel and a prospective Palestinian state, prompted Netanyahu to tell Obama, in the media's presence, that the 1967 borders "were boundaries of repeated wars," and that the nine-mile distance at one point between the West Bank and the Mediterranean "is half the width of the Washington beltway."
Peace is not made solely through agreements, it is made through both sides accepting each other's legitimacy and working together. BDS and other attacks on Israel's existence have only ever served to vindicate the voices saying that peace and reconciliation are impossibilities. Well-meaning people have been duped by this movement into thinking that they are fighting for human rights. However the policy today is as malicious as the boycott of Jewish settlements was in 1922. For all its carefully-framed rhetoric, its leaders have but one true aim, which they occasionally admit - to end the Jewish state.
Although PA officials have indicated that security cooperation with Israel will continue, it is difficult to imagine how the Palestinian power-sharing arrangement will not hinder that partnership - Hamas has long called for Israel's destruction and most of the Israeli-PA security efforts have been based on preventing Hamas terrorists from gaining a foothold in the West Bank. This is perhaps the biggest test of Abbas' credibility; while he is assuring Washington, the EU, and Israel that little will change given his commitment to coexistence, questions abound.