March 2006

The low margin of victory aside, Kadima’s success in the Israeli election on Tuesday is far from the political and ideological upheaval most analysts were predicting. The most notable event was the humiliation of Likud, Ariel Sharon’s old party and the one he hoped to sabotage by setting up Kadima shortly before he himself was felled by a stroke. Likud’s fortunes foundered after most of its supporters, following in Sharon’s footsteps, deserted either to Kadima or to the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu. Given the record low turnout, and the challenges posed by the Palestinians’ recent backing of a Hamas government, the scale of the Likud failure was all the more shocking. Apparently even some of the settlers abandoned it. On learning of his defeat, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu told supporters that the party would “not bend to the winds of fashion.”

If you want to understand what is concerning ordinary Israelis as they prepare to cast their ballots next week, the most revealing poll is also the one that has received least attention. A few weeks after Ariel Sharon broke up his Likud party to form a new “centrist” faction, Kadima, his advisers conducted a poll to find out how potential voters would respond if its list of candidates included an Arab. The results were unequivocal: Kadima would lose votes equivalent to between five and seven seats in the 120-member Knesset from Israeli Jews worried that they might be helping to elect an Arab.

In the looking-glass world of Middle East politics, it is easy to forget that Ahmad Saadat, the imprisoned Palestinian leader Israel summarily arrested in Jericho late on Tuesday, is wanted for masterminding the killing of the Jewish state’s most notorious racist politician-general. Rehavam Zeevi, head of the Central Command in the late 1960s and early 1970s, personally developed and managed Israel’s brutal regime in the newly occupied West Bank. After retiring from the battlefield, he waged a relentless war against “the Arabs” on the political front. His Moledet party, founded in the 1980s, advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Greater Israel — in other words, from Israel and the occupied territories.

Basilica burning

9 March 2006

The news swept across Nazareth last Friday like wildfire. There had been a terror attack on the Basilica of the Annunciation, the huge church in the city centre built over a grotto where Christians believe the archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary she was bearing the son of God. By 6pm, half an hour after the first explosion, I was with a crowd of Nazarenes pushing their way through the only open gate into the walled-off courtyard of the church. Just visible, as final darkness fell, were faces etched by a mixture of anger and anxiety. Christians and Muslims, who share Nazareth, were equally shocked at the violation of one of the Holy Land’s most sacred spaces.

Until recently liberal Europeans were keen to distance themselves, at least officially, from the ideological excesses of the current American administration. They argued that the neo-conservative enthusiasm for the “war on terror” — and its underpinning ideology of “a clash of civilisations” — did not fit with Europe’s painful recent experiences of world wars and the dismantling of its colonial outposts around the globe. But there is every sign that the public dissociation is coming to a very rapid end. The language and assumptions of the “clash scaremongers” is permeating European thought, including the reasoning of its liberal classes, just as surely as it once did about the Cold War.

Nazareth was sucked into the eye of a storm last weekend, threatening, briefly, to unleash a conflagration. Three visitors to the Basilica of the Annunciation – the huge church built over the grotto where the angel Gabriel supposedly told Mary she was bearing the son of God – let off a series of explosions that, according to witnesses, filled the building with smoke and deafening noise for several minutes. As rumors spread of a Jewish terror attack, Nazarenes hurried to the church. Only a few months ago Natan Eden Zada, a soldier opposed to the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, killed four Arab citizens – two Christians and two Muslims – by opening fire on a bus in a neighboring town. Zada was following in the footsteps of another Israeli soldier, Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994.