A week ago, U.S. President Barack Obama sent his adviser, Dennis Ross, to threaten the Palestinians that they would pay dearly in political and economic coin for their planned approach to the United Nations. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' concession to not address the Security Council - which saves the U.S. from being forced to use its veto power - is not enough for the Americans; Ross warned that, even if the Palestinians turned only to the General Assembly with their request to upgrade status from observer to full membership (similar, for example, to that of the Vatican ), they can expect trouble. He advised them not to gamble on whether Obama would use his authority to restrain Congress from cutting its aid to the Palestinian Authority. Ross carried a long stick and a baby carrot: In return for climbing down (or, more accurately, falling down) from both branches of the UN, Obama promised to make an effort to renew negotiations on a permanent peace agreement.
This is the same Obama who, in his speech before the General Assembly last September, expressed hope that within a year the UN would welcome a new member state - a sovereign, independent Palestine. His intriguing remark is included in "Palestinian statehood at the UN: Why Europeans should vote 'yes'," a policy memo penned by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The pan-European think tank's paper was placed on the desk of, among others, Catherine Ashton (the head of foreign affairs at the European Union ), just before she embarked this week on a decisive meeting with Abbas in Cairo. The writers of the paper, Daniel Levy and Nick Witney, assume that the vote in the General Assembly is an established fact, and warmly advise the European Union to adopt a positive and unified stand in favor of the Palestinian initiative.
Ashton's tone in her contacts with the Palestinians is different from that of Obama. At a time when the candidate for reelection's ears are inclined toward pro-Israeli voters and campaign contributors, a survey of public opinion in key European countries points to a noticeable amount of support for a Palestinian state.
Conducted at the beginning of this month, at the request of the Avaaz organization, 76 percent of those questioned in Germany about whether their government should vote for the Palestinians at the UN said yes; only eight percent objected. In France, the results are 69 percent for and nine percent against. In Britain it was 59 percent for, nine percent against, and 32 percent undecided.
In order to mobilize the support of what are thought to be more difficult countries, such as Holland, the Czech Republic and Italy, and also perhaps to soften the U.S. stance, Levy and Witney suggest that the EU instigate the insertion of additional wording that expresses support for the state of Israel alongside a Palestinian state. This way, they say, the Palestinians and the Arab countries will vote for a Palestinian state inside 1967 borders, and recognize Israel's existence and its legitimacy.
In addition, the experts raise the possibility of confirming earlier UN decisions such as 181 (the 1947 resolution on partition), which explicitly mentions the Jewish character of the Israeli state. At the same time, it recommends that the EU declares it is obligated to the security of Israel and opposed to sanctions against it. Is anyone willing to bet on whether these perks will draw the magic words "Two states on the basis of 1967 borders" from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mouth?
An old man's regret
In the run-up to the celebration of a decade since the Tal Law was passed in 2002 - stamping its approval on the evasion of army service by ultra-Orthodox men - the Knesset will deliberate on the law's fate in its winter session. It is expected that Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch will end the discussion with a petition against the law before retiring in 2012.
According to figures gathered by the Hiddush organization for freedom of religion in Israel, during the last decade the number of draft dodgers has doubled. The arrangement to defer service for yeshiva students made by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1949 stated that a larger number of yeshiva students would be exempt from service, on the condition that they dedicate all their time to religious studies and nothing else - not even other types of education or volunteer work. At that time, yeshiva students numbered 400. In 2010, that number had grown to 62,500, an increase of 15,500 percent.
Hiddush has discovered that Ben-Gurion regretted this arrangement. On the organization's Facebook page is a letter that Ben-Gurion sent on September 12, 1963, from his home in Sde Boker, to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (a photo of the original, in Ben-Gurion's handwriting, has been located by Haaretz ). "I am not of the opinion that you need my advice on matters of government, and of course I would not consider giving it, but the unruliness of fanatics crosses all bounds," Ben-Gurion wrote (referring to the violent demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox on Saturdays in Jerusalem ). "I am of the opinion that I am responsible for this to some extent: I released yeshiva students from army service. I did so when their number was small, but now they are increasing. When they run amok, they represent a danger to the honor of the state. We cannot appear to the world like Alabama or South Africa."
Ben-Gurion suggested an idea to Eshkol that could be useful against the current violent attacks by the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh. "I recommend that every young man 18 and up who is caught in these illegal gatherings throwing stones, attacking citizens and other hooliganism, be immediately drafted into the army, to serve 30 months like every other young person in Israel [before the occupied territories supplied us with a secure border, army service was only two and a half years], not in a religious office but as a simple soldier." And Ben-Gurion signed off the letter with the suggestion "to examine the case of every yeshiva student to see whether he should be exempt from army duty."
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