When the prime minister convened an emergency meeting Tuesday morning over the extreme right-wing activists' attack on the Ephraim Brigade Command, another debate – one no less stormy – was being held in the conference room next door, drawing the interest of many cabinet ministers.
At first glance, one might have the impression that this was an esoteric debate, but behind the dry title "Ministerial Panel for the Approval of Entries into the Map of Israel, of the Government Naming Committee", hides a serious world war about identity, narratives, the status of Israeli Arabs and the right of return.
The Government Naming Committee has been working for more than a year on a unified transliteration of the names of all the various communities in Israel. The matter becomes ever more critical when it comes to the Public Works Authority's street signage.
On the green signs posted along the inter-city highways, the names are written in Hebrew, English and Arabic, but quite often the transliterations are inconsistent and cause confusion and even embarrassment.
The most sensitive and repeated issue up for dissent was regarding how the Arabic transliteration of community names should appear on the Public Works Authority's signs.
Among the committee members – geographers, linguists, historians, and representatives of the Transportation Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and the Prime Minister's Office – erupted such disagreements and arguments that a special ministerial panel had to be established to reach a decision on the matter.
The committee met a number of times, and by Tuesday, the day of reckoning had arrived. Two opposing proposals were put on the table.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and representatives posited that the decision should be made according to the principle of majority: the names of communities with a majority population of Jews should be transliterated precisely from Hebrew to Arabic, while the names of communities with a majority population of Arabs should appear with the original Arabic name.
This way, for example, the name 'Yaffo' would appear instead of a transliteration of the Arabic 'Yaffa', and the transliteration 'Akko' instead of the Arabic 'Akka'.
The greatest source of contention was the proposal regarding signs on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway. Until now, the sign for Jerusalem contained the Arabic 'Urshalayim' with the name 'Al-Quds' beside it in parenthesis. The Transportation Ministry proposed getting rid of the 'Al-Quds' and leaving simply the world 'Urshalayim'.
Representatives of the Justice Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office objected to the proposal. They charged that the formula would never pass in the High Court of Justice, primarily because of those mixed cities with a population of both Jews and Arabs.
Minister Benny Begin consolidated their positions and presented a proposal of his own: the transliteration should be set according to the way things stood in May 1948, before the establishment of the state. If the community in question was an Arab village in 1948, then the original name should be listed; if not, then the transliteration in Arabic should be written according to the Hebrew pronunciation.
When the debate began on Tuesday, Begin assumed he would achieve a majority support for his proposal. Two weeks earlier, he had surprised the committee by enlisting two new members – Minister Orit Noked and Minister Ariel Attias – perhaps believing that they would vote with him.
Begin had also approached Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and tried to get him to order Minister Stas Misezhnikov, of his Yisrael Beiteinu party, to vote in favor of his proposal.
So Begin met an unexpected surprise, when Minister Matan Vilnai suggested adopting the Transportation Ministry's proposal and saving the Jerusalem issue for a separate discussion.
Vilnai was well-acquainted with the issue as his father, Professor Ze'ev Vilnai, was a member of the very first naming committee established by former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1950. That committee Hebraized the names of many Arab communities. "If we're already going back to 1948, why not go further," said Vilnai. "We'll discover that the names of some of these Arab communities are actually Hebrew names from the Bible."
The argument turned into a battle of the lords, with each side firmly barricaded in its own position. Vilnai and Katz pleaded with Begin to postpone the decision for further debate, but the latter was pushing for a vote.
This is when Minister Ariel Attias suddenly appeared, having been delayed due to another meeting. Begin, who knew Attias was on Vilnai's side, changed his mind and declared that the vote should be postponed.
I asked Katz yesterday why he was opposed to the few exceptional instances of mixed cities.
"We're talking about an issue of consciousness," he said. "The Adalah organization [legal center for Arab civil rights] sent a letter to the naming committee demanding not only to preserve the original Arabic name, but to include it in cities without a mixed population, because of the Palestinian refugees' right of return. They demanded that the Public Works Authority signs pointing to Petah Tikva include the name 'Malabs' and that the way to Netanya read 'Umm Hulud'. A line needs to be drawn."
When will a decision be reached? That is still not clear. Meanwhile, it's been postponed until further notice. It's possible that not so long from now, the issue will roll from ministerial committee to cabinet plenum. If 13 ministers can't reach an agreement on the matter, imagine what will happen when it's up to 29.
On the wall of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's office hand three framed caricature drawn by Haaretz cartoonist Amos Biderman, In one of the caricatures, Sa'ar is depicted playing a flute and leading a group of young students into the Cave of the Patriarchs. In another, he is driving a school bus on a heritage tour in the West Bank, and in a third, he is chastising a student who hadn't 'adopted' the grave of a fallen Israel Defense Forces soldier in accordance with the Education Ministry's special project.
A similar collection appears on the walls in the office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak has been a source of inspiration for Biderman since he was elected prime minister more than ten years ago. If Sa'ar has three caricatures on his wall, Barak has more than thirty. But Sa'ar most likely won't be ending his political career in the Education Ministry, so there is probably a plethora of caricatures awaiting him – perhaps even as prime minister.
It's hard to define Sa'ar and pinpoint him exactly within Likud. On the one hand, as Education Minister he has made the curriculum more nationalistic, more Jewish, less democratic. On the other hand, he spend the first two years of Benjamin Netanyahu's premiership pushing a diplomatic initiative to extract Israel from international isolation. He opposed the dismantling of illegal outposts and is connected to the settlers, but tries to play up his 'Tel Aviv coolness' by hanging out in bars and on Rothschild Boulevard.
The extreme rightist began rioting in the West Bank just a few hours before Sa'ar set out for a tour in the settlements of Tel Shilo and Ariel. Sa'ar announced that he was planning to add Tel Shilo to the list of sites students should visit as part of their curriculum and declared the need to begin thinking of some alternative to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
He said all the right things with regard to the attack on the soldiers and officers from the Ephraim Brigade. He even condemned it during his visit to the settlements on Tuesday. "These are serious incidents being perpetrated by dangerous and extremist people who the police must arrest and put on trial," he said.
Nevertheless, Sa'ar, like most of the Likud MKs – including Benjamin Netanyahu – are still repressing the problem. They talk about a "small handful" of disturbers, whippersnappers and anarchists. Netanyahu compared them to the left-wing activists sabotaging the separation barrier in Bili'in. Those activists, by the way, are often shot at and even hit.
"You mustn't make generalizations," says Sa'ar. "Most of the settlement residents are loyal to the state, they serve in the IDF at a higher rate than any other sector. You mustn't create stigmatize them because of the extremists who must be curtailed. When I was informed about the incitement to violence in the Yitzhar Yeshiva, I shut it down."
Sa'ar is right. Most of the settlers are not violent. They are good citizens who care. Those who like the politicians, bow to the minority – the non-handful – are growing in numbers. Sa'ar and his party colleagues – who have a high constituency among the settlers – must do more than simply "see the gravity of the situation". Because unless they do, then many of the settlers who opposed the wild attacks on the Ephraim Brigade may join the rioters if and when it comes to the demolition of Havat Gilad, Migron, or any of the other illegally built outposts.
Another person repressing the problem is the chairman of the Yesha Council of Settlements, Danny Dayan. He is an intelligent man, sophisticated, fair and sane, but he too, neglected to see the watershed line in the latest incident.
When I called him yesterday afternoon, he compared those who attacked the Ephraim Brigade to a group of soccer fans going wild in the stands. By the way, ask Beitar Jerusalem fans how they are treated by the special police forces.
Over the last two days, Dayan has taken the line that the best form of defense is offense. Although he condemned the right-wing rioters, he moved directly into a long monologue about how the left was taking advantage of the actions carried out by a small extremist minority in order to denigrate 350,000 settlers in the eyes of the Israeli public. "They are helping the public make generalizations," he said.
Dayan's main reason for condemning the "price tag" attacks is that they in turn harm the settlements. "Price tag is the biggest threat facing us, other than Barak Obama," Dayan emphasized. "With Obama now busy with elections, the 'price tag' has become an even greater threat. It is doing us great damage in the eyes of the public."
The problem with Dayan's explanation is that it is far too reminiscent of the reason Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gives to condemn terrorist attacks against Israel. "It harms the interest of the Palestinians," Abbas tends to say.
By the way, Lieberman and Minister Moshe Ya'alon characterize these remarks given by Abbas as incitement against Jews.