Fiddling With Flags While Israel Burns

Saeb Erekat balked at talking under an Israeli flag, a triviality seized on by opportunist politicians to score Zionism points.

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Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at the HaaretzQ with NIF conference in New York on December 15, 2015.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at the HaaretzQ with NIF conference in New York on December 15, 2015 - sans flag.Credit: Erica Gannett for IRL Productions

Israel’s politicians are, once again, up in arms.

What got them all riled up this time? No, it’s not the wave of terror that has so far killed 22 Israelis and injured hundreds.

Nor is it the entrenched poverty that continues to cripple Israeli society, or the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undermined every democratic institution and principle in his determination to drive through a controversial deal for Israel's natural gas.

It isn't even Israel’s diminishing democracy, which is being chipped at by the very politicians now expressing anger. They’re fine with that, thank you very much.

No, Israel’s right-wing and centrist politicians have much bigger things to worry about. Did you hear, for instance, that Palestinian head negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke at the Haaretz conference in New York without an Israeli flag behind him?

Erekat, who has played a central role in peace negotiations with Israel since the early 1990s and was a major force behind the Oslo Accords, also gave a fascinating, bitter speech, in which he pleaded with Israel “not to give up” on a two-state solution in favor of the apartheid regime (“one state, two systems”) that is fast becoming reality on the ground. Visibly upset, he spoke about his nephew, who was shot and killed in a West Bank checkpoint after shooting and wounding two Israelis earlier this month.

Overall, it was a vitriolic speech, one that was clearly emotional for Erekat, who choked up when discussing his nephew and sarcastically “congratulated” Netanyahu for “destroying a culture of negotiations, a culture of dialogue, a culture of peace.”

But it wasn’t the substance of what Erekat said that caused a scandal in Israel. it was that he refused to say it underneath an Israeli flag.

Here's looking at you, Donald

In an improbably-still-ongoing scandal that could be called “flag-gate”, Haaretz was slammed for acquiescing to Erekat’s request to remove the Israeli flag that had been hanging minutes earlier, as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin made his own speech.

Rivlin himself was already the subject of controversy for his agreement to participate in a conference co-hosted by Haaretz and New Israel Fund, two of the most maligned organizations in Israel today, that also included the left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence (the new favorite punching bag of the Israeli right).

The umbrage wasn't confined to the far right. “The far left has finally lost all sense of national pride,” claimed former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, on his Facebook page. Likud Minister Ze'ev Elkin, who is on the far right, argued that Erekat’s request to remove the Israeli flag while he spoke “showed once again how little Palestinians are willing to seek a peace agreement.”

The pro-Bibi daily Israel Hayom devoted the majority of its cover page yesterday to "flag-gate", with an op-ed that stated “only the far Left would fold its own flag.”

Sadly, this is what has become of Israel’s democracy: With little actual content, all that’s left seems to be a pathetic, empty race to determine who’s the most Zionist.

The health of a democracy can be measured by the issues that rule its public debate. In Israel, a country in crisis that is currently dealing with deep-rooted problems, visionless politicians prefer to argue over flags than offer real solutions that might cost them their careers.

This is not a unique problem to Israel by any means (here’s looking at you, Donald Trump), but Israel has developed a unique obsession with trivial nonsense as a way to avoid a debate about the real issues. If it’s not the latest chapter in the saga of Sara Netanyahu then it’s Culture Minister Miri Regev declaring she doesn’t read Chekhov, or a Likud MK who said something nasty to another MK, or it might be a Swedish Foreign Minister who said something unflattering, or simply the prices of chocolate pudding in Berlin.

A lighter moment in Knesset: Miri Regev (standing) with Ofer Shelach (left) and Yair Lapid.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel, as a country, will soon need to make difficult choices about its identity, its values and its future. With the “peace process” dead and buried and over three million Palestinian still under its control, Israel will have to decide between its Jewishness and its democracy. With a society that is already among the most unequal in the OECD, it will have to change course, or risk instability.

But you wouldn’t know any of this if you listen to right-wing or centrist politicians. Theirs is a world where the most pressing issue Israeli voters have to decide every four years is who is best equipped to deal with unpatriotic flag placements.

Some might say Israel is a country heading fast toward a giant iceberg. Some (among them the author) will say it has already hit the iceberg, and is simply, deliriously oblivious. Regardless of how far along Israel is in its course of decline, though, it seems its current rulers have no idea how to turn it around, or even that it needs to be turned around. Otherwise, why would they be sitting casually on the deck of the Titanic, arguing about the placement of flags?