Column for Jewish News May 22 2015 by Jenni Frazer
Readers of a certain age will be aware of the injunction “Always keep ahold of nurse, For fear of finding something worse”. It comes from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children but given Belloc’s reprehensible attitude to Jews, it’s probably the only thing of his I can recommend.
Nevertheless, fear of the unknown was much in my mind this week as I read with fascination of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scraping together of a last-minute coalition by the skin of his teeth, a coalition which is practically begging the world to attack Israel by fair means or foul. It includes the terrifyingly robotic Ayelet Shaked, the new Justice Minister, who makes no secret of her contempt for the two-state solution.
Its other members are hardly more inspiring and the greatest disappointment is that Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog has finally found his voice in challenging Netanyahu, a voice which ought to have won him the election but which he discovered too late.
Those of a delicate disposition should be glad at the current obsession of the UK press with the post-election carnage of both Labour and Ukip, since Israel’s political mess scarcely needs global attention at the moment.
Nevertheless, there are straws in the wind, one of whom might be the Pope, and the other, bizarrely, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Pope Francis, a relatively unknown quantity when he became the Holy Father, has won international admiration – yes, even from Jews – at his careful but sophisticated politics. He paid a successful visit to Israel in 2014 and has made a point of retaining his friendships with rabbis and others in the Jewish world. His was one of the first tributes last month to the late chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, describing him as “a man of peace and dialogue”. The pope, incidentally, was making his remarks to a delegation from the Conference of European Rabbis – not an every day occurrence at the Vatican, I suppose.
So what can have been in the Pope’s mind when last week he received Mahmoud Abbas and described him as “an angel of peace”? It was a remark greeted with graceless despair by some in Israel, and came ahead of the Vatican’s announcement that it was preparing to canonise two Palestinian nuns and to sign a treaty with the Palestinian state, which it recognised two years ago.
Such an agreement, which has been in the works for 15 years, expresses the Vatican’s “hope for a solution to the Palestinian question and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians according to the two-state solution.” It’s a relatively quick arrangement by Vatican standards: it took the Holy See from Israel’s birth in 1948 to 1994 before establishing full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
But let’s reflect on what might be the Pope’s real motivation here. He’s – rightly – extremely concerned with the precarious position of Christians in the Middle East and the constant threats to their existence, not least from the Assad regime and Isis terrorists.
He needs Abbas to start speaking out for Palestinian Christians and thinking of himself as someone who can deliver in the continuing maelstrom of the region. At the moment, Abbas is at the mercy of whatever the Israeli government decides to do; and if the more radical voices in the new coalition persist in viewing Abbas as just one more obstacle to steamroller, then there is no incentive to deal with him as a negotiating partner.
There are a lot of external voices telling Abbas that he has all the cards to play right now, from attacking Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague to isolating it in arenas such as world football or the United Nations. And that’s to say nothing of the crowing triumphalists of the BDS crowd who must have felt their steps lighten with every lunatic appointment made by Bibi last week.
So when Abbas, newly anointed as the “angel of peace” by no less than the Pope, came to give his Nakba Day [the Palestinian term for ‘catastrophe’ marking the advent of the state of Israel] speech last weekend, commentators watched his words very closely. He gave three conditions for resuming peace talks with Israel: a year’s worth of uninterrupted negotiations; the release of Palestinians imprisoned before the Oslo Accords; and some sort of settlement freeze.
Bibi, if he’s smart, will pay attention. He needs to deal with Mahmoud Abbas now, while the Palestinian leader is feeling loved-up by the Pope. For what comes after Abbas could be much, much worse, as Hilaire Belloc was at pains to warn.