Is Netanyahu to Blame?

Is Netanyahu to Blame?


Howard Adelman

Is Binjamin Netanhayu to blame for the termination of the latesy version of the Israel-Palestininian peace process?The answer – to get right to the bottom line – of course he is. But not in the way and for the reasons his die hard legions of critics think. He is to blame for not being willing to make a deal on terms Abbas might now accept. Just as Abbas can be blamed because he is not willing to make a deal on terms Netanyahu would accept, Netanyahu is not willing to make a deal on Abbas’ terms.

Those terms used to involve the crucial issue of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. But Abbas has retreated from his stubborn insistence on that issue. The key issue separating the two parties is Jerusalem – in the case of Netanyahu, both the old city and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu clings to the idea of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty just as strongly as Abbas once clung to the principle of the right of return of the refugees. A formula has been developed to finesse the latter. No formula has been developed to finesse the issue of Jerusalem because it is not a matter of finesse.

But, as my friend Michael Marrus keeps repeating to me, “It’s the settlements,” and, because he is a gentleman, he does not add the word “Stupid!”. I answer, “Yes and No.” It is the settlements insofar as Israel under Netanyahu has continued to build settlements – and not only the 700 units in Gilo in Jerusalem which will, without a doubt, remain as much a part of Israel as French Hill, also built across the Green Line. Further, it is the settlements insofar as the Palestinian Authority and the Americans make so much fuss over Israeli settlement activities. But it is not the settlements because that is not the item of negotiations preventing a deal. That item is Jerusalem. As long as the parties are divided on this central issue and a deal remains a chimera, Israel under Netanyahu will continue to build the settlements.

But why? Why continue to build settlement if it provokes the Americans so much and if it feeds the Palestinian propaganda cause so well? Why not freeze future settlements so it becomes abundantly clear to all observers that it is the Palestinians who do not want to make a deal? But that is the wrong way to phrase it. The Palestinians do want to make a deal now, but not on Bibi’s terms. But they were unwilling to make a deal with Olmert or even Barak earlier when each conceded East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. As former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, reported in her memoirs, No Higher Honor, in 2008 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when Tzipi Livni was once before in charge of the negotiations, had offered the Palestinian Authority their capital in East Jerusalem. However, the Old City would remain under Israeli administration. Further, Jerusalem would remain united under an Israeli Mayor and a Palestinian deputy mayor. Finally, an international body, to include both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would serve in an advisory capacity with respect to the holy sites.
In 2011, Abbas conceded that he and Olmert had agreed that Jerusalem would remain united and East Jerusalem would be the capital of Palestine. But they did not agree on the old city. An Arab and a Jewish Jerusalem would be the result – two separate municipalities in two separate states but as a united capital under a joint administration. Further, when Al Jazeera released certain documents that conceded that most of East Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands, the Palestinian Authority denounced the documents as a pack of lies. That is because the parts of East Jerusalem that would remain Israeli were those settlements built across the Green Line in what were barren hills in the eastern part of Jerusalem. Abbas, however, would not concede surrendering the old city to Israeli authority, especially the Mosque of Omar and the Dome on the Rock.

This was in spite of the fact that Olmert had offered Abbas 94% of the territory in dispute when swaps were taken into consideration and would later up the offer to 97% before he finally left office. There was no deal. The settlements were not the sticking point. Jerusalem was and remains the central blockage in concluding a deal and we have gone backwards from there since. Netanyahu, as far as Jerusalem is concerned, has never made an equivalent offer. Further, he has repeatedly used Abbas’ rejection of that offer – more accurately, failing to respond to the offer – as his argument why Abbas cannot be considered a serious negotiating partner.

Abbas would not then, and has not indicated any change of mind since. He will not concede giving up on claims of sovereignty over the Old City, especially the sites so holy to Islam. So what role do the settlements play? Does Israeli continuation of its settlement activities mean that Netanyahu still holds to the old Likud position opposing the surrender of most of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians? No. There remain, of course, some in Likud who adamantly cling to an insistence on retaining sovereignty over the West Bank. But even Naftali Bennett, leader of the Aish Hatid Party, has agreed to land swaps with the Palestinian Authority. But the areas now occupied by the settlements must not be transferred. And certainly not Jerusalem.

When Bennett addressed the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, he said, “We will never agree to give up a unified Jerusalem.” He warned Netanyahu about the dire consequences of giving up Jerusalem after praying for its return for 2000 years. Though not nearly as severe, ambitious or inflexible as Bennett, this is Netanyahu’s position now. If that is the case, why does Netanyahu continue with such an ambitious settlement program? Why is he not content with what Israel has already taken? As the Americans have observed, the government’s settlement policy is unequivocal, deliberate and unremitting.
US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (mentioned previously with respect to the Jerusalem issue and the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas) criticized Israel in 2008 when plans were announced to build thousands of more homes in East Jerusalem, specifically 1,300 more homes in Ramat Shlomo. Further, Jerusalem’s city council at the same time unveiled plans to build 40,000 new apartments throughout the city over the next ten years, many if not most in what was East Jerusalem. In 2009, Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State enunciated the position that all settlement activity must stop. When in March 2010, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Israel, to his great embarrassment Israel announced at the time of the visit plans to build 1,600 more homes in East Jerusalem.

Let’s be clear. These homes are not being built in the part of East Jerusalem densely populated by Palestinians but in the barren hills east of the old Green Line within the larger Jerusalem. Further, within the confines of the larger West Bank, last year Israel declared thousands of dunams to be state land. The Civil Administration approved 28,000 dunams as state land available for settlement.

A close examination of those tracts indicates that Israel is focusing not so much on expanding settlements as on thickening the ones they already have and linking up outposts in anticipation of a future land swap. This is especially true of the 3,479 dunams declared as state land adjacent to Ariel that projects far into the West Bank. All the land claimed and planned for settlements is in area C totally under the control of the Israeli government. Further, though there was a de facto construction freeze during the just terminated peace negotiations – though Israel had refused to sign onto such a freeze – plans for 13,850 housing units were initiated in Area C of the West Bank and tenders were prepared.

Note that of the 28,000 dunams made available for settlement, almost 80% fell within the boundaries of existing settlements. Most of the rest was land on which construction had already gone ahead previously. What has been observed is a program of consolidation more than expansion. Israel is preparing for the day when an independent Palestine state is declared on the West Bank, when land swaps will take place and when the settlements are incorporated into Israel proper.

Though I do not agree with the settlement activities outside of Jerusalem, I also do not see the settlements as a key obstacle to a peace agreement. They do, however, more than annoy America and certainly send an erroneous signal that Israel is not serious about an independent Palestinian state along side Israel, but the settlement activity is not what stands in the way of a peace agreement.

Was it the delay in the prisoner release? No, this was simply a pause pending a commitment by the Palestinians to extend the negotiations for nine months. Progress was made in these talks, particularly over the right of return and by making it clear that Netanyahu does accept a two-state solution. But progress was NOT made in defining the precise borders and in what would happen to Jerusalem. The failure of a positive outcome, which most informed observers always saw as a long shot, can be blamed on both Abbas and Netanyahu, but only because their positions on Jerusalem cannot be reconciled, certainly not at this time. The issue is not a lack of will to make a deal, but a lack of will to make a deal that the other party would or could find acceptable.

Were the negotiations worth it? I believe so. The areas of difference are now quite narrow but run very deep. There are many proposals for resolving the Jerusalem issue, and Canadian diplomats have been intimately involved in a task force on developing a creative answer. From what I have heard of the plan, it will not be acceptable to either party even though it is a rational compromise.

What can be done in the interim to advance peace. Engage in de facto consolidation of what has been agreed upon. In particular, this requires a number of initiatives by Israel to withdraw from Area B and hand over jurisdiction for security to the PA. Eliminate areas of irritation in preparation for implementation of the two-state solution even if the land swaps remain in abeyance and even if no solution can be found to the differences over Jerusalem.

Abbas’ Current Goals

Abbas’ Current Goals


Howard Adelman

In South Korea, President Barack Obama signaled that America is abandoning – at least for the time being – its efforts to mediate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As John Kerry told a Senate Committee last week, the negotiations just went “poof”. Interestingly, Obama focused on Abbas’ proposed Fatah-Hamas deal as the final straw that necessitated a pause in the peace process which he, in his usual mild use of language, called “unhelpful”, thus echoing Netanyahu’s suspension of the talks because of the deal with Hamas. But Obama noted it was but the latest move. Further, he also made the point that he was not referring only to the PLO because he explicitly said that neither side had demonstrated the political will to make a deal, a reference perhaps to Netanyahu’s refusal to release the last group of prisoners unless the talks were continued, a factor that Obama had cited earlier as “unhelpful” as well as the initiation of 700 new housing tenders in Gilo, Jerusalem, though often referred to as West Bank permits.

The emphasis is important because, in a hearing before a Senate committee earlier this month, John Kerry seemed to pin the blame primarily on the Israelis. Though Kerry did the usual and asserted that both sides bore responsibility because of “unhelpful” actions, he suggested that the precipitating catalyst for what was then the possible breakdown of the talks was Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units in an area of Jerusalem across the 1967 lines. By describing the permits as being for Jewish settlement and referring to the area as territory the Palestinians claim for a future state, he suggested that Israel was taking even more land from the Palestinians. These permits were for homes in Gilo, a Jewish part of Jerusalem, although indeed on the other side of the old Green Line. By omitting both that the fact that this was an area Israel had excluded from the freeze in re-embarking on the peace talks and/or that it was an area to be counted against the territory to be transferred to the Palestinians as a quid pro quo, the link with expansionist illegal settlement activity had been made.

Further, as a result of remarks Kerry made on Friday in a closed meeting to the Trilateral Commission, Kerry was reported in Haaretz yesterday by Barak Ravid as having considered making his own proposal for a two-state solution. Kerry warned that if Israel did not move quickly towards a two-state solution, it risked being more widely branded and becoming an ‘apartheid’ state – a very exceptional term for an American statesman to use in application to Israel and in conflict with the Obama doctrine on Israel. The use of the word was so toxic that Kerry was forced to swallow that word and said yesterday that he had chosen the “wrong word”. Kerry insisted – and I agree – that “a two-state solution is the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” Further, Kerry, fearless about the difficulties of prognostication, predicted that a freeze in the peace talks could bring about violent conflagration in the West Bank. He based his predictions on a psychological-political analysis: “People grow so frustrated with their lot in life that they begin to take other choices and go to dark places they’ve been before, which forces confrontation.” But his “apartheid” remark was a prediction and not a description of the present state of affairs.

Kerry, like Obama, blamed both sides for the negotiations coming to a dead end but he mentioned Netanyahu specifically for announcing plans to build 14 thousand (sic!) new housing units in settlements. Kerry suggested a change of leaders on either side might allow a breakthrough, but unlike Obama, he clearly seemed to lean towards blaming Netanyahu. This is in spite of the fact that the political leadership in Israel was, in an unprecedented way, united in blaming Abbas. Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were at one with Housing Minister Uri Ariel in placing the blame squarely on the head of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his advisers.

Do we blame Abbas primarily, as Obama suggested, or do we primarily blame Netanyahu, as Kerry implied? Could (not would) a change in either leader possibly lead to a breakthrough? There is a prior question. Why did neither party get past the obstacles to make a deal? What really happened and why was Abbas (tomorrow, Netanyahu) unwilling to engage in serious negotiations?

Abbas made four different moves in the lead up to the terminal date for the initial deadline on the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks mediated by the United States:

  • 1 April – he applied to join 15 international agencies on behalf of Palestine, an initiative in breach of the agreement but the applications specifically excluded the International Court and claimed to do so in response to Israel’s failure to release the prisoners as per the agreement
  • 19 April – he threatened to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, give the keys to the West Bank back to Israel and allow Israel to administer the West Bank directly
  • 23 April – he Palestinian National Reconciliation Agreement was signed between Fatah and Hamas implementing two prior agreements negotiated and signed respectively in Cairo in May 2011 and in Doha signed by Mahmoud Abbas himself and Khaled Mashal on February 2012; the new agreement provided for an interim technical government after five weeks with legislative and executive elections to follow within six months.
  • 28 April – n advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday, Abbas issued a statement calling the Holocaust the most heinous crime of the modern era, a stark      contrast with Hamas that went out of its way to declare the Holocaust as a made-up lie..

The application to join the fifteen international organizations, but excluding the international court, was intended to tweak both the Israeli and American noses without putting either so totally out of joint as to risk the financial support coming from either party. The threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority and give the keys to the West Bank back to Israel was just grandstanding and was so characterized by Saeb Ekrat, the PA chief negotiator. However, the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas was a step of a wholly different order because Hamas has not renounced violence as required by the Oslo Accords, still refuses to recognize Israel and refused to enter into negotiations with Israel for a permanent peace. Finally, Abbas would not only reject many of the conclusions of his own PhD thesis on the Holocaust, but would further differentiate his position from that of Hamas by his remarks because Hamas claims that the Holocaust is a myth.

How could Abbas suck and blow at the same time? If he was sincere about wanting to negotiate a peace deal with Israel, why reconcile with Hamas at this time? Abbas argued that the agreement permits only the PA to negotiate international treaties. Hamas may opt for violence in principle but as part of the agreement would have to surrender any resort to practice. Hamas would not be forced to recognize let alone negotiate with Israel but would not denounce or undercut such negotiations. Further, this was no different than the Americans meeting with the Lebanese government even though that government includes Hezbollah that Washington dubs a terrorist organization.  If Washington could deal with a unity government in Lebanon, Israel and the United States could deal with a unity government for Palestine. In any case, any agreement would have to be endorsed in a referendum. So the agreement, rather than undermining continued talks, actually strengthened Abbas’ hand because he could be seen as speaking on behalf of all Palestinians.

Hamas had strong reasons for implementing a unity agreement at this time. It was being outflanked on the terrorist front by Islamic Jihad. The situation in Gaza was becoming more precarious every day. With Cairo enforcing the closure of the tunnels ruthlessly as it continued to oppress Hamas’ allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was being forced to reach out. Besides, its main sponsor, Iran, was negotiating now with the Americans and seeking to open Iran up somewhat to the West. Hamas could no longer afford its stubborn isolationism.

This did not mean that all Hamas or Fatah supporters endorsed the new efforts to forge a united front. Ibrahimi Hamamai, the writer and supporter of Hamas, continued to denounce the PA and Fatah as “Israel’s agents” and insisted that reconciliation with either was treasonous and the PA was just a collection of collaborators. Jibril Rajoub, Deputy Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee and Chair of the PA Olympic Committee backed Hamami rather than Abbas and called the Israeli government a racist and fascist regime worse than Hitler in its oppression and use of concentration and extermination camps. 

This is the main explanation why Abbas could not continue the talks at this time. He had to outflank his rivals, particularly Mohammad Dahlan who was waiting in the wings. He needed to strengthen his domestic position and what better time to do so but when he was standing up to both the Americans and the Israelis. He had already conceded that he would bend on the issue of Palestinian return. The last and greatest sticking block was East Jerusalem and the Old City. Already, throwing of stones and unrest on the Temple Mount had heated up over the last week. If he has to walk the fine line between not alienating the Americans lest he forfeit their financial support and rebuild his support among the Palestinians, then he had to appear strong in facing down both the Americans and Israelis but not in such a way as to cut the material support beneath his feet.

This was in preparation for three very different future possible scenarios: 1) an historic deal in which he agrres to make a deal over Jerusalem by taking East Jerusalem in exchange for internationalizing the Temple Mount and possibly conceding the Old City to Israel, a deal not possible with Netanyahu in power and one he does not seem likely to make; 2) a final push to get Israel to concede both the Old City, excluding the Jewish Quarter, in return for a final peace deal; 3) further procrastination since he recognizes no peace deal is possible for which he could get sufficient support.

Abbas’s demand for the right of return had scuttled the Camp David talks. Olmert offered him more than anyone befor he left office and Abbas could still not agree. Abbas is still not in a position to make a deal that woud win sufficient support. So he shows he can be resolute and helps scuttle the talks. This could be read as deceptive practice or not negotiating in good faith or else as negotiating as best he can with a very weak hand while clearly leaving the door open to future negotiations, but, from his perspective, hopefully with a stronger foundation.    

Owls, Memory and Prophecy

Owls, Memory and Prophecy


Howard Adelman

Last evening we went out with friends to eat at a wonderful Greek restaurant on Ashbridges Bay on the shores of Lake Ontario in the east end of the city. When I was waiting outside the house both for my wife to come out and for our friends to arrive and pick us up, I heard the constant and repeated clucks rather than songs of a plump gray bird just larger than a typical sparrow flitting from one branch to another in the pine tree in our front yard. He was moving too frenetically for me to get a good look, but I did notice he had no noticeable colour except for several white streaks on its upper torso. The beak looked black, but I could not be sure, and its breast was lighter gray rather than white. Its tail seemed unusually short.

Needless to say, I am not a birdwatcher and would not really know a sparrow from a warbler, wren, flycatcher or vireo, let alone differentiate among the very wide variety of each species. I wished then that I had one of those apps on a cell phone where you can record the sound of the bird and the phone will tell you what kind you are looking at. Alternatively, you could take a picture and the phone would tell you which type of bird it is. My wife insists I carry around her old phone – mostly I forget – so she can reach me in emergencies, even though she knows I rarely notice if it is ringing and have to be told by a stranger annoyed by my not answering the phone that I should answer. In any case, my phone is an unsmart one, so out of date that it is only useful for making phone calls if I would ever learn to use it or even just hear it. I do feel it, however, if I put it onto “vibrate”

All this is beside the point since, as usual, I did not have the phone on me, though at the moment I really wanted such a phone to make up for my inabilities at keen observation, ignoring the fact that even if I had a smart phone with the right app, I would be so clumsy at figuring out how to use it that the bird would have long started to migrate south again for the winter. Nevertheless, I longed for such an app for I could not really describe the colour let alone shape of its bill though I had been watching the bird for what seemed to be a very long time but was probably only 2-3 minutes. Was the cape a different colour than the feathers on its back? Did it have rings around its eyes? I could picture my embarrassment when my wife queried me and gradually became exasperated at my inability to answer.

When Nancy did emerge from the front door – our friends had not yet arrived – I told her about the plump grey bird that was just larger than a sparrow but had suddenly gone silent and seemingly flew off. I described the repeated clucks and had heard higher pitched tweets and a slightly lower pitched melodious chord but could not identify their source so I pointed out what I thought was a closed in grey nest in the crotch of a branch and the main trunk that I thought (to myself) looked like a very small owl with two twigs sticking up like ears. I thought that the plump bird larger than a sparrow was trying to protect its nest.

“That’s an owl,” Nancy announced after one look.  “It’s a very small owl. Its eyes are closed but you can clearly see them. Looks like…” – she gave me a name but I cannot remember what she said. So I looked up pictures of owls this morning. It could have been a screech owl or a young long eared or short eared owl, but I know she did not give me those names. It is evidently very unusual to see an owl in the city. Nancy had brought my attention to the hoot of an owl that very morning and concluded that this must have been the owl she had heard. She then digressed into a story of how she and her father would go hiking at night at their farm tramping through the crisp crust of piled up snow with special field glasses looking for owls, particularly great snow owls. All the while I was feeling stupid for not being able to distinguish between an owl sitting perfectly still and a nest. But I excused myself. After all, I had never seen a real owl before except a stuffed one in our museum.

The only owl I really knew was the Owl of Minerva and the famous saying of Georg Friedrich Hegel from his Phenomenology of Spirit that the “Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. The Owl of Minerva was the name of the most important journal of Hegelian studies and was meant to convey that we, as philosophers, can only look backwards to understand the characteristic of an age. We are lousy prophets. Wisdom can only be retrospective and only in hindsight do we have 20/20 vision. That is why philosophy cannot be prescriptive but only analytic and phenomenological, focused on what we have already experienced.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses that I just referred to in a recent blog, a crow bitches that it is not regarded with divine worship because it has been displaced by the unworthy owl which has an undeserved reputation for wisdom. The crow was a terrible gossip and spread the word that the Owl created by Minerva was really Princess Nycitimene, the daughter of Epopeus, the King of Lesbos, who raped his own child. That is why owls skulk around in the night and are so hard to spot. They live in eternal shame as victims of incest.

Whether they are or are not ashamed, or whether they are or are not ashamed because of a past sexual trauma or because they are incapable of understanding the future, they do take pride (and refuge) in their superior acuity in understanding the past. Of course, this is an ironic inversion of the Greek belief that owls should be revered for their wisdom because they can see so well in the dark – and the future is always black and provides little help to enlighten us about what is about to happen. The owl became the symbol of Athens and associated with Athena not only to be identified with universal and eternal truth but even with the capacity not simply to prophecy but to help bring about a desired outcome as a symbol of Athena’s intervention in the affairs of humans. Hegel inverted the Greek understanding of wisdom by insisting that wisdom be rooted in history and in retrospective analysis as we look wide-eyed and startled at the mess we just left behind.

However, lately I have been betraying my Hegelian philosophical roots. I used to say that if I prophesied something, especially something bad, it would never happen because I would always be wrong. So if I feared a terrible outcome I could really relax since I was so bad at prophecy I could be content that my bleak prognostication would not take place. I have strayed and betrayed my philosophical foundations and engaged in something more akin to Hebrew prophecy. Sometimes, when I am being particularly flippant and superficial, I will blame it on my increasingly failing memory. I cannot analyze the past if I cannot remember it. So if I am going to dance among the shadows, I might as well try to discern the character of the shadows of the future even if I cannot tell the difference between an owl and a bird’s nest right in front of my eyes.

I have been more and more encouraged by recent past successes over the last decade or more. Of course, it was really not hard to discern that the Iraq War was a folly right from the beginning as well as an immoral and politically stupid undertaking by the Georg Bush Jr. administration. Certainly, the ridiculous way the Americans followed up their quick military victory with the dissolution of the Iraq military as well as the civil administration given its previous control by the Baath Party all but guaranteed a developing insurgency and the soundness of the many like myself who outlined disaster. Though the Afghan War, unlike the Iraq War, had been partially politically and ethically justified, there was plenty of evidence from the past that it too would be a disastrous quagmire. So we critics were not just critical bench-sitting quarterbacks in the bleachers who had perfect vision because we were engaged in hindsight. The outcome was just all-too-obvious.

This prophetic propensity has not only taken place concerned with major events of worldwide importance but with Canadian events. In January, I co-authored a draft of a paper that in part dealt with the temporary worker program in Canada and, in particular, that part of the program focused on unskilled workers. In one section, we referred to all the scholarly literature that pointed to the terrible outcomes of such programs – particularly the problem of overstayers and the inevitable exploitation of such workers, that has not yet been part of the current brouhaha in Canada over the current program and forced Minister Kenny to shut the program across the country applied to the restaurant business. The current political mess had become a scandal because of the evidence of Canadian long-term employees being laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers. We had not anticipated that this negativity would result so quickly. Although our timing was totally off and our focus has been peripheral to the main discussion, we could still claim credit for our muted prophecy about the disastrous character of the program.

Debates focused on whether employers really needed such workers or not and the effects on lowering wages in the particular industry. We had suggested that refugees be brought in for such jobs, sponsored by a partnership of businesses and Canadian churches, synagogues, mosques and community groups. The latter could orient the refugees and monitor their work conditions. The former could provide the monies to employ them and get them initially settled. It would be a positive sum game because the employers would get loyal workers, refugees would get a secure home and sponsors could get the great pleasure of saving lives and helping anther eager new Canadian settle into our great country. And there would be no problem of overstayers. In the next month we will be travelling to Halifax and Calgary to discuss launching pilot programs in those two jurisdictions to see how the  program works.

Who says that philosophers are useless even if we do rely on owls that can only look backwards and cannot even see a real owl when perched right in front of us?



Howard Adelman

Last night I fell in love – head over heels as the cliché goes. Her name is Helen Sung. She has a diminutive body and small Asian hands and looks like a Korean teenager or a young girl in her early twenties, but you know you cannot trust Asian stereotypes to help you pin down age or place of origin. For she was born in Houston Texas and trained in classical piano and violin at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She earned her first two music degrees in classical music at the University of Texas in Austin but then switched to jazz and trained at the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Even though she has never before performed in Toronto, if I was a true jazz aficionado instead of just an amateur lover, I would have known about her. Instead her playing hit me like a wallop.  It had power but was extremely delicate. When she played a riff, you could hear every single note. And each was so precise. One time as she turned from the piano to the keyboard – she sometimes played both at the same time – she played and music came forth sounding almost as if it was being performed on a bass instrument and the Israeli bass player in the background, Tamir Shmerling, was not playing at the moment. Great jazz players, like rap artists, play off one another as they go from solos to background players and accompanists, but Helen Sung played as if she were part of a classical quintet. She was always in precise tune with all the other players. She not only listened keenly to each of the other performers, but smiled in joy as she listed to them perform. I have never heard a jazz pianist like her, including the late and justly famed homegrown Oscar Peterson who was dubbed the Maharaja of the keyboard by Duke Ellington.

Lynne Carrington, the celebrated percussionist and her Mosaic Project headlined at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall last night with the Canadian, though now also living in New York, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Tia Fuller on sax and clarinet. The latter two were just brilliant – all the more testimony to Helen Sung’s playing which my ears could not help bringing in the foreground when the others were performing their amazing solos. And that was certainly absolutely not because she made any effort to upstage them. Further, this was in spite of the fact that Terri Lyne Carrington – who is without a doubt a great drummer – often played a little too loud for my taste when she was just providing rhythm for the other players.

At intermission, I immediately bought several CDs, not only of the Mosaic recording, but two copies of Helen Sung’s “Anthem for a New Day”. One will be sent this morning to my thirteen year old grandson – the brilliant chess player that I have written about before – who also plays cool jazz piano. If Helen teaches jazz, I am determined to contact her and see if she would be willing to give Jo Jo lessons. When I got up this morning, I immediately looked up Helen Sung’s bio on the web.

She has been performing as a jazz professional for over sixteen years. Anthem for a New Day is her sixth album. She writes, composes and arranges, but I do not believe that any of her own original music was played last night. I saw Mervon Mehta, the Executive Director of the Royal Conservatory’s Performing Arts series during intermission, and urged him to bring Helen back to Toronto as a soloist. He needed no urging from me. He was as obviously enthusiastic and smitten by her playing as I was. When we go to New York to visit my daughter Shon in the second week in May, I hope she will be performing somewhere in New York so we can see and hear her again. The fusion of classical sensibility with a jazz expression is absolutely breathtaking.

Helen Sung can play rapid-fire jazz with bravado as well as quiet lyrical piece with great soul. Her range of musical hues is stunning. When technical proficiency combines with lyricism and a sense of musicality and exquisite sensitivity to the melody, what emerges is the music of the heavens. Later this morning, I will listen to her own CD and if it is as great as I anticipate, I will order her one or two of her other six albums – ReConception, Going Express, but especially her 2009 album, Brother Thelonius

It is unfair to the other star performers when an audience member falls in love with one of them – but c’est la vie. I should not overlook mentioning Nona Hendryx who performed five or so numbers as a soloist throughout the evening. She was marvellous with a powerful range and a very soulful blues and rock mixture that betrayed her roots. Last night one of those tunes was “Strange Fruit” which was more moving (and more frightening) than ever. 

 It is even more unfair when a competing performance of the well-known Bad Mehidau trio was performing at Massey Hall so, for the first time that I recall, Koerner Hall did not have a sold out house last night. Tis a pity since some others could have heard the best evening of the year.

True lovers, you see, are not exclusivists.




Howard Adelman

I finally got to see Bethlehem, the Israeli movie on the Shin Bet, yesterday evening. There are very few spoilera today since this is a review of a review of the film not primarily of the film itself.

Though not exclusively a philologist, David Shulman is a renowned and prodigious scholar and the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies in the Department of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A poet himself, he is an expert in the history of religion in South India and a specialist in Tamil, Telegu and Sanskrit poetry as well as Tamil Islam, Dravidian linguistics and Carnatic music. His latest book, More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India,is part of an enormous scholarly output. But he is also a peace activist. In 2007, he published Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.The latter documents his role as a promoter of Arab-Jewish cooperation through Ta’ayush, “Life-in-Common”. He has been active in protests against Israeli efforts to evict Palestinians, particularly from Silwan.  

In the current 24 April 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books, Shulman reviewed two films, Omar, directed by the Palestinian, Hany Abu-Assad, and Bethlehem, directed by the Israeli, Yuval Adler, a former member of an Israeli intelligence unit and a new and powerful director from a country that is now producing a plethora of excellent films. Both films focus on the relationship developed between a handler and his informant in the activities of the Israeli intelligence service, Shin Bet, during an intifada. This blog is a review of that review focused on the Israeli film, Bethlehem. Omar is better known because it was in the running for an academy award this year for best foreign film but I just missed seeing it during its theatre release. Last night I was determined to see Bethlehem before it too disappeared from the theatres.

In his review, Shulman writes, “Both Omar and Bethlehem are strongly teleological; their natural, lethal conclusion is the default of both Israeli and Palestinian consciousness. There is, it seems, only one way out of the trap where the informer is forced to live; and it takes only a tiny movement of the imagination to see the informer’s predicament as embodying and focusing the reality that all Israelis and Palestinians inhabit day be day. At bottom, all of us feel trapped.” Shulman then uses his review to offer a screed on the failure of Israel “which holds nearly all the cards” to resolve the conflict. For Shulman, it may take two to tango, but only one can be the leader and it is the leader who holds the overwhelming responsibility for how the dance develops. Instead of directing its efforts towards peace, for Shulman, Israel “terrorizes an entire people by torture, blackmail, and other instruments of coercion far into the unknown future.” In response, the Palestinians are developing the practice of non-violence, though Shulman acknowledges “there are still those in  Palestine committed to armed resistance.”

There will be many supporters of Israel who will be appalled by such a judgment, but my concern is whether and how that judgment effects his review of the film. In general, though both films dealt with the same subject matter, Shulman found that Bethlehem lacked the humanistic lens of Omar. In the latter, Rami, the Shin Bet handler, is portrayed as “a real person, with wife and children, not some cut-out monster”. But, in Bethlehem, Razi, the parallel role to Rami in the Palestinian film, is acted by Tsahi Halevi, but when he is portrayed as a human being, the movie becomes an “Israeli propaganda film. Its Shin Bet hero, when not on duty, goes to the zoo with his wife and daughters and, in general, is a prototypically nice guy.” Though these are the words of the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, Shulman endorses that assessment. How can he do so? Isn’t that judging the two films by a double standard?

The answer is yes. When a Palestinian director portrays a Shin Bet operator as a human being, the approach is a universalist and humanitarian one. When an Israeli director does so, the approach is propaganda. This is true even though the Israeli script was authored not only by the director but by a Palestinian as well, Ali Waked, a Palestinian journalist who covers the political scene in Palestine. Where is “the evil, torture, blackmail and lies” inherent in the whole system of occupation, Levy asks with Shulman’s approval. For neutrality is not allowed for the Israeli who bears the moral responsibility for the whole mess according to him. Israelis are obligated to take a stand opposed to the occupation. An Israeli film shot through a neutral lens is an abomination.

Shulman finds that Abu-Assad’s film, Omar, errs in the other direction. “It’s a generous – perhaps too generous- view.” Why? Because Abu-Assad views the Israeli political leadership as at fault. The ordinary soldier is just doing his duty. As Shulman writes, “The problem is that these ordinary Israelis, the ‘common people who are just people, have mostly, for decades now, elected governments of the extreme right, like the present settler regime run by Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, these same ordinary people continue to demonstrate, day after day, a shocking, willful indifference to the fate of their Palestinian neighbors.” The movie, Jerusalem, thus feeds this “malignant and consequential” pillar of the occupation. But in its humanity and generosity, indeed fairness, doesn’t Omar do the same?

Shulman openly and unequivocally adopts a different standard for judging Israeli behaviour and Israeli movies than for Palestinian behaviour and Palestinian movies. As he writes in his book on his political activism, he decries the loss of an Israel once led by utopian idealist and humanists (the same idealists and humanists who sometimes forcefully expelled Palestinian civilians in the 1948 war). He denounces the murderous and suicidal messianism of the settlers riddled with dark forces and a predatory approach to the Palestinians rather than the “humane heart of Jewish tradition”. Shulman sees himself as the embodiment of that tradition while the settlers are the embodiment of “pure, rarefied, unadulterated, unreasoning, uncontainable human evil’. As Shulman has written, “I feel responsible for the atrocities committed in my name, by the Israeli half of the story.” So there can be no neutrality from the Israeli side, only strident self-condemnation.

My friend and fellow philosopher, Avishai Margalit, in a review of Shulman’s book in a past issue of The New York Review of Books (6 December 2007) entitled, “A Moral Witness to the ‘Intricate Machine”” appraised Shulman’s book as follows: “One of the most fascinating and moving accounts of Israeli-Palestinian attempts to help, indeed to save, human beings suffering under the burden of occupation and terror. Anyone who is pained and troubled by what is happening in the Holy Land should read this human document, which indeed offers a certain dark hope.” (

Avishai quotes from the book: “Israel, like any other society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise” [with] “unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population: to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill – all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.”

Ignore whether Shulman has correctly characterized the settler movement whether you adamantly oppose it on moral or even just political grounds and certainly even if you support the settlers not on grounds of exclusive rights to the land but on grounds of shared rights. My concern is whether such a moral point of view as Shulman puts forth can ever offer a fair analysis of an aesthetic product like a movie. Clearly, the only Israeli film that would have satisfied a righteous moralist like Shulman is a propaganda film that condemns not only the Israeli political leadership, but its Shin Bet agents ostensibly working to protect Israelis from terror attacks and even the Israeli public that elects those politicians and turns its moral back on the fate of the Palestinians.

Shulman wrtites: “It is in conjuring up an intelligible setting that Bethlehem mostly disappoints. In depicting the occupation, Bethlehem shows Israelis as they like to see themselves, functioning heroically, against all odds, in a dire situation that has, it would seem been thrust upon them from the outside. What is worse, Bethlehem seems to be driven by the standard version of Israeli politics: set at the height of the second intifada, with suicide bombers a constant threat, the film doesn’t even hint at the possibility that Israeli acts and decisions might have had something to do with the outburst of Palestinian violence that began in the autumn of 2000.” In other words, Bethlehem is a failure of a film because it is not the film that Shulman thinks should be produced or that his moral portrait of the world demands.   

 For Shulman, Abu-Assad is allowed to make a film that was widely appreciated by Israelis when it is about “love, friendship and trust” rather than politics, but an Israeli director is permitted no such leeway. So Shulman is blind to the subtleties of the Israeli film, especially in the quiet and underplayed interactions between Razi and Sanfur or in the discreet and understated play of love and betrayal between Razi and his own wife, Einat, played by Michal Shtamler.

Shulman is also deaf to its resonant irony. First, the movie is not simply called Bethlehem because that is where most of the action is located and where Ibrahim, played superbly by Hisham Suliman with a  mixture of steely bravado and deep terror as the leader of an al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, is trapped by the Israeli army. Ibrahim has double-crossed his own sponsors and colleagues by coming into the pay of Hamas and setting of a bomb in Jerusalem that killed and maimed many Israelis.

Bethlehem, the centre of terrorist activity, of violence, disloyalty and distrust in the film, is where Matthew (2:6), echoing the prophet Micah, predicts that it will be the city from which “One will go forth for me to be the ruler In Israel.” Bethlehem is the home of Elimelech in the Book of Ruth who is driven out by a famine to seek refuge among the Moabites where his sons marry Moabite women, Oprah and Ruth. Ruth, in absolute loyalty, accompanies her widowed mother-in-law to return to Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Ruth, also a widow, meets and marries Boaz and their son, Obed, will give birth to Jesse, the father of King David who unites the tribes of Israel. So Bethlehem, in Christian sacred text even more so, is not only the city of love but, in Jewish sacred texts, is the city of paradigmatic loyalty. Bethlehem is also the birthplace of Jesus where love for the other was to be the source of reconciliation and resolution of conflicts and hatred but is, in the film, a centre of the very opposite traits and where not only trust but love is betrayed.

It is this city that is chosen in the film to portray the difficulties of trust and loyalty, of love and respect, in an atmosphere of violence, mutual suspicion and, ultimately, betrayal. Shulman in his commitment to a pacifist ideology seems totally blind to this fundamental irony that is the foundation of the movie. For the centre of the film is the love that develops between the Israeli agent, Razi, and the adolescent brother of Ibrahim, Sanfur, played with great confusion and an inner troubled soul by Shadi Mar’i. Razi is Sanfur’s handler who betrays his own side because he loses his neutrality and develops a deep affection for the boy – an affection that will eventually be an even greater blinder as it determines his actions. Just likes the terrorists, he wears a metaphorical balaclava to cover his soul much like the cloth put over the head of a horse when it is being trained and mounted. Razi is blind to the boy’s needs for a father who will believe in him and protect him, as Sanfur does for his own father who does not return that love and loyalty so caught up is the father in the glories of his older son.

Sanfur is an informant, but Razi makes his first error and goes down to slippery slope of betraying his own Shin Bet colleagues and even his own wife and children in protecting Sanfur; at the same time as he uses him, his ultimate love for the boy clouds his judgment and he betrays himself.  Inform means literally to impart knowledge, but in a context of mutual hostility, to inform the other side is to be a Judas, a traitor, and has the very opposite connotation of providing information for it suggests betrayal, selling out to the enemy. To be an informant is NOT to be an agent of transparency but is a pejorative term for the information is supplied without the permission or authority of the person the information is about. “Informant” connotes moral turpitude not the height of morality in serving to foster knowledge and wisdom.

Secrecy and betrayal are at the heart of the film. On the Palestinian side, there are multiple betrayals – the PLO leadership of their militant brigades when they are determined in their own interest to make a deal with the Israelis. Ibrahim betrays his own followers, especially Badawi, the Bedouin who serves under him played brilliantly by Hitham Omari. He in turn kills the leader of his own squad because he was working against him. Sanfur betrays both his brother, his father and ultimately Razi as well. Similarly, when Levi, Razi’s superior demands that Razi hold to the highest standard of complete honesty in a realm that makes as demanding a claim on complete trust as it does on betrayal, Razi lies. But no one in the film acts simply out of self-gain, including Badawi, for there are always mixtures of psychological and social forces as well as both self-interest and principles. It is the interplay of all of them that makes this such a rich and moving film, a subtlety that Shulman in his righteous anger seems to totally miss.

Ultimately, Shulman in his double standard and moral righteousness betrays his own calling as a humanist and a scholar. Bethlehem is not (nor, I suspect, is Omar) “strongly teleological”. No determination is made that this distrust within and between the two communities will be the ultimate fault line. The movie is imbued with too much humanity and too much very basic inter-personal trust to become such a caricature. It is Shulman in his lofty moral self-righteous inflexibility who reads it into the film a predetermined lethal conclusion to the conflict. The situation and circumstances may be lethal, but the humanity of the film shines through with great brilliance and provides hope in spite of the horrific and lethal conclusion. If Shulman is trapped, it is by his purist moralism not by the situation in Israel/Palestine or by the portrayal of the situation in the movie.

Soliciting Temptation

Soliciting Temptation




Howard Adelman


Erin Shields, currently playwright in residence at Tarragon Theatre, trained as an actor in Great Britain. She won the 2011 Governor General’s Award for her play If We Were Birds that was produced by Tarragon in 2010, a play that garnered two Dora Awards. That play was inspired by both recent political events, the use of rape as a weapon of war in former Yugoslavia, and one of the greatest sources for the literary imagination of our culture, Ovid’s poem, “Tereus, Procne and Philomela”, in his magnum opus Metamorphoses. Shield’s play dealt with the subject of rape and revenge and tried to reproduce on stage the recurring nightmare of Polly in Rachel Urquhart’s The Visionist. As much as Polly’s imagination takes flight as if we were birds, Polly in her recurring memory cannot escape the experience: “Over and over, back and forth, he came at her, left her weak, made her sick with nausea: the knowledge that he would eventually touch her.”


Soliciting Temptation is a new play by Erin Shields currently showcasing at the Tarragon Theatre. The two-actor drama deals with another perversion of sex, sexual tourism, in an unnamed country that could be Thailand. Erin has evidently written four other plays that have earned or been nominated for awards, but I have not seen any of them. My wife and I saw Soliciting Temptation yesterday evening. Tarragon is renowned for nurturing and developing young playwrights. The risk is that some of those plays turn out to be disasters. The delight is that most are not.


Well before the play starts, instead of helping create an atmosphere. we are annoyed by the noise of traffic outside the hotel room, noise which irritates rather than informs the action and which is heard indifferent to when the shutters or the windows are opened to catch a breath of air in the stifling heat or closed to shut out the noise. We are told about the heat and see evidence of it on the john’s sweaty shirt, but we never really feel it. This is not a difficult task for a playwright or director to convey – see any decent production of Tennessee William’s A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And what is the smoke about on the Tarragon stage – a hint of smog? By the time the play starts, we are already in a distrustful mood.


The play opens with the man lying prone and face down on the bed exhausted by the heat unrelieved by the fan and the air conditioning for neither is working. The setting is a cheap hotel room and the man is in an evidently Asian country on a business trip. He is irritable and sweaty. He gets up, perambulates around, pours himself a drink – scotch, rye whiskey, bourbon – I could not tell from the bottle even though I was close to the stage. The point, of course, is that my curiosity had wandered off into an irrelevant path. The man phones down to the desk and in frustration at the lack of comprehension of plain English by the hotel clerk, lodges his complaint about the lack of cool air, only to be interrupted by a knock on the hotel door. Why was I not drawn immediately into the man’s frustration, his impatience, his irritability, his frustration, the intolerable heat, and most of all, the anticipation and expectation of what was to come?


The man is large – both in girth and height. He is pasty-faced. He is also going bald. His best years are behind him. A girl enters in a sari. She is small, lithe and dark, and has a look and posture that conveys both fear and wariness. She does not present herself as an experienced prostitute. The man – always unnamed as is the girl – is gentle with her as he invites the girl into the room and tries to talk to her, comfort her and get her to relax. Just as we are drawn into accepting the situation of a man who has solicited the services of a child prostitute – though  we never are quite sure of whether what we see before us is a child or just a small Asian woman – the play turns sideways. The girl, who had not heretofore spoken, speaks perfect English and turns the power differential in reverse and begins and emerges like a butterfly from her shy cocoon. No, not a butterfly, but a moth beating her wings in rapid accusations against the light bulb that has just been ignited in the man. He has been entrapped. And he panics.


Though I did not find the sudden switch to be credible, I was truly taken by surprise and the shock covered up for a short time my incredulity. The metamorphosis of a retiring and frightened young girl into a fiery extremely articulate and self-assured harpy on a mission of either blackmail or exposure – we are not sure which – works to a point. On reflection, it seems clear that the shock value replaced the need of developing the sexual seduction scene as the pretend child prostitute unwinds her sari, hangs it on a peg and, in panties and a short cotton top, approaches the man. Only much, much later in the play do we get a suggestion about why the improvised explosive device (IOD) goes boom when he touches his face to her bare belly.


As the play progressed and the power relationship was inverted, instead of being allowed to develop in any one direction, it kept switching. I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The play lost me and I never again entered into the dramatic tension in spite of how well the actors performed. The portrait of child prostitution in relationship to a businessman becoming a sex tourist – we never get an explanation of why the playwright chose a business man instead of an actual sex tourist given that the choice somehow mitigates the crime not only in the john’s own mind but in the viewer’s since intentionality and deliberation are mitigated. This happens even though the pretend prostitute challenges the apologia of relief rather than intention by noting that the man, as evidently a successful business man, deliberately chose to go to a cheap hotel. However, we had already been convinced that the man was not a high flyer but a middling foreign management expert. In fact, we never are able to reconcile his profession with his behaviour or his words, and are less and less convinced about his role as the play progresses. One inversion of power succeeds another but we are never allowed to see or experience the development of any one of them. 


The problems are myriad. We never become convinced that we are hearing the words of agents on the stage. We become more and more convinced that these are the words of the playwright rather than the characters. This is also true of the arbitrary actions and sudden switches which come off as manipulations rather than demonstrations of agency. In the man, for example, lyricism and ordinary speech are mixed in a totally unconvincing manner and his switches from abjection to condescension, from affability to banal repulsiveness, from a reactionary determination to call his daughter a hairdresser rather than a stylist to his progressive apologia about the rights of sexual workers, are just incongruencies that never mesh.


All the time we are bothered by the question the man repeatedly asks – how old are you? The woman is never credible enough as a child prostitute but, surprisingly, becomes less credible as a university student and has absolutely no credibility in her final role which, just to utter it, would not only be a real spoiler, but would immediately give away why the play fails to work in the end. A play has to be magical. A play has to invite your entry into a world you have not or barely adequately experienced. Instead, this play pushes you away as it progresses and increasingly relies on extraneous tricks to propel the action – no, not even action – just excessive verbiage on stage.


In the director’s notes in the program, Andrea Donaldson writes (I reproduce the squib almost in full): “Soliciting Temptation harnesses so much of what I love about Erin’s writing: her wit, her depth of inquiry, her ability to create relationships that are at once intimate and expansive, her capacity to pair poetic language with the everyday, to lift comedy from the dark, and to probe our deepest fear and most taboo desires. Her plays demand something from  us. I am drawn to this play because it not only grapples with essential questions in an unexpected way, but it also utters what ought not to be voiced, let alone thought. It is ruthless in its exploration of human morality and confronts us with questions that challenge our own perceptions of who we are. What is it to be good? What is it to be bad? Am I good? Am I bad? And how do I live with myself? For me, theatre can provide a container for our unmanaged or intolerable thoughts and demand we face them – silently, kinetically. In the dark and the presence of others, we are simultaneously protected and exposed. We count on playwrights like Erin Shields to write the unspeakable, and on actors to embody these words – to be us at our best and us at our worst…to examine the mystifying terrain of the human landscape.”


The blurb is as overwritten as the play. I heard and, in replaying the play in my mind, found no wit. The jokes – such as a play on sweater as a man sweating and as a piece of clothing – are presumably deliberately unfunny. The inquiry into the sex trade lacked depth. The pasty middle-aged business man from a western country and the pretend prostitute alternate in their roles as purveyors of power never really develop a relationship between them. There is no magic. There is no intimacy. Only endless talk. Talk, which instead of integrating poetry and everyday language, stretches credulity when the management efficiency expert and solicitor of the sexual favours speaks. The play never touches our taboos though it professes to do so – and never probes even our shallowest fears – such as being caught in a socially compromising situation – let alone any deep ones.  Any “essential” questions connected with sexual tourism are not only lost in the litter of rationalizations and counter-attacks, they never go anywhere near what is either unthought or unvoiced. The play never challenges who we are as we sit in the theatre wishing that either the pretend prostitute or the affable but befuddled john would finally get up the gumption to just shut up and leave. Certainly, there is not a single moral question about sexual tourism that is explored as the play wanders sideways into anaphylactic shocks and psychological discoveries and confessions. Though valiantly and often subtly performed by both Derek Boyes as the man and Mirian Fernandes as the girl – they are the two best elements in the production – they were unable to save the play from the endless blather. 


Shields has been quoted as describing the play as follows: “I initially started writing this play because I was incensed at the rise in child sex tourism in developing countries. As I began to write, I realized that what I wanted to talk about was the power dynamics between young and old, rich and poor, male and female. Soliciting Temptation is about child sex tourism, but it is also a play about entrapment and desperate longing, about sexual suppression and sexual awakening, about the desire to expose and be exposed.” Unfortunately, the multiplicity of alsos never get sorted out or integrated but are merely attached to one another as a series of vignettes.


I wanted to learn why the play was such a botch-up. I found that Shields had a blog though I only found one opening entry – possibly because of my own incapacity than the absence of any future entries. Shields started out by writing about her suspicions about blogging: “The concept of blogging has never appealed to me. It has always appeared to me to be some sort of self-aggrandizing confessional; a forum in which people broadcast their mundane, often pedestrian and rambling thoughts; a place for personal obsessions and anecdotes about children, cooking, travelling or dating rituals; an editorial seeking a global audience to satiate the ego of a single individual; a place in which written form matters as much as thoughtful content – not at all and for that matter, let’s not worry about spelling or punctuation or formal conventions of the written language but more than that, more than all that, it seemed to be a format that was incredibly personal and if I’m to be completely honest, I don’t care that much about the personal lives of strangers. Or their obsessions. Or the obsessions of their pets. I don’t want to read other peoples’ diaries. And, more to the point, I have no desire to share my own.”


Though Shields goes on to correct that initial impression to learn that, “blogs are as diverse as the people who write them in both content and form” she has already revealed that she doesn’t much “care that much about the personal lives of strangers”. Nor does she really want to share her deepest fears and desires. Perhaps that is the core problem. She has learned the art of acting and playwriting as a trickster and a fixter rather than as an explorer of the depths of the human soul. Even though she expresses the desire for “form and content that stretch my imagination, my own facility with language and ideas…stories that transport me to other places, take me into the lives of people I don’t know in neighbourhoods in my own city or countries I’ve never been to…to think and feel and have my own assumptions about the world affirmed by some stories and challenged by others, [to] want a transformative experience,” her opposite tendency to be disinterested in the lives of strangers or even an in-depth exploration of her own deepest thoughts and passions may be at the root of this failure as a piece of drama.


On the other hand, I cannot blame her. She has a new child and the magic of a newborn is magic enough. The stage just cannot compete. 

Abbas and Netanyahu

Abbas and Netanyahu


Howard Adelman 

The Palestinian-Israeli peace talks under the auspices of the Americans were on the verge of collapse. But collapse does not mean that the talks were ending. Instead of engaging in a real ritual death dance over the demise of their respective greatest hopes and a revival of their greatest fears, the two leaders of Palestine and Israel respectively demonstrate quite clearly that both parties are committed to shadow boxing rather than wrestling with one another.

Under the Kerry non-traditional approach to negotiations, instead of dancing around on the periphery and dealing with soluble issues like negotiations over sharing water as confidence building measures, the two parties were to focus on the core issues that stood in the way of an agreement: the disposition of East Jerusalem and particularly the Old City with the Golden Dome and the great Mosque as well as the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter; the drawing of other borders and the disposition of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the question of refugees and the right of return; the security arrangements.   

It may be hard to believe, but in three years Palestinians will have lived under occupation for fifty years – for half a century. It took an enormous amount of time, decades, for the two peoples. Palestinians and Jews – or at least a majority of them, though a larger majority among the Jews than among the Palestinians – to give up on the idea of vanquishing one another and, instead, accepting the idea that the two peoples could and should and would live side by side one another in two separate states governing portions of the land. No mutual solution could be envisaged in which one party became the ruling nation over all the land and the other was allowed to live there as a tolerated minority. And the ideal of two nations sharing the land and a single state remained only as the delusion of either utopian dreamers or a tricky but hardly hidden device for one nation to achieve predominance under the illusion that Palestinians and Jews were just individual humans with only individual and no collective rights. 

Further, though the gross numbers of the populace in each nation were not dissimilar, Israelis as victors inherit 78% of the land and Palestinians only get 22%, a seemingly very bitter pill for the losing party to swallow except when actual populations on the ground are considered – 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank versus 8.6 million Israelis (6.1 million Jews and 2.5 million non-Jews, most non-Jews being Palestinians). Previous negotiations demonstrate that most Palestinians have swallowed that pill. But they also demonstrated that the Palestinians adamantly refuse to swallow any more. And the minority of Jewish Israelis who are eager to swallow more of the land eagerly point to the Palestinian militant resistance and those who refuse to accept this accommodation at all.  Thus the Palestinian and Israeli militants mirror one another and serve each other up as reasons why no deal can ever be made.

However, that is not the explanation that both parties are now engaged in shadow boxing rather than either a draw or a final fight to the finish – which the international community would not tolerate for a variety of both hypocritical and sincere reasons. Let me first demonstrate that both parties are engaged in shadow boxing rather than in pacific wrestling with one another. I begin with a brief explanation of shadow boxing. As the name suggests, each fighter boxes not with an opponent but by themselves. There is no recipient for the punches thrown. Shadow boxing is useful in refining timing and perfecting technique but plays absolutely no role in determining outcomes. Shadow boxing is a warm up exercise not even for the main bout but for preparing to enter the ring in the first place. In shadow boxing, the concern of each party is not with landing the right blow but with projecting his own rhythm and identity and how the party appears a boxer. Shadow boxing is not a facsimile of real boxing. It is not sparring but a dance form of non-engagement with the other and absolute engagement with oneself and one’s own appearance to improve one’s style and rhythm. Each practices drills rather than engagement.

In boxing, there are two different styles of engaging in shadow exercises. Muhammad Ali used shadow boxing to perfect his musical shuffle as his body keened forward and backwards and his long reach alternated with short but punitive jabs and straight shots to the head. A fighter disadvantaged by height, weight, reach or speed tends to practice a very different style – huddling and crouching and shifting his torso from one side to another. His movements are left and right rather than forward or back as he searches for openings and opportunities to jar his opponent with surprise punches slipped through openings that appear and disappear with the blink of an eye. The long method of the former style of shadow boxing is an exercise in strategic engagement. The short style of the disadvantaged opponent requires a more slippery and tactical rather than strategic approach in which muscle, weight and willingness to receive punishing blows count more than finesse. Once an opening is found, the fighter pummels away as rapidly and furiously as possible to take advantage of the situation. The latter style is exemplified by Mike Tyson versus Muhammad Ali.

When Mahmoud Abbas announced that if talks end on 29 April without an extension, he promised that he would never appear in the ring again and would force the Israeli government as the occupying authority to take responsibility for the citizens of the West Bank. He promised to dissolve the Palestinian Authority if the peace talks were not renewed. Since such threats have been uttered at least a half a dozen times before, and since his main rival, Nabil Amir, a former adviser, and his lead negotiator, Saib Erekat, both openly ridiculed the idea, it is too easy to dismiss Abbas’ threat. But when viewed as an exercise in shadow boxing, it is Abbas’ long jab. He is just flailing for everyone knows how much the Palestinians are dependent on international donations. The USA is the largest single contributor. And that is precisely why he made the lunge. He did not want to be weighed with the responsibility of ending the talks.

His second short and powerful jab was meant to reinforce his alignment with John Kerry. He insisted that if the talks are extended a further nine months, the first three months should focus on final borders, which would mean focussing on Jerusalem, the central issue still in contention.

At the time Abbas was setting out his conditions for renewing negotiations – and expressing his sincerity in following up with John Kerry’s priorities – Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official, was leaving for Gaza for the first time since 2007, when Hamas evicted the PLO from the Gaza strip, to try to forge the basis for ending the division within the Palestinian camp, but ending it on a basis in which those opposed to any deal with Israel would be within  a single overarching tent. Since those Israelis opposed to the talks continually cited the divisions among the Palestinians as one reason the talks were futile, while others said that if the rejectionists were included within the Palestinian Authority, it meant the talks could go nowhere – putting the Palestinians in a no win situation, the PLO effort to answer Prime Minster Ismail Hamiyeh’s invitation to find a basis for national reconciliation to forge one government and one political agenda could be interpreted as either answering that primary criticism or as a final nail in the prospect of a successful conclusion of the talks since Hamas has been labelled a terrorist organization by many Western governments as well as Israel. Netanyahu informed the Austrian Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz, that the PA could either negotiate with Israel or reconcile with Hamas, but not do both.

Unless, of course, Hamas has given up its opposition to making a deal with Israel and has agreed to renounce terror – a previously far–fetched idea but not an impossible one given that Hamas has been outflanked on the terror front by Islamic Jihad and given the economic perils in Gaza especially following the Egyptian military government’s enforcement of the closure of the tunnels. That would mean that the rumours that the two sides had developed a power-sharing formula and agreed to forge a common front in dealing with Israel, the other main block to a united front. New elections are evidently promised in the next six months. More importantly, it would mean Hamas had given up being Hamas and had renounced terror and the reliance on armed struggle – even if only while negotiations are underway, and, even more importantly, if it would have to accept the Quartet’s bottom line – recognition of the State of Israel if a new National Unity Government was to be able to continue negotiations with Israel.

Clearly, the PLO has developed not only a fallback position in addition to its international initiatives with the UN but a forward strategy in negotiations with Israel to counter balance Naftali Bennett’s forceful presence in the Israeli cabinet. This fallback position includes providing full backing for the BDS campaign against Israel which Abbas alluded to in citing it as an indicator that at least the Europeans had become supporters of the Palestinian cause. Of course, there are the other conditions, release of the final group of 26 of the 104 prisoners as promised, a benefit of the talks the PLO is loathe to forfeit, and a freeze on settlements, this time not only in the West Bank but in those portions of Jerusalem across the old Green Line, including Gilo, an accession that would mean that the growth of Jerusalem would be virtually stalled in its tracks if the government acceded to that demand and, therefore, an unlikely concession even if only for the next nine months or, as Abbas hinted, even for just three more months. This is clearly a new demand since the talks up to now were based on Israel being allowed to build in areas which the PLO previously conceded would be part of Israel in a future deal.

On the border issue, Abbas indicated that he was not just interested in preparatory discussions. He wanted a firm offer on the table from Israel – putting the ball totally in the Israeli court since the Palestinian opening salvo was always a return to the old Green Line, an impossible starting point that presumes that Israel had been totally wasted in the Six Day War by the Palestinians. Further, he rejected not only any return to the use of violence and a resumption of a third intifada, but insisted the security arrangements with Israel would continue whether or not the talks resume. The option that the late Faisal Husseini had advocated of renouncing violence and adopting non-violence as the modus operandi of the PLO had finally become the official wisdom informing Fatah if not PLO strategy. In that context, Abbas condemned the killing of the Israeli Police Chief Superintendent, Baruch Mizrachi, on the first night of Passover near Hebron while remarking snidely that Israel has not expressed any regret for the many Palestinians killed.

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu predictably dismissed Abbas’ offers as just gestures aimed at preventing the talks from going ahead, but it was just as clear that his shuffling back and forth and relying on the same small repertoire of quick jabs and long punches were just efforts at shadow boxing but with a radically different style. He too did not want to be blamed by the Americans for sabotaging the talks. On the other hand, though he now accepts a two-state solution, he adamantly opposes the division of Jerusalem and allowing the Palestinian Authority to make East Jerusalem its capital, a position that John Kerry and Martin Indyk have both accepted if there is to be a peace agreement. Netanyahu will have to show some very fancy footwork if he is not to be blamed for destroying the talks. The shadow boxing has become negotiations by another means.

There are very positive signs in all the shadow boxing. The refugee issue and the right of return, which had been such a major source of blockage in the past, is no longer front and centre. Clearly past formulas, at least in outline, have been accepted by both sides for resolving the issue. Lest it re-emerge, Netanyahu is understandably reluctant to make Jerusalem and borders the centre of discussion for the next three months.  On the other hand, Netanyahu is faced with his own domestic pressures from his left as well as his right. For Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid has now clearly signalled that his party would sooner rather than later drop out of the coalition if the talks with the Palestinians cease. However, Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi has threatened to bolt if the prisoners are released when the talks seem to promise only failure, though Avigdor Liberman pooh-poohed Bennet’s threats even more vigorously than Ekrat dumped on Abbas’ threat to abandon the Palestinian Authority for direct governance by Israel of the West Bank. Besides, Bennett’s second-in-command, Uri Ariel, currently the Construction and Housing Minster, had already signalled the basis of a compromise – stripping the citizenship of Israeli Arabs released from prison and expelling them.

Will the shadow boxing lead to a new round of peace talks or are the efforts of both sides clear signs of failure? My main message is that shadow boxing is merely training for the main event, an effort at posturing and self-indentification. There is not encounter, merely mutual display. The display is sufficient to predict the talks will continue even if the 29 April deadline is not met. If they do, Netanyahu will find himself in a very perilous position, far more perilous than Abbas.