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This Wednesday morning I found myself on the Palestinian side of the Qalandiya check-point staring out across a section of Israeli-West Bank separation barrier. I know relatively very little of the Palestinian West Bank but I am sure that there are few places as bleak and depressing – especially on an uncharacteristically dark, grey and cold winter’s afternoon. It’s at moments like this where you can’t help but feel disheartened that all attempts to change the status quo and the occupation have been seemingly futile and ineffective. Where to go from here…?
Thankfully the rest of the day in nearby Ramallah was more uplifting as we spent the morning finalising the work plan of a € 220,000 Palestinian business project (improving export capacities) with PalTrade, the Palestinian Trade Center. It might not change the situation much, but at least it’s something…
On an uncharacteristically wet and windy day in Jerusalem I spent the day wandering the streets of the Old City taking in the sights and sounds of the Good Friday celebrations. Thousands of Christian pilgrims descended upon the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the Old City, many of them re-enacting the final steps of Jesus Christ as they walked the Via Dolorosa, crucifix in hand, onto the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, purportedly the site at which Jesus was crucified and buried.
Aside from the mass of pilgrims the Israeli police force was out in force to manage the throngs of people. Numerous streets were blocked off, and the police had a busy time trying to explain to pilgrims, tourists and Arab & Jewish residents alike the long detours up and down smaller side streets people would have to take to get from one part of the city to another. Aside from being caught up in the procession at one point (see photos and video below) we avoided the worst of the masses and rain showers by seeking refuge in the Austrian Hospice cafeteria and eating amazingly sweet and heavy Arabic knafeh in Jaffar’s Sweets in the Muslim Quarter.
Happy Easter / Passover to everyone
A snippet of the Good Friday parade along the Via Dolorosa.
With little better to do last night and with Asya’s parents’ cable TV to my disposable I sat up and spent 3 hours following the US healthcare debate chaired by Barack Obama live on Fox News and CNN.
Why?? I’m neither American nor can I claim to have some innate interest in government run healthcare issues – who can? The debate was dry, complex, and dragged on without any sense of direction. However, I found it fascinating. For once I could see the President debate an issue rather than merely dictating his views through another well-crafted speech; for once the Democratic and Republican politicians points of views could be digested meaningfully – a stark contrast to the sound bite newsfeeds that we’re otherwise fed.
But like so many non-Americans I was, however, still left wondering a) why the idea of guaranteed health coverage is so objectionable, and b) how can a President and party with such a large majority remain unable to bring about any of the changes it had planned on? Has the US really become so ungovernable??
Needless to say the Netanyahu government will be smiling wryly at the lack of progress on the healthcare issue, or any domestic issue for that matter. The more Obama’s attention is taken up on domestic issues the less likely he is to bother attempting to untie the Gordian knot that is the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
This brings me onto the sole reason of this post – to show off this ridiculous Israeli TV advert (for a major Israeli cable TV company) that has being doing the rounds on TV channels here for the last couple of months. Its repetitiveness has made it hugely annoying – but you have to give it to them, it’s well made and indeed for a mere millisecond I really thought Obama had perhaps taken a step too far in trying to curry favour in Israel.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of having plenty of time on my hands is the opportunity to spend my free afternoons at the Hebrew University attending various talks and conferences, many of which are held in English.
Last week the International Relations and Latin American Studies departments put on a 2-day conference that brought to together a range of Israeli and international scholars to discuss the impact of the global economic crisis on Latin America.
Regretfully, in the 18 months since I finished my Master’s degree (Globalisation and Latin American Development) my interaction with Latin American issues has been far too sporadic – surviving recession-hit London and moving to Israel being more pressing concerns. Sitting in the conference room, listening to the wide range of political and economic arguments laid out before us made me realise how much I’ve been missing such academic debates in my post-university life.
It was somewhat strange listening to two solid days of impassioned discussions focusing on Latin America in Israel of all places. Israel is not a country that stands out as having strong ties or interests in Latin America. The Hebrew University is perched on a hill with a stunning outlook over the West Bank, the Jordan valley and the rest of the Middle East – surely this must be the only real region of direct impact upon Israeli life. So even given the fine reputation of the Latin American and International Relations departments at the Hebrew University it was still a surprise to see that so many distinguished scholars from around Europe and the Americas had made the grand “schlep” to Jerusalem to discuss a region that has little or no immediate impact upon the State of Israel.
This is not the place to rehash the conclusions of the various papers presented. Briefly though, despite the global doom and gloom it was a pleasant surprise to hear that Latin America seems to have fared relatively well, avoiding the lasting economic and political calamities that had become the hallmark of earlier economic crises. Entering the crisis with their economies in a relatively robust state Latin American countries were, in general, able to implement affective policies that softened the impact of the crisis as well as improved the likelihood of a return to stable economic growth once the world economy revives itself.
One of the more enlightening/enjoyable talks was by a former Israeli World Bank official and now government minister, Avishai Braverman. Although his 90 min. talk didn’t touch particularly on Latin America, his talk offered an accessible account of the excesses of US finance and neo-liberal economics, peppered with amusing anecdotes from personal encounters with world leaders (Gorbachev and Ben Gurion) and renowned economists (Joseph Stiglitz). As a government minister I assumed he was a member of the rightist Likud party. However, as his speech repeatedly emphasised the merits of social justice and economic egalitarianism, not to mention his optimism of peaceful co-existence with the Arab world I found it increasingly hard to link this stance with the liberal conservatism and latent anti-Arab outlook of the ruling Likud party. A quick look at his Wikipedia entry unveils that he’s not a Likud party member at all but rather a Labor-party member. This centre-left party – once the dominant force of Israeli politics – has in the face of its dwindling popularity sadly succumb to getting into bed with Likud in a desperate attempt to cling onto the trappings of power. Coalition politics at it’s most ugly.
As much I would like to head back into the academic world and immerse myself in international politics it’s time to move on and get on with real life, my new life…learning Hebrew for instance. So whilst I may not being studying the ins and outs of Latin American politics anymore I can nevertheless now look forward to getting back behind a school desk soon enough. Next week I start my intensive Hebrew course, known here as an ulpan and designed specifically to teach Hebrew to new adult immigrants in Israel. And besides, living in Jerusalem, with the facts of the Middle East conflict clear to see all around you is enough to keep any anorak in international politics happy 🙂