Believe it or not

“You know what our biggest problem is?” asked the minister from the inner security cabinet after hearing a radio report in which Israel denied any connection to the assassination of Thaiser Hatab, bureau chief for Amin el-Hindi, head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service. “Our problem is that even I don’t believe this government.”

When ministers in the government express skepticism about government statements, it’s no wonder foreign governments, including sworn friends, have begun to regard such statements as pigs in a poke. The Americans, for example, are having a hard time understanding how the story about Abu Ali Mustafa personally planning terrorist attacks on school opening day suddenly showed up in the press here.

The day after the assassination of the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the American Embassy received a copy of the dead man’s curriculum vitae. They don’t understand why such an important detail, like plans to murder children, which could justify the murder of a saint, didn’t appear in the original resume.

The story of the incursion into Beit Jala also didn’t contribute to Israel’s reputation for integrity in the eyes of foreign diplomats and foreign correspondents. The IDF spokesman repeatedly denied that troops entered the Lutheran Church in the township. The foreign embassies were supposed to decide whom to believe – the Israeli spokesmen or the churchman and international media, who insisted that with their own eyes, they saw armed soldiers shooting from the church roof.

Western diplomats say they are finding it increasingly difficult to believe Israel’s versions.

The Lutheran Church’s membership in the U.S. had no doubts. They preferred the version proposed by the Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem, whose voice was heard, coast to coast, on the other side of the ocean. The echoing fury of the influential Lutheran community in America may have helped Ariel Sharon withdraw the forces from Beit Jala. Support from America’s believers – Jew and non-Jew, alike – is one of the most important assets he has nowadays.

The last thing Sharon needs is for American Christians to stop believing that Sharon is really so good for the Christians. The Christian Coalition in the U.S., which supports President Bush both politically and financially, is no less important to Sharon nowadays than the Jewish coalition in Israel.

As for the explosion in Hatab’s car – in this case the Americans actually do believe the Israeli denial that was sent over to Daniel Kurtzer’s office. You have to be a conspirator or super-Machiavellian to adopt the Palestinian version that Sharon wanted to harm one of the last of the Palestinian security services that still keeps channels of communication open with their Israeli colleagues. But this time, the problem is that Arafat also believes the Israeli denial.

Arafat knows that Hatab’s murder is a good example of what’s waiting for him if he tells Peres or promises Bush that he has decided to stop the tiger whose back he was tempted to ride.

The lobby attacks

The meeting the prime minister is interested in is not the one that will apparently take place this week between Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. Sharon doesn’t expect that meeting will bring him closer to a settlement freeze or the third redeployment.

Sharon is more worried by the meeting between Bush and Arafat in the third week of September. In Washington they say that it’s not easy to make the White House off-limits to the Palestinian leader after the Israeli foreign minister and the prime minister’s son meet with him. To ignore Arafat in New York when Bush will be there for the opening of the UN General Assembly session would be considered a slap in the face to the Arabs. Boycotting the Palestinian while Bush meets with Sharon, who will also be in New York, would be snookering America’s Saudi friends.

On the other hand, members of Congress and Bush’s Jewish donors aren’t showing any signs of anxiety about the inflation in assassinations or desecration of the church in Beit Jala. Jewish Congresswoman Shelley Berman, here last week with 15 Democratic congressmen on a junket organized by AIPAC, is an example – albeit extreme – of the winds blowing on Capital Hill.

Berman reprimanded Dr. Saeb Erekat for daring to use the term “occupation,” reminding him that “this is our country” and “we” won the war.

“So what am I, if I am not a person living under occupation?” Erekat asked.

“War booty,” answered the congresswoman from Las Vegas.

“What are you suggesting I tell my daughter, who participated in the Seeds of Peace program?” Erekat asked. “That she is war booty?”

Berman also rejected Erekat’s “suggestion” that Israel annex him and give him full civil rights. Berman told him that if the Palestinians don’t like the present situation, she is not going to prevent them from leaving.

Erekat put an end to a similar exchange with Jewish congressman Anthony Weiner, saying “there are 120 members of Knesset – and you’re worse than all of them.”

Durban devils

The prime minister probably laughed when he heard Benjamin Netanyahu complain on both Israeli TV channels that Israel abandoned the front in Durban to the Arabs, and that he would be happy to offer his talents to his state. Sharon didn’t want Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior anywhere near Durban, let alone a heavy gun like the once and maybe future prime minister.

Sharon’s decision to ground Melchior was not only – and certainly not especially – a gesture of solidarity with President Bush, who lowered the level of the U.S. delegation. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made it clear that the administration had no problem with Israel sending Melchior as the head of the Israeli delegation.

According to a senior official in the Foreign Ministry deeply involved in the Durban affair, the decision to lower the level of the Israeli delegation to a deputy director-general, Mordechai Yedid, is an indication of Sharon’s indifference to another “conference-shmonference.”

Indeed, the real reason, says the source, for the minuscule effort the prime minister made to mitigate the damage is much more interesting. “What would Sharon prefer?” asked the source, “that the conference approve a wacky anti-Semitic resolution that once again turns us into the underdog of the world and makes the resolution irrelevant, or a balanced condemnation that focuses on the settlements, the Mitchell Report and the suffering of the Palestinian people under occupation?”

According to the ministry source, with a little more effort the second would have been possible but Sharon didn’t encourage the Foreign Ministry to even try. And Shimon Peres also didn’t care. He was too busy preparing for his meeting with Arafat.

A hint of this could be found in something Deputy Minister Melchior said recently: “If we have to play the part of the devil, it’s better to be a big devil than a small one.”

The Durban story and how it was hijacked by the Arabs under the nose of Mary Robinson, can even make Melchior laugh. He remembers that at one of the preparatory sessions there was opposition to a blanket worldwide condemnation of anti-Semitism. The representative of one of the larger Asian countries suggested a condemnation of European anti-Semitism. The Argentine representative protested: “Why are you discriminating against us? We have anti-Semitism, too.”

The lessons from Durban run deeper than this or that formulation of condemnation, and even deeper than the public relations damage done to Israel by the street demonstrations by the large Muslim community in the South African city. “We have a problem of lack of awareness of the subject of human rights and the growing influence of non-government organizations on the world agenda. It’s no accident there’s still no proper Hebrew term for NGO,” says Melchior. He says the Arabs figured out how to fill the vacuum Israel left in the arena. “A well-oiled campaign by Arab states, who know nothing about human rights, managed to turn us into the anti-Christ.”

Melchior says that after Durban, 60 states are going to sign the international treaty for the prosecution of war crimes, “turning them all into Belgium.” Then comes a conference of all states signed to the Geneva conventions, which will put the convention’s violations in the territories on the international agenda. Luckily, he says, the Arabs got drunk on their power in Durban. Instead of being satisfied with criticizing the occupation, they delegitimized our past, the Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel. We’re not always going to be so lucky.

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