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Iranian threat unites Israel

The statements by the Iranian president where he threatens to obliterate Israel from the world map and where he questions whether the Holocaust really happened are creating fear and anger in Israel.


Recent events in Israeli politics are referred to as a political earthquake. Miryam Shomrat, newly appointed ambassador to Norway, will now try to represent a country filled with political turmoil. Shomrat took over as Israeli ambassador to the embassy in Oslo after Liora Herzl in the fall. Shomrat was previously ambassador to Finland, but now comes from a position in Jerusalem.

- Can you tell us something about the political situation that Israel is in now?

- The troubled situation we see in Israel now we have never experienced in Israel before. The situation can most easily be described as a political earthquake. The fact that the country's sitting prime minister changes party is completely unique, and no one knows exactly what will happen next. The closest historical parallel is when former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion left the Mapai party and formed Rafi in 1965. These two parties were reunited in the Israeli Labor Party in 1968. But this was completely different, in that the sitting prime minister went on this the way. This process was initiated when the government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, decided to withdraw from Gaza. This created a great deal of controversy within the Likud party, and when Sharon realized that he would not have an impact on his policy in this area, he decided to form a new political party. This came at a time of several other major upheavals in Israeli politics, including the election of the new leader of the Labor Party, which was also a surprise to many.

In Israeli politics, we have a very low barricade, a party only needs two percent of the vote to have representation in the Knesset. Thus, there have always been larger or smaller coalitions in the government. Israeli politics is a bit different from what is seen in most other countries, in that the Likud Party, which is a conservative party in the European political context, has had a high level of support among the poorer teams of the people. Poverty is a growing problem in Israel, and we have almost a million poor people in Israel today. That's almost 20 percent of the population.

The election is at the end of March this year, so we will see what will be the result.

- Can you say something about what kind of role ethnicity has in Israeli politics?

- It is an issue that first appeared in the early 1970s. It also played a minor role in the past, but was only then raised as a political issue. The main character behind this was Nessim D. Gaon, who was born in Sudan but lived in Geneva. He was elected leader of the World Sephardi Federation in 1973, and began the work of creating a separate identity for the Shepardi Jews, that is, the Arab or Oriental Jews, and he started a political party on that basis. There were very different Jewish communities gathered in Israel after the formation of the state in 1948. Many people from both Europe and the countries of the Middle East immigrated, and the country's Jewish population increased from 650.000 to 1,3 million during the first year.

European Jews had completely different preconditions than, for example, the Arab Jews. The Jews who came from Arab countries came to a country that in many ways was a modern nation much closer to Europe. It was a completely different type of social structure than they were used to, and most Arab Jews had trouble adapting to the new society. The problems appeared both on the social level, but also in relation to this with political culture. Even among the Jews from Arab countries, there were major internal differences. On the one hand, we had highly educated Iraqi Jews, but people from Morocco and Tunisia had little or no education. But the new leader of the Labor Party, Amir Perez, who was born in Morocco, has said he does not want to let ethnicity be a matter in the election campaign. Neither in the party nor in the upcoming elections.

- What are the major political divides in Israeli politics?

- The big difference in Israeli politics is probably the question of how social problems should be tackled. Security issues have always been central to Israeli election campaigns, but so far most parties have tried to avoid this this time. Here I must say that Palestinian shelling of Israeli territory with Kassam rockets will push this issue forward in the election campaign. It will be difficult for the parties to avoid this when such attacks occur.

These attacks are an expression of an internal power struggle among Palestinians and anarchy in some Palestinian territories. The Palestinian autonomous authorities must settle with the extremists. It has been said that extremists on both sides need each other to legitimize their own existence, and the unsaid has another core of truth in it. But right now, the extremists on the Palestinian side are more active, and the Palestinians need to settle with them.

- Where are the Israeli Arabs in the Israeli political landscape?

- The Israeli Arabs make up almost 20 percent of the population in Israel, but have never voted in bloc in Israeli politics. The Arabs are voting all over the political scale in Israel. They also have several parties of their own, but as I said, do not just vote for these. Both Likud and the Labor Party have Arab and Druze MPs.

Ethnicity, by the way, was also one of the main arguments Sharon used to explain the exile from Gaza inside the Likud party. He said that if Israel still wants to be a Jewish state and one still wants to be a democracy, then one must withdraw from these areas. At that time he was still the leader of Likud, so he was careful to say something about the West Bank. However, most Israelis are quite clear that they never wanted an annexation of either Gaza or the West Bank. The areas around Jerusalem and the large settlements near Ben-Gurion airport are something else, and again Sharon probably has most Israelis with him.

- What about the wall that is set up?

- Are you talking about the safety fence? In Jerusalem there is a wall, in other places there is a fence. No, this was not meant to define any borders, it is only set up to prevent terrorist acts against Israel, it is not meant as something permanent.

- What impact will Palestinian actions have on the upcoming elections?

- Palestinian actions have a major impact on Israeli elections. Especially when something happens close to the election, such as in 1996, it can change the public mood completely. It is always the incumbent government that must defend itself, and the opposition will always use the security argument in such situations. It's part of the political game.

- Environmental issues rarely get media attention in the debate, can you say something about these?

- The Oslo agreement set up a number of bilateral groups that worked on various environmental issues, and this still works. Not only between us and the Palestinians, but also between Israel and Jordan, with Egypt and others. Tourism, agriculture, water issues and medicine are areas where we have good cooperation with countries in the region. You have to coordinate with each other, and we can do that. But these things unfortunately do not get much attention in the media. Even with the intifada going on, we have collaborated in other areas. It makes it more difficult, but it is equally necessary, we are neighbors and we must work together.

- To return to the upcoming elections, have the statements of the Iranian president had any impact?

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, has with his statements made Iran a threat not only to Israel, but to world peace. It is a dangerous combination: a leader who says Israel should be annihilated and a country that has the technology to develop nuclear weapons and send them over long distances. Iran is seen as a threat to the state of Israel, but with longer arms, this could also be a danger to Europe.

Given all the oil coming through the Strait of Hormuz, an Iran with nuclear weapons should be something more countries should look at as a threat.

It is difficult to know what Israel can and will do, but this is something that does not create debate in Israel and will not be an important issue in the elections. Although most politicians and the population otherwise view this as an important issue, there is no debate around this. This is a matter that unites.

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