Monday, March 26, 2018

Moshe Kahlon tells it like it is, in Arabic

Israel's finance minister Moshe Kahlon is of Libyan origin, but he's not quite the bridge-builder with the Palestinians that Haaretz would like him to be. He speaks basic Arabic but has some honest things to say in the language: he tells his Palestinian interlocutors  that he is the minister from the refugee camp - the ma'abara where his mother still lives. And declaring 'Rahat al-Quds!' ('You've lost Jerusalem') is his way of speaking truth to power, albeit with a smile.

The tension of the days of rage that followed America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital remains palpable. The Palestinians have totally cut themselves off from the Trump administration. A peace deal seems further away than ever. And into the Muqata in Ramallah marched a senior Israeli minister who, with a broad smile on his face, declared in Arabic, “Rahat a-Quds!” (“You’ve lost Jerusalem!”)
In another place and time, this certainly could have been a casus belli, but in this story, which took place at the end of last month, those present responded with forgiving amusement and shook the hand of their guest – finance minister and security cabinet member Moshe Kahlon.
It wasn’t Kahlon’s first visit to Ramallah, nor was it his first meeting with senior Palestinian Authority officials. His remark was accepted forgivingly because they are familiar with Kahlon’s direct but endearing style. Since he became finance minister, the former Likud member who now heads a party, Kulanu, which doesn’t have a clear diplomatic agenda, has succeeded in developing a quiet channel with the Palestinian leadership. First it was on the basis of economic cooperation and coordination under the auspices of the defense establishment, while later on other issues were added, spurred by an American bear hug. In essence, since the Palestinians declared that they will not come to the negotiating table if Washington is the mediator, Kahlon is currently the only active diplomatic channel.
Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon at the Knesset on March 5, 2018.
Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon at the Knesset on March 5, 2018.(Photo: Olivier Fitoussi)
Some Palestinian officials refer to him sarcastically as the minister from the refugee camp, because during one of his meetings he told them of his difficult childhood in the projects in Givat Olga. His conversations are sprinkled with the Arabic he learned from his Tripolitan parents. This detail has attracted the attention of foreign news outlets, which have labeled him “the Arabic speaker who could lead Israel.” Only Kahlon really understands Arabic, people familiar with these meetings told Haaretz, in a barb clearly aimed at Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but they hasten to add that Kahlon’s Arabic is very basic and his conversations with PA officials are conducted with the help of interpreters or in English.
Although these meetings were never really a secret, even if all the details aren’t known, the Kulanu chairman tries very hard to conceal this aspect of his work. On all his very lively social networks, among the hundreds of announcements about new financial benefits and pictures of his elderly mother (who still lives in Givat Olga), you will find only a handful of references to diplomatic or security affairs in general and to his ties with Ramallah in particular. That’s no coincidence, of course. Kahlon is proud of his work in this area, but he is also afraid to undercut his right-wing image.

The connection began when he took over the Finance Ministry in 2015, with a telephone call from his Palestinian counterpart Shukri Bishara, which led to a meeting at which they were joined by PA Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh. This wasn’t an unusual gesture or a demonstration of good will. Under the Paris Protocol governing economic relations between Israel and the PA – which was even updated in 2012 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said then this was aimed at “supporting Palestinian society and strengthening its economy” – Israel is obligated to coordinate various economic moves with the PA, including the transfer of taxes collected by Israel on the PA’s behalf.

Over the years Israeli governments have at various times held these Palestinian funds hostage, delaying or freezing their transfer as a form of pressure or punishment. This being the case, even a decision to regulate the transfer of funds becomes a significant diplomatic decision, as is a decision on what level of official comes to the meetings. Kahlon’s associates note that the previous finance minister, Yair Lapid, had also met with Bishara under these circumstances, but the relationship never developed in the same way and the debts could not be worked out.
In 2017 Kahlon also started meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, with Netanyahu’s knowledge and blessing. The two have met three times in Ramallah and are expected to hold another meeting in Jerusalem. The pair, along with members of their staffs, also connect by phone. These meetings are attended by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, whose responsibility includes the financial and security coordination mechanisms. Sometimes Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj has also attended.
But some Palestinian officials aren’t so enthusiastic. They say the relationship with Kahlon is totally businesslike and stems from the need to manage economic agreements with Israel. The senior PA officials have no partiality toward whoever is managing the contacts with them, as long as he is not a settler, they stress. There are those in the Palestinian “street” who would prefer to cut off all contact with Israel, but they don’t understand that the PA can’t do that because it has obligations, they say.

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