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A joke can be a serious thing. In a Middle-East torn by a violent, 50-year Arab-Israeli conflict, the consequences could be both unpredictable and dangerous.
And that, alas, was the experience recently of the world's most renowned cartoonist, an Israeli now an Israeli-American, Ranan Lurie and Al Ahram, an Egyptian newspaper, one of the most respected, in the Arab world.
Though no specific charge was levelled at Lurie's work or a particularly offensive cartoon, the "discovery" that Lurie, a major in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had fought in the I967 war - the so-called Six Day War, a scintillating Israeli victory - has allowed his detractors, chiefly Arab journalists, to brand him "a murderer".
In the frontline was a popular Egyptian magazine Rose al- Youssef which soon mobilised the Cairo journalists in an impressive signature campaign.
When the campaign crested, Lurie was branded a mass murderer, a soldier who had taken part in massacres of Egyptian soldiers. The next day, 19 top Egyptian cartoonists petitioned the publishers of Al Aharm.
Lurie's cartoons, they said violated the profession's code of ethics. All that Lurie could say in his defense was that he was "a reserve major defending my country".
But it was the Al Ahram that found itself in trouble. Egypt's press syndicate has a rule, says the NYK Times Cairo correspondent, Douglas Jehl, which prohibits news syndicates, papers and journalists from joining any organisation or supporting any journalist that supports the normalisation of relations with Israel.
Though it may seem trivial in terms of Egypt-Israel relations or the Middle-East peace process, it does reflect quite sharply the new mood in the Arab world. Egypt, we need to remember, was the first Arab state to sign a treaty with the Jewish state; President Sadat's "land for peace' deal.
But since then Egypt which had hoped for similar treaties - Israel-Syria, for instance - has watched a steady erosion of trust and commitment.
With the defeat of the Rabin-Peres led Labour administration, and the advent of the Likud-led coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu, an Egyptian cartoonist summed it up, perhaps a bit rashly that "the Israelis themselves have not forgotten their dead in Nazi Germany, so why should we forget our soldiers who died defending our land? Lurie fought against us.
On almost all these issues, an exhaustive and authoritative report was presented to the UN Secretary-General, Dr. Boutros Boutros- Ghali by a special committee, appointed by the S.G. The Chairman of the Committee to investigate Israeli practices affecting the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs in the Occupied Territories was the Sri Lankan Permanent Representaive, Mr. H.L. de Silva, PC.
The Oslo Accords are internationally recognised as the most reasonable basis for a negotiated settlement. Of course these accords were signed by the Labour party, led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and the P.L.O by Chairman Yasser Arafat, now President of the Palestinian Authority.
The key negotiator was foreign Minister Peres, former head of Israel's huge Labour party-controlled trade union federation, the Histradut. It was his intimate contacts with the Norwegian labour movement that helped put the peace process on track.
The report included a study of the agreement signed in Washington on Sept. 25,1995 - the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza, an agreement popularly called OSLO II Agreement. These accords did give rise, the UN report observed, to great expectations in the international community; a hope that the people of the Middle-east could live in harmony, dignity and mutual respect.
All those hopes were dashed. In the view of non-partisan analysts, the chief reason was the "new policies" of the rightwing Likud-led alliance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Gaza, for example, Palestinians have lost their jobs by an estimated 100,000 illegal foreign workers, and another 100,000 licensed by the Israeli authorities.
What's more, a "virtually hermetic closure" has been imposed on the occupied territories since 25 Feb.1996 following four suicide bomb attacks in Israel, attacks that claimed 63 lives.
The policies of the hard-Right Likud are shaped by (a) Prime Minister Netanyahu and his top advisers and (2) by the many small parties that help Likud to have a working majority in the 120 seat Knesset.
The current situation was summed up quite bluntly by Chemi Shalev, an Israeli commentator.
"If one party pulls out of the coalition, there is likely to be an avalanche".
But Prime Minister Netanyahu had more serious cause for anxiety - his own fate. The Israeli Attorney General, Elyakim Rubinstein has decided not to prosecute Benjamin Netanyahu for breach of trust.
Mr. Netanyahu's luck held. State Attorney Mrs. Edna Arbel who was in charge of "the file" accepted the A.G.'S decision. And yet, the Prime Minister's troubles are far from over. He remains exposed to continuous pressure by his allies, and these partners not only advocate different causes but causes strongly opposed by some other constituent groups. In short, there is no unity in diversity, just the opposite.
At the centre of the scandal - the allegation of breach of trust- was SHAS, a party described by western correspondents based in Jerusalem like Judy Dempsey, a British reporter, as "an Ultra-Orthodox" movement. If it had been a Palestinian Muslim party, the western media would surely have branded it "Islamic fundamentalist".
Mounting economic difficulties have encouraged the migration of thousands of Russian families after the Soviet implosion.
But the 'holy land' is no land of milk and honey. Far from it. Life is hard, with jobs scarce.
But there is democracy, a truly "open society", with more recognised parties perhaps than in the US., Britain, Canada, France or Germany, and parties actively involved in national politics.
So what do the Russian migrants do but launch a party, Yisrael Baaliya, with Natan Sharansky as its leader.
It won seven seats and that seven votes can decide the fate of the Likud-led coalition in the Knesset. And that surely explains Mr. Sharansky's bold comment on the allegations against his prime minister.
"Should it turn out to be ten percent true, the government should not continue."
Mr. Netanyahu is a fighter, not a quitter. He proved that as the crisis mounted.
"The truth will win. This government is not going anywhere. We are not going anywhere.
We are staying where the people and history put us," he said at a Likud rally. We will lead Likud to the 21st century".
But Netanyahu is not out of the woods. Labour can go to the people directly, if it cannot oust him in Parliament, under the constitution. But already he is a prisoner of the coalition, a captive of SHAS.
Former UNP kingmaker Sirisena Cooray, looking relaxed and confident despite uncertainty over his position, is insisting he has retired from the UNP and from politics and has no intention of making a comeback.In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr. Cooray who suddenly re-appeared in Sri Lanka last Monday said he had nothing to hide or fear especially relating to the Athulathmudali assassination on which a Presidential Commission is finalizing a report. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Wasnít it bad for your image to be considered a sort of fugitive from justice with a warrant out for you?
A. It is all nonsense, there is a Sinhala saying Ďrata wate vetak bandath kata wate bandinda beí. You can fence the country but you can never fence the tongue. I was by no means a fugitive from justice for the eight months I was away. I was never accused or convicted to be a fugitive. Like any ordinary person I was out of the country and that does not mean I was in hiding.
Q. But there were aspersions that you, one time strongman of the UNP were keeping away from the country. What were you doing?
A.I travelled in America. My sons live in Australia and there got involved in retirement villages not homes for the elderly as such. Another son met with an accident and he was in a hospital in Bangalore for two weeks, and he is still in Madras undergoing treatment. So you see I spent my time profitably.
Q. Why did you not appear before the Special Presidential Commission inquiring into the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali?
A.As I said before people talk a lot of nonsense not knowing the full story. I requested the Commission to allow me to appear before it and believe it or not I did not even get a letter of acknowledgment from it for three months.
Therefore is it wrong for me to presume that I was not required by the SPC and so I legally left the country like any citizen and did not go stealthily.
Q. When did you get to know you were wanted by the Commission?
A.I first read about it in the papers three months after I had left. So I took the obvious step of asking my lawyers to get a date for me to come in time. I never showed reluctance to appear before the Commission. I donít think there was any concrete evidence against me. It was largely loose talk and hearsay. Would I have offered to go before the Commission If I was guilty? Even when I wrote to the Commission it never asked me to stay on in the country.
Q. It is alleged that you were associated with men like Soththi Upali who were linked with the Athulathmudali killing. Would you comment?
A.You cannot just indulge in drawing room and cocktail party gossip and assassinate peoples character. There must be acceptable evidence and it was conclusive that the LTTE had planned the killing.
Q. Then why all these allegations and innuendo?
A.Ask those who talk. It may be to tarnish my political image. What can I do about it?
Q. Will you remain in Sri Lanka or are you planning another long trip?
A.Why should I leave my country unless it is for a holiday? I am too old to start a new life. I will definitely not leave. Charges were earlier made against President Premadasa and Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. Now people are pointing a finger at me over various killings. Such people either donít have anything worth doing, or they are afraid I will get back to active politics.
Q. But wonít you help to build up the UNP and give Ranil a hand?
A.How can I? I am not a party member any longer. I am retired. I know it will surprise many people. I donít think Ranil or the UNP need my help. I am sure they can get on well without my help.
Q. But donít you think a man of your political experience should help the party of which you have been a member for forty years or so?
A.I donít think it is necessary. My way of doing things may not be Ranilís way. Each man has his own way of handling matters. I know the UNP has a lot of talent, only one must know how to harness it for the party.
Q. How do you read the political situation today?
A.I came just a few days ago and all I know is there was a local election and the UNP lost.
Q. Did you meet President Chandrika Kumaratunga before you left and if so why?
A.Yes, I did. We had a chit chat. I prefer not to talk about it, lest it should embarrass anyone.
Q. There was speculation as to how you found the money to live abroad for so long?
A.I have heard of such insinuations. But I can show I brought back most of the Travellersí Cheques I took. I have many friends in the United States, Australia and India. So I stayed with them. I did not have to spend much. I am not much of a shopper either.
Q. What do you think of Colomboís new Mayor Karu Jayasuriya who is emerging?
A. From what I know he is a leading figure in the UNP today? He is an honest and clever businessman with a lot of administrative experience. He should be good for the party.
Q. Would you help the UNP on national issues?
A.I will help any political party that asks for my help on important national issues. Iím glad about the agreement between the PA and the UNP. I always felt the two major political parties should get together and work together to tackle the ethnic issue.
Q. Though you claim to have retired from the UNP many think you might make a spectacular come back to the top.
A.A chuckle (tell) everyone that I feel too old to climb to the top!
Finally Mr. Cooray nattily dressed in a printed shirt and sarong said, ďDonít I look relaxed and contented. It comes from my utmost confidence that truth will prevail. I have nothing to hide or fearĒ.
Continue to the News/Comment page 4 - * Lies damn lies and the oath-a star is born, * 'There are no goodies and baddies in the Supreme Court'
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