TEL AVIV // Dozens of Israeli actors, playwrights and directors created an uproar in Israel yesterday and drew a rebuke from the prime minister after declaring they would not perform in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
A petition signed at the weekend by 57 theatrical personalities, including some of Israel's most prominent, came in response to an announcement by six major Israeli theatre companies that they plan to take productions to a West Bank settlement for the first time. The signatories' refusal made front-page headlines and drew wide media attention because it highlighted Israel's internal disagreements on the West Bank occupation just days before the start of direct peace talks with the Palestinians.
The settlements issue will play a key part in the talks, with Palestinians already threatening to cut off negotiations if Israel steps up West Bank Jewish construction after a 10-month partial freeze expires on September 26. Palestinians want their future state to include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The petition said its signatories wanted to express their "repugnance" at the theatre companies' decision to hold performances at a new state-funded cultural centre to be opened in November in Ariel, one of the large Jewish settlement blocs that Israel would like to keep under any peace pact. They said they will refuse to perform in any settlement and called on their companies to operate only within Israel's sovereign territory.
The 540-seat theatre in Ariel, home to about 17,000 Jews, is already scheduled to hold eight plays, including the Israeli adaptations of Piaf, based on the life of the French singer Edith Piaf, as well as Tuesdays with Morrie and The Count of Monte Cristo. The theatre's manager said yesterday that so far, none of the plays has been cancelled. Yehoshua Sobol, one of Israel's renowned playwrights and satirists, rejected accusations from the Right that the petition's signatories were launching a cultural boycott against fellow citizens. In a front-page editorial in the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, he wrote of the petition: "This is not a boycott. This is a refusal to violate international law, which forbids an occupying power to settle its citizens within the conquered territory."
The West Bank settlements, which are home to about 500,000 Jewish Israelis, including in East Jerusalem, are considered illegal by the international community. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, blasted the petition as damaging to Israel's image and threatened to withhold much-needed state funding from theatre companies should performances be cancelled. He told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting: "The state of Israel is under an attack of delegitimisation by elements in the international community. This attack includes attempts to enact economic, academic and cultural boycotts. The last thing we need at this time is ? a boycott from within."
Mr Netanyahu added a veiled warning that he might slash financing for theatres, saying the government did "not need to fund boycotts ? directed at Israeli citizens." Dror Ben-Yemini, a right-leaning Israeli commentator, said the petition's signatories chose the wrong settlement to boycott because Ariel's inhabitants are not known as hardline settlers and live there mainly to take advantage of state-subsidised housing. He wrote on NRG, a news website: "Ariel is not populated by those who want to devour Arabs for breakfast. These are people who looked for a good quality of life at a decent price. They have a right to cultural performances just like the residents of [central Israel] do."
The internal Israeli tensions come as Mr Netanyahu faces pressure from Israel's western allies to extend a partial settlement freeze to ease the peace process with the Palestinians. Two days before flying to Washington for the US-hosted summit, the Israeli premier avoided mentioning the settlements at the cabinet meeting but expressed optimism at reaching a peace pact. "I am convinced that if the Palestinian leadership takes the negotiations as seriously as we do, we can reach a stable agreement - not just a deal for a tactical ceasefire between wars," he said.
Despite Mr Netanyahu's optimism, the renewed talks, which come after a 20-month suspension, are opposed by some prominent figures in Israel's right-wing camp. On Saturday, Ovadia Yosef, 89, an influential rabbi and spiritual head of Shas, a pro-settler, ultra-religious party in the governing coalition, called for the death of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and all other Palestinians. Speaking in a fiery sermon and referring to Mr Abbas by his kunya or honorific, the rabbi said: "Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this earth. God should strike them and these Palestinians - evil haters of Israel - with a plague."
Mr Netanyahu and Eli Yishai, the head of Shas, refrained from commenting on the rabbi's statements yesterday. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, said the statements were tantamount to calling for "genocide against Palestinians" and were an "insult" to peace efforts. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org