Tuesday, December 16, 2008

another good israeli film, plus more

Hiam Abbass (The Visitor) is in danger of being typecast. In Etz Limon (The Lemon Tree), she plays another stoic Arab woman. But perhaps it is a sign of our times that all the available roles these days for Arab women of a certain age demand stoicism. At any rate, it is a role she plays exceedingly well, this time as a middle-aged Palestinian widow - Salma Zidane - who has the dubious privilege of being neighbour to the Israeli Defence Minister, a smarmy hypocritical character (who, as things stand, could belong to any of the major three parties). Israel's (yes, that's his name) secret service posse has got it into their heads that Salma's lemon grove, which borders his property, poses a threat to the DM as it could serve as cover for anyone wanting to assassinate him. They decide that the grove needs to be cut down. Salma isn't going to take this lying down. She has inherited the grove from her father and has lovingly tended it over the years, with the help of an old family retainer. With her husband dead and her children away or inattentive, it's all she has. The stage is set for a David and Goliath style confrontation between Salma and Israel, in which she takes him to court - all the way, in fact, to Israel's Supreme court - aided by her feisty, rakish lawyer Ziad.

The metaphors and symbols in the film are hard to miss - a boundary dispute, arguments over security, encroachment, and eventually a monstrous wall that is an ugly blot on everyone's landscape and leaves no one feeling safe. Whatever prior political views you come to this film with, you're likely to sympathise with the stoic (there really is no other word), long-suffering Salma. But what makes Etz Limon work is its interest in complicating simplistic landscapes of good and evil. Salma faces a great deal of resistance from her own community - from people who think there are bigger problems than a lemon grove, and more ominously from community elders who seek to snuff out any signs of romance between herself and Ziad. And Israel's wife, wracked with guilt over their inability to be good neighbours to a seemingly harmless Palestinian woman, thinks that sometimes Israel knows no limits. The clever device of giving her husband the same name as the country, means that it's never very clear to us, the audience, whether her frustrations are personal or political or both. I found myself urging her on, wanting her to push her rebellion further and I wondered at the director's unwillingness to make her do more than she does. But that is, I suspect, what makes the film real. For more on director Eran Riklis and his collaboration with Palestinian co-writer Suha Arraf, and of course Israeli-Arab (or should I be saying Palestinian Israeli?) Hiam Abbass, see here.

Jonathan Freedland offers a depressing overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in today's Guardian. Forget about the two state-solution he says, we are beginning to see four states. But when the going gets tough, sometimes it's best to raise the negotiation stakes. If Israelis are becoming increasingly resigned to the status quo and a weak and disunited Palestine can offer nothing that Israel wants, perhaps the only meaningful carrot that can induce Israel to make the necessary hard concessions is the promise of a comprehensive solution to conflict in the region - what David Milliband has been calling a 23-state solution.

In a way, this is similar to what the ICG has been urging the US to do in Iraq. The only way to get Iran and Syria to cooperate in Iraq, it has been saying, is to address the other, non-Iraq related issues that these countries are concerned about, in a manner that goes some way towards recognising their vital interests (something that the US will find difficult and unpalatable). It is a counter-intuitive approach to breaking negotiating deadlock: increase the numbers of actors involved, increase the issues, complicate the agenda - all with a view to striking bargains on a host of other, unrelated issues, that will induce the parties to make the concessions you want on the issues you care about the most.

And since I have gone from Israel to Iraq, I cannot resist linking to Patrick Cockburn's reading of the status of forces agreement in Iraq as a case of unconditional US surrender. I am not so sanguine. The US does non-territorial empire better than anyone else. Sami Ramadani writes that the now (in)famous Iraqi shoe-thrower is a secular, socialist Guevarista who has become a new, non-sectarian symbol of the Iraqi resistance. A text message this morning informed me that while some Iraqis think that he is a hero and should be freed, most think he deserves his jail sentence because he missed.

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