Friday, September 9, 2011

Without a government, Belgium buddies up to Israel

Belgium has not had a properly functioning government for more than 450 days yet that hasn’t stopped its caretaker administration from seeking to increase trade with Israel.

Earlier this week, Yves Leterme, the acting Belgian prime minister, opened a new embassy for his country in Tel Aviv and held talks with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Leterme used his trip to argue “there is room for improvement of our economic relations in fields like pharmaceuticals, information technology, biotechnology.”

Leterme lacks any democratic mandate; he is only supposed to be handling essential affairs of state until leaders of the parties that fared best in a 2010 election stop bickering for long enough to form a ruling coalition. Discussing how to bolster commercial bonds with Israel amounts to an abuse of his position.

Diamonds are a war criminal’s best friend

It is especially troubling that Leterme celebrated the importance of the diamond trade between the two countries, citing estimates that it is worth more than €2 billion per year. Shir Hever, the Israeli economist and political activist, has stated that revenue from processing diamonds provides annual funding of about $1 billion (€730 million) for the Israeli military. Diamonds account for 70% of trade between Belgium and Israel, with numerous Israeli traders working in Antwerp, one of the two main centres of the diamond trade in Europe (the other one is in London). By encouraging this trade, Belgium is helping to finance the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Leterme’s visit took place the same week that a design exhibition sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry opened in Brussels. I am pleased to say that the gallery where this “Brand Israel” event is taking place has been the site of several protests by Palestine solidarity activists. The exhibition has also received support from the city administration in Brussels and representatives of the Francophone community and the French embassy in Belgium. All of them stand accused of helping Israel to use art and culture as a means of diverting attention from its crimes.

Jazz guitarist heedless to boycott plea

Another Belgian embracing Israel is the jazz guitarist Philip Catherine. He is scheduled to play Tel Aviv next week. Going ahead with that gig would mean he is putting his own selfish interests before a call made by representatives of a wide cross-section of Palestinian society in 2005 for people of conscience (and that includes musicians) to boycott Israel. In an interview with the Dutch-language newspaper De Morgen, Catherine said: “I play for people, not for politics. And not all Israeli people support the decisions of their government.”

Catherine should be alerted to a statement made by an Israeli government spokesman Nissim Ben-Sheetrit in 2005: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank and do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.”

Claims that music is apolitical cannot go unchallenged. Many of the finest practitioners of Catherine’s genre were African-Americans, who knew all about racial discrimination. Martin Luther King stressed the potency of jazz, when he said: “Much of the power of the freedom movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

The best thing that Catherine could do to lift the spirits of the oppressed is to cancel his show in Tel Aviv.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (, 9 September 2011.

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