JERUSALEM – Leading Israeli theater actors have pledged not to perform in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, stirring a heated debate days before Mideast peace talks resume in Washington.
The settlements, deemed illegal by the international community and built on occupied land the Palestinians want for their state, could derail talks shortly after they are launched Thursday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will walk out unless Israel extends a 10-month curb on settlement building that expires on Sept. 26. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not committed to an extension.
Israelis are divided over the settlements, including how many should be dismantled, if any, to enable the creation of a Palestinian state. The refusal from playwrights and actors to perform in settlements drew harsh criticism, in large part because of sensitivity to international boycott efforts against Israel.
Netanyahu complained Sunday that the artists are playing into the hands of what he said were international efforts to delegitimize Israel with economic, cultural and academic boycotts.
“The last thing we need at this time, while under such an attack, is an attempt for boycotts from within,” he said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting.
The issue came to the forefront because a $10 million performing arts center in the settlement of Ariel, one of the West Bank’s largest, is to open in November. Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman said the main Israeli theater companies, including Habima National Theater and Cameri, have agreed to put Ariel on their tour plan.
Opposition arose in theater circles, and so far more than 60 artists, including some of the country’s best-known stage actors, have signed a pledge not to perform in Ariel, said renowned playwright Joshua Sobol, author of the Holocaust play “The Ghetto.”
“There was a lethargy in recent years,” Sobol said. “People somehow became indifferent to the many issues which are existential issues in Israel, and this may revive public debate.”
Four theater companies – Habima, Cameri, Beit Lessin and Beersheba Theater – said they would stick to their decision to perform. “We respect the political views of our actors, but we’ll make sure that the best of Israeli theater will get to Ariel,” they said in a joint statement.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War.
Since then, about 300,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and another 200,000 in east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the war.
In other developments, the spiritual leader of one of the parties in Netanyahu’s coalition caused a stir Sunday after saying in his weekly Sabbath sermon that the Palestinians and Abbas should “perish from the world.” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, also described Palestinians as “evil, bitter enemies of Israel.”
The 89-year-old former chief rabbi of Israel is a respected religious scholar among Jews of Middle Eastern descent, but is also known for vitriolic comments about Arabs, secular Jews, liberals, women and gays. Shas runs private schools that educate tens of thousands of Israeli children.
The Abbas government responded angrily, demanding in a statement that the Israeli government put a stop to what it described as a “culture of hatred in Israel toward Palestinians.”
The Israeli premier’s office rejected Yosef’s remarks, saying they “do not reflect the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the position of the Israeli government.” The office said in a statement that Netanyahu is going to the talks with a goal of “reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that will put an end to the conflict.”