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When Israeli Basketball Counts By: Judy Lash Balint
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 15, 2004

Two nights ago, just as PM Sharon was settling in to Washington before his meetings with George Bush that decided the fate of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, upstart basketball team Hapoel Jerusalem beat Real Madrid, the most successful club in European basketball history, to claim the ULEB Cup.

In this news crazed country, even the hourly news was suspended as every radio station broadcast the game live from Belgium. The nation held its collective breath as our boys in red managed to hold off the Spanish team to claim a 83-72 point victory.

At the moment of victory in this lovely diversion, the roar of the crowd watching the game by satellite at the Teddy Stadium here in Jerusalem swelled over the southern part of the city, quickly followed by hundreds of car horns blaring into the night.

Yesterday morning, Sharon's visit to Washington was a footnote on the frontpage of the two most widely read daily papers. Ninety five percent of the page was filled with pictures of the triumphant players and the headline, Jerusalem of Gold. Radio announcers waxed poetic all day, with expressions of gratitude to the Hapoel team for restoring pride and a winning attitude to the Holy city.

Yesterday evening, travel was free of charge on Egged buses heading to the victory party in the center of town, where a few thousand fans decked out in Hapoel red greeted the victorious team. The crowd was boisterous, but there was no trace of anything remotely resembling the hooligan activity that accompanies sports events in many European cities. Teenagers with kippot wave gigantic red and black flags and police turned a blind eye to the haphazard parking of fans who pull their cars up onto every available inch of sidewalk space within half a mile of the party in Safra Square.

Oh, what a pleasant distraction. Anyone would think that Israelis have nothing else to worry about. But while half the country gets carried away with the sports victory, the other half is furiously campaigning, scheming and organizing for or against Sharon's so-called disengagement plan.

In a strange mutation of democracy, the powers that be have decided that only the members of his Likud party will take the fateful vote on the Sharon plan. Some 200,000 registered Likud members will have their say on May 2.

Originally scheduled for April 29, the vote was moved because of concern for low voter turnout due to a Maccabi Tel Aviv's participation in a key game in the European Final Four basketball championships.

Likud ministers on both sides of the issue are calling meetings with various Likud officials to try to persuade them--and are simultaneously using the opportunity to jockey for position should Sharon fall as a result of his corruption scandals.

Former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, now serving as Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, is a staunch Sharon loyalist. He summoned 30 Likud mayors to his office on Tuesday night to consolidate support for the unilateral withdrawal plan. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, another supporter of the plan, has created his own team of like-minded Likud thinkers. The Mofaz group includes Ministers Livni, Ezra and Boim.

On the opposing side, Minister Without Portfolio Uzi Landau, a Likudnik with impeccable reputation and credentials, is set to debate Sharon next week.

And out on the streets, the YESHA Council representing more than 200,000 Jews living in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, is mobilizing with all its strength. For the past few weeks, teenagers who were drafted to man every major intersection, have handed out thousands of bumper stickers and informational booklets decrying the eviction of Jews from their homes.

Banners across highways proclaim the slogan: Uprooting Communities is a Victory For Terror. Full page newspaper ads directed at Likud party members warn that a yes vote will force the right wing parties out of the coalition, bringing the leftist opposition leader, Shimon Peres, back into the government.

As news of the exchange of letters between George Bush and Ariel Sharon filters out, some sharp-eyed analysts point to a key contradiction. In his statement, President Bush says:

"It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."

Yisrael Medad, a veteran political activist and former Knesset aide asks: "How does that jive with Sharon's current unilateral plan?"

But lucky for Sharon, the lull in terror activity brought about by the elimination of Hamas leader Yassin seems to have caused half the country to ignore such details and focus on basking in the glory of the Hapoel Jerusalem win.

Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: What's Really Happening in Israel (Xulon Press). She blogs at http://jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com.

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