Poetry by Palestinian on school syllabus prompts political rumpus


It would be a political first: a government brought down over poetry. But it is a possibility, albeit a remote one.

Israel's main opposition Likud party has tabled a motion of no confidence in the government of the Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, over the inclusion of work by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish in the school literature syllabus.

Shas, Mr Barak's most important coalition partner, is threatening to back the motion.

Even though most analysts believe the government will survive the vote, scheduled for next week, the rumpus is acutely embarrassing for Mr Barak and is weakening his authority.

The storm has been sparked by Mr Yossi Sarid, the Minister of Education, who leads the Meretz party - the most left-wing faction in Mr Barak's multi-party coalition.

Mr Sarid insists that there is nothing deliberately antagonistic about his reforms of the curriculum but that he has included four poems by Mr Darwish on various courses because the time has come for Israelis to understand the Palestinians better.

The minister's critics argue that Mr Darwish is an incendiary choice. Born in the Arab village of Barweh in what is now Israel in 1942, six years before the state was founded, Mr Darwish is a former member of the PLO's leadership, was an initial opponent of the Oslo accords on reconciliation with Israel and was banned for many years from entering Israel.

Mr Sarid has selected non-nationalistic works including To My Mother which concerns the poet's longing for his mother's coffee and bread.

But that has hardly appeased the opponents, who claim the non-controversial works were deliberately chosen to mislead gullible students about Mr Darwish's true orientation. Likud Knesset member Mr Yuval Steinitz said: "It's becomimg increasingly common to legitimise those who try to de-legitimise us."

Mr Sarid's critics note that the Palestinian school curriculum has not been adjusted to take account of the six-year effort at peacemaking that began with the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993. Even the discomfited Mr Barak has come out against his minister, declaring that "it is too early" to begin studying Mr Darwish in the schools.

Tellingly, the poet himself is expressing reservations. Mr Darwish, who has moderated his opposition to peacemaking with Israel, and who two months ago was given an entry permit to Israel from his home in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said that, "perhaps Ehud Barak is right . . . Perhaps the time has come for peace, and only after that to talk about cultural relations."

Mr Yitzhak Mordechai, Israel's Transport Minister and a former prime ministerial candidate, went on voluntary leave yesterday after a 23-year-old worker in his office filed a police complaint of sexual assault against him. Mr Mordechai denied the allegations.