Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Encountering Peace: The indefatigable peacemaker’s advice
By GERSHON BASKIN
.... The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolvable. There are solutions to all problems. In addition to the multiple rounds of Track I negotiations that have taken place since Madrid in 1991, there have also been thousands of hours of informal Track II negotiations in which a couple of hundred Israeli and Palestinian experts have participated and have reached understandings and “shelf agreements.”
Many of the experts have been at this a lot longer than the official negotiators. We have had the opportunity to take a step back and analyze the failed peace process and come away with many lessons learned that are important to share so that chances of success are increased. Everyone is skeptical about this. The negotiators themselves do not have great confidence that an agreement is possible. They must lay down their pessimism, skepticism and negative attitudes. They must face the task of reaching an agreement, looking beyond the momentary snapshot of domestic political realities.
This may be the last chance to reach an agreement... Failure to reach an agreement would be a crime against both peoples.
Everything is on the table – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, mutual recognition, water, economy and any other issue that either side wishes to raise.
The agreement will be a package deal in which there are trade-offs and that is why they cannot be negotiated separately. Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, assisted by George Mitchell, will have to produce a declaration of principles that will determine the general framework. Details can be dealt with in committees of experts, but the main issues need to be decided by the leaders.
NETANYAHU HAS already verbalized the main concerns for Israel – Palestinian militarization, control of external borders, airspace, electromagnetic spectrum and real recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Palestinians too have raised their main concerns – borders, settlements, real sovereignty and freedom from Israeli control. Jerusalem is a concern for both sides, but the issue on which there is the most extreme contention is refugees.
All these issues are interconnected. Borders cannot be determined without detailing security arrangements.
Borders and security arrangements lead directly to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the core identity issue, which leads directly to mutual recognition. Water and economics are both related to borders, control over land and planning, border arrangements and security. All these issues are connected to a timetable both for negotiations and for implementation.
Read Gershon Baskin's entire column at the Jerusalem Post.
Monday, August 30, 2010
Thank God for Limor Livnat. If we didn’t have her, we’d have to make her up.
Livnat, a Knesset member from the right wing of Likud and the current Minister of Culture and Sport rose through the ranks of Likud championing women’s causes and staked a place in the party as a spokeswoman for many of its most conservative views.
Livnat served as Minister of Education under Ariel Sharon and stirred up controversy by trying to excise what was then the most recent research on Israeli history from the educational curriculum. Now, in her new position, she has accused a group of artists and actors of “decid[ing] to divide Israeli society.
They are doing this by refusing to perform in a new cultural center that was built in the settlement of Ariel.
Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pretty much parroted Livnat’s remarks: “The State of Israel is under an attack of delegitimization by elements in the international community. This attack includes attempts to enact economic, academic and cultural boycotts. The last thing we need at this time is to be under such an attack – I mean this attempt at a boycott – from within.”
It is interesting to note how this statement of conscience by some 60 performers (several of whom have since reversed their stance), an act of their own rather than a call for anyone else to do the same, inspires such a fiery response from the government while Im Tirtzu’s attempt to undermine funding for Ben Gurion University because they don’t like some of the lecturers there provoked no comment from the Prime Minister’s office.
But for our purposes, it is more important that we pay attention to this so-called “Israeli unity” that is ostensibly being attacked by a bunch of actors.
The united Israel Bibi and Livnat are talking about is actually Israel-plus, the “plus” being the settlements. The entire argument is based on the notion that Ariel is part of Israel. It is not. The residents of Ariel are Israeli citizens living in occupied territory, territory which (for those who like to argue that the West Bank is not “occupied” despite such figures as Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Aharon Barak and many others referring to it as such) Israel controls but has never laid formal claim to or attempted to enact full Israeli law over it uniformly.
Bibi argues that all Israeli citizens have the right too culture, wherever they live. Fine. But nothing stops them from going to Jerusalem, Petah Tikvah, Haifa, Caesaria or other nearby cities for a night of theater.
The performers and artists who are sticking to their guns on this issue are acting on “their conscience,” as must be encouraged in any open society, a concern that falls on deaf ears in too much of the current Israeli government, its most right-wing ever.
The initial response was particularly distorted. MKs Carmel Shama (Likud) and Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu) wrote that “This is an infuriating and dangerous precedent that discriminates against innocent citizens based on their place of residence…” This is the key point: for Likud and the parties with it and to the right of it, the settlements are a part of Israel, whole cloth.
Miller even called the actors’ refusal “collective punishment,” an Orwellian absurdity beyond comparison. But it plays well in Israel and to too many people outside of Israel as well.
There could not be a starker image of precisely the problem I wrote about last week. The pro-peace movement has not communicated the overriding point that the settlements are not Israel! It is true that the settlers are Israeli citizens, but they are living outside of Israel. Just because an Israeli lives somewhere does not make that place Israel. And those of us living in New York or Silicon Valley and would not like to live under so right-wing a government as the current Israeli one can be thankful for that and continue to welcome the many Israelis living in such places.
Let us be clear: the current Israeli government, led very powerfully by the Prime Minister, contend that the settlements are Israel. We, who want a sustainable peace that includes an independent, viable and dignified existence for the Palestinians, have to make the point clear that this is simply false.
We have a problem, in that some segments of the international pro-Palestinian movements which yearn for a single-state solution to the conflict do indeed see Ariel the same way they see Tel Aviv on principle. But those views remain politically marginal, and that means that now is the time for campaigns geared toward supporting Israel and de-legitimizing (yes, that’s the word) the settlements.
No other country, including the United States, agrees that Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion or any other settlement is part of Israel. But that state of mind will be eroded by the continued blithe Israeli mention of settlements as part of Israel. The farther this thinking is allowed to progress, the more Israelis will see abandoning settlements as a “concession” rather than as a responsibility Israel has to dismantle towns that should never have been built in the first place.
I do not mean to minimize the difficulty Israel will have with giving up the settlements. There will be resistance, internal strife and a great deal of expense and strain on Israel’s economic and social systems in relocating so many people (something Israel did not do a very good job of in Gaza). But all of these problems become worse the more entrenched the settlements become, both on the ground and in the minds of Israelis.
There simply isn’t a more important point for anyone who wants a reasonable and sustainable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict to make: THE SETTLEMENTS ARE NOT ISRAEL, AND THEY MUST GO.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Goldberg's recent blog post defending Imam Rauf, the Sufi spiritual head of the proposed downtown Manhattan Muslim community center, shows that he's neither right-wing nor anti-Muslim, despite efforts by Trita Parsi, Juan Cole and MJ Rosenberg to characterize him as such, and to condemn him as part of a "neoconservative" war-mongering campaign.
Prof. Cole is particularly obnoxious in this regard, referring derisively to the journalist, because of his stint as a young recruit in the IDF, as "Cpl. Goldberg." Goldberg's experience as a military prison guard over 20 years ago, during the first intifada, motivated him to pursue personal relationships with Palestinian prisoners, and a friendship with one in particular, thereby obtaining insights he shared with the world in a highly-regarded book ("Prisoners: A Muslim and A Jew Across the Middle East Divide").
I've already written on how Goldberg's initial skepticism of Jeremy Ben-Ami and J Street has evolved into a respectful relationship.
Although the temptation for Israel to preempt Iran's extreme Islamist regime from going nuclear risks a nightmare scenario, it is perfectly understandable. The Islamic Republic of Iran constantly threatens Israel (couched in language that nastily predicts Israel's demise or the end of "Zionism") and has a president who infamously denies the Holocaust. This is a regime that has sacrificed many thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of its own youth in human wave assaults during the 1980s war against Saddam Hussein---after Iraq had been driven back onto its own soil and had sued for peace; adolescents charged Iraqi trenches with plastic "keys to paradise" dangling from their necks.
What is especially worrying, by way of hinting at Iran's worst possible intentions, is the 2001 statement of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani---a former Iranian president who has sided with the reformers in the past year against Ahmadinejad. He is quoted by Goldberg (and he's not the only one who has cited this) that Iran could afford a nuclear exchange with Israel: “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages.” Iran has ten times Israel's population and many more than ten times its area.
Even so, I share the doubts of skeptics that Iran is truly suicidal in desiring nuclear war with Israel, and I dread the dire consequences of Iran's retaliation for an Israeli attack (e.g., massive bombardments by Hezbollah and Hamas, terrorist attacks on Jews and Americans worldwide, etc.). Still, I can't blame Israelis for seeing Iran's nuclear program as an existential issue and planning accordingly.
Goldberg's article does not downplay the negative consequences. Nor does he actually advocate an attack on Iran, which you would think is the case from his hysterical, name-calling critics. I agree with Goldberg that it may be wise from a diplomatic standpoint that Iran sees a military strike by Israel and/or the United States as a real possibility, if it continues on its reckless course toward nuclear arms. If an attack is credibly on the table, hopefully cooler heads may yet prevail in Iran.
Instead of railing against Goldberg, attacking the messenger, for carefully documenting the pros & cons from supporters & nay-sayers for an attack on Iran, his critics would do well to demand an end to Iran's insane hostility toward Israel, and of its devious resistance to international efforts to insure that its nuclear program be used for peaceful purposes.
Dealing with Iran is a quandary. The Holocaust makes it very plausible for Jews to again fear annihilation. Goldberg's critics could at least have the decency of acknowledging this, and pointing out that it's Iran that's been provocative all these years in threatening Israel.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Not long ago, I was on a panel following a documentary by a Palestinian filmmaker, about life in both Gaza and the West Bank these days. The question and answer period, as usual, was far-ranging, and one person asked the filmmaker whether or not he thought Israel was an apartheid state. I loved his answer.
In essence, he said that whether one says yes or no to that question depends on whether one envisions two states in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River or one. If you see two states, then this is a situation of military occupation along with illegal settlements. If you see one state, then, indeed, it is apartheid.
I thought this was a brilliant answer. And it is tied to the tiresome complaints about the “de-legitimization campaign” against Israel. I call it tiresome because it pre-supposes an Israeli vulnerability that clearly does not exist and tries to paint the harsh criticism that Israeli policy sometimes merits as being an attack on the right of the Jewish people to a homeland.
Sometimes it is, of course, just that. But more often, it is simply outrage at Israeli policy. Perhaps that outrage is wrong-headed or exaggerated in some cases, but that doesn’t mean the critique is meant to undermine Israel’s existence.
In any case, if Israel is really worried about its “legitimacy” in the eyes of the world, it should consider how it thinks of the West Bank.
The problem is visible in the way both citizens and government officials talk about the settlements, and it struck me today as I read an article in Yediot Ahoronot about a Norwegian decision not to invest in two companies which have a long history of construction work in settlements and of the Separation Barrier. (You can read the original Hebrew article at this link)
Here is the quote that caught my eye: Chairman of the Manufacturers Association of Israel Shraga Brosh said yesterday that “from time to time, various bodies, mainly Scandinavian, boycott one company or another from Israel. In the end, these are pinpointed events that do not affect trade with Israel as a whole.”
If there is one point peace activists have to make it is this: Ariel and the other settlements are not part of Israel. Brosh’s terminology clearly implies the opposite. Of course, in economic terms, all of this is Israeli business, and one can understand someone in Brosh’s position thinking this way—the numbers are the numbers, and they all matter equally for Israel’s economy, which is part of the problem.
The basis of the anti-occupation/two-state movement is that the settlements are illegal, illegitimate and a major obstacle to resolving the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The discourse that considers the West Bank part of Israel makes compromise much more difficult. After all, if Israelis (as well as some in the Diaspora) see conceding the West Bank as giving up part of Israel, that makes it a much more difficult compromise to sell than if they see it as withdrawing from occupied territory.
One can see the thinking even in the article’s main text: In recent months, there has been an escalation in the boycott of Israeli brands for political reasons.
The article offers no evidence to back that up, and indeed, there does not appear to be any because it doesn’t appear to be true. There is, however, an escalation in a boycott of settlement brands. And that is a very different thing.
Indeed, if the fear is that Israel will somehow become an “illegitimate” state (although in international affairs, that is a meaningless phrase), the best way to do it is to consider Israel as encompassing territory beyond the Green Line. It is the collapsing of a boycott against settlement products with a boycott of Israel as a whole that opens the door to apartheid accusations, as that Palestinian filmmaker pointed out, and to the “threat” of de-legitimization.
The pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should be embracing the boycott of settlement products. The reasons are both ideological and practical. Ideologically, we need to draw a distinction between Israel and the settlements, and we need to make opposition to the latter as uncompromising as support of the former.
On the practical level, this is something that both Israelis and Diaspora Jews can do to prevent the continued entrenchment of the settlements. It may already be too little too late, but a trend that pushes businesses to separate themselves from the settlements can only help. In the public mind it increases the image of the settlements as being something separate from Israel, and on the ground, it makes it easier to leave the settlements if Israeli business is less tangled with the settlements.
The two-state/pro-Israel peace movement has allowed the global BDS movement, which is a mixed bag, to completely own all forms of economic action. But the truth is, boycotting settlement products and civil action to divorce Israeli businesses from the settlements are acts that are very much in Israel’s interests and can effectively promote peace. But if we leave such actions only in the hands of those who do not care or are openly hostile to Israel, we are abdicating a powerful tool.
I am on record as opposing the BDS movement. But it is absurd to say that economic action opposing the occupation is by definition anti-Israel. It’s time for supporters of Israel who also oppose the settlements to take back this tool.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
'Mideast peace needs prophets, not yes-men'
If a modern prophet saw the future of the Middle east he would see seven possible scenarios; if leaders are wise they will chose the seventh future.
By Margaret Atwood
Picture a minor prophet. Perhaps he’d be working today as an astrologer. He’s looking towards Israel and Palestine, consulting his charts and stars, getting a handle on the future. But the future is never single -- there are too many variables – so what he sees is a number of futures.
In the first one, there’s no Israel: it’s been destroyed in war and all the Israelis have been killed. (Unlikely, but not impossible.)
In the second, there’s no Palestine: it’s been merged with Israel, and the Palestinians either slaughtered or driven beyond its borders. Israel has become completely isolated: international opinion has been outraged, boycott measures have been successful, financial aid from the U.S. -- both public and private – has evaporated, and the United States government, weakened by the huge debt caused by its Iraqi and Afghani wars and lured by the promise of mineral wealth and oil, has cooled towards Israel and swung towards entente with the Muslim world. Israel has become like North Korea or Burma – an embattled military state – and civilian rights have suffered accordingly. The moderate Israelis have emigrated, and live as exiles, in a state of bitterness over wasted opportunities and blighted dreams.
In the third future there’s one state, but a civil war has resulted, since the enlarged population couldn’t agree on a common flag, a common history, a common set of laws, or a common set of commemoration days -- “victory” for some being “catastrophe” for others.
Read the entire column at the Haaretz website.
Monday, August 23, 2010
"I welcome the initiative, the assertiveness and the responsibility that the American administration is demonstrating with regard to the fate of the region. [But], without a total freeze on continued building in the settlements, and without sincere and profound readiness to withdraw to the international borders, rather than again and again offering the Palestinians a caricature of a state - something [akin to] Andorra ... - it'll be a waste of all our precious time. Netanyahu should therefore rework his approach before renewing the talks."
"מברך על היזמות, האסרטיביות והאחריות שמפגין הממשל האמריקאי באשר לגורל האזור". עם זאת הדגיש אורון: "שללא המשך הקפאה מוחלטת של המשך הבניה בהתנחלויות ונכונות כנה ועמוקה לסגת לגבולות הבינלאומיים ולא להוסיף ולהציע לפלסטינים קריקטורה של מדינה - משהו בין אנדורה לבנדורה - חבל על הזמן היקר של כולנו. כדאי אפוא שנתניהו יחליף דיסקט טרם חידוש השיחות".
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Any day now, if the recent reports are to be believed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will agree to direct talks with Israel, and those talks will commence. The question this raises is quite a simple one: what’s the point?
President Obama has been pushing hard for these direct talks and he’s about to get them; but it seems he is mis-reading the circumstances under which they are to take place. He correctly believes that the two sides must talk and come to agreement, but Obama is ignoring the fact is that neither party is entering these talks in a mood, or even a position, to seriously negotiate.
This was made abundantly clear last weekend. Benjamin Netanyahu approved the construction of 23 new structures in the settlements for classrooms, on the heels of reports that Abbas was ready to finally give in and agree to talks.
For their part, 11 Palestinian factions, including Hamas as well as members of the PLO, issued a statement denouncing any compromise with “the Zionist entity.” While that won’t stop Abbas agreeing to the talks, it serves as a stark reminder of the problem he has in convincing anyone, including the Americans and Israelis, that he can deliver on an agreement if one is reached.
The fractious state of both Israeli and Palestinian politics, as well as looming Democratic setbacks in mid-term elections this November, make this an entirely inopportune time for Obama to push for direct talks.
One gets the impression that Obama is pressing for the talks for no other reason than that he said he would. That may not be a totally empty reason, but it’s not sufficient to jump start talks which have little hope of success.
It need not be this way, but the only real chance for successful negotiations lies down a path which seems very unlikely to be taken, and that’s a firm American role encompassing both a vision of an endgame and a willingness to press both parties seriously for results.
At this point, there is no consensus among Israelis backing the kinds of concessions that would be necessary to close a deal—territorial compromise along the lines of the 1967 borders with one-to-one land swaps in terms of both quantity and quality of land and a shared Jerusalem. An Israeli government that wanted to promote such a deal might be able to do so, given some time, but this, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history (and, importantly, the most stable coalition Israel has seen in a very long time) is not going to do that.
Mahmoud Abbas is not going to be able to sell a peace deal that doesn’t include Gaza. Indeed, it will be tough enough to sell a deal that forgoes the Palestinian “right of return,” even though most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories understand that any peace deal will include this sacrifice. But they will not accept the division of the West Bank and Gaza on top of that.
The only way to bring about an agreement under these circumstances is through considerable external pressure, in the form of both carrots and sticks. And the sticks cost a great deal of political capital for those who wield them, especially American leaders.
It’s not only the United States that will need to bring pressure. The Arab states, the European Union and the United Nations would have to as well. But all of it begins with an American vision of the final status agreement, one which needs to be articulated by the President himself.
Obama needs to state clearly the framework of the 1967 borders, with appropriate one-to-one land swaps; a shared Jerusalem along the lines of the Clinton Parameters vision; an international fund for resettling and compensating Palestinian refugees who will, with no more than token exceptions, be allowed to return only to the new Palestinian state; equitable water arrangements; and a framework for economic cooperation between the two states.
Nothing there is really new; these have been the key components of almost every speculative agreement since the Oslo Accords were signed. But just by articulating such a vision, Obama will be accused of imposing a solution on Israel. And after that, he will need to pressure Israel into moving forward, pressure similar to that which he used to insist on a settlement freeze.
Obama would then need to work with Arab states to isolate Hamas and portray them as preventing an end to the Occupation if they do not consent to being junior partners under Fatah’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority and accepting these terms of an agreement.
In all of this, Obama will need to cooperation of the Arab League and the European Union, as well as Russia and, if the UN is needed, China’s consent at least as well.
That’s a tall order. Most importantly, it carries virtually zero short-term political benefit for Obama. It is frankly inconceivable that he would exert such pressure on Israel before the November elections. It will gain him nothing and would jeopardize Democratic congressional campaigns. It would be an unpopular stance both publicly and with political movers and shakers.
Obama might gamble on such a stance after November; if he believes it could pay dividends before November 2012, it would be just the sort of boost he needs. But it is out of the question right now, and his track record of avoiding domestic confrontations whenever possible suggests it isn’t all that likely later.
So, we have talks that have very little chance of success and the consequences of their failure are serious. Even if Obama doesn’t repeat the horrible error of Bill Clinton in putting all the blame on the Palestinian side (Arafat deserved plenty of blame, but Clinton and Barak had plenty of their own that they shifted on to him as well, as I recount here), failed talks will only further erode Abbas’ standing and will bolster Hamas’ contention that negotiations with Israel are a dead-end.
For his part, Netanyahu will have all the evidence he needs to “prove” that the Palestinians either don’t want peace or are incapable of reaching an agreement. There is also a distinct possibility that violence will rise after such failure, even if it is not caused by it—tensions over Jerusalem are boiling alongside this drama.
Obama is unlikely to take on the monumental task of really pushing for a final status agreement. The only alternative to that level of American involvement is a sea change in Israel toward an agreement like the Geneva Initiative and a sudden ability for Fatah and Hamas to join together in a Palestinian government that can make peace along these lines. Neither of those things seems likely in the near future.
Before Obama turned up the heat on direct talks, Abbas was insisting that proximity talks needed to show more results before moving on to the next phase. It may well turn out that Obama should have heeded those warnings.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
His response was unsurprising: if he was going to move to Israel, he would want to feel a part of its society, and serving in the IDF is crucial to social integration.
Yes, this is certainly true, I remember saying, but serving in the IDF is not a privilege, it is a duty for Israeli citizens. Indeed, we are lucky that we live in a much more secure society and thus do not have to maintain a large domestic standing army. But on top of that, depending on the position you get, wouldn’t serving the army basically mean aiding in the management of the Occupation?!?!?!?
I hadn’t thought about this conversation again until the beginning of this week when I read two separate but connected articles in Haaretz. One, which has received little public attention, featured a company of Armored Corps reservists who decided to change the tone of their interactions with the Palestinians they met while working at checkpoints. For example:
"Instead of saying 'gib al awiya,' ordering them to show ID, we said 'min fadlakum' (please), with an emphasis on the request…But it wasn't just the words. We decided that we would look everyone in the eye and that we would not aim our gun at anyone.” (Haaretz)
The second, which has received an incredible amount of public attention, talked about an ex-soldier who posted photos of herself with Palestinian prisoners on Facebook. Since this issue has been talked about extensively, I don’t think it is necessary for me to explain the scenario further or to insert a piece of the article.
But I will say this: the latter article outlined a situation that I find repulsive. I appreciate the psychological explanation for this behavior: the long endurance of the Occupation has certainly made behavior from soldiers that I find entirely unacceptable weirdly conventional. Nonetheless, it is simultaneously important for us to realize that the soldiers who started treating Palestinians more humanely came from and work for the same institution as the soldiers who post inappropriate photos of Palestinian prisoners on Facebook.
These two phenomena make a number of suggestions about military service in Israel. One is that the IDF currently houses a lot of different ideas about how the “enemy” ought to be treated. While I normally find a lot of merit in diversity, in this case I do not. It is entirely clear that the IDF needs to detoxify its ranks, not necessarily getting rid of the bad eggs currently serving, but transforming the institutional culture so that it is categorically humane toward the Palestinians. This is a lot to ask of any army, but my prescription should be understood as a (reachable) goal.
They also suggest that the IDF is in need of an injection of left-wing blood. My first experience engaging in left-wing activism in Israel taught me to admire the refuseniks, and convinced me that if I were an Israeli or if I were to make Aliyah, that the best course of action would naturally to be to avoid military service, even if it meant imprisonment. But I’ve since changed my mind.
I’m not sure whether those Israeli citizens who are opposed to the existence of the State of Israel should join the IDF instead of refusing to serve. But I am much surer that those left-wing Israelis who are critical of the State of Israel but ultimately support and want the state to exist--people like myself and my friend-- should have long military careers, ascending the ranks of the military so that they gain influence and decision-making power. If this were to become the status quo, then I think we would notice a markedly better culture and better conduct within the IDF.
It’s about time I give my friend a phone call and support his decision to serve in the IDF.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
I’m happy to say that I will be blogging here for Meretz USA and am very grateful to the organization for giving me this forum.
Some of you may be familiar with me. For the past two years, I have been the Director of the US Office of B’Tselem. Prior to that, I was Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace for a bit more than five years. I have my own blog, The Third Way, at http://mitchellplitnick.com/ and have also been writing under the pseudonym Moshe Yaroni in various outlets including another blog, Realistic Peace in Israel-Palestine.
I’m often asked about my time with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the question has usually been framed as something like “Did you leave JVP because they were getting too radical?” I was asked this question again by a member of Meretz USA, and the answer seemed a good way to introduce myself in this forum.
It’s a bit of a story. I was a member of JVP from 1999-2008, a member of the first Board, and one of the first two staff members, starting in late 2002. From the beginning, I represented a fairly extreme end of the group, which would be, depending on the term one chose for it, the "right wing," "moderate," "Zionist," "pro-Israel," or centrist wing. I never liked any of those terms, but it describes the reality I lived in the group.
It was always difficult and stressful to balance that with being the group's lead spokesperson, as I’m sure it would have been if I had been on the opposite end of the group.
The idea of JVP has always been (and as far as I know, still is) to create a grassroots political group where Zionists and anti-Zionists and everyone in between could come together around a common principle of ending US support for the Occupation. The group has always adhered to those principles, but the formulation naturally attracted more folks who were uncomfortable with the more “pro-Israel” approach of groups like Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek and now J Street.
I was quite comfortable with those kinds of groups, but also felt that a voice was also needed that spoke in Jewish tones to the rest of the world, not first and foremost to other Jews. That and opportunity brought me to JVP, where I made many friends and had stunning and wonderful experiences. But also where I often felt I struggled with many of the people I was supposed to be working with.
When I worked there (and to some extent, due to my efforts), JVP’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) stance was more subdued, with the campaign to get Caterpillar to stop selling its D-9 bulldozers, often used in house demolitions, to Israel being the major focus; I also tried to downplay the plank in JVP's position about suspending US aid to Israel.
For my last couple of years there, I was weary of being the moderate face which I felt wasn't really representing the majority of the membership. I believe that was neither good for me, nor for the organization, and I think the ensuing couple of years shows I was right. I've gotten more credibility in the circles I wanted to be recognized in since I've left, and JVP has gotten a much greater following now that they are clearer in their stances without my complicating the message, which, to some extent, I think I was doing.
But I am also sympathetic to many of JVP's views. For example, while I don't like the idea that the US would ever cut off aid to Israel, I also don't think it's very healthy for Israel that it knows very well that no matter what it does that aid is not going to be threatened under present conditions. I also agree in principle with boycotting the occupation, although I still don't think it is very effective in the long term as a tactic. I think it has increasingly polarized debate and diplomacy and increased Israel’s bunker mentality while affecting very little in the halls of power in the US, Europe and of course, Israel.
I wrote about the BDS question under a pseudonym, Moshe Yaroni, here http://realisticpeace.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/principled-opposition/ and here http://zeek.forward.com/articles/116395/
JVP might not have been the perfect place for me, but my experience there was very positive and led to much of what has come after. I understand that JVP is too radical for some people, but the groups is full of Jews who are proud of their heritage and are concerned for the future of Israelis and Palestinians equally.
They’re also a lot bigger than many think, with nearly 100,000 subscribers to their e-mail list, the last I heard. I think it behooves those of us in what we call the pro-Israel, pro-peace camp to find ways to work with them on the matters we all can agree on. There are more of these than areas of disagreement, even if those disagreements are sometime very passionate.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
We can't help but sympathize with Soraya, the appealing central character, and to feel sorrow and even outrage at what Palestinians experience under occupation, but characters who speak of the need to accept a two-state solution are viewed as weak and vaguely corrupt stooges of Israel. One sees none of the energy and optimism that I saw in Ramallah in March. This is from Mike Hale's brief review in the NY Times:
Annemarie Jacir’s drama “Salt of This Sea,” about a Brooklyn woman who travels to the West Bank and Israel to recover her roots — not to mention her Palestinian grandfather’s house and bank account, lost in the 1948 war — is a sad and engrossing look at a haunted landscape. Soraya (Suheir Hammad) and the two Palestinian men she befriends, Emad (Saleh Bakri) and Marwan (Riyad Ideis), spend much of the film negotiating both physical barriers — walls, fences, checkpoints, holding cells — and ritual humiliations to move about the rocky, scrubby country in which Emad and Marwan are trapped.
... it’s marred by a didactic approach to the questions it raises about history and human rights.... [T]he most vexing of Soraya’s challenges, as it turns out, is coming face to face with a liberal Jewish peacenik [with whom she cannot find common ground].
Thursday, August 12, 2010
After being mauled by King Hussein’s Jordanian army in September, 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization ensconced itself militarily in southern Lebanon, in a de facto occupation that helped trigger the Lebanese civil war in 1975. This area became known to Israelis as “Fatahland,” for Yasser Arafat’s dominant PLO faction. The PLO’s heavy hand drew the ire of both Shiites and Christians living in the south.
Attacks were launched from Fatahland, including the spectacular raid that killed 38 civilians and wounded 71 along the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal road in 1978, and the massacre of a family in the Galilee town of Naharia in 1979. But an informal truce had been reached with the PLO, when the Begin government seized upon the wounding of Israel’s ambassador to Britain in an assassination attempt, in England, by a dissident PLO faction, as the trigger for its massive offensive in June, 1982. [In a recent radio interview, "Lebanon" filmmaker Maoz revealed only the vaguest knowledge, even now, of why he was sent to war as a 20-year old.]
Israel’s initial armored thrust in ’82 was greeted warmly by some Shiites and with enthusiasm among most Christians. But the Israelis soon overstayed their welcome and their initial political gains proved illusory. ...
Hezbollah began its rise as a dominant force in Lebanon and the Shiites became hardened enemies of Israel---for the first time. Israel lost hundreds of soldiers during its 18-year occupation of the “security zone” along its border; it suffered over 150 more deaths (mostly civilians), plus widespread damage and dislocation to northern Israel, during the ill-fated second Lebanon war in 2006.
Driven both by their need for personal catharsis and the economic necessity of small budgets, two veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon have made innovative feature films about their war experiences. The first, “Waltz with Bashir,” a 2009 Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language film, told filmmaker Ari Folman’s story in the only way it could without incurring production costs on a massive Hollywood scale---by animation.
The second, “Lebanon,” conveyed the experience of writer-director Samuel Maoz as part of a tank crew in an astonishingly apt way---almost entirely from within a tank. ....
Both “Lebanon” and “Waltz with Bashir” have been criticized by pro-Palestinian partisans and some left-wing Israelis as part of a long tradition of yorim ve'bochim--of liberal Israelis “shooting and crying,” as if they were the victims. What would be courageous, this criticism goes, is for an Israeli filmmaker, perhaps teaming up with Palestinians, to make a film from the perspective of the Palestinians and Lebanese who lived through the invasion, or perhaps creating a film that alternates the experience of Israelis with those of Lebanese and/or Palestinians. Otherwise, (these critics argue) the Israeli invader is the only one given subjectivity, and the Lebanese and Palestinians are wholly "other," without voice or feelings, and the terror that they experience is rendered invisible.
Since these films do not flinch in depicting the carnage Israel inflicted on Lebanon, this last point seems to be unfair on its face. ...[I omit mention of a powerful scene from "Lebanon" here.]
In “Waltz With Bashir,” Ari Folman suddenly jumps from animation to actual footage to depict the horrendous aftermath of slaughter and grief at Sabra and Shatila, with which he concludes his masterpiece. Perhaps this event was too true in its monstrous reality for the filmmaker to bear approaching it from the remove of a cartoon, however artful his work was with this form until that point.
To respond more completely to the “shooting and crying” charge, one needs to consider what makes a war movie into an anti-war movie. In “Saving Private Ryan,” the bloodletting (especially at its beginning and end) is so unrelenting and so realistic, that in no way can it be depicted as pro-war propaganda. I wonder how many actual lives were lost or shattered (say in Vietnam) as a result of youngsters being seduced into uniform by the war movies of John Wayne and other cardboard action heroes who starred in such films in the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. One would hardly expect that “Saving Private Ryan” motivated young people to want to go to war. The same is true of HBO's recent TV mini-series, "The Pacific," co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the star and director respectively of "Saving Private Ryan."
These works [of Hanks and Spielberg], quite properly, honor the fighting men who served their stint in hell to defeat Hitler and his rapacious Imperial Japanese ally. By way of contrast, there is nothing in the least bit redemptive or even patriotic in how the filmmakers Folman and Maoz have presented their material---surely representing their verdict on the war that they fought. ...
Monday, August 09, 2010
I just saw a remarkable new documentary directed by Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza reporter for Israel’s Channel 10 news. Titled “Precious Life,” the film tracks the story of Mohammed Abu Mustafa, a 4-month-old Palestinian baby suffering from a rare immune deficiency. Moved by the baby’s plight, Eldar helps the infant and mother go from Gaza to Israel’s Tel Hashomer hospital for lifesaving bone-marrow treatment. The operation costs $55,000. Eldar puts out an appeal on Israel TV and within hours an Israeli Jew whose own son was killed during military service donates all the money.
The documentary takes a dramatic turn, though, when the infant’s Palestinian mother, Raida, who is being disparaged by fellow Gazans for having her son treated in Israel, blurts out that she hopes he’ll grow up to be a suicide bomber to help recover Jerusalem. Raida tells Eldar: “From the smallest infant, even smaller than Mohammed, to the oldest person, we will all sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Jerusalem. We feel we have the right to it. You’re free to be angry, so be angry.”
Eldar is devastated by her declaration and stops making the film. But this is no Israeli propaganda movie. The drama of the Palestinian boy’s rescue at an Israeli hospital is juxtaposed against Israeli retaliations for shelling from Gaza, which kill whole Palestinian families. Dr. Raz Somech, the specialist who treats Mohammed as if he were his own child, is summoned for reserve duty in Gaza in the middle of the film. The race by Israelis and Palestinians to save one life is embedded in the larger routine of the two communities grinding each other up. ...
I’m not here to defend Israel’s bad behavior. Just the opposite. I’ve long argued that Israel’s colonial settlements in the West Bank are suicidal for Israel as a Jewish democracy. I don’t think Israel’s friends can make that point often enough or loud enough.
But there are two kinds of criticism. Constructive criticism starts by making clear: “I know what world you are living in.” I know the Middle East is a place where Sunnis massacre Shiites in Iraq, Iran kills its own voters, Syria allegedly kills the prime minister next door, Turkey hammers the Kurds, and Hamas engages in indiscriminate shelling and refuses to recognize Israel. I know all of that. But Israel’s behavior, at times, only makes matters worse — for Palestinians and Israelis. If you convey to Israelis that you understand the world they’re living in, and then criticize, they’ll listen.
Destructive criticism closes Israeli ears. ... Read the rest online.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
At first, I feared that "Budrus" was not properly showing the reason for Israel's erection of this barrier; but it did eventually explain that it was a defensive reaction to the hundreds of civilians killed and many others wounded in terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank during the intifada of the early 2000's. Although its sympathy is properly with the Palestinians struggling to safeguard their property and their way of life, the film always maintains a respectful perspective on Israel's needs to defend its citizens. The basic decency and humanity of the people of Budrus and their Israeli-Jewish allies shine through.
Above all, this hopeful film reveals little-known aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
- how Israel's separation barrier impinges upon the lives and property of Palestinians living along it;
- how a growing movement of non-violent resistance has risen up and obtained a measure of success;
- the fact that some Israelis and Palestinians are acting in concert to foster peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.
Thursday, August 05, 2010
Itamar Shaltiel and Yossi Gurvitz said that Meretz cannot limit its work to the Knesset. The real game today is in the public arena, and Meretz is not taking part in it. We argued that Meretz should lead the protests in Jerusalem Jaffa and other places. I said that it’s not enough to vote against the Nakba law, and that they should publicly challenge such bills. Extreme right activists march in Arab towns and neighborhoods. Meretz Knesset Members can use their immunity and lead the protesters in Sheikh Jarrah into the disputed part of the neighborhood, to which the police only allows the settlers.
Former Haaretz Editor David Landau recently wrote that if the “boycott law” is passed, we should boycott the Knesset. He invited the state to prosecute him for these words. This sort of tactic, of challenging anti-democratic legislation, is very common in civil rights campaigns. But for some reason, this thinking is alien to the Zionist Left in Israel. ...
Readers should click here for the entire blogpost. And for a commentary on the dangerous disconnect between Israel’s parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left, by Ron Skolnik, Meretz USA's executive director, click here.
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
The last public approval is now in place for the "Cordoba House" Islamic center (now called the "Park51" project) to proceed to development a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site. I was happy to be part of the local J Street group which showed up at the Landmarks Preservation Commission deliberations yesterday morning; we submitted a petition with the names of 10,000 J St. supporters showing their backing for the Muslim center. And we heard the commissioners deliberate impressively (on the architecture and not the politics) as they voted unanimously not to accord the site landmark status and thereby derail this project.
The head of the building project, Sharif El-Gamal, physically embraced Isaac Luria, a national VP of J St. in charge of communications, who was one of our organizers. "We love you guys," he said to Isaac.
We also witnessed and heard vociferous opposition, based on unfortunate (albeit understandable) emotions of hate and fear, inspired by the terrorists who attacked us nine years ago in the name of their warped view of Islam. We made some friends for the Jewish community among the moderate Muslims who are building this center explicitly with Jewish community centers (JCC's) and the 92nd St. Y in mind as models.
Yet the press coverage gave us an object lesson on its superficiality and sensation-seeking: a single hand-lettered hate-mongering sign got more coverage than we did.
The USA Today article that quoted me, left out what I said about this being a First Amendment issue and that as a minority group, we were showing our support for the religious rights of another minority. An earlier online version had referred to me as being there with J Street, but a later version left this out; I'm now quoted in the final paragraph:
As the physical scars of the attacks disappear beneath new buildings in Manhattan, "Where do you draw the line?" [The context for my comment is wrong here.] Ralph Seliger, a blogger on Middle East issues, asked before the commission vote. "In no way is this intended to desecrate the memory of those who died there."And the Jerusalem Post mentions me, but makes no connection with J Street:
“They did the right thing,” Ralph Seliger said afterwards of the commissioners. “They ruled on the merits and not the politics.”
Monday, August 02, 2010
The gist of Foxman's view is that victims of monstrous crimes are entitled to "irrational" and even "bigoted" feelings. He doesn't actually argue that the Muslims don't have the right to build there; he analogizes to the inappropriateness of the Carmelite nuns having their convent at Auschwitz---that it's literally out of place there. I suggest a gander at a blog post by Hussein Ibish that eloquently rebuts this kind of reasoning.
You may be heartened to know that David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee (the other remaining major Jewish defense organization in this country) has just endorsed this "Cordoba House" project. But before you feel better about the basic decency of the organized Jewish community, you should know that it's a very tepid and anemic endorsement, and as such less than a profile in courage.
In another blog post, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait approvingly quotes J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami against the attack of Commentary writer Jennifer Rubin on this subject. He quotes Ben-Ami as follows:
What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.In the face of Rubin's argument that this is a surrender to bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists, Chait sagely responds:
Rubin's charge is that the group [J Street] is a front for "pro-Muslims." Why? Because it favors religious freedom for American Muslims. Rubin does not charge the group with advance [of] some objectionable principle -- Jihad, America-hatred, or whatnot. She accuses J Street of favoring an objectionable group, Muslims. In her mind, you are either for us or you are for them. The notion that certain principles -- say, religious freedom -- might be good for both us and for them is beyond the scope of her consideration. ... Click to see Part 2.