Thursday, February 28, 2008
As Israel approaches its 60th birthday we find that, as unusual, we Jews have contradictory opinions about its successes and failures. Daniel Gavron, a Jerusalem writer, asks bluntly on a recent op-ed page of the New York Times: "We have won the battle for survival. Why aren’t we celebrating?"
Gabriele Schoenfeld, also of Jerusalem, answers Gavron on the letters page: "We will win when we no longer have to attend a funeral of young Israelis murdered by terrorists while hiking," she writes.
And from a suburb of Jerusalem Stuart Pilchowski writes: "I don’t know where Daniel Gavron lives but the Israel I live [in] is being rocketed daily by Qassams and targeted regularly by suicide bombers."
In his op-ed piece Gavron balances the threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas with the agreement by the Palestine Authority to negotiate peace with Israel. He writes: "Far more significantly, Fatah, the official Palestinian leadership, is negotiating peace with Israel. The member states of the Arab League, headed by Saudi Arabia" have recognized Israel within its pre-1067 borders. And the world’s only superpower, the United States, supports Israel in every way. ...
I will mark Israel’s 60th birthday by concentrating on Israel’s magnificent achievements in medical science and, in particular, on a new and revolutionary branch called "regenerative medicine."
I was introduced to regenerative medicine by Professor Dan Gazit of the Hebrew University only a few weeks ago at a meeting in Palm Beach of the American Friends of Hebrew University. I had never heard of the term before. ...
Prof. Gazit avoids all controversy over the use of human embryos. He will take stem cells directly from the patient to engineer new tissue in the patient. He is concentrating on the bone and spine. He showed a diagram of a spinal fusion in which cement is injected to fuse two vertebrae. How much better it would be if he could inject stem cells instead to bind the bones together. ...
A week after hearing Professor Gazit, I received the February issue of Hadassah Magazine from which I retired as editor and publisher 24 years ago. The monthly medical article by Wendy Elliman was titled "Making Bones About it." In his presentation in Palm Beach, Professor Gazit did not mention that his colleagues in the Orthopedic Department of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Karim are ready to begin a clinical trial of stem cell bone therapy in human beings.
Wendy Elliman quotes Dr. Meir Liebergall, chief surgeon of Hadassah’s Orthopedic Department. He told her: "Twenty-four young adults, most of them road accident victims with fractures that are of high risk of healing improperly, either because of location, infection or devascularization of the bone, will volunteer for the study." ...
"Bone repair is an ideal candidate for stem cell therapy because it enhances a natural repair process," says Dr. Liebergall.
"Harnessing the healing potential of stem cells will benefit patients of all ages whether their need is joint replacement or spinal fusion or repair of the ravages of war or terror."
In Israel medicine, Hadassah, as usual, leads the way.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
He's apparently disagreeing with the very attractive and dignified Lebanese woman who interviews him in Arabic. She cautions against violence and for a peaceful way.
My point is not to defend aspects of Israeli policy that I dissent from. I see Finkelstein's anger as over-the-top or even pathological. He honors Hezbollah, which can be said to have waged legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation but has gone beyond that to pledge unrelenting war against Israel, despite its total withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah also embraces a Nazi-like "Protocols of Zion" level of anti-Semitism.
Hezbollah was helped to prominence and a measure of power by the original Israeli invasion of 1982, a war that our Zionist movement (allied with Mapam at that time) opposed from the beginning. It was not a war that Israel intended against Lebanon but rather against the PLO armed elements that dominated the southern border, known then as "Fatahland." Israeli forces were greeted joyously by Shiites and Christians, but they overstayed their welcome. In 1985, they retreated to the so-called security zone, jointly controlled with a Christian militia called the South Lebanon Army. They left abruptly and ignominiously in 2000, with Hezbollah celebrating a great victory. The Academy Award nominee, "Beaufort," (now an also-ran) relates something of this story, but without political content.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Israel's bloody response, even Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted its mistake in triggering the war of 2006. Yet Finkelstein embraces their actions wholeheartedly.
As for Finkelstein's articulation of that so-called Jewish principle of "Never Forget, Never Forgive," there is no such animal—certainly not as an aspect of Judaism. Some Jews may believe in this, but it's not Judaism. Judaism is more represented by the practices of atonement and reconciliation encouraged during the High Holy Days.
Friday, February 22, 2008
As the filmmaker, Eran Kolirin, indicated on Lenny Lopate’s program on WNYC public radio, the plot is pure invention; an Egyptian police band from Alexandria is inadvertently lost in Israel on a visit to perform at the opening of an Arab culture center. In reality, there is virtually no such cultural exchange in Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.
For the same reason, Kolirin said it was impossible to hire Egyptian actors; the cast is entirely Israeli. Most are Israeli Arabs, including the son of Mohammed Bakri (Saleh Bakri), who portrays a young "lady-killer" charmer reminiscent of the heartthrob that his father was as an actor. His father was in the cast of Israel’s last finalist for an Academy Award, "Beyond the Walls" in 1984.
I remember being disappointed that year after staying up late in the hope that this drama of Jewish and Arab inmates in an Israeli jail finding a measure of solidarity would win. It’s frightening to realize how long ago this was and how totally problematic Jewish-Arab relations still are.
The Egyptian band leader is played by a veteran Israeli-Jewish actor (Sasson Gabai) who is originally from Iraq. Although a native speaker of Arabic, he took lessons in the Egyptian dialect to speak it with an authentic accent.
In the smart words of the sassy female lead (Ronit Elkabetz), the Egyptians accidentally find themselves in a backwater Israeli town with "no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture whatsoever." But the Egyptians’ overnight stay provides some in the town with a hint of culture and a quietly profound human experience.
So, why is it not Israel’s candidate for an Academy Award? The picture was disqualified because too much of the dialogue is in English, despite the fact that English would be the only language of communication between most Israelis and Egyptians. The rest is in Hebrew and Arabic, but not enough to satisfy the purists and the bureaucrats.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The Israeli government is responsible for what is occurring in the western Negev. Sderot and many other communities in the area are under the daily threat of Qassam rockets, and the only answer being offered for this problem are solidarity visits by VIPs who get their pictures taken and leave: This situation cannot go on.
The serious injury caused to the two brothers [in Sderot on February 9] proves that miracles aren't forever. We must do something that will change the status quo. Based on the understanding that none of the alternatives is ideal, the question is: What is the preferred mode of operation?
The right thing would be to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would include Gaza. We were supposed to reach one on May 4, 1999, and we missed the opportunity. The agreement by Sharon, and Olmert after him, to accept an American dictate that was based on a naïve conception of democratization, and allow Hamas to take part in the Palestinian elections was a very bad mistake. The Hamas victory was a vindication for those who said that if we didn't speak with the PLO, we would get something worse. The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 made the chance of reaching a peace that would include Gaza a more distant prospect.
A major operation in Gaza will not stop the Qassams, and will exact casualties on both sides. That's the reason that neither the army nor the government is inclined towards such an operation. Reducing the supply of electricity, fuel and basic commodities is essentially a collective punishment that will not generate pressure on the Hamas government to bring about a cessation of the Qassams. Instead, it will increase hostility towards Israel and the desire for vengeance. It will unify the Palestinian ranks. It will harm Israel's image. And it will bring about, in one way or another, a breaching of the siege - either in the direction of Israel or the direction of Egypt. The dream of Egypt spreading its wings over the Gaza Strip and letting us off the hook is a pipedream. Egypt has never wanted this, and it will do its utmost so that this doesn't happen now.
Hamas - out of its own interests - wants to reach a cease-fire with Israel. This is our interest as well. This can be accomplished by means of Egypt, just as we are conducting negotiations via Egypt for the release of Gilad Shalit. Hamas might be trying to gain time, but Israel also needs time to develop an effective anti-rocket defense. If Hamas fully abides by the cease-fire and prevents the firing of Qassams and mortars, and other attacks against Israel, we will refrain from entering the Strip and from targeted preventive operations. If Hamas' word proves not to be good, we will be released from our obligations. It's a small price to pay, and it offers a greater chance of achieving calm than any other option.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The next day, in a fit of pique, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit of Kadima, a man who aspires to one day become Israel's Prime Minister, let loose the following reaction at a meeting of the Cabinet:
"Any other country would have already gone in and leveled the area, which is exactly what I think the IDF should do - decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it... We should let them know 'you have to leave, this area will be taken down tomorrow' and just take it down - that will show them we mean business."
Although given on occasion to such tempestuous outbursts, Sheetrit, on the whole, has traditionally been one of the more sober politicians to emerge from his alma mater party, the Likud. Clearly the Israeli government's chronic inability to put an end to the low-intensity warfare in and around the Gaza Strip has many Israeli politicians befuddled, confounded, bedeviled, and groping for answers.
Over the last weeks and months, the Israeli government has employed a variety of means - military, economic and diplomatic - to try and stop the incessant rocket fire. To date, not one of them has lived up to the government's promises.
Targeted killings have eliminated scores of Hamas operatives, but they've taken the lives of innocent civilians as well and haven't produced any letup. (When Defense Minster Ehud Barak this week referred to the number of Palestinian militants killed by the IDF, Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin offered this pithy rejoinder: "You can't bask in the glory of terrorist scalps. Numbers killed are not an achievement. The only achievement is the cessation of Qassam rockets, and the government isn't getting it done.")
The economic blockade of Gaza - in which the supply of basic necessities has been limited to subsistence level - has backfired, as Hamas has turned the tables by breaching Gaza's border wall with Egypt, reaping enormous PR gains in the process. Last month's decision to limit fuel supplies to Gaza produced an international outcry that damaged Israel's image, and caused Israeli leaders to beat a swiftly policy retreat. Now Israel is trying a more limited cutback on electricity supply to the Gaza Strip, but there is no indication that any of these Israeli-initiated shortages will spur Gaza's Palestinians to rise up against the Hamas regime.
On the contrary: Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki noted last week that Israel's recent actions have had just the opposite effect: Hamas, he explained, had steadily been losing popularity among Palestinians since last June, when it took over Gaza by force. But the stepped-up Israeli sanctions against Gaza, coupled with Hamas' tearing down the Rafah border wall, have boosted Hamas' popularity again, back to pre-June 2007 levels.
It also needs to be mentioned that, on the day-to-day level, Israeli reprisal actions sometimes even bring about an escalation of rocket fire as part of the tit-for-tat violence that plagues Israel and Palestine. Following last week's suicide bombing in Dimona, for example, Israel took action in Gaza, killing Hamas operatives. Rather than producing quiet, Israel's action - not surprisingly - was followed by increased Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. This is not to suggest that indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians are justified; far from it. But one cannot avoid the conclusion that Israeli government policy to date has failed miserably to deliver the goods.
A reader of this newsletter recently inquired what Meretz is suggesting for dealing with this untenable situation. It's a legitimate question: After all, it's easy to point to a flawed or failed policy; it's much harder to fashion a better idea.
But the members of Meretz and its forerunner parties have made a career of producing better ideas, and this time seems to be no exception: For months, Meretz in Israel has been arguing that the only real way to stop the rocket-fire is through a general cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. Such a cease-fire would also involve the release of Gilad Shalit, and Hamas' imposition of the cease-fire on all the other armed factions in Gaza. For its part, Israel would suspend its military actions in Gaza, release Palestinian prisoners and lift the economic blockade of the Strip.
It is possible that this approach will not succeed, but Meretz feels it's necessary to explore it, in light of the signals coming from Hamas that the organization might be amenable to such an arrangement. At present, it also seems the only way to create the level of quiet needed for serious, consistent peace talks to take place between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas and their respective negotiating teams.
Monday, February 18, 2008
This story has a mythic quality. I don’t believe that this saga of an Ethiopian-Christian refugee boy, given away by his destitute mother to have a chance at a decent life in Israel as a Jew, should be taken as literally true. Undoubtedly, some teary-eyed viewers would disagree with me. Despite its flaws, my companion and I were riveted. So don’t be put off by my discussion of its shortcomings.
There are too many coincidences integral to the plot. And the central character experiences life in Israel with his kindly adopted family in too all-encompassing a way to be taken seriously on the ‘pshat’ (surface) level. It also ends too neatly.
His French-speaking Israeli parents describe themselves as being "of the left" and rally for peace as if on cue at the dawn of the Oslo period. A patriarch of this family has even helped found a kibbutz where he spends an idyllic summer. Still, his father argues bitterly with his adopted son when he decides to go to Paris to study medicine rather than immediately serve in the Israel Defense Forces upon completing high school. Returning as a doctor, the son is soon shown in combat during the second Intifada, as a medic. (Reality check: a military physician would likely serve behind the lines in a hospital or a medical aid station.)
And our Ethiopian hero, although living in a secular home, is conversant enough with traditional Judaism to win a public Torah commentary contest in an Orthodox setting. He also is pursued romantically by the flighty daughter of a bigoted right-wing Orthodox Jew who hates him.
But unlikely plot turns aside, it is a moving and absorbing story of culture conflict, accommodation and adjustment– especially when depicting the young child’s rough early days in Israel. Most of the characters are likeable and memorable. Israel’s efforts to incorporate Ethiopians into society is portrayed honestly as a melange of paternalism, good intentions, misunderstandings, bigotry and compassion.
Friday, February 15, 2008
As a result of the harsh measures imposed on the defeated German state at Versailles in 1918, when a republican regime came to power, the German Mark devaluated to such an extent that you needed tens of thousands of them to buy one dollar. Such crisis fed German nationalism and contributed extraordinarily to Hitler's absurd ideas. He was looking for a scapegoat. Many of the most important scientific and financial talents as well as writers were Jewish. They were persecuted. Among them was Einstein, the author of the theory stating that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light; it made him famous. Also Marx, who was born in Germany, and many of the Russian Communists were of Jewish descent, whether or not they actively practiced the Hebrew religion.
Hitler did not lay the blame for the human drama on the capitalist system, rather he blamed the Jews. Based on crude prejudices, what he really wanted was "vital Russian space" for his Teutonic master race, dreaming of building a millennial empire.
In 1917, by the Balfour Declaration, the British decided to create the State of Israel within its colonial empire, located on territory inhabited by the Palestinians who had a different religion and culture; in that part of the world, other ethnic groups coexisted for many centuries before our era, among them the Jews. Zionism became popular among the Americans, who rightly detested the Nazis, and whose financial markets were controlled by representatives of that movement. That state today is practicing the principles of apartheid; it has sophisticated nuclear weapons and it controls the most important financial centers in the United States. It was used by this country and its European allies to supply nuclear weapons to that other apartheid, the one in South Africa, so that they might be used against the Cuban internationalist combatants who were fighting the racists in the south of Angola if they were to cross the Namibian border.
(Link here for this entire rambling discourse online.)
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
In contrast to the young American-Israeli who returned from his Israeli army service (and his movie role in "Beaufort" ) to go to college at the University of Texas, an earlier generation of Israelis living abroad was branded as "traitors" and the like by no less an archetypical Sabra than Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister in the mid-1970s. The young Israeli creators of "Did Herzl Really Say That?", Oren Harman and Yanay Ofran, explore contemporary issues of "Israeli-ness."
They begin at Theodor Herzl’s hallowed grave on Mount Herzl, but it soon becomes clear that this is not an examination of Herzl’s explicit ideas. The filmmakers apparently believe that, in exploring the lives of Israeli expatriates in New York, they are commenting on Herzl’s Zionism— ironically to be sure, but not in a hostile way.
The young ex-soldier and actor in "Beaufort" is one of a new breed of citizens of the world, who could have been a subject of this second film. He remains culturally and by identification an Israeli, even as he lives outside of Israel.
Although the subjects of "Did Herzl Really Say That?" live concretely as Americans in New York, they feel their Israeli-ness deeply. They largely associate with other Israeli expatriates and Hebrew remains a primary language. Some return often to Israel; one jet-setting international professional virtually commutes there, maintaining a residence in Israel even as his business dealings are elsewhere.
This active but usually long-distance relationship with Israel reminds me of how movement shlichim (Zionist representatives) are beginning to regard Zionism. They are emphasizing an ongoing relationship over time and through the generations, with people going back and forth, on sabbaticals, vacations and the like. This is not your father’s or grandfather’s "aliya" anymore.
Only one subject, a middle-aged gay man who owns a hair salon, denied feeling a longing to return to Israel. He is aware that Israel has changed enormously in how it relates to gay people in the more than 20 years since he left. In fact, although not devoid of bigotry, Israel is probably more gay-friendly today than is the US. But even as he relates to a heavily Israeli clientele in New York, he’s made his life here and sees nothing for himself in Israel.
It is also noteworthy to me that for most subjects of this film, Jewishness has little to do with their Israeli-ness. It never comes up in their reflections and only one, as I recall, is noticeably Jewish in the way he relates to his children. They would probably have to make another film to explore these issues with religious Jews.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Prof. Gordon, currently on sabbatical at the University of Michigan, is a frequent contributor to "In These Times" magazine, a publication that I have also contributed to recently, after a ten-year hiatus. (In recent months, fellow Meretz USA activist Ken Brociner has become a presence at ITT, both online and in print.)
Gordon’s articles are difficult reading for Zionists, even a progressive Zionist such as myself. It’s not that he’s wrong in most of his facts regarding inequities in the Jewish State and injustices in the Palestinian territories, but he writes from a gratuitously anti-Zionist perspective. His most recent article, "Outsourcing Zionism," is a case in point. We know of the injustices visited upon the Negev Bedouin, not to mention what’s going on in the territories; we’ve highlighted the shame of the Negev situation in a lead article in the current issue of our publication, ISRAEL HORIZONS. The problem with Gordon, symbolized in the harsh choice of title for that ITT article, is his ideology.
The fact that we as progressive Zionists deplore the treatment of the Bedouin and work for an equitable two-state solution with the Palestinians should prove that "Zionism" as such is not the issue. Besides, it’s hardly unique to Israel that an indigenous minority is mistreated by the majority. (To his credit, Gordon has been forthright in his writings and in his talk that Israel is far from the world’s worst violator of human rights; this is hardly a matter of pride for any supporter of Israel, but it’s an important point to make.)
The Shapiros and I attended a lecture he gave at Columbia on Feb. 5. He's written a political science analysis of the occupation that will be published by the University of California Press in the fall. It posits that Israel has gone from a "colonialist" model of governing the West Bank and Gaza to one of "separation."
The colonialist period ended with the first Intifada, when Israel realized that it could no longer control the territories in this way. It involved a certain amount of improvement in the standard of living for Palestinians (e.g., infant mortality dropped significantly) in return for Israel exploiting Palestinian land and water resources, cheap labor and the development of settlements. There was a great deal of interaction between Israelis and Palestinians during this period.
With Oslo, Israel embarked upon a solution of separation that meant very few Palestinians working in Israel and very little interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. He implies that this framework also has resulted in many more Palestinian deaths at Israeli hands because now Palestinian lives "have no value" for Israel. (One questioner pointed out that the great increase of Palestinian deaths reflected the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000.) This is not the case in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed soon after the Six Day War; the annexation explains why Israel would never use air power against Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
The main criticism voiced at his presentation was that his analysis did not track closely with historical events. In response, Gordon says that he knows that events create facts, but he is also arguing that "structures" create facts. As a political scientist, it is structures that interest him.
I argued with him that it's unfair to regard Oslo as negatively as he does because it ended mid-way, with Rabin's assassination and Peres's defeat by Netanyahu. And even when the peace camp was nominally returned to power, its new defacto leader, Ehud Barak, rejected Oslo’s incremental logic. Gordon insisted that the problem was Oslo in the first place; he admitted that if Rabin had lived or if Peres had defeated Netanyahu that something might have been successfully negotiated, but he insisted on saying that this would not have been Oslo.
I was too flummoxed by the boldness of his assertion to respond that he's confusing the very limited control that the Palestinians had when the Oslo process was frozen in its tracks in 1996 with the ultimate intention of the Labor-Meretz government that had initiated Oslo. To him, Oslo meant the facts on the ground at the time it was aborted. To me, the essence of Oslo was its gradualist nature.
Prof. Gordon said that he still doesn't rule out the possibility of a two-state solution, but it would have to be something very different than Oslo. (Perhaps we can both agree that a Geneva-like agreement would be such an approach.) Interestingly, one of his hosts sitting at the seminar table, Prof. Rashid Khalidi, had exactly his perspective in coming to oppose Oslo in the mid-‘90s, after the pro-Oslo forces were defeated by episodes of extremist Israeli and Palestinian violence that precipitated an unfortunate election result.
When someone else in the audience suggested that Camp David had represented a good approach, with something like 95 percent of the West Bank offered as going to the Palestinians, Gordon said that the percentage is hard to gauge because it wasn't clear how Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem were being counted. If the Jewish areas of East Jerusalem (built beyond the 1949 armistice lines) were included, this 95 percent figure was actually more like 85 percent. But Gordon indicated that what was really bad was that Camp David was portrayed as a failure— even though it had produced unprecedented moves on the Israeli side and negotiations did not end there. This representation of the process as a failure was largely the fault of Barak.
On this, I agree with Gordon. But it's unfortunate that Gordon's grand theorizing implies that Israel has never been sincere in trying to make a practical solution to the problem of the territories— not even during the peace process of the 1990s.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
I also have a connection with Mordechai Liebling, the father of Lior, the winsome child with Down Syndrome for whom the film is named (at one point, Lior charmingly calls it "Up Syndrome"). Rabbi Liebling, who has worked in a variety of posts for Reconstructionist Judaism and social justice, wrote "Divestment From Israel: Why It Is Counterproductive as a Strategy for Peace" in the Autumn 2005 issue of ISRAEL HORIZONS.
"Praying With Lior" is an upbeat and touching story well worth seeing. If you’re in or near New York, you'd better hurry to catch it at the Cinema Village.
Friday, February 08, 2008
First, the headlines:
- 2008 is shaping up as a critical, perhaps make-or-break, year for the future of the two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
- The human rights situation in the territories is steadily deteriorating, as the system of checkpoints / closures / travel restrictions calcifies, turning from ad hoc security measure to an accepted, unquestioned form of ongoing control.
- The American Jewish community has a crucial role to play in bolstering the courageous efforts of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
Now for these stories, in depth...
Twenty-six participants took part in the 2008 Meretz USA Israel Symposium, which this year included some wonderful new friends from the Brit Tzedek V'Shalom organization. During our time in Israel and Palestine (ten of us also continued to Jordan for four days), we rose early and went to sleep late, as we examined the state of the peace process and the occupation, and compared notes with literally dozens of Israelis and Palestinians (and Jordanians) - both public figures and "regular folks".
It's essentially impossible to summarize such a profusion of activity in a single paragraph, but here goes: We met with leading politicians, Israeli and Palestinian (including Israel's Prime Minister Olmert at the Knesset and Palestine's Prime Minister Fayyad in Ramallah), with intellectuals, journalists and members of peace think-tanks and NGOs. We met with members of a West Bank settlement, as well as with activists trying to limit the damage being wrought by the settlement enterprise. We toured the ghost-town-like streets of the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron ("H2") where travel restrictions severely limit even Palestinian pedestrian traffic; and we were hosted by a Palestinian family in "H2" that is trying to maintain the semblance of a normal life under a harsh occupation regime in which the settlers' interests are all that seem to matter.
Make-or-break for the two-state solution?
There was so much more, but the real story isn't whom we met, but what we heard, and what we heard most often was this: 2008 could be the last year in which a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine is still possible. In other words, we were told, if the two-state vision isn't realized this year, we might not get another crack at it.
Why is this so? First and foremost, due to growing Palestinian disillusionment. A constant refrain in our discussions was that, from the Palestinian perspective, the 15 years since the Oslo process began have witnessed a sharp rise in settlement expansion, an ever more trenchant occupation regime, and a steep decline in Palestinian standard of living. With no real results to show for the talks over a two-state solution, Palestinian intellectuals, and an increasing number of "men and women in the street", are starting to believe that instead of pounding their head on the wall of the peace process, the Palestinians should start changing their tune: Instead of demanding an independent Palestinian state, they should turn to the international community and ask that Israel simply apply to the residents of the territories the basic democratic rule: One person, one vote. Despairing of a two-state solution, we were told, the majority of Palestinians might soon go back to their old demand for a single democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea - in which they would constitute a majority by the year 2020 or earlier.
The year 2008 is also seen as critical due to the way in which the stars are lined up in the political firmament. US engagement is regarded as an absolute necessity, but the common logic is that no first-term American president in his/her first two years in office will want to get involved in such an explosive issue as Israel/Palestine. In other words, 2008, President Bush's last year in office, could well be the last opportunity for active American involvement in the peace process until 2011 - by which time, we were warned, it might be too late. In addition, figures on both sides told us, Palestinian President Abbas is set to complete his term this year and will not seek re-election; if no major progress towards a peace agreement is made by the time he leaves office, the Palestinian moderates will suffer a terrible political blow, and could easily lose control of the Palestinian presidency, as well as of the West Bank.
On the Israeli side: The latest public opinion polls indicate that if, amid the multiple scandals surrounding Olmert, new elections were called, the Likud party would be the clear favorite to form the next government, with its chairman, Bibi Netanyahu, becoming Prime Minister. A failure by Olmert to advance towards peace this year would only increase Israeli pessimism, and the Likud's fortunes in the polls. We met with Bibi during the Symposium, and we heard the chilling vision of what his premiership would bring: A return of the "no Palestinian partner for peace" mantra, the suspension of the peace process, and continued Israeli control of the West Bank, with limited Palestinian autonomy to be allowed for Palestinian cities and towns. Indeed, faced by this electoral and political prospect, the Meretz party in Israel finds itself in a quandary: Should it call for Olmert's ouster, and risk ushering in an Israeli government that will tightly close the spigot on peace? Or should it "hold its nose" and keep Olmert afloat, in the hope that his stated commitment to the peace process is sincere?
Finally, the reality of the settlements on the ground is threatening to make the two-state solution a relic of the past. For a Palestinian state to be viable, it will need to occupy a contiguous territory, whose political, cultural and administrative capital will be in East Jerusalem. Increasingly, however, Israeli settlement activity is threatening to cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, which would render a future Palestinian state a body without a head. Daniel Seidemann of the Ir Amim organization explained that, in particular, Israeli construction in Har Homa, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and plans for construction in the "E-1" area, between Jerusalem and the mega-settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim to its east, could finally and terminally sever East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland.
Human rights and occupation
Meanwhile, as Israeli and Palestinian public figures fight to preserve the two-state concept, Palestinian life in the territories becomes increasingly unlivable. Yehuda Sha'ul of the IDF rerservists group, "Breaking the Silence", informed us, for example, that 42% of the Palestinian homes in the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron are now empty, due to the constant pressure and abuse of the Israeli settlers, and the tight restrictions imposed by the Israeli army - designed to protect the Israeli settlers at the expense of the Palestinian population. (For information on Breaking the Silence’s February/March tour and photo exhibit in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, click here.)
We learned from Lydia Aisenberg of Givat Haviva that tens of thousands of Palestinians are caught between the Israeli separation barrier to their east and the Green Line to their west. Caught in "limbo-land", as she put it, they are both forbidden to cross into Israel and hard-pressed to access the Palestinian areas on the other side of the fence and wall, where they have land, family and friends, and receive their medical services.
We learned from Hanna Barag of Machsom Watch that, despite Olmert's commitments, the number of checkpoints within the West Bank has not decreased, with some 550 checkpoints still allowing the settlers to move about the West Bank freely while tightly filtering, and sometimes preventing entirely, the movement of Palestinians. Indeed, one of the nagging questions that arose repeatedly was whether the Israeli government was in full control of its bureaucracy - both military and civil. How else to explain the gap, indeed sometimes the diametrical contradiction, between Israeli government promises on checkpoints and settlements and the darkening reality on the ground?
As we traveled the West Bank, our bus moved effortlessly on a no-Palestinians-allowed highway that had a high wall running alongside its entire length. The wall seemed to serve a dual purpose: Not only to block the potential attacks of Palestinian terrorists, but to shield Israeli eyes from the fact that there are people - Palestinian people - on the other side: Out of sight, out of mind, as it were. The deepening of the occupation, it seems, is not only about the restrictions in effect on the West Bank and all around Gaza. It is manifested as well in a growing Israeli indifference to the condition of their Palestinian neighbors - an apathy and numbness bred of the same frustration and despair that is fueling the Palestinian disillusionment with the two-state idea.
American Jews can and must help!
But all is not lost. Time and again we were told that the Palestinian and Israeli political leaderships have never been closer to an actual peace agreement. Much of the real work is being done "under wraps", and the gaps are narrowing significantly. But time is of the essence, and these efforts need as much support as possible. As a result, we heard from Israelis and Palestinians alike how important it is that progressive American Jews make their voice heard, loud and clear.
Gadi Baltiansky, chairman of the Israeli chapter of the Geneva Initiative explained that American Jews can have an impact in three ways: First, American decision-makers need to hear that the American Jewish community demands continuous US engagement in the peace process. Second, he noted, Israeli decision-makers, too, will take into account what American Jews have to say. Finally, he pointed out, since the beginning of the Second Intifada, the Israeli Jewish public has been put to sleep by the refrain that peace is not possible. An American Jewish voice in support of the peace process, he predicted, could help wake their Israeli cousins from their slumber, and make peace seem "real" and "possible" once again. It's time not only for American Jewish moderates to have their say, Gadi implored, it's time for them, "to shout".
Let's start shouting.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Jerusalem Post, Israel - Jan 17, 2008
... alternative markets that are not linked to the dollar and diversify to minimize their exposure." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at the conference, ...
Histadrut chair warns of strike if gov't does not boost dollar
Ha'aretz, Israel - Feb 3, 2008
By Ora Koren, TheMarker Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini threatened Sunday to call a general strike for one day if the government did not intervene in regards ...
As dollar weakens, manufacturers warn of 'economic disaster'
Jerusalem Post, Israel - Feb 6, 2008
Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini said the crisis could "lead to the sacking of tens of thousands of workers this year." "This is a problem for us no less than ...
Olmert to meet economic leaders on foreign exchange
Globes, Israel - 22 hours ago
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will convene tomorrow a special meeting to discuss the collapsing dollar, following the fall in the shekel-dollar exchange rate ...
Olmert to hold emergency meeting on dollar rates
Ynetnews, Israel - 1 hour ago
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to hold an emergency meeting concerning the recent fluctuations the dollar rates, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Thursday. ...
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
There are four things that need to change before an Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible. First, the power of AIPAC needs to be neutralized. In order to implement a dual mediation framework with both America and Europe sponsoring the peace negotiations, AIPAC’s power needs to be offset by another group in the Jewish community. AIPAC would rather forego an opportunity for peace than allow a negotiating process in which it felt that it did not have control. The initiative of Hungarian-American financier George Soros to build up three liberal pro-Israel groups (Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek vaShalom, Israel Policy Forum) has the potential to accomplish this.
Second, the center-left peace camp in Israel, consisting of the Labor Party and Meretz, needs to recover its level of strength from the 1990s. In 1992 the two parties had a combined strength of 56 seats in the Knesset (out of 120). Today the two parties had a combined strength of 27 seats—the same amount as Labor alone had under Ehud Barak in 1999-2001. The precedent of the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which suffered at the hands of Protestant voters in 2003 and 2005 for championing the then failed peace process is not good. The UUP has yet to begin to recover and the Democratic Unionist Party has replaced it as the main unionist party.
There is an electoral price to be paid for backing a failed peace process. There is also an electoral price to pay for losing or doing poorly in a war. Labor has also lost the support of the Russian immigrants who backed it in 1992. The left’s best chance is probably a union or joint list between the two parties. Mergers changed the fortunes of both Herut and Mapai in the 1970s and 1960s. Labor’s main characteristic is its reliance on former generals. Its American equivalent was the Whig Party (1834-1856). The Whigs resuscitated their fortunes by merging with the anti-slavery Free Soil Party and adopting its program to become the Republican Party of 1856. The Republican Party won the presidency in its second election out with a civilian at its head.
Third, Israel must drastically reform its dysfunctional election system. It can do this in one of three ways. First, it can dramatically raise the entry barrier for parties wishing to be represented in the Knesset from two percent to five percent or even ten percent. Second, it can elect half the seats from single-member or small-multimember constituencies. Germany does this. Third, it can replace its list proportional representation system with the proportional representation—single transferable vote used in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.* Most existing parties oppose any major reforms of the Israeli electoral system.
Fourth, the Palestinians must unite behind a single leadership. As long as there is a virtual state of civil war between Fatah/PLO and Hamas the former will not be able to make the type of concessions needed to match Israeli concessions in a final peace agreement. The first three conditions are up to American and Israeli Jews to change. The final condition is in the hands of the Palestinians and cannot really be affected by Israel. Any Israeli moves to boost the fortunes of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are as likely to fail as succeed. If Israel makes concessions then Hamas claims that Fatah is an Israeli puppet. If Israel does nothing, Hamas claims that only force works with Israel.
I ended my presentation by advising that because of the weakness of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships the talks were likely to fail. Because of the greater strength of the Assad regime in Syria and Israel’s greater willingness to make concessions to other states than to the PLO, I recommended that Israel show a preference for negotiations with Syria over those with the Palestinians. If a peace agreement is satisfactorily concluded, Israeli leaders will not have to worry about this choice during a future peace process. [Click here to link to Dr. Mitchell’s previous article.]
*The PR-STV system allows voters to select several different candidates, although their votes are only counted once. Voters rank the candidates in their order of preference from one to six (or the number of seats in the constituency) and their votes are discarded until one is found for a candidate who has not yet secured a majority and it is then counted. Once they reach the threshold to be elected, excess votes are disregarded and the vote counters look at the next preference. That way the voter votes up to six times on a single ballot, but the ballot is only counted once. I know this sounds complicated, but so is explaining the Israeli system to those in America, Britain, etc. with first-past-the-post franchise systems.
Monday, February 04, 2008
The enemy is a constant menace but never seen. The small Israeli garrison faces sophisticated road mines, frequent mortar barrages and devastatingly accurate missile hits. Since Israel’s withdrawal was known to be imminent, the soldiers were prohibited from risking casualties by patrolling and striking preemptively or punitively at Hezbollah as had been routine previously. This undermines the soldiers' morale by making them feel like sitting ducks and useless.
A surprise in the audience of the special screening I attended was a member of the cast of "Beaufort," a 26-year old of American-Israeli background who had actually served as a soldier at Beaufort during part of this time. From him we got the earnest but not deeply reflective view of someone who feels that there was no choice but to have been in Lebanon, guarding northern Israel. Either he or the moderator– an Israeli who works here for the non-profit fundraising organization, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces– made the point that if the IDF were still in the security zone of southern Lebanon, most Hezbollah rockets would not have had the range to hit Israeli towns and cities in the summer of 2006.
My question to the young man was whether he thought that the Hezbollah would be Israel’s enemy if not for the invasion of Lebanon in the first place in 1982 (or at least the IDF overstaying its initial welcome from the Shiites upon ridding the south of the PLO’s armed presence). He would not get drawn into a discussion of history (which he seemed ill-equipped for), but he did admit that one could certainly speculate. He did point out with justice that even after the UN declared Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon to be complete, Hezbollah has remained violent in its hostility, provoking the war of 2006.
To him, the question of having served in Lebanon was simply one of standing up for the Jewish state, which the Jewish people had suffered for 2000 years without. His attitude, and apparently that of most of the audience– a largely young crowd brought together for a special screening by "Dor Chadash"– was that Israel had no other choice. I understand this perspective but wish that I could have felt it useful to more forcefully press my polite dissent; I did not want to alienate the assemblage by seeming to be overly critical. This kind of event presents a challenge for a pro-Israel dove like myself, trying to broaden people's thinking without turning them off.
Friday, February 01, 2008
My understanding [based upon Yossi Beilin's observations as a participant, and by way of response to Tom Mitchell's comment on the previous post] is that the negotiators at Taba were about ready to send out teams to assess compensation terms for the families of the Palestinian refugees of 1948, who were to receive money rather than a physical right of return. The territorial solution involved the concept of settlement blocs– based upon the discovery of strategic analyst Yossi Alpher in ‘94 or ‘95 that about 80 percent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank were within a couple of miles of the pre-1967 border; this meant that a modest trade of territories between Israel and the Palestinians could produce a reasonable agreement and not require a physically and politically impossible removal of most settlers. To a certain extent, this concept still holds promise today as part of the solution.
In December 2003, a large number of notable political and cultural figures among both Israelis and Palestinians signed a model peace agreement called the Geneva Accord or Geneva Initiative. It was a projection of what the Taba conference might have produced if it were allowed to proceed to a conclusion, with contributions from many of the same negotiators on each side. It contained detailed solutions that most Israelis and Palestinians could agree to on final status issues: refugees, settlements, Jerusalem, final boundaries, a Palestinian state, security for Israel. To a certain degree, Ariel Sharon made a decision to unilaterally remove settlers from the Gaza Strip, as a reaction to the Geneva Accord in order to attempt to impose an arrangement upon the Palestinians without having to negotiate with them.
But as negotiations have rekindled with Annapolis, with negotiators now meeting regularly again, the Geneva Accord and other glimpses of an agreement are– hopefully– primary reading material. We can understand why negotiations did not seem practical when Arafat was in charge, but after Mahmoud Abbas took charge following Arafat’s death, a man who has repeatedly called the Intifada a mistake and called for a Palestinian state to live peacefully alongside Israel, it was a pity that Sharon ignored this important change on the Palestinian side.
The Intifada was a disaster for Israel but a calamity for the Palestinians. Not only did they lose lives at a rate of more than four for every Israeli killed, but all the material progress of the 1990s and a huge amount of infrastructure was destroyed. Roads were churned up, building destroyed, plans for an airport and a Gaza seaport devastated. The economy of the Gaza Strip hardly exists at all and that of the West Bank is limping along. Life in the West Bank is immobilized by hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints.
It can be said that Arafat to a large degree was responsible for Sharon’s election and the ascendency for the rejectionist right in 2001. But within two to three years, Sharon was making clear that he had changed. He hadn’t changed enough to engage in a new effort to negotiate peace with Arafat’s successor, Abbas, but he had changed enough to know that Israel had to withdraw from most of the Palestinian territories, in order to protect Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. But without the more practical and moderate new Palestinian leadership being rewarded with the prospect of improved conditions for their people, delivering at least tangible hope for their people, the likes of Hamas and other bad actors are in a position to come to the fore as they have.
Without Israel at least coordinating the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority under Abbas, Hamas was able to claim that it was "armed resistance" that liberated Gaza and only armed resistance. But Hamas was elected very narrowly in January 2006 mostly on a reform, anti-corruption platform. They won about 75 percent of the legislative seats with only 44 percent of the vote as against 42 percent for Fatah, largely because Fatah was so disorganized that it actually ran candidates against itself in the constituency districts. The Palestinians had a form of proportional representation that included both competing national lists of candidates– in which the two parties, Fatah and Hamas tied– but also multi-representative constituency districts in which Fatah candidates ran against each other so that Hamas won a whopping majority.
But even though most Palestinians agree consistently in opinion surveys, as do most Israelis, in the need for a two-state solution, a peace agreement with Israel, Palestinians voted for Hamas to achieve change. In so doing, they also voted for a political movement that insisted on defending the right to attack Israelis, even after Israel had withdrawn totally from Gaza. In doing so, Hamas and the other violent groups destroyed the successful efforts made by James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank, and others to secure greenhouses from the departing settlers. Israel’s reaction to the constant rocket attacks into Israel, primarily in the vicinity of Sderot, a couple of miles outside of Gaza, has been harsh. This reaction was especially brutal in response to the cross-border raid in June 2006 that killed two Israelis and captured the young soldier, Gilad Shalit. Several hundred Palestinians (600, I believe), about half of whom were fighters and the other half innocents, were killed in the summer of 2006.
Yet, an offer of a long-term truce from Hamas was recently rejected by Israel. It was considered by the Olmert cabinet and advocated by several ministers. It is hard to see an end to the rocket attacks, now with increasingly greater range, if an agreement isn’t reached somehow with Hamas to end the fighting. I’m not a fan of Hamas, I don’t especially trust their motives, but I believe that it’s more likely that Palestinians will successfully police themselves rather than for Israel to succeed in stopping these attacks. If rampaging through Gaza in 2006 accomplished nothing, I see no reason to expect that Israel can put down Palestinian resistance without internal cooperation. And it will be politically difficult for Abbas’s government in the West Bank to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, in the name of all Palestinians, when Israel is engaged militarily in Gaza.
The forces are aligned for one last chance this year to achieve an agreement. It is said that the chemistry is good between Prime Minister Olmert and PA President Abbas. Olmert is on record as saying that if Israel does not soon reach an agreement to establish a Palestinian state as a peaceful neighbor, that Israel is doomed, that Israel will soon no longer be a majority Jewish state and that a disenfranchised Arab majority will win the sympathy of the world in the same way that the struggle against apartheid was won in South Africa. Olmert has used exactly the South African example, even saying the "a" word.
But it’s not clear to me that Olmert has the political will or the skill to take the bold moves necessary to make a reasonable agreement. It’s also not clear to me that Abbas has what it takes, or that the Bush administration– not known for its diplomatic prowess– has the ability to pull this off. If I were a betting man, I would bet against it.
Olmert needs to fulfill the first phase of the old Road Map that Pres. Bush unfurled back in 2003: to dismantle dozens of unauthorized settlements– illegal settlements– filled with young radicals who lord it over and often steal or damage crops and property of their Arab neighbors. Olmert must also be prepared to compromise over what is now the expanded Jerusalem, a much larger area than Jerusalem was prior to 1967; this means a willingness for Arab-populated neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to fall under eventual Palestinian sovereignty. It means a freeze on settlement activity, including plans to expand housing for Jews in the southeastern neighborhood of Jerusalem called Har Homa– strategically placed as it is to effectively cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank. If this occurs, 200,000 Jerusalem Arabs will lose all of their natural social and economic links with the West Bank. This could make these 200,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem violently hostile, something that they have mostly not been so far.
At the same time, the Palestinians need to decide, once and for all, that the right of return they claim for the refugee generations must be exercised only in relation to a return to the small part of historic Palestine that is slated to become the Palestinian state. They also must renew a close security relationship with Israel and the US and other countries that might become involved in helping to maintain security for both Israelis and Palestinians. They must stop all incitement against Israel by the media and in the schools– progress which has been made but must be deepened and monitored; and this effort against incitement and the preaching of hatred should make greater progress once Israeli soldiers and settlers are no longer directly in the faces of Palestinians. ...
I went on to mention that Olmert’s political survival in office as prime minister is iffy— especially with the then-looming report of the Winograd Commission investigating the government’s conduct in the Lebanese war of 2006. But he may have dodged the bullet this week because of a relatively light rebuke in the final Winograd report.