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Some Reflections from Israel


Events have been moving swiftly in the Middle East since
President Obama’s election, and perhaps never before has
there been this level of division in the American Jewish
Community vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians.  The
election of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, President
Obama’s startling address to the Muslim world and his
stated goal of swift progress towards a two state solution,
the unprecedented American pressure on Israel regarding
the settlements, and Fatah’s just concluded convention and elections, all suggest new political movement throughout the region, which in turn, has shattered much American Jewish comfort with Israeli policies

Let me say at the outset that I believe very strongly that the primary impediment to peace is, as it always has been, Arab rejectionism.  There is nothing Israel can do that will bring peace to the region.  There are, however, several things the Palestinians can do that would go a very long way to bringing peace.  The settlements, the blockade on Gaza,  the West Bank roadblocks, the IDF presence in the West Bank, the wall, all cause hardship to the lives of ordinary Palestinians, but even the removal of all of them would not bring peace without major movement by the Arabs.  (More on the settlements below.) It is the Palestinian refusal to budge that blocks progress towards peace.

In many ways, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like a schoolyard fight, and anyone who has participated in one will recognize the parable.  Two boys are fighting.  One is clearly bigger and stronger than the other.  In fact, he has the weaker participant on the ground, and is sitting on top of him, but he cannot knock his opponent out.  The smaller fighter refuses to give up.  He pulls, twists, bites, scratches, and struggles against his bigger foe.  It is clear that the stronger boy cannot stop the fight.  If he eases up, the smaller boy will attack again and again, in spite pf the licking he is taking.  only the smaller boy can stop the fight.  Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, calls this the “curious parable of the strength of the weak”.  But it illustrates a significant truism: only the Palestinians can stop the fight and make peace.

The past few months have seen some major moves.  President Obama clearly reached out to the entire Muslim world with his
Cairo speech, a sharp break from past US policy.  Benjamin Netanyahu, with considerable reluctance, announced a major shift
in his government’s policy when he publicly accepted a two state solution in response to strong and very public American
pressure.  The whole world waited expectantly for the third speech, an Arab response with some similar sign of movement.  
Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestine Authority, had a golden opportunity in his closing address to the Fatah Congress in
Bethlehem a couple of weeks ago.  But instead of any conciliatory gesture, no matter how small, all he did was repeat his
acceptance of a two state solution while retaining the right to resistance: the same old same old.  The response of the Arab
world: silence.
What are the signs of Arab rejectionism?  At the top of the list is lack of internal dialog about compromise.  For at least the past
twenty years dialog about the compromises necessary for peace have publicly raged throughout Israel.  Elections have been
fought with peace proposals as major points of contention.  While there is near unanimity on one point (no right of return), there
are wide, and very public, divergences of opinion on the major subjects of future borders, settlements, and Jerusalem.  No such
debate has ever existed in Palestine and thus, the public is totally unprepared for the compromises that will ultimately be
necessary.  After Sari Nusseibeh publicly voiced his readiness to compromise on the right of return, he found it necessary to
take on two bodyguards in fear for his life.  
On July 4, 2009, well respected Palestine Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival, that Jews
would be welcome in any future Palestinian state, which is directly contrary to current Palestinian policy and law.  Such a
concept would find a good reception in Israel, where the idea of a judenrein (free of Jews) state arouses deep suspicion among
most Israelis.  But Fayyad has yet to repeat those words in either Arabic or Hebrew, and thus his very liberal thoughts neither
assuage Israeli public opinion nor prepare his citizenship for compromise.  His silence does, however, protect his life.
Another major sign of Arab rejectionism is continued and virulent preaching of hatred against Jews and Israel in all Arab school
curricula.  Israelis have every right to be wary about creating a neighbor where generations have been taught to hate them.  As
an Israeli relative told me, “How can I make peace with a people that doesn’t have a single song about peace?”.
So if progress toward peace is dependent on Palestinian overtures, and there are no signs of such overtures in the offing, what
should Israel’s policy be?  It seems to me that when the short term is in a stalemate, all policy steps have to be taken with the
long term goals in mind.  It makes no sense to adopt tactics, that while currently positive, are antithetical to your long term goals.
Israel’s official, but by no means unanimous, long term goal is a two state solution.  That has been accepted (or at least been
given lip service) by all governments in the last 20 years or so.  There is no other viable alternative.  The Palestinians are not
going to leave (although there are Israelis that would like to assist them in doing so).  The “Palestine is Jordan” is no longer on
the table, because neither the bride nor the groom is interested, and the “parents” (the world powers) will not insist on a forced
marriage.  Only the third party to the triangle (Israel) has any interest in such a shidduch
.
And maintaining the status quo cannot be in Israel’s interest.  A Jewish Israel cannot exist permanently among 100 million
hostile Arabs.  Eventually somebody will be strong enough to remove the “infidels” - ask the Crusaders.  And how long will
Israeli parents be willing to raise children to fight a never-ending war, when peaceful Poland, Hungary, the US, etc. beckon?  A
single state between the Mediterranean and Jordan cannot be both democratic and Jewish, as the demographers keep telling
us.  Anything else will approach Jimmy Carter’s apartheid, and that will be abhorrent to the world including to most Jews.
So that leaves the two state solution as the only viable alternative.  And, if that is true, it makes little sense to push more Jews
into living in areas that will eventually be part of Palestine.  That can only lead to more trauma when the inevitable dismantling
has to take place.  And that is the nub of the settlement issue - it just doesn’t make sense for Israel’s long term.  
In addition, the settlements are a key issue in the Palestinian view of Israel.  By the same logic as above, how can the
Palestinians believe the Israelis are serious about peace if they keep building settlements?  The Palestinians have many
legitimate complaints about their lives under Israeli rule, most brought about by their own intransigence, but none speaks
louder to them than the issue of settlements.  Every Israeli government for the past 20 years has paid lip service to stopping
settlement increases, but not only has it not happened, but the settlements have continued to grow.  Obama’s pressure on
Netanyahu regarding settlements may very well be a key ingredient in restarting a meaningful peace process.
All is not black.  I must take note of several very positive events that have occurred in the last several months.  First, in
November 2008, Sari Nusseibeh told me that one of the Palestinian negotiators in the continuing lower level negotiations told
him that some real progress had been made.
 
Second, the American trained Palestinian National Security Force has succeeded in cleaning up the rampant crime in Jericho,
Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus, essentially all the major cities of Palestine.  Well respected by Israel, the NSF
forces have replaced IDF troops in these cities, much to the delight of the inhabitants.  Although not well recognized in Israel,
largely due to the wall, commerce is flourishing in all those cities and throughout Palestine.  Nablus just opened its first
multiplex. Israel even allows Israeli Arabs (but not Jews) to travel to the West Bank to shop.  See Tom Friedman’s New York
Times column of Aug. 9, 2009.
These same NSF forces also recently wiped out a Hamas cell in Qalqilya, taking some losses.  This clearly represents a major
step in the establishment of one government in Palestine.  I once wrote that Palestine could not become a real nation until it
had experienced its own ‘Altalena’ incident.  The Altalena incident ocurred in 1948 when Ben Gurion had the Irgun arms ship
Altalena fired on and sunk, with loss of Jewish life,  to establish the principle of one state with one army.
In response to the NSF successes, Israel has removed about two-thirds of the major roadblocks throughout the West Bank.  
These have been a huge irritant to the Palestinians, and their removal has significantly, and joyfully increased freedom of
movement for all Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority, under Prime Minister Fayyad, is no longer seen as corrupt and ineffective.  Governments are willing
to do business with it.  And the election of several “young” members to the Fatah council portends some new attitudes and,
hopefully, new ideas, in what had become a sclerotic (and corrupt) organization.
To close this long drash, let me say that all these steps are just that, small steps on the road to peace.  All the contentious
issues remain: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugee compensation, Jewish rights in Palestine, Gaza.  President Obama has
perhaps pushed open the door to meaningful negotiations against heavy resistance from Netanyahu, and from several well
known American Jewish organizations.  But, like Nixon in China, perhaps only a right wing Likudnik can take the next steps.  
All we can do is wait and see, and in the words of J Street, the new liberal arm of the Pro Israel Pro Peace movement, support
the effort by telling President Obama that “We’ve got your back”.  
September 1, 2009
Claremont, CA
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