From the Chronikles – 2048: A peace odyssey

 
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By Khaled Diab

A century after war broke out, jubilant Israeli and Palestinian crowds celebrate each other’s independence as they march hand-in-hand into the future.

14 May 2048*

Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of their once-troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfilment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate independence day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Avivand Ramallah, walked out together onto a raised podium in jointly administered Jerusalem, the two nations’ spiritual and federal capital, for a celebration with thousands of revellers.

“Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day,” a clearly emotional Shalom V, the charismatic Israeli ex-prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. “I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people’s history. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th anniversary for their nation.”

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Palestinians and Israelis who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B, the popular Palestinian ex-prime minister. “Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. It has not been easy for my people, who have shown for decades fortitude and steadfastness in the face of adversity, to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren.”

Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the1967 war, Israel was strangling Gaza and repressing the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah were at war, Salama was on his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. The passionate young idealist, a doctor, was spurred by the images of Ariel Sharon entering the Holy Sanctuary with hundreds of troops to join the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

He was engaged in a number of gun battles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he’d critically wounded.

The Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not sympathise with Salama’s assertion that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers. “And if what you say is true, you’re my POW until the end of this war,” the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history – and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side.

In 2008, Israel’s 60th anniversary caused Shalom, then a junior Knesset member and historian, to suffer, in addition to his tearful joy, a crisis of conscience. He and Salama needed to reach out to the other side and started off a correspondence through which they became best friends before they ever met.

Together, they realised the explosive effect of the past and of ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common narrative which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic Israeli and Palestinian histories with more nuanced ones.

They also agreed to work together on “bread and butter” issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama’s release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a “collaborator”, but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of “individual dignity before national pride” won him many converts among the hard-pressed and downtrodden Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, and civil war. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so, winning Palestinians the hard-earned right to work and move freely across the entire land, which helped the two sides to see the human in the other. By around 2018, the movement they’d spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021.

The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away – and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit freely. Some Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations, such as Morocco, also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once-vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most of those who returned came from Europe or the US, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referenda were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then, to the surprise of many, for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel.

The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel’s joy – traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair – would also be that of Palestine’s, marked according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the former practice of using the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian nakba.

“Given the small size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option,” Shalom remarked at the time.

“In the past, we had our hands at each others’ throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand,” said Salama, independent Palestine’s first premier, as he and Shalom grabbed each others’ hands and raised them triumphantly in the air, hugging emotionally like the old comrades that they were.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

*This article was republished on 5 May 2014. It originally appeared in The Guardian on 23 April 2008.

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The Arab world’s missed opportunities

 
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By Khaled Diab

Early Arab rejectionism and division unwittingly helped to build Israel and to lose Palestine, with the Palestinian people paying the heavy price.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

In my previous article, I highlighted the many opportunities that Israel has squandered over the decades to forge peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world and how this has jeopardised its  dream of creating a Jewish state.

But Israel does not possess a monopoly when it comes to harmful short-sightedness. In fact, one could argue that the Arab handling of the conflict has been so inept and self-defeating that Israel actually owes the Arabs a major debt of gratitude because, through their mis-steps, they have played a key supporting role in building the Jewish state, albeit unintentionally.

One key example of this is the Arab rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, as encapsulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Though there is no excuse for how the Israelis pushed out or caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, and refused to allow the vast majority of the refugees to return after the war, one can only speculate about what might have occurred had the Arabs not gone to war with the proto-Israeli state and, instead, focused their energies on building a strong and vibrant independent Palestine on the areas left to them.

On reading the above passage, many Arabs will protest that the UN partition was essentially unjust – neither the UN nor the British before them had the right to act imperialistically and give one people’s land to another – and unfair: under this deal, the Arabs would receive only 45% of the land even though they made up some two-thirds of the population in 1947.

But in rejecting the partition plan the Arabs ultimately cut off their nose to spite their face, especially since Arab leaders were well aware in private that they were not ready for war. Some might see in this a common characteristic both sides share, that the Holy Land somehow creates in its inhabitants a kind of “Massada mentality”.

After all, now that the shoe is on the other foot and Israel enjoys the upper hand, its lack of appetite for compromise is comparable – or perhaps worse because it has military might to back it up – to that of the Arabs all those decades ago. And if the international community were to try to impose a similar carve up today, then there is a very strong likelihood that Israel would go to war, like the Arabs did back then.

However, this brand of rejectionism is quite common around the world and is quite consistent with human nature. Consider the decades-long conflict since the partition of India or how the European nations would have reacted had a Jewish state been established in their midst.

Though there are plenty of precedents of people taking up arms to defend the takeover of their land, the Arab rejection was so catastrophic that what seemed like a raw deal in the 1940s now seems like an almost unattainable paradise.

Despite the rejection of the UN partition plan, over 40 years later, in 1988, the PLO based the Palestinian declaration of independence on Resolution 181. Moreover, today the Palestinian leadership – whether Fatah or Hamas – is willing to accept a state on the less-generous 1967 lines – although the recent controversy over Abbas’ interview on Israeli TV highlights the ongoing struggle between radicals and pragmatists, as well as the hardening of positions that has accompanied the failure of peace negotiations to reach a just settlement, leaving Palestinians with just settlements.

Of course, partition would not have magically ended the conflict, and could have led to civil war between the minorities and majorities in each state, and constant clashes between the two declared states, especially between expansionist Zionist and rejectionist Palestinian forces.  However, it is equally possible that partition would have provided a cooling-off period that would empower the realists on both sides. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that partition would have led to a more catastrophic outcome for the Palestinians than the mass dispossession and complete loss of Palestine that they have been left with.

Hindsight is a deceptive faculty, some might counter, because it tends to reveal things later that were not apparent at the time. How were the Arabs, who felt they had both right and might on their side, to know in 1947 that a year later they would be so decisively defeated, and that an even more comprehensive defeat was to follow in 1967?

Nevertheless, certain clear signs that pointed towards the urgent need to compromise were already very apparent in 1947. One clear pattern was that the longer the Arabs held out for a utopian dream, the greater the dystopian reality became.

In the interwar years, the inherent contradictions of conflicting, and largely expedient, wartime promises to both Zionist and Arab leaders were placing Britain, the imperial midwife of this bitter conflict, in a tight bind. Faced with mounting popular unrest against both British rule and Zionist immigration, the British establishment began to lean more towards the Arab side. This is illustrated in the “Churchill” White Paper of 1922 which tried to square Britain’s conflicting promises, made partly for wartime expediency, by offering Jews the right to limited immigration to Palestine and to enjoy autonomy there, as well as equal rights, but, crucially, within an independent Arab Palestinian state.

Despite the presence of pragmatists in the Palestinian ranks, the radicals who had gained the upper hand in the leadership of the Palestinian struggle refused this framework and similar future proposals, out of a rejection of British rule, their distrust of the Zionist project, and opposition to large-scale Jewish immigration.

Some have interpreted this opposition to Jewish immigration as a sign of xenophobia and racism, and elements of this certainly existed. But this interpretation is exaggerated, since the very earliest waves of Jewish immigration were tolerated and hardly noticed in Palestine’s rich ethno-religious tapestry.

However, subsequent immigration reached such a scale that it was radically and rapidly redefining the country’s demographic make-up. In the mid-19th century, Jews comprised some 4-5% of the population;  by 1947, they were almost a third. And this immigration, the Palestinian Arabs feared, had the colonial goal of robbing them of the independence the British had not yet granted them.

Though Zionism certainly had colonial designs on Palestine, opinion was extremely divided between those who advocated a single nation of equals, Jewish autonomy or full independence. Moreover, this exclusive focus on Zionist imperialism overlooked the reality that these bedraggled Jews who arrived in Palestine were not just colonists but also refugees, oppressed natives fleeing persecution and murder in their homelands.

Palestinians justifiably ask why they should have had to pay the price for Europe’s persecution of its Jewish population. But there is a much-overlooked flip side: the humanitarian imperative.

Even before the advent of modern international humanitarian law, the region had a long tradition of taking in refugees, including the Jews of Spain. More recently, Armenians fleeing genocide at the hands of the Turks found a safe haven in Palestine, and Palestinian refugees settled in such numbers across the river in neighbouring Jordan that they eventually far outnumbered the locals.

Politically, the inability to understand this element hurt the Palestinian cause because it led Arabs to believe that Zionism was a classical form of European colonialism, and so if they resisted it long enough and hard enough, the newcomers would eventually go home. But Zionism differed in at least one key respect: Jews who came to Palestine felt they had no “home” to return to, and that Palestine was the only home left to them.

So whether or not it was fair of the British to impose this burden on the Palestinians, Jewish immigration was a reality that was unlikely to stop or be reversed. An earlier recognition of this might have enabled the Arabs to accept a compromise favourable to their own interests – and even benefit from the diversity which immigration brings – while they still had the upper hand. Instead, the conflict escalated, with radicals on both sides stoking the flames of hatred and distrust, until the British started contemplating partition, such as in a 1939 white paper, and the newly minted UN decided fatefully and short-sightedly to impose this solution.

When the Arab armies entered Palestine in 1948 to intervene on the side of the Palestinians in the civil war that followed partition, Azzam Pasha, the first secretary-general of the Arab League said: “We are fighting for an Arab Palestine.”

But what did he mean by this? “Whatever the outcome the Arabs will stick to their offer of equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine and let them be as Jewish as they like. In areas where they predominate, they will have complete autonomy,” the Egyptian diplomat insisted.

Had this been the general Arab position a quarter of a century earlier, the Palestinians may have gained their independence decades ago and Arabs and Jews may have today been living in a single democratic state of equality.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 4 November 2012.

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The ‘non-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the two-state solution relegated to the dustbin of history, the time has arrived to consider equal citizenship for Palestinians and Israelis.

Thursday 4 October 2012

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has sincerely flattered none other than himself. When he surreally pulled out the cartoon bomb to illustrate the apparent threat from the alleged Iranian programme to build a nuclear weapon, he succeeded in becoming a parody of himself, triggering a proliferation of viral caricatures, such as the one mocking him as a “Looney Tunes” villain.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric was just as two-dimensional, casting Iran and its presumed allies in the role of the ultimate bloodthirsty, suicidal enemy bent on destroying civilisation as we know it.

“At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world,” he claimed rather implausibly, given that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the Iranian regime, despite its ill-informed and dangerous grandstanding, is developing a nuclear weapons programme, that it would be successful even if it were pursuing one, or that it would actually be stupid and suicidal enough to deploy said WMD. Meanwhile, Israel, despite its policy of ambiguity, is widely understood to sit on the Middle East’s only known nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu drew “red lines” all over the General Assembly, while conveniently overlooking the far more significant green line, upon which the future of his country truly rests. In fact, judging by the evasive passing reference to negotiations and “mutual compromise”, Bibi seems to rate Iran’s non-existent nukes as a greater threat to Israel than the ticking time bomb of the unresolved Palestinian question.

Cold-shouldered by Netanyahu and facing mounting unrest among his own people, PA President Mahmoud Abbas continued, for want of more imaginative ideas, his disastrous quest for UN recognition, as if the non-membership of a non-state would somehow help the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

“There can only be one understanding of the Israeli government’s actions,” Abu Mazen told the assembly, suggesting that “the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution”.

Judging by Israel’s deeds, which have left no more space to negotiate over, it seems safe to conclude that the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing beside Israel on the pre-1967 borders lies somewhere in the dustbin of history. While the Israeli leadership is content to “manage the conflict”, the PA is powerless to breathe new life into a defunct process.

So, what’s the answer? According to Abbas, a “new approach” is required. However, the new approach he outlined sounded suspiciously like the old one: that the ineffective and ineffectual international community can somehow be prevailed upon finally to rise from its lethargy and force Israel to commit to the pre-1967 borders.

He mentioned but did not elaborate on a far more promising and powerful track. “Our people are also determined to continue peaceful popular resistance, consistent with international humanitarian law, against the occupation and the settlements and for the sake of freedom, independence and peace,” Abbas concluded.

Personally, I believe we need to take this “new approach” to its logical conclusion. Rather than continue the decades-old futile efforts to accommodate two conflicting nationalisms in such a tiny space, it is high time for everyone involved to recognise that all attempts to partition and repartition this land simply have not worked and are unlikely to in the future.

Instead of fixating on borders and territory, as if soil is so much thicker than blood, the focus must shift to the people, whom for too many generations have been sacrificed in the cause of this holy land, as if it has more rights than they do.

Prioritising the people will necessitate transforming the Palestinian struggle into a mass, non-violent civil rights movement, in which Palestinians deploy all the tools of peaceful resistance at their disposal, and Israeli sympathisers force emancipation platforms on their political parties. In this context, the “land for peace” formula will be replaced by a “rights for peace” one in which full emancipation will be the central demand.

We need to form a Popular Front for the Liberation of the Palestinians to pursue the various civil rights Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are currently denied, deprived of or have restricted access to. These include the freedom to travel and to work everywhere, not just in Palestine but also in Israel, the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints, the dismantling of the wall, and the opening up of Israeli-only settlements to Palestinians.

But, first and foremost, all 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must seek full Israeli citizenship. For differing reasons, this bold proposal is bound to be anathema both to Palestinians and Israelis, as it will be seen to be sounding the death knell on their dreams.

For Israelis, it sounds suspiciously like the one-state solution which, to the minds of many, though there are a growing number of supporters, spells the demise of the century-long Zionist dream and the end of the Jewish state. For many Palestinians, though more of them support the one-state option than in Israel, the idea of becoming Israelis is tantamount not only to admitting the death of their beloved Palestine but to asking for the privilege to drive the final nail into the coffin.

Such worries reflect historical and psychological anxieties, heightened by the maximalist visions of extremists on both sides, rather than the glaring realities on the ground: that Palestinians and Israelis are effectively living in a single state, albeit one that is largely segregated and in which millions are disenfranchised.

To my mind, despite all the poetry of the land that has marked the Palestinian struggle, “Palestine” is far more than its olive and orange groves, it is, above all else, the sum total of its people. What better way is there to preserve what’s left than to protect the right of the Palestinians to continue to live there in full equality?

Likewise, it is the Israeli people who make Israel Jewish and so emancipating the millions of disenfranchised Palestinians will not make the state any less Jewish than it is today – only fairer and more just. Moreover, if maintaining a clear Jewish majority is truly the overarching aim of the Zionist project, then Israel should have allowed the emergence of an independent Palestine many years ago.

Personally, I am an advocate of a single, bi-national federation of Israel-Palestine because it allows both sides to have unfettered access to the land they hold so dear, while preserving their social and cultural identities and rights through, for example, elected community governments, one representing Jews and one representing Arabs wherever they may live on the land (and perhaps a third representing those anti-nationalists who wish to be defined as neither). Above this, an elected federal government would be responsible for common issues, such as the economy, defence, foreign relations and water resources.

But what I am proposing here is not a one-state solution per se. If anything, you could say it is the ‘non-state solution’, i.e. it is an ideologically neutral means of improving the reality on the ground.

Once everyone is emancipated, then the real work begins and a true conversation of equals can take place to determine democratically the future of the two peoples: whether they will continue together in a single, democratic state or opt for a magnanimous divorce brokered, not by outsiders, but one people to another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2012.

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Avoiding the ultimate price tag in Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the rise in Jewish fanaticism, Israelis are faced with a paradox: peace with the Palestinians could stoke conflict within their own ranks but avoiding full-blown civil war requires an end to the occupation.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Once upon a time, the words ‘price tag’ evoked nothing more ominous in my imagination than something attached to the inside collar of a new shirt. But in Israel it has come to be associated with the destruction of Palestinian property, the burning of their fields, the poisoning of their wells, and the desecration of burial sites. 

And the standoff seems to be escalating, as demonstrated by the recent spate of attacks, such as the torching of a mosque, this time inside pre-1967 Israel. In fact, according to one estimate by the UN, ‘price tag’ attacks rose by a stunning 57% in the first seven months of this year. 

But it is not just Palestinians who have been suffering the wrath of these extremists. Increasingly, the price tagging movement has done the once unthinkable and targeted Israelis, both soldiers and leftist activists.

Political violence perpetrated by Israelis against Israelis has shocked Israel – which is hardly surprising, since the extremists have effectively placed their own compatriots in the enemy camp. It has also taken many Arabs by surprise, since one of the few things that Arabs admire about Israelis – even if it is begrudgingly or for the purposes of self-criticism – is how apparently tightly knit and unified of purpose they are.

Now that the unthinkable has occurred, could the unimaginable one day happen? Could Israelis go to war with each other?

In the past, despite the vast ideological, cultural and political diversity of its Jewish population, Israel was able to pull rank and manufacture consent surrounded as it was by enemies, both real and imagined. But as the threat from its Arab neighbours subsided and they began extending their hands in peace rather than rattling the sabres of war, Israel’s efforts to paper over its internal cracks and fault lines could not arrest the deepening divisions.

 In some ways, it can be said that Israel is already in a state of internal ideological warfare – a sort of quasi-civil war that has not yet turned violent, the ‘price tag’ campaigns excepted. This can be seen in Israel’s fractured political landscape and in the bitter division between secularists and religious Jews who have effectively ‘ghettoised’ themselves geographically. Contrast, for example, the relatively liberal, relaxed and hedonistic atmosphere of fun-loving Tel Aviv with the mini-theocracies that have emerged in pious Jerusalem.

There is also the tension between the geographical maximalist supporters of a ‘Greater Israel’ and the more pragmatic backers of the two-state solution. In the wake of the 1967 war, the Israeli political mainstream was generally reluctant to cede the territorial gains Israel had made, and they were helped in their resolve by Arab rejectionism at the time, which was intensified by the bitter and humiliating sting of rapid defeat.

Since the Oslo process began, the mainstream has largely been won over to the idea of ceding land for peace, though there are vast differences of opinion over how much land for how much peace should be exchanged.

This mainstream dithering, along with the need to maintain a consensus of sorts by following the path of least internal resistance, was exploited by extremists – right-wing revisionist Zionists in alliance with religious Zionists who, ironically, are the ideological descendants of the ultra-Orthodox movements who opposed Zionism on religious grounds but were ‘converted’ into a messianic movement by Israel’s spectacular military victories in 1967. In fact, many residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim are still opposed to the existence of Israel – as was advertised on a big banner ther just last week – and some refuse to speak Hebrew, which they see as too holy for secular use. 

Together, the different groups that make up the settler movement managed to pull off the feat of accelerating settlement activity in order to create ‘facts on the ground’ to the extent that more than half a million settlers now live on land which had been earmarked for the future Palestinian state, where the most extreme have enjoyed pretty much a carte blanche to live and act outside the law.

Emboldened by this sense of impunity, this hoodwinking and political coercion has now, with the emergence of the ‘price tag’ movement, turned into open and violent intimidation, in a classic case of ‘blow back’.

But what can be done to turn the tide?

Debate in Israel has largely focused on law and order issues, of catching and punishing the perpetrators of these violent acts and challenging their sense of impunity. Though necessary, this is only a case of attacking the symptoms and not treating the disease.

Undermining the increasingly fanatical settler movement requires an end to the settlements. The silent Israeli majority who have consistently voiced their support for the two-state solution – most recently in a poll that found 70% of Israelis support a possible UN vote in favour of an independent Palestine – must come out of their bunkers and be counted.

Now it is time for them to back up their sentiments with deeds. If the Israeli mainstream wishes to keep the two-state solution alive, now is the time to act forcefully and resolutely to abandon all the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are impeding the creation of an independent Palestine, or hand them over to Palestinian sovereignty where they can be opened up and transformed into mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

But such a course of action – which would not only bring about peace with the Palestinians but preserve Israel’s corroding democracy against this extremist onslaught – paradoxically carries with it the risk of escalating the ‘price tag’ campaign into full-blown civil conflict or war. Look what happened when Ariel Sharon, the one-time darling of the settler movement, tried to dismantle the relatively small settlements in Gaza, some will point out?

But this risk will rise with time, not diminish. For now, extremists willing to turn on their Jewish compatriots are a relatively small minority, but they are winning fresh converts constantly.

As numerous Israeli visionaries have warned for decades, the occupation is a corrupting, divisive and draining influence on Israel. If Israelis wish to salvage the secular and democratic nature of their country, and to live at peace, not only with the Palestinians but also among themselves, there is no more room for complacency and dithering.

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Israelis for Palestine

 
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By Dana Moss

Left-wing Israelis do not buy Netanyahu’s scare tactics and look forward to living side by side with an independent Palestine.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

When Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, landed in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he promised the Israeli public that he would “defend a people under assault from those who oppose [Israel’s] very existence”.

The government’s sound bites are sending the average Israeli into panic wondering about the exact nature of the existential threat, which Netanyahu alludes to, posed by the Palestinian quest to join the UN.

Yet behind the smoke and mirrors, Netanyahu is trying to prevent the very step that would save Israel – the recognition of a Palestinian state on the borders of 4 June, 1967.

The current government bluster about the implications of the Palestinian UN bid is partly intended to distract mainstream Israeli society from recognising that this a line that the Israeli left has been pushing for the past few decades.

The left – composed of various political parties and a small, though active, civil society scene – encompasses a  spectrum of opinion that is both Zionist and non-Zionist. At bottom, however, it possesses the belief that a two-state solution and a division of the land is necessary to enable Israel to live up to its claims of having a demographic Jewish majority and adhering to a democratic system in which one people do not rule over another.

While it is true that, in the past, left-wing governments contributed to settlement building, in recent years this constellation of left-wing Israeli groupings have taken active steps to oppose such policies.

As a member of the left wing of Israeli society, I want to say loud and clear that we do not buy into Netanyahu’s scare tactics. A Palestinian state next to Israel will be a win-win situation for both our peoples. The lengthy occupation has harmed Israel, endangered its future as a homeland for the Jewish people and eroded the fabric of its society – it is time for it to end.

While opinions are divided as to the real-life utility of the UN bid in effecting change on the ground, it is clear that this Palestinian attempt to seize the initiative is an innovative step to break the current apathy over negotiations which have lasted over 18 years but have not yet culminated in an independent Palestinian state.

The specifics of the current Israeli government’s opposition to Abu Mazen’s initiative smacks of hypocrisy. At bottom, the Palestinian initiative mirrors Israel’s own history and its own attempts to gain recognition at the very same arena in 1948. Much like the Jewish people, the Palestinian are a people with a culture and a history, and they deserve their own state – this should not be patronisingly bestowed by Israel, but is an inherent right.

Moreover, other than the specific arena in which this Palestinian bid is being aired, nothing suggested therein is new. This initiative asks the UN to focus on the territorial aspects of the conflict according to parameters that have, in theory, been agreed to by previous Israeli governments.

The intangibles of the conflict, its more complicated and emotional aspects – the future of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees – will, as Mahmoud Abbas made clear, be dealt with in direct negotiations. The UN bid will not replace these negotiations.

As a result, this initiative is not intended to demonise Israel as a whole, but, in the words of Abbas, to delegitimise Israel’s occupation. There is little divergence here with the stance of the Israeli left, which has long viewed the occupation as illegitimate.

Netanyahu’s stated opposition to the Palestinian UN bid is based on the straw man argument that it is a unilateral step that bypasses bilateral negotiations. Yet the Israeli left has spent the past two years of Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister opposing his various initiatives to expand settlements, or create facts on the ground – for how can negotiations take place when, simultaneously, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements in East Jerusalem, which has been ear-marked as Palestine’s future capital?

 It is clear to a vocal sector of Israel’s society that Netanyahu is not sincere about reaching a peaceful resolution with our neighbours. Were a different government in place, Israel could have built on the momentum of this declaration to thresh out the remaining issues with the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Netanyahu is busy undermining Abu Mazen – with grave consequences for Israel’s security, as Israel is unlikely to find a more willing partner.

Instead of securing Israel’s future, Netanyahu would rather maintain the support of his own domestic right-wing base and prevent his own political eclipse by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s racist and reckless foreign minister. Yet this right-wing base does not represent the whole country.

Other voices are speaking up. These voices strongly oppose foolhardy steps by the US congress to block funds to the Palestinian Authority should it succeed in its bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

That is why, instead of greeting this initiative with the doom and gloom heralded by the government, some Israelis chose to welcome this event with joint celebrations. These include the Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace and the Israeli branch of the One Voice movement.

Earlier in September, demonstrations took place in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, held by the Meretz Political party. Meanwhile, demonstratons took place at major traffic intersections across the country on the day of the UN speeches. 

Veteran Israeli political analysts are speaking up in the Israeli media, with voices such as Zvi Barel proposing further steps for the international community, such as establishing embassies in the West Bank and recognising Palestinian passports.

Polls continuously show that mainstream Israeli society does, at bottom, believe in a two-state solution to the conflict. Netanyahu’s legacy at the UN will be to blind the silent Israeli majority to the reality that Palestine’s bid for recognition at the UN could bring closer those wishes.

As the government won’t say it, I will say it instead: Palestine, alf mabrouk, congratulations. I look forward to living side by side with you.

 

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

An Arabic version of this article appeared in al-Sharq al-Awsat on 2 October 2011. Published here with the author’s consent.

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