Israel at 60: Prospects and Hopes for Peace

Israel at 60: Prospects and Hopes for Peace

The media were flummoxed and the symbolism ran deep. LastThursday President George Bush went before the Israeli Knesset to warn theIsraelis not to think about appeasing terrorists in the search for peace. In hisspeech, Bush elicited the specter of the Holocaust and invoked those who calledfor negotiating with Hitler.

The primary audiences for Bush’s speech were not Israelis,nor Hamas, Hizbollah, nor Iran. His audience was an American one, and thealleged appeasers are Barack Obama and the Democrats. “Why” the media initiallyinquired, “would Bush use a foreign stage to render a speech which wastransparently made for domestic consumption?” The answer is that the placementof the speech before the Israeli parliament was the perfect venue to makemaximum impact for the topic of appeasement. The symbolism could not be morepowerful. But as crafty as the speech was, in my view playing on the fears ofIsraelis and, by extension, Jews and the American Jewish audience by invokingthe Holocaust and analogizing fear of contemporary terrorism with fear ofNazism is also vile. It was employing the most gut-wrenching symbolism possibleto take a misguided and cheap political shot.

I cite this episode with its symbolic resonance to brieflytalk about Israel, the Middle East and the prospects for peace on this, the 60thanniversary of the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is a place that issaturated with symbolism. In fact, there is no place on the face of the earththat evokes symbolic expressions and understanding more than Israel. Andsymbols give rise to deeply felt passions and emotions. When seen from adistance, it is hard to believe that Israel is a real place where people worryabout the quality of their kids’ education and fret over the price of beer.There are those people who love Israel, indeed those whose love for Israel canonly be understood in fanatic terms that block any criticism, or are opaque to anyrational discussion about it. And there are those who despise Israel, see italmost in demonic terms, and would be pleased if it were to disappear tomorrow.For Jewish Israelis, the 60th anniversary of Israel is a cause forcelebration. For Palestinians it is a catastrophe in which Arab towns weredepleted of their residents and thousands driven from the land to languish asrefugees for decades.

But whether one loves, hates or is essentially indifferentto the Jewish state, what is undoubtedly true is that for a country that hasonly slightly more than seven million people and is barely the size of NewJersey, Israel is the focus of a disproportionate amount of internationalattention. Scarcely a day goes by in the American media when there is not somenews article concerning Israel, its internal character, its strife with thePalestinians, or its relations to other Middle Eastern neighbors. Why shouldthis be?

For one thing, as is often noted, Israel is the seat of thethree great monotheistic religions, which command the spiritual allegiance ofover one third of humanity. For Judaism, Israel is of course, the “PromisedLand” — the place where Abraham walked and is buried, where he spoke to God, andthrough whom God created His special covenant with the Jewish people. Israel iswhere almost all the great biblical action took place, and religiously isunderstood to be made holy by that fact. To live in the Land of Israel is to bereligiously redeemed, it is to be closer to God, while to live outside of it isto live in exile, which is spiritually a second-rate status. To return to the Holy Land is a religious commandment, and one which has been repeated daily in theliturgy of Hebrew prayer for thousands of years.

For Christians, Israel is, of course, where Jesus walked,preached his ministry, was crucified and resurrected. Jerusalem, the holy city,is awash, not only with synagogues, but with churches of numerousdenominations, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the walls of whichcircumvent the last Stations of the Cross, including the place where Jesus,according to many, was crucified.

Jerusalem is also a holy city for Muslims, the third holiestcity, after Mecca and Medina. Jerusalem marks the outer boundary of Mohammed’stravels, and it is from here, that, on a winged horse, he traveled to heaven,where he encountered patriarchs from ages past. On that spot, which, fatefully,also is where the remains of the Second Temple, the holiest shrine in Judaism,are located, stands the Dome of the Rock, which, built in the 7thcentury, is one of the oldest mosques in Islam, and dominating the Jerusalemskyline, certainly among the most beautiful. And Abraham, not Mohammed, isvenerated as the first Muslim.

But the religious element, however central, is far from theonly reason for the disproportionate attention Israel commands on the worldscene. Certainly among other reasons, in a post-Holocaust world, is the place Israelholds in the political agenda of the organized Jewish constituency in America. Behindsupport of Israel is a well-established Jewish community, as well as a powerfullobby, embodied most of all by AIPAC, the American Israel Public AffairsCommittee. But there are others. The Israel lobby has influenced Congress sincethe late 1960s to consistently provide generous amounts of military and economicsupport for Israel. In addition, it has been able to quell what should be amore open debate about Israeli policy, especially as it involves the now 41-yearoccupation of Palestinian lands. This is tragic for many reasons. Among them isthe reality that the political line of the Israel lobby does not represent thevast majority of American Jews who seek a conciliatory and two-state solutionbetween the Israelis and Palestinians. The American Jewish communityoverwhelmingly remains liberal, yet the voice that bears influence on CapitolHill, in its name, is far to the right of the people whom it claims torepresent.

I personally don’t think that the Israel lobby is as strongas it is often accused of being, but it is clear that it has defined beingsupportive of Israel as meaning primarily supporting the most right-wingIsraeli policies. Consequently, actively calling for a viable Palestinian state,which is the crux of any successful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinianconflict, is usually condemned as being unfriendly to Israel. As JeffreyGoldberg writes in The New York Times this morning, it has becomepolitically difficult, if not impossible, for a president or a presidentialcandidate to speak firmly against Israel’s settlement policy or call for Israelto dismantle its settlements on the West Bank. Yet such a position, I argue, isnot only irrefutably necessary for the creation of a viable Palestinian state,but would also, therefore, press for a policy which would be friendly to Israel’sinterests as well. But merely having said that would make me an enemy of Israelin the eyes of the Israeli lobby in the United States.

Related to this, and here I speak vehemently as a proudAmerican, the pro-Israeli lobby tries to silence criticism of Israel by marginalizingits critics. Often it does this by name-calling. Non-Jewish critics of Israel arecondemned as “anti-Semites” and Jewish critics are singled out as “self-hatingJews.” This type of abuse is not only aimed at quashing free-speech. It alsosuggests that the right-wingers are know-it-alls who possess crystal balls andwho can flawlessly predict the future. It also gives rise to an absurd irony.Anyone who has been to Israel or follows Israeli issues in the news knows that Israelremains a very open, politically-charged society, with an extremely vibrantpress, in which one is exposed to the full range of political opinions. But weare told on American soil by the reactionary guardians of Israel’s welfare thatwe dare not utter a world of criticism lest Israel’s security be jeopardized.This is something, as an American who cherishes free speech, I find unabidable.

Now, to be clear, I have no doubt that for many critics of Israeltheir criticism of Israel is a mask for their anti-Semitism, and if thiscan be responsibly teased out, then it needs to be exposed and condemned. Butnot all criticisms are anti-Semitic, and as a rabbi once rightly said, “thenext worst thing to being an anti-Semite is to be falsely accused of beingone.” Israel is a nation-state within the international community, with aforeign and domestic policy as all countries have their policies. In this sense,it can claim no special immunity from scrutiny. Nor, on the other hand, shouldit be held up to a higher standard than other states, as in fact it often is. Asa human rights activist, I am often chagrined that so much attention is foistedon Israel’s human rights abuses, which certainly deserve criticism. But at thesame time, four million people in Congo have been slaughtered and died ofwarfare in the past five years, and the world doesn’t say “boo.” Rightfulcriticism, yes. But when it comes to human rights, no double standards.

Next, the salience of Israel in the international community,and its importance to the United States, results from its strategic position asan ally in the Middle East. It’s my belief that the most influential supporterof Israel is not the American-Israel lobby, but the Pentagon. Israel is atesting ground for American weapons systems. And Israel is on the front linesof protecting American interests, oil among them, in a very volatile region.This is perhaps more true now in an age of Muslim-related terrorism, andespecially with the emergence of Iran as a regional power with hegemonicdesigns of its own. You can bet that if Iran moves close to developing anuclear bomb, the American military would be more than happy to have theIsraelis take it out so that we don’t have to.

Indeed, it is because the United States stands behind Israelin the Middle East, and Israel is seen, therefore, as a surrogate for Americanand Western imperial interests in the Arab/Muslim heartland, that Israel is socondemned by its Arab neighbors. It is not the only reason, to be sure, but itis high on the list.

Finally, Israel captures so much attention, especially inthe West, for the real and symbolic role that Jews have historically played,and the place that Israel holds in the popular imagination. Jews have been theconsummate “Other” in Christian-dominant Europe for almost 2,000 years. Theyhave been marginalized, virtually powerless and persecuted, culminating in thedestruction of one-third of the entire Jewish population in the Nazi killingfactories. Israel, historically, represents the rebirth of the Jewish people outof the ashes of the Holocaust — a place where they can govern themselvesaccording to their own laws, and protect themselves by virtue of their ownarmy. For some, this has been a source of heroic admiration. For others, in anespecially unhealthy way, this has been a source of discomfort, for it inverts thetimeless role of Jew as victim, which many people think, I suspect, is the onlyappropriate role for Jews to play. But whatever the case, Israel is an objectof fascination, an historical morality play, which is mythologized, and takeson a role bigger than its true size or significance.

How one assesses Israel and its achievements, of course, dependson the perspective one takes. One can look at Israel as a Jewish citizen of Israel,or an Arab citizen of the Jewish state, now 20% of the population. One can lookat Israel as a Palestinian under occupation, or as a Palestinian living in arefugee camp in Lebanon. One can assess it as an ultra-nationalist religiousJew, in Israel or America, or a secular Jew, or an evangelical Christian, orfrom a myriad of different perspectives.

I look upon Israel from the perspective of someone who grewup in a Jewish household which was mostly assimilated, but with strongresonances of Eastern European religious practices. Despite very much havingfallen away from active religious devotion, my parents sent me to an OrthodoxHebrew School, which was religiously heavy duty, and may have been one of thereasons I became an atheist on the eve of my Orthodox bar-mitzvah. But despitehaving rejected the Jewish religion, on intellectual grounds, I have alwaysretained a strong affinity for what was the best in Jewish ethical teaching andfrom the ethical aspects of the Jewish historical experiences.

I did not come from a Zionist household, but my parents didarticulate an admiration and concern for Israel and its security, which theypassed down to me.

I could say more, but, briefly, I look at Israel throughseveral lenses. Because of my ethnicity and upbringing, I subjectively careabout Israel with an interest that I do not have for, let’s say, Paraguay or Mozambique.As someone who is passionately committed to human rights, I look through thatlens as well. And as a humanist, an Ethical Culturist, and a politicalprogressive, I look through the lens of ethical values and ideals: justice,equality and peace among them — not for some, but for all.

At the time of Israel’s 60th anniversary, it canclaim many successes. In 1948, Israel was economically a poor, developingcountry. Today, its economy is booming, and although it suffers from a grossdisparity between the haves and have nots, in many sectors, Israelis enjoy astandard of living almost equivalent to that of Western Europe.

Israel is a vibrant democracy with universal suffrage, amultiparty system, an independent judiciary and a free and sophisticated press. Israel boasts topnotch universities, a progressive educational system, and,yes, national health care. Its achievements in the agricultural sciences,medicine and other fields have won international acclaim. Israel sustains avibrant literary and cultural scene, world-class orchestras and its own movieindustry. The major objective of the Zionist movement was to serve as a havenfor Jews around the world, and by its own terms Israel as been an overallsuccess. Today Israel has the world’s largest Jewish population, surpassingthat of the United States. Forty-one per cent of the world’s Jews now live inthe Jewish state, as Israel has been successful in bringing Jews from theformer Soviet Union, Ethiopia, the Muslim world and elsewhere.

The Zionist project has been successful in reviving theHebrew language from being a liturgical language to a living, spoken one thathas spawned its own rich culture. As noted by Avi Shlaim, a professor ofinternational relations at Oxford, recently writing in The Nationmagazine, “In its central aim of providing the scattered Jews with a haven,instilling in them a sense of nationhood and forging a modern nation-state,Zionism has been a brilliant success. And these achievements are all the moreremarkable against the background of an appalling tragedy: the extermination of6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II.”

But on its 60th anniversary, the mood in Israelis more somber, for it remains a society that is deeply divided and uncertainabout its future. It remains divided over many questions and issues. There isconflict between the majority of Israelis who are secular and the theocratic religiousminority that has grown in its political power. It remains divided about themeaning of Zionism and the very identity of Israel as a Jewish state. There arequestions about whether a Jewish state can be completely and fully a democraticone. There is division between the Jewish majority and the growing minority ofArab Israelis who are citizens, but undeniably second-class citizens.

But the greatest question that will determine Israel’sinternal character and its future is what to do with the West Bank, which ithas now occupied for 41 years, and with the Gaza, which is now in the hands ofHamas, which does not recognize Israel’s existence and with which Israel willnot talk. This struggle, which is played on the world stage, seems intractable.

When Israel won the Six-Day War in May, 1967, it capturedthe West Bank from Jordan as well as Arab East Jerusalem, which contains the Old City and Judaism’s holy sites. Israel’s victory and the capture of the West Bank, and especially Jerusalem, was interpreted by some as an act of God,which was a prelude to the coming of the messiah. The euphoria over thevictory, which put Jerusalem in Jewish hands for the first time in 2,000 years,opened the door to the occupation of the West Bank, which unlike most of Israelproper, is where much of the Biblical action took place.

A tragedy of the settlement of the West Bank is that it occurredinitially without any government plan. Religious believers began to move ontothe territory and the government initially went along. What was also noteworthywas that settlement began under a Labor government, though it was certainly stronglypropelled by the Likud, and especially under the direction of Ariel Sharon, itsmajor architect.

Today, there are over 275,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank in 125 officially recognized settlements, among almost 2.5 millionPalestinians. There are also about 200,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem amonga somewhat larger number of Palestinians. Some of the settlements, especiallyon the outskirts of Jerusalem, are veritable cities of tens of thousands ofpeople. Some settlements have been built on unclaimed land, others on landappropriated from Palestinians. In its support of the settlement movement theIsraeli government has used variants of deception, denial, repression, and alack of accountability. It has played this game with its own citizens and with theAmerican government, which at most has tread lightly when it has come toIsraeli settlement policy.

It is undeniable that the occupation is harsh. Israel hascreated more than 500 checkpoints in the West Bank which make travel across theshort distances oppressive and which seriously stifle the Palestinian economy. Israelclaims that these checkpoints are necessary for security, but from thePalestinian side they are a source of continuous humiliation. Israel has builtmodern roads connecting the settlements, to be used only by Israelis, whichtend to divide Palestinian areas into separate enclaves, as do the settlementsthemselves. While the settlements thrive, the Palestinian economy and access toresources, needless to say, is controlled, including access to water, which inthat part of the world is scarce.

Several years ago, Israel began building a 400-mile-longseparation barrier dividing the West Bank from Israel. More than half of it iscompleted. The barrier is controversial, because part of it cuts into the West Bank, and these parts separate Palestinians from their land and seriouslyimpede travel. Palestinians contend that since the wall cuts off swaths ofPalestinian territory, Israel is creating a de facto boundary, which it wantsto remain in place in any final peace agreement. Israel claims that the barrieris being built to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks, especiallysuicide bombers. And indeed, the number of suicide bombings has gone downdramatically since the barrier was built.

Life in Gaza, with almost 1.5 million people crowded into139 square miles, making it the most densely populated place on earth, is farworse. Though the Israelis unilaterally pulled out their settlements in 2005, Gazais surrounded on all sides by a fence, and Israel still maintains control overvital services and travel through its few gates. Unemployment in Gazaapproaches 60%, health is declining, and it is estimated that over 17% ofchildren in Gaza are malnourished. Needless to say, Gaza is a grim place inwhich hope is in short supply.

The occupation has its even uglier side. There are upward of10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, and many, if not most, have come in forvery rough treatment.

From its side, the Palestinians have waged two uprisings, orintifadas. They have killed innocent Israelis in terrorist attacks in shops, inbuses, crowded intersections, in hotels and pizzerias. They have engaged insuicide bombings, some in Israel, others in the West Bank, and have instilled afear of terrorism in the Israeli public. Israelis, like any people, have abasic right to safety and security, and they look to their government andmilitary to provide it. Since the Occupation began in 1967, it is estimatedthat 4,500 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed.

The latest immediate source of tension focuses on Gaza.Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Hamas’s coming to power in what was afair and democratic election, it has been firing hundreds of Qassam rocketsinto south-central Israel, killing several Israelis at random and fomentingcontinuing anxiety. The escalating fear is that Iran will try to infiltratelarger missiles into Gaza which will be able to target major populationcenters, as Hizbollah was able to do from Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

In response to the Qassam rocket attacks, Israel retaliates againstthe perpetrators with helicopter gun ships in highly densely populated areas,inevitably killing innocent civilians, and with assassinations targeted atleaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And on and on it goes.

The question is: Is there a way out of this morass? Arethere any prospects for peace? The short answer is, “not many.”

What dims prospects this time around are several things.First, the fact that the Palestinians are now divided between the Hamasleadership in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank makesbrokering a peace deal much more complicated. The Palestinian Authority on the West Bank wants to make peace with Israel. Hamas is opposed. Hence, if thePalestinian Authority and Israel were tangibly moving toward peace, Hamas couldreadily sabotage the move by firing more missiles into Israel, bringing on Israeliretaliation, and any peace move would be dead in the water.

Second, Hamas’s assaults on Israel, however paltry they arecompared to Israel’s military strength, have deflated what was left of thepeace camp in Israel. No doubt, many Israelis who wanted to make peace with thePalestinians are now saying to themselves, “We pulled out of Gaza, we gave themautonomy over their own slice of land. And the first thing they do, rather thanget their society in order, is deny the legitimacy of Israel and provocativelyshoot their missiles at us. It’s clear these people don’t want peace.”

Third, the leader of the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas, andthe Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, are extremely weak leaders who do nothave the confidence of their own people. For his part, Olmert was blamed for Israel’sterrible military performance in the summer 2006 war against Hezbollah, and hasa rating which is lower than George Bush’s. At the time of Israel’s 60thbirthday celebration, Olmert is being investigated in regard to a corruptionscandal involving a Long Island investor.

Though I would like to believe otherwise, I simply do notsee how peace will be established with the leadership which is currently on thescene.

But, at the same time, I do not believe the situation istotally negative, and there are some positive dynamics that suggest that it isa matter not of if, but of when? I would like to cite a few.

First, with the exception of Iran, virtually every nation-stateis now more or less on the same page with regard to what a peace agreement willlook like, and this includes the Arab states. What it will look like is thedeal which Bill Clinton brought within a hair’s breadth of fruition at Camp David and Taba, Egypt, in the waning months of his presidency. It involves Israeltaking the necessary step of giving up the occupation, abandoning itssettlements except for several large ones close to Jerusalem, and the divisionof Jerusalem, in exchange for peace and security, and perhaps thedemilitarization of an independent Palestine for a stated period of time. Whenpolled a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians still say that this is whatthey want, yet their governments are held hostage by the extremists on bothsides.

Second, the entrée of Iran into the equation may actuallybenefit the making of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Iran isattempting to expand its influence in the region — and it is, in Iraq, in itsalliance with Syria, in its support of Hizbollah in Lebanon. The Sunni statesin the region — Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — are very wary of Iran, and havean interest in seeing that it doesn’t spread its influence further through thePalestinian territories. In that sense, having an independent and stable Palestinewould be to their interest.

Third, though it goes unreported in the press, even nowthere are scores of non-governmental organizations made up of Palestinians andIsraelis who are working on the ground to try to create greater understandingand cooperation in the service of peace-making. They recognize that when itcomes to Israel and the West Bank, the two societies are deeply intertwined.They share electricity, water and other resources and there is simply no other eventualitythan to find a way to live together peacefully.

But the last condition for peace lies outside the Middle East and brings me back to the very beginning of my talk. Israel and thePalestinians will not be able to achieve a peace treaty without the active,energetic involvement and leadership of the United States.

George Bush, to his discredit, dallied for seven yearsbefore his administration got involved, which permitted the situation in the Middle East to spiral downward. And when he finally did, it has been too little andtoo late.

Bush has derided Barack Obama’s pledge to engage indiplomacy as nothing but weakness and appeasement. But what has the Bushapproach brought us? Unilateralism, militarism, a horrendously misguided warand with it greater distrust of the United States, and a dangerous loss of ourprestige in the international arena.

What’s needed, I believe, is a new commitment to diplomacyin the world, and we need a foreign policy that puts forward the best inAmerican values. Even if it means talking to our enemies. Or even if it meanspersuading the Israelis to talk with Hamas, something which a majority ofIsraelis say they would not oppose under certain conditions.

The more the United States is hated in the Muslim world, theeasier it is for the Muslim world to despise Israel as a surrogate for Americanmilitarism and imperialism. But if we can win back our prestige, we might beable to use that prestige to lessen the threat that Israel feels coming fromits neighbors. And despite the fact that Israel has the sixth most powerfulmilitary in the world, it is still a rather fearful society that has thespecter of the Holocaust looking over its shoulder.

At the same time, the United States needs to use itsleverage with Israel to persuade the Israelis to give up its occupation, whichis both cruel and corrupting of the moral values that Israel claims to standfor.

Is it possible for there one day to be peace between Israeland the Palestinians? Yes, I believe it is.

Will it be easy to achieve? No, it assuredly won’t be easy.

But I do believe that the renewed search for peace willcertainly be worthy of our next administration.

Dr. Joseph Chuman

18 May 2008

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