Blog: The Politics of Hope
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On October 6 The Washington Post ran a story entitled “A key back channel for U.S., Israeli ties.” The story informs us that “Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East expert, has emerged as a crucial, behind-the-scenes conduit between the White House and the Israeli government, working closely with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s private attorney – and also Defense Minister Ehud Barak – to discreetly smooth out differences and disputes between the two governments.”
The article goes on to describe how Ross is currently working with “[chief Israeli negotiator Yitzhak] Molho and [Deputy Prime Minister Ehud] Barak on a package of incentives that the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu to extend a settlement moratorium by 60 days to keep nascent peace talks with the Palestinians on track.”
This latest disclosure is another nail in the coffin of the “peace process.” It lays to rest the long-held fiction of the U.S. as an honest broker in these so-called negotiations. This disclosure comes as no surprise. It has already been officially leaked that these “incentives” certainly include Israeli military presence and effective control over the Jordan Valley. What else might be in this package? Guarantee against return of Palestinian refugees? Final annexation of the major settlement blocs, including East Jerusalem? And does it matter? What now emerges into the full light of day is what anyone with eyes to see has observed, certainly since 2000 – that the U.S., far from being an “honest broker” in “peace negotiations,” is in fact Israel’s lawyer – in addition to her banker – on the international scene. See my friend Jim Wall’s excellent blog on the Ross incentive package. It spells out how the military occupation of the Jordan Valley and the diplomatic guarantees contained in the package complete the bantusization and isolation of the West Bank and Gaza. And for what? The extension of a “settlement freeze” that is itself a snare and a delusion (settlement building has continued unabated in spite of the talks)?
But the illusion continues to hold sway. The evening that the Post article appeared, I attended an event organized by J Street, the PAC founded several years ago as an alternative to AIPAC, the powerful “Israel Lobby.” On its website J Street identifies itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans to advocate for vigorous U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The event was entitled “Who are the Partners for Peace? Palestinian Perspectives: A Discussion with the American Jewish Community.” The event was moderated by Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and lead negotiator at the 2000 Camp David talks. The panel featured three Palestinian speakers, the idea being to bring “Palestinian moderates,” as the program identified them, to the attention of American Jews. Presumably, this kind of conversation would help to dispel the notion that Palestinians were not interested in peace with Israel and that they were incapable of “working together” with Israelis to achieve a two-state solution. An overwhelmingly Jewish audience filled to overflowing the vast sanctuary at Temple Sinai in Washington DC. It’s possible that many came out of curiosity. But I felt, as I did when I attended the sold-out J Street conference in Washington last year, that the Jewish community came to this event out of an increasingly urgent need to find a way to continue to feel good – and optimistic — about Israel. Seeing that there are Palestinians who want peace is a comforting notion: if they exist, then – given that we Jews also seek this outcome – there is hope.
But this hope rests on yet another fiction, one that functions alongside of that of the U.S. as a good faith broker. This is the fantasy created by the language of “partnership.” Partnership assumes equality, or at least the possibility of such. It assumes a playing field that might approach being level. But an occupier and occupied cannot be partners in a negotiation. A militarily controlled and economically vanquished people confronting a nuclear power supported by the world’s remaining superpower is not a meeting of partners. The assembled wanted to believe that this partnership is possible — that the only task remaining is to match up the “moderates” on both sides, those willing to hear the other’s narrative (“Tell us what it was like to grow up in a refugee camp” Ambassador Indyk asked one of the panelists). These would be, presumably, the panelists on the podium and us, the supporters of J Street.
As a member of the audience I asked the panelists to comment on the Post article, asking the question very much in the spirit in which I opened this blog posting. Two out of the three said that they thought back channel was wrong – certainly, said one, a tactical error. The third, astonishingly, answered my question about the Ross “concessions” by saying “I am not so sure about this concept of ‘honest broker.’ What’s an ‘honest broker?” In a negotiation, I am concerned not that the broker be honest, but that he be effective!” This quip drew appreciative laughter. Later this same panelist, in answer to a question about settlements and international law (such as the law declaring illegal the settling of one’s own population on land obtained militarily, and profiting economically on that territory) claimed that, after all, international law can be understood in many ways. This was news to me. Clearly, I had much to learn about international law. Certainly, I was learning more and more about what a moderate is.
Ambassador Indyk ended the evening with an appeal to the audience. Peace will never be achieved, he declared, “without all of you.” This statement mystified me. What did he mean, I wondered? The audience, however, responded this appeal with enthusiastic applause and went off to the reception. What, I continued to wonder (or who) were they applauding? I don’t think it was for panelist Amjad Atallah of the New American Foundation, who, just prior to Indyk’s closing words, ended the panel discussion with an answer to the Ambassador’s question, “will we see a Palestinian state within a year?” “A Palestinian state alongside of Israel,” Atallah answered, “depends on freedom for Palestine. If a settlement looks anything like what we now have on the ground, the ‘Two State Solution’ will be much more terrible than the present situation.”
This is the truth that must be told. The current diplomatic effort will not work, even if, improbably, it produces something called a “peace agreement.” Peace will come, not through political compromise requiring yet more concessions and “flexibility” from the Palestinian side, but through a recognition of the injustice to which the Palestinians have been subjected for over 60 years, and an honest look at the illegitimacy and unsustainability of the political system that is now firmly in place — a system that constitutes a single apartheid state. The current political process, if it “succeeds” at all, seems more and more likely to succeed only in legitimizing this unacceptable reality. Nothing resembling peace will result from this outcome.
A synagogue full of Jews listening to the voices of Palestinians is not a bad thing. Eventually, the Jewish community will come to understand that the Palestinian people are not our implacable enemy. Eventually – someday – as a community we will come to understand that Palestinian resistance has been directed not toward Jews, or even toward Israel as such, but toward Israeli expansionism and to six-plus decades of ethnic cleansing, dispossession and denial of human rights. Conversations like the J Street event last week may prove — someday — to have been a helpful part of that process. But these conversations will not produce a solution. For a solution we need to hear the voices of prophets, voices like the voice I heard the next day at a lecture at the Palestine Center in downtown Washington DC. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, told us that
“There is reason for deep short-term pessimism about the situation in Palestine and the situation in Israel. Both are endlessly depressing. But there are signs, I think, of encouraging positive longer term trends in the public sphere in this country. This is not a situation that will change rapidly, however. It took generations and a lot of hard work to establish the myths Israel was built on, and it will take years, and a lot of hard work, to deconstruct them, and for the generations that are not going to change their minds in many cases, to lose their influence.”
“I think it will be a long time before the political situation certainly will change such that we can expect an end to Israeli impunity. Israel will continue to be protected in pretty much anything it chooses to do by our Congress and by our government. But I think the handwriting may be on the wall. I think that the system of domination and control through the calculated dosed use of violence and overwhelming power that has obtained in the Occupied Territories for over 43 years, a system based entirely on violence, and that has maintained the dispossession of the Palestinian people for 62 years, cannot be hidden forever. Maybe it can’t be stopped, but it can’t be concealed, is my point. The brilliantly conceived discursive artifice, a citadel of lies, that has concealed this system of power and control for so long is actually beginning to crumble…The day is clearly coming when this status quo will pass. Maybe a long time for that day to come but it is coming. It is up to Israelis and Palestinians in the first instance to dismantle this iniquitous system, this unjust system, this unsustainable system and to put in place one that is more just. But, the last thing I want to say is while it is essentially up to them there, it is also up to us here. Americans bear a very, very, very heavy responsibility in this matter. We are the 900 pound gorilla on the Middle Eastern stage. The United States has upheld this entire discriminatory, unjust structure ever since 1948, ever since the partition resolution of 1947. Clearly, a beginning in new direction at least in the public sphere in this country has begun. I would strongly argue that true peace with justice in Palestine for both peoples that live there depends on the continuation of this process in this country.”
When politics fail, broad social movements arise to change the political wind. This is the movement we see forming on a global basis to end the madness and eventually bring peace to the region. We need voices of prophecy – honest, unvarnished truth-telling. When Elijah confronted King Ahab over the killing of Naboth and the theft of his land, he did not sidle up to the monarch, put his arm around his shoulder and say, “Ahab, this doesn’t look so good. We need to work on your image — and we need to figure out a better way to get you what you want. Let me talk to the folks in Jezreel and see what kind of a deal I can get for you.” No – we know what Elijah said: “Have you murdered and also taken?” In the Hebrew, the question is asked in three, shattering words — followed by a short discourse on the consequences to follow.
People often ask me: but if not two states, then what? Isn’t one state even less possible? But the one-state two-state debate is not the conversation that is needed now. We already have one state. More and more Israelis – including former Prime Ministers – see this, and it is a state that is unsustainable. The question, as Israeli writer Bernard Avishai asked years ago, is not whether Israel will survive. The question is: what kind of Israel will it be? The more the truth is told, the sooner we can begin to answer that question.