Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Self-Appointed, Arrogant American Jewish Interlopers Offer Illusions of Peace, by Gidon D. Remba

Self-Appointed, Arrogant American Jewish Interlopers Offer Illusions of Peace
(Abridged Version)
Published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, August 22, 2007


Gidon D. Remba

Mideast peace is in the air again, as Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have been meeting in recent months to hash out a statement of principles which would serve as the basis for a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

This latest peace effort brings to mind the origins of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which lay in a meeting held between five American Jews and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Stockholm, Sweden in 1988. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to send to the executive director of Ameinu, the successor organization to the Labor Zionist Alliance, an article describing the five American Jews who met with Arafat as a “quintet of self-appointed, arrogant interlopers from the American Jewish scene, without authorization from any official Israeli or American governmental agency,” who “in the full glare of publicity and with the approbation of their Swedish hosts, proceeded ‘to negotiate’ minimal terms which might theoretically enable the PLO to meet conditions set by the United States for recognition as a legitimate ‘partner’ in the quest for peace.”

One of those five American Jews was Stanley Sheinbaum, an economics professor and progressive activist who organized the groundbreaking American Jewish meeting with Arafat. I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon visiting last week with Stanley Sheinbaum, who recounted the story to me. Another of the five was Labor Zionist Alliance President Menachem Rosensaft.

My first instinct was to toss this interesting—but on some points misinformed—article into the round file and thank its author for submitting it, while politely declining to publish it. But why allow ourselves to be outdone in the chutzpah department? Such an essay might offer readers an opportunity for what they call at my daughter’s school a “teachable moment.” After all, must everything that our organization publishes slavishly reflect some party line or doctrinaire point of view? Should our publications not serve to spark critical thinking and debate among our readers, at least within some reasonable limits?

We’ve published the views of Labor Knesset Member Colette Avital and other prominent figures from Israel’s security, intelligence and diplomatic establishment arguing that Israel must, in its own best interests, initiate a pragmatic dialogue with Hamas, dropping counterproductive pre-conditions which, had they been adopted with other Arab parties, would have prevented any peace talks—and peace treaties or truce agreements—from coming to fruition (think Egypt and Jordan, and the peace talks with Syria in the 90’s, which laid the groundwork for what may be a future Syrian-Israeli peace treaty). On this view, the most solid foundation for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is one that co-opts Hamas into the process.

Recent examples of this approach have emanated from the likes of former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Israeli Foreign Minister (Labor) Shlomo Ben-Ami, and Meretz chair Yossi Beilin. We have also printed the contrary perspective of Labor Knesset Member and former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who maintains that Israel must isolate and pressure Hamas while backing and negotiating peace with Fatah and the PLO.

Who’s right about Hamas? Today’s unconventional minority view may well become tomorrow’s received wisdom (and government policy). We have witnessed such a transformation in recent decades with the very idea of negotiating with the PLO, supporting the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel, and even talking peace with the Arab states. (I’m old enough to remember when that proposition was considered fantasy, or heresy, in the American Jewish community and in Israel). We would ill serve our readers if we did not capture the political ferment not only among progressive Zionists in Israel and America, but among prominent Israelis who are not identified with the left, who are embracing ideas, on “realist” pragmatic/security grounds, which have long been associated with political progressives in Israel.

With this commitment to pluralism and debate in mind, I opted to publish Haim Chertok’s “Does Europe Hate the Jews and Israel? The Other Stockholm Syndrome”— and to stand up for those he dubs “self-appointed, arrogant American Jewish interlopers” who tried to do their part to advance the cause of Arab-Israeli peace. Chertok’s piece is worth reading for its perspective on Swedish attitudes towards the Jews and Israel. Yet its errors on the origins of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, in which Sweden played a major role, offer several teachable moments.

To refer to Stanley Sheinbaum and his colleagues as “self-appointed arrogant interlopers…without authorization from any official…American governmental agency” is not only to misrepresent the basic historical facts, but to commit a triple error. First, Sheinbaum was indeed acting with the full authorization of the Reagan Administration. Second, it ignores the fact that it was the Reagan and incoming Bush Administrations which sought negotiations with the PLO in order to launch an unprecedented and vitally necessary Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative.

Third, it misunderstands the vital role which “independent” third party intermediaries often play, usually with the covert approval of governments, in facilitating peace talks between adversaries, who require preliminary explorations of the possibilities to be conducted at arms length by unofficial interlocutors. Third party intermediaries enable political leaders to explore the viability of a formal negotiation process with reduced risks. “Independent” negotiators often report back to their affiliated governments, who then act accordingly based on new information they glean.

I first witnessed a version of this process at work when my father, also an economist, led an American Jewish delegation of academics on behalf of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East in 1975 which met with the leadership of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the PLO and Israel, well before any Arab party had peace agreements, or conducted peace talks, with Israel.

Unofficial third party intermediaries have played a similar role to Sheinbaum and company with Syrian-Israeli peace talks. During the last two years, a “Track 2” unofficial Syrian-Israeli-American negotiation process has taken place behind the scenes. This process has helped pave the way for third party mediators who are now acting to pass messages back and forth between Syrian and Israeli leaders Assad and Olmert, to help each determine when, whether and under what terms to embark on a public negotiation process (a development I predicted a year ago in this column).

Both Stanley Sheinbaum and Colin Powell are today among the growing ranks of those who question the wisdom of the very conditions which they negotiated with Yasser Arafat. Politically necessary as those terms may have been at the time with the PLO, both now feel that such prerequisites have outlived their usefulness when it comes to dealing with Hamas. Somewhere there may just be a new Stanley Sheinbaum—a self-appointed, arrogant American Jewish or Israeli interloper—talking quietly right now to a friend of the Syrian President, or to pragmatists within Hamas about the terms under which the organization would accept a long-term cease-fire with Israel, arrange for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and end the misery of daily warfare in Sderot and Gaza.

Gidon D. Remba is National Executive Director of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel. His commentary is available at and

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