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

Friday, August 3, 2007

Everything JNF Wants to Know About Democracy, But Was Afraid to Ask

Everything JNF Wants to Know About Democracy, But Was Afraid to Ask

By Gidon D. Remba
August 3, 2007

Shahar Ilan reported in Ha’aretz on 7/30 that the JNF is receiving “messages from its branches all over the world. The branch activists cannot contend with the claims that the JNF discriminates against Arabs…On May 17… the [Israel] Attorney General’s office sent a letter to the High Court stating, ‘The Attorney General believes that the Israel Lands Authority must uphold the principle of equality and that it cannot discriminate based on nationality when acting in its capacity as director of JNF lands.’”

Ilan pours cold water on JNF’s claim that “no one can tell it what to do with its property.” In fact, he explains, “half the lands in [JNF’s] possession belong to absentee [Arab] owners, and were sold to it by the state in 1953. The ACRI [the Association for Civil Rights in Israel] stated in its petition: ‘These lands are the property of the entire public, and their transfer to JNF does not free them from coming under the purview of public law…It is clearly problematic if the JNF acquired the property of absentee Arab landowners and Arabs now cannot lease the land.” We are talking about 11% of the land in the entire State of Israel.

Meron Benvenisti points out in Ha’aretz (May 29, 2007) that these lands “were not purchased with the small coins put into the blue boxes, but were rather lands abandoned by Arabs that David Ben-Gurion, in a typical maneuver, ‘sold’ to the JNF in 1949-1950.” ”This was an improper and also an illegal decision,” explains Benvenisti. “The Israeli government sold the JNF lands that it did not own, but which had rather been captured in the war (and even the laws that it had enacted by then did not grant the state ownership of these lands).” What’s more, “The heads of the JNF knew very well that the sale was illegal, but it was important to them to establish that the JNF would continue serving as the institution that held the Jewish people's lands and developed them for purposes of settlement. They insisted that the government commit itself to ‘making (in the future) all the legal arrangements so that the lands will be registered under the JNF's full ownership under the laws of the State of Israel.’”

The Jerusalem Post reports that “The reasoning behind the bill, according to the JNF, is that "the land purchased by the Jewish people for the Jewish people should remain in the hands of its rightful owners." "It's important for us who had a covenant with the donors, that we honor that covenant," said Russell Robinson, chief executive officer of JNF. "For 2000 years, I don't remember that we were praying and dreaming that we can't wait to establish a democratic state in the Middle East, but we did say that we can't wait to reestablish a Jewish homeland."

Realistic Dove blogger and Ameinu board member Dan Fleshler, who wrote Ameinu’s letter to the Knesset Members sponsoring the JNF land bill, best captured the astonishment of many at Russell Robinson’s apologetics for the bill:

“Excuse me? Along with ending the occupation, the most daunting challenge faced by Israel is to remain a democracy with a Jewish majority that affords equal rights and a sense of belonging to Israel’s Arab citizens. The anti-Israel left and the far right in Israel believe that is impossible. Many Israelis (Jews and Arabs) and their supporters overseas believe it can and must be done (with, for example, aggressive affirmative action programs to close the economic and educational gaps, mandatory teaching of Arabic in all public schools, a civil service option for Israel Arabs who can’t serve in the military, declaring that Israel is a “state for all its citizens” and other measures).

“But rather than trying to figure out how to address the challenge, the man responsible for the JNF in the U.S. has apparently thrown up his hands and said, ‘Forget democracy. That’s a minor priority.’

“No it isn’t. We should be ‘praying and dreaming’ that the problems of Israel’s Arabs citizens will be solved, rather than telling them that they will never have the same rights as their Jewish neighbors. That’s the task ahead for Israel. It won’t be accomplished by scribbling the same propositions, again and again. Too many of them are based on a time when the ‘terrible incantations of defeats’ were still ringing in our ears. The Jews have won. The state is here. But the victory will always be partial unless and until that state is reinvented so that one fifth of its citizens feel like they have a stake in it.”

After playing down the importance of equality and liberal democracy, JNF America CEO Russell Robinson argues further in a position paper published by the JNF under the title “The Jewish State of Israel,” that “democracy is a process that allows us to participate freely in the decisions and debates of the country in which we live.” This however is a popular but famously flawed, minimalist concept of democracy as purely procedural. The kind of democracy which we in the West “all believe,” in Robinson’s words, is in fact a political system which guarantees certain fundamental rights, liberties and opportunities equally to all citizens generally through a Constitution or other set of basic laws, with separation of power, checks and balances applied by courts, a legislature and an executive, and a free press. To confuse the liberal democracy in which we all believe in the enlightened world—the standard by which we criticize the current JNF bill—with minimalist electoral democracy is tendentious and misleading.

Robinson expands his “weak procedural democracy” concept into an even more suspect democracies-aren’t so-good-for-the-Jews argument. He offers the claim that “A democratic system brought an evil man, Hitler, to power and took from us 6 million of our people…We need Israel because history has proved that even within democracies the Jewish people have had to endure pogroms, discrimination, anti-Semitism and death.” Hitler in fact exploited the mechanisms of electoral parliamentary democracy, along with xenophobic and ultra-nationalist demagoguery, to institute a violent dictatorship, suppress political opposition, suspend basic rights and launch a world war and the destruction of European Jewry. But this is no more useful than saying that a procedural, electoral democracy resulted in the election of Hamas, an anti-Semitic terrorist political movement, to form the Palestinian government last year.

These examples show not that democracies don’t protect the Jews—anti-Semitic pogroms and genocide occurred mainly in non-democratic countries like Russia and Poland, and in a German dictatorship, not in the democracies of Western Europe and the United States (except where they were overrun by the Nazis, as in France)—but that the kind of democracy that Robinson himself says “we all believe in” is not in fact what we all believe in. Rather, we support liberal democracy, in which equal rights are guaranteed to all citizens, not illiberal electoral democracies, which are notoriously prone to nationalist war and conflict and which deny their citizens equal protection under the law. It is, to reiterate, the correct conception of democracy—a political system which establishes institutions for the equal protection of the rights and opportunities of all citizens, which include free and fair elections and much more—in which we believe and on the basis of which we object to the JNF bill.

Labor MK, and former contender for the leadership of the Labor Party, Ami Ayalon has taken some heat for his vote in favor of the JNF land bill on its first reading. In fact, Ayalon has explained to Ha’aretz that he recognizes that “there is a built-in contradiction between the JNF as a body that deals with acquiring lands and settling Jews, and the administration of state lands by the Israel Lands Authority.” His solution is for JNF to agree to “return to the state all absentee owners’ land” and for it to “change its aims and start leasing lands not only to Jews, but for any objective that suits the state’s needs.” This is a worthy and far-reaching proposal.

However, Ayalon does not apply his own principle in a principled way. He proposes, for example, that the JNF “should lease lands to demobilized soldiers of all religions.” But this would simply reproduce the discrimination against Israeli Arab citizens in a new form. Among Israel’s 20% Arab population, only Druze and Circassians serve in the IDF, a tiny fraction of the Arab population. Until Israel institutes national service for all citizens and the JNF offers to lease land to all who have completed national service, either in the IDF or in a civil national service corps, the changes Ayalon proposes would reproduce the discrimination against most Arab citizens of Israel. Ayalon also believes that JNF should lease its land for the establishment of Jewish-Muslim institutions, a worthy cause.

At the same time, Ayalon’s position gives him a rope to climb down from the JNF tree. Ayalon has promised that if his proposed changes are not made to the bill, he will vote against it on any second reading in the Knesset. We need more principled flip-flopping of just this sort in the Knesset. Now that’s democracy at work!