Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Reply to Disco Stu's Jewcy comment on my Open Letter to Abe Foxman

Dear Disco Stu,

In your comment on my Open Letter to Abe Foxman on Jewcy, you wrongly suggest that I (and Obama, whose Mideast policies I support) want to “force Israel to cease all settlement building without expecting anything in return.” You appear to have read a different article than the one I wrote—in fact, I argued nothing of the kind. Throughout my letter I say things like: “don't object when the President holds both sides' feet to the fire about fulfilling their Road Map obligations, as Bush promised to do,” and talk about how Obama, the Arab League and the international community must pressure the Palestinians to give up on their claims of a right of refugee return to Israel as part of a final treaty in which Israel will evacuate those West Bank settlements which won’t become part of Israel’s final borders.

From what you say about settlements, it seems to me you’ve not learned about how the world really works, as you claim; nor have you drawn the right conclusions from the failure of Oslo which a realistic understanding of what actually happened would require. Israeli Security Expert and Former Mossad Official Yossi Alpher has pointed out that “Settlement expansion was a key catalyst of the first Intifada, the popular rebellion of Palestinian youth [against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the settlement enterprise there] that broke out in late 1987 and continued until the early 90’s, as well as of the al-Aqsa Intifada, in fall 2000. More than any other factor, the spread of settlements on what they considered to be their lands was seen by Palestinian youth as a reason for urgent, even reckless action: to continue to struggle passively, as their elders advocated, was to cede Palestine to the settlers. This dramatic expansion of settlement building to a state of critical mass, set against a backdrop of agonizingly slow progress in the Oslo process over a seven-year period, constituted a major catalyst for the al-Aqsa Intifada.”

And: “One of the major flaws of Oslo was that it did not explicitly prohibit continued expansion of settlements. This settlement growth established ‘facts on the ground’ that were used to preempt negotiations on territory and seriously eroded Palestinian trust in the peace process itself.” In fact, the number of West Bank settlers nearly doubled from 100,000 to almost 200,000 from the beginning of the Oslo peace process until its failure in 2000.

How then do we help Israelis and Palestinians create the mutual confidence needed to revive peace negotiations in a way that will be likely to succeed, taking into account how the great gap between what happened on the ground and what was said at the negotiating table was among the major causes for Oslo’s failure? To that end, the Road Map required of Israel to immediately implement a settlement freeze, including all natural growth, and dismantle the dozens of settlement outposts which had been built in recent years, further expanding the geographic footprint of the settlers in the West Bank. The Palestinians were to “undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conduction and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere."

In my letter I quote Larry Derfner’s Jerusalem Post column, which points out that "The Palestinian Authority has been cracking down on Hamas for a long while, it kept the West Bank miraculously quiet during Operation Cast Lead, it's enforcing the law in city after city... If the PA wasn't giving us peace and we were giving it land - we'd be right to demand that Obama put all the pressure on the Palestinians and none on us. But the fact is that Abbas and the PA are giving us about as much peace as they're capable of, while we aren't planning on giving them an inch; instead, we're thinking only about how much more conquered land Obama will let us build on."

In short, the reality is that so far the Palestinians have actually done a great deal to comply with what they need to do to rebuild Israeli trust and confidence in their commitment to fighting anti-Israel terror; but Israel has done very little on the ground to inspire confidence among Palestinians that it is sincere about ultimately granting them the right to a state free of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Netanyahu now claims to support a two-state solution, but while professing fealty to peace he continues to do the very opposite of what’s required to convince any fair-minded observer, let alone the Palestinians, that he intends to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state.

So this has nothing to do with what Europeans, academics and the “Arab side” say, or with how often some “meme” is repeated, and everything to do with what has been, and is, objectively undermining the chance for a two-state solution to the conflict, and what is objectively necessary to build confidence among both Israelis and Palestinians in order to restart a peace effort on new and more sound footing. And it has everything to do with what both sides committed to do and what they have and haven’t done. But Obama is not stopping with insuring that the Palestinians are fulfilling their security obligations to Israel. He is also pressing the Arab countries to begin normalizing relations with Israel in several areas. So the notion that I or Obama are advocating forcing Israel to do anything without Palestinian and Arab reciprocation is pure invention on your part.

You also seem not to grasp that a settlement freeze is simply a first step towards a two-state solution in a multi-step process in which both sides have obligations to the other. A settlement moratorium is a very minimal step which ensures that Israel finally lives up to its promise—as codified in the Wye Accord and other agreements it signed—to stop taking actions which clearly prejudice the outcome of the negotiations by putting more Jewish housing on more land that the Palestinians claim for their state—whether in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem or in the West Bank.

As part of a deal in which Arabs and Israelis agree on the final borders of Israel and Palestine, both the Palestinians and the Arab states will be expected to make major concessions to accommodate Israel’s needs on a wide range of issues once we reach the point where Israel begins to actually remove tens of thousands of settlers from the area which it will have agreed will become a Palestinian state. They will, and should, be pressured by Obama and the international community to accept demilitarization of their state—no heavy weapons or air force—unlike almost every other state in the world; they will be pressured to accept a host of security arrangements to accommodate Israel’s requirements, and to give up on their claim of a right of refugee return to Israel, among other concessions.

The other point you raise is whether “If building new settlement houses suddenly ceases” the Palestinians will “suddenly acquire the requisite abilities to both build and govern a functioning state and accept Israel living like a (relatively) rich, glamourous, successful prince right next door?” There are really two different issues here: whether the Palestinians accept Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and whether they have the ability to build and govern a state.

But the fact that you could write such a sentence suggests that you are not the pragmatist or realist you claim to be. No pragmatist would impute such powers to a mere settlement freeze; only someone out to build a straw man and then tear it down would say such a thing. To gain the capacities to build and govern a functioning state that Palestinians will need, and deserve, significant international help—something like an international trusteeship (even if we don’t call it that) which will, over a period of years after Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians has ended, help them develop the requisite political capacities and institutions to govern their state. This will need to be coupled with a “Marshall Plan” for the economic development of the new state; Obama should press the Saudis and other wealthy Gulf states to make major contributions to this economic package.

You say that “for those of us who feel the Pals. were the ones who dropped the ball or were never on it during Oslo, any move that is unilaterally demanded of Israel that doesn't also address the true weak link in the two-state solution (Palestinian inability to come to terms with a legitimized Israel living free and prospering while they worry about building their own state) is merely sweeping the dust under the rug.”

A true pragmatist would recognize that in fact a majority of Palestinians have for many years supported a two-state peace deal with Israel. The latest poll of Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, conducted jointly by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, between May 21-June 3, 2009, showed that “59% of the Israelis support and 36% oppose a two-state solution. Among Palestinians, 61% support the two-state solution while 23% support a one-state solution and 9% support other solutions.” What’s more, you seem to me to have an unrealistic, messianic definition of what constitutes acceptance of Israel by Palestinians, rather than the kind of pragmatic, realistic view of what it takes for there to be peace between two countries—whether Israel and Palestine, or Israel and Egypt or Syria.

Despite your insistence of being a pragmatist and a centrist, on the question of Palestinian acceptance of Israel it seems to me you’ve bought into the right-wing hasbara mythology of what went wrong during Oslo. My letter wasn’t intended as an antidote to that particular hallucinogen. Gaining a realistic understanding of what’s actually happened over the last 10 – 20 years, and why, will require you to actually read—not skim—some serious articles. I’ve tried to sum up some of this material in two places: “Why Camp David and Oslo Failed: Myth and Reality” and "Barak's Chief Negotiator Explodes the Myth of Camp David."

But I would suggest you start with David Grossman’s “Fictions Embraced by An Israel at War”.
There he wrote this bracing passage: ”The story that now reigns nearly unchallenged in the media and political discourse obliterates more than 33 years of roadblocks, thousands of prisoners, deportations, and killings of innocent people. It's as if there were never long months of closures in cities and villages, as if there had been no humiliations, no incessant harassment, no searches of houses, no bulldozing of hundreds of homes, no uprooting of vineyards and olive groves, no filling up of wells and, especially, no construction of tens of thousands of housing units in settlements and large-scale confiscation of land, in violation of international law.

“The new narrative leaps back through the manipulative fog created by the prime minister and his cabinet, his supporters and his various spokesmen straight to the Six-Day War, our pinnacle of justice. And looking forward from that point in 1967 there is a kind of desert devoid of history, devoid of responsibility, devoid of blame, until we suddenly emerge from the miasma right at the Oslo accords, the proposals that Ehud Barak made to Yasir Arafat at Camp David and, after Camp David, like thunder on a bright and sunny day, the second intifada.

"According to this story, the Palestinians suddenly exploded in September 2000 in an uncaused natural eruption, spewing out lava and ash and igniting the entire region. They had no logical reason for exploding and there was no prior Israeli provocation. Ehud Barak made them a generous offer, and they betrayed him with an outburst of violence because they, by their nature, are motivated solely by destructive, irrational forces that make impossible any future compromise with them.

“This theory is also the basis of another right-wing claim that now seems to be accepted by the majority of Israelis. It is that the Oslo accords, and their supporters, were what in fact caused the second intifada. In other words, it wasn't the intolerable conditions in which the Palestinians lived for more than three decades. It wasn't the tacit support that most Israelis lent to the ongoing occupation, all the while persuading themselves that it was such an enlightened occupation that it was barely an occupation at all. It wasn't the refusal of every Israeli government before the second administration of Yitzhak Rabin to try to reach a true, if painful, accommodation with the Palestinians. It wasn't the doubling of the number of Israeli settlers in the territories in the years after Oslo. Nor was it the way in which Ehud Barak conducted the Camp David talks, presenting to Yasir Arafat as ultimatums proposals that, while they were generous compared with Israeli positions in the past, were entirely insufficient in Palestinian eyes.

“None of these factors are now viewed as sufficient reason for a popular uprising by a subjugated and despairing people. No, it's the Oslo accords that are to blame, as if in the absence of Oslo the Palestinians would have come to terms with the Israeli occupation, accepting it tranquilly, even lovingly, to this very day; as if the Oslo agreements were a match, not a fire extinguisher.”

So Disco Stu, I would give your comment a D- for cogency, an F for conscientiousness (to pass, you have to actually read what the person you are criticizing has written), and an A for ad hominem irrelevancies.

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