Monday, November 15, 2010

An exchange with Benny Morris: The Bedouin and Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, by Gidon D. Remba

Benny Morris, the renowned Israeli historian, reminded the audience at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York City last night what he thinks Israel should have done about the presence of Palestinian Arabs within the Jewish state: had more been expelled by Israeli forces in 1948, so that few Palestinians would have remained behind in a nascent Israel, moving them all to the Palestinian state envisioned under the UN partition plan, the Middle East would be a much quieter place today. No, he does not advocate transfer today, he explains. But more thorough ethnic cleansing in 1948 would have promoted peace, he says.

This view is both outrageous and wrong: creating even more Palestinian refugees would not have led to peace, but simply increased the number of aggrieved Palestinians who would have sought a right of return to their former homes and villages in Israel. It would have flooded the neighboring Arab states with even more refugees, adding fuel to the rejectionist fire against the new Jewish state. More war crimes would not have brought more peace, but rather the opposite.

A Likud Knesset Member was quoted in the Jerusalem Post today as saying that because he supports Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” he believes that “as many as possible” Arab Israelis should become citizens of the Palestinian Authority as part of a final peace agreement (without regard to whether they wish to give up their citizenship and residency in Israel). This Knesset Member has turned the very idea of democracy on its head. Democracy’s heart is equal rights and liberties for all citizens. And it is precisely because we are committed to Israel as a Jewish democratic state that we believe the Palestinian Israeli and Bedouin Arab citizens of Israel can become equal citizens in a state that is Jewish in important ways, and treats both Jewish and Arab citizens as equals. The impulse to expel non-Jews from the State of Israel in the name of Zionism - whether through physical expulsion or by declaring their homes and villages as no longer part of Israel - is a perversion of democracy, of Jewish values and of Zionism as envisoned by its founder Theodor Herzl.

Before Chaim Yavin’s film ID Blues: Jewish and Democratic was screened, I was invited to offer some brief remarks on behalf of the Jewish Alliance for Change, which co-sponsored the showing. I reviewed the mistreatment, discrimination and extreme inequality between Israeli Jews and the Negev Bedouin, and the mounting demolitions of Bedouin villages and expulsion of hundreds of Bedouin, as the most awful example of the way the Israeli government – especially this Israeli government of Netanyahu and Lieberman - is undermining the chances for reconciling Israel’s Jewishness with its democratic character.

Afterwards, Benny Morris spoke about the issues raised in the film. I posed the last question during the discussion. Morris claimed that Israel’s contribution to the growth of Islamic extremism is negligible; that Islamic extremism is fueling Jewish extremism. Isn’t it the other way around, I asked, and offered three examples:

  • how Israel’s nearly 20-year occupation of Southern Lebanon encouraged the creation of the Islamic resistance movement of Hezbollah;
  • how its deepening of the occupation and expansion of settlements in the West Bank over decades strengthened support for Hamas;
  • and how its failure to take any substantive steps to remedy the great inequality between Israeli Arabs and Jews, its failure to integrate the Palestinian Israeli community into Israel, is contributing to the rise of Islamic extremism among Israeli Arabs.

Morris acknowledged that these things made a contribution, but he insisted that the contribution was minimal. Even had Israel not done these things, he claimed, Islamic extremism would have developed in all these areas. Ending the occupation of the West Bank or making a sustained and serious effort to integrate and promote equality for Israeli Arab citizens would do little to temper support for Muslim extremism among Palestinian Israelis and West Bank Palestinians, said Morris in a post-film discussion with me and other audience members.

Before answering my question during the public program, Morris decided to address my remarks before the film. Things are more complicated than you portrayed them, he protested: "If you study the issue closely, he continued, you find that the land claimed by the Bedouin is state land, inherited by Israel from the British and the Turks; the Bedouin have no title to the land, and they are trespassers encroaching on state land."

I interjected: "Prof. Morris, you are ignoring numerous historical sources which justify the land ownership claims of the Bedouin. If you study the issue closely, as you suggest, it leads to a conclusion diametrically opposed to yours."

Morris’ characterization is in fact a gross oversimplification of the history and a distortion of the highly politicized and biased process by which Israeli governments have denied Bedouin claims to their land.

The US State Department’s 2008 Report on Human Rights in Israel sums up the history more accurately: “Israel’s land policies refuse to acknowledge Bedouin ownership over lands they have possessed for generations… the Israeli government has not recognized any title of ownership or rights to lands traditionally possessed and used by the Bedouin in the Negev. In defense of this denial, the state has cited the Bedouin’s lack of documentary evidence attesting to ownership. Crucially, however, the Bedouin have never operated a documentary land registration system. Rather, land is allotted according to verbal inter-tribal agreement. Given this cultural norm, any land ownership system that requires written proof of ownership serves to dispossess most Bedouin of their land.”

“However, the lack of state-recognized title does not mean that there is no documented evidence of former Bedouin ownership. ‘Until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Bedouin were, for the most part, the sole residents of the Naqab [Negev]. In 1947, over 90,000 Bedouins, members of 96 different tribes, lived in the expanse stretching southward from Kiryat Gat and Ashdod. According to several sources, including Jewish sources, these Bedouin held approximately two million dunams of land, for which they adhered to a clear and agreed-upon system of property rights.’”

Morris, I’m sorry to say, has bought into the propaganda that has been used to justify a policy of unjust land expropriation from Bedouin to enable the state to develop the land exclusively for Jewish use, while pushing the Bedouin into as small an area as possible. Once a critical historian, Morris now lets his reading of history serve his politics, and his politics edges dangerously close to a Jewish ultra-nationalism which prefers Jewish aggrandizement to Israel’s commitment to liberal democratic values and human rights.

On these lopsided terms, it is no surprise that Morris opened his remarks by confessing that he sees no contradiction between Israel’s Jewishness and its democratic character. There will never be a contradiction if Jewishness always trumps the equal rights and liberties which are supposed to be guaranteed to all citizens in a democratic state.

After our public exchange, I approached Morris to continue the conversation, alluding to historical research supporting Bedouin land rights from scholars at his own university, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. He summarily dismissed all this research and evidence, suggesting that it shows nothing. I objected: You’re overlooking the fact that there is a generic problem with many states around the world having denied the land claims of indigenous and aboriginal peoples who often have other forms of evidence for these than the deeds that modern states tend to demand. By enacting narrow, biased laws designed to exclude non-traditional evidence of ownership by minorities, favoring the majority ethnic group, states often have unjustly denied the land claims and rights of such indigenous peoples.

Now Morris lit up: you have a point, he conceded. While he didn’t abandon his faith in the rightness of state policies towards the Bedouin, he acknowledged a flaw in his own worldview on this issue and in the state’s standard defense of its claim that the Bedouin have no land rights in the Negev and are simply trespassing on “state land.” But this flaw forms a hole so large that one can drive a phalanx of Volvo bulldozers right through it – and away from the "illegal" Bedouin villages and homes "bulit on state land" which they might have otherwise demolished.

What I didn’t tell Morris is that comparative legal scholars like Ahmad Amara, a Palestinian Israeli attorney who worked for the last 3 years on the land and housing rights of the Negev Bedouin under the aegis of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, have shown that many countries that had previously denied the land claims of indigenous and aboriginal peoples for want of a written deed, have reversed course and recognized other forms of evidence of land ownership.

For example, “New Zealand illustrates attempts to remedy past abuse of a legal regime that recognized legal title over indigenous lands. In Canada, the government and the courts have recognized indigenous title to land, defined land rights with reference to practices, traditions and customs central to indigenous societies, and allowed customary forms of documentation,” Amara concluded in a comprehensive report submitted to the Goldberg Committee.

Amara has documented many other analogous examples, including India and the Philippines. Israel, regrettably, remains an outlier.

To Benny Morris I say: come back to the study of history and get off Avigdor Lieberman’s ship, which is heading for the rocks. This way lies ruin for Israel.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Jordan’s Foreign Minister is Optimistic about Middle East Peace: A Personal Report, by Gidon D. Remba

(And why President Kennedy’s principal advisor, the legendary Ted Sorenson, challenged him)

I had the opportunity to be part of a group of several dozen NGO leaders and diplomats who met for a discussion with Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, at the Century Foundation in New York on Sept. 27. The exchange, moderated by Professor Alon Ben-Meir, director of NYU’s Center for Strategic Development and hosted by Century Foundation fellow Michael Wahid Hanna, took place as Israel chose not to renew its partial settlement freeze, and as settlers celebrated a new spurt of building in the West Bank. These blows added fuel to the fire of widespread skepticism about the prospects for the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks mediated by the Obama Administration. So many peace initiatives have come and gone, some leading to partial and important breakthroughs, and many others falling by the wayside. Mah mishtana? Why is this new peace effort different?

Mr. Judeh set the stage by recalling Jordanian King Abdullah’s remark that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not only a local conflict, but one with global ramifications. Peace in the Middle East means peace of mind for the rest of the world. Jordan’s aspiration is for a comprehensive permanent peace settlement between Israel and the entire Arab and Muslim worlds. The path to that goal is illuminated, he believes, by the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which calls for a two-state solution, an independent, viable, sovereign and territorially contiguous Palestinian state living in harmony next to a secure Israel, and a mutually agreeable just resolution to the refugee problem. A comprehensive peace will bring Syria and Lebanon into the circle of peace first drawn by Egypt and then Jordan, extending to the entire region. Not only have all 22 countries in the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, but so have all 57 Muslim countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Mr. Judeh acknowledges that the gap is vast between the two sides – yet he believes there is reason for optimism this time. All issues are on the table, reflecting the seriousness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders; and the goal is to reach an agreement within one year. He acknowledges that the pessimists have every reason for their views. Some say that the definition of a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. But Foreign Minister Judeh believes we cannot allow ourselves to think this way, bringing to mind a classic line from the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who wrote in a prescient essay called “Perpetual Peace:”

“Even if the realization of this goal of abolishing war were always to remain just a pious wish, we still would not be deceiving ourselves by adopting the maxim of working for it with unrelenting perseverance.” In other words, even if we can’t fully realize the goal, if we work towards its realization, undaunted by the many obstacles and setbacks along the way, we will all be better off. Judeh is perhaps the first Arab Kantian, in theory and in practice.

Why, then, is this new effort different, offering real hope?

First, the Obama Administration has engaged on the issue of Middle East peace from day one. President Obama called Middle East leaders on his first day in the Oval Office – even in the first hour of his presidency, signaling his commitment to engaging aggressively with the issue during his presidency. On the second day in office, when people might have expected him to be more preocuppied with domestic issues, he visited the State Department and appointed George Mitchell as his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, deploying Mitchell to the region soon thereafter.

However, Mr. Judeh did not stress enough the difference in the way the Obama administration is shepherding the talks from beginning to end versus the laissez-faire approach that the Bush Administration took to negotiations during the Annapolis phase under Olmert and Abbas. This reinforces his point about the difference in the kind of commitment and engagement that the Obama administration is displaying, and it is unquestionably a reason for optimism.

Second, Foreign Minister Judeh believes that the current Palestinian and Israeli leadership have realized that this time they must see the process through to the end. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Abbas in the White House a few weeks ago, he affirmed that “we seek a peace that will last for generations” and said “President Abbas, you are my partner in peace.” Abbas, for his part, promised that there will be no provocative Palestinian actions that will undermine the negotiations – there will be no violence.

How, contrary to the skeptics and the naysayers, Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas resolved the settlement freeze:  And although the partial settlement freeze expired yesterday, Mr. Judeh is encouraged by the fact that Netanyahu asked the settlers to exercise the same restraint as when the moratorium was in place. Even if there will be no official freeze in place, Netanyahu will limit construction starts in practice so that there is no practical difference between the period during and after the official freeze.   This might be Netanyahu’s way of squaring the circle. (Ynet confirms, in a report filed yesterday, that this apears to be the formula for threading the needle:  "PA says 'quiet' construction freeze to go on:  Israel will only be allowed to build in settlement blocs, talks to continue, senior PA source says."  "Other Palestinian sources believe that the compromise in respect to West Bank construction will take the form of a 'quiet freeze,' with Israel's Defense Ministry holding up construction permits.") 

In any case, Dror Etkes, Peace Now's former Settlement Watch director, reveals that the data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that the “settlement freeze” was largely a hoax, a PR stunt, “Israbluff.” ("Settlement Freeze? It was barely a slowdown," Ha'aretz, Sept. 28, 2010).  The reduction in the number of houses being actively built at the end of 2009 versus the end of March 2010 - from 2,955 to 2,517 - was little more than 400, or 16%.   In fact, notes Etkes, during the "freeze," “a relatively large part of the houses were built on settlements that lie east of the separation fence,” which are not in the settlement blocs. So if Netanyahu is agreeing now not to build in settlements beyond the settlement blocs when there is no official freeze, he may, without a “freeze,” actually be improving upon what he did during the official “freeze,” when he allowed housing to be built in far-flung settlements that will certainly not become part of Israel in any peace agreement.

The Palestinians, explains Etkes, “agreed to turn a blind eye to the construction so long as the official freeze policy of the Israeli government continued.” So, all the lamentations and wailing about Israel’s allowing the settlement freeze to thaw simply buys into the settlers' and Netanyahu’s fiction that there was any kind of serious settlement freeze in the first place.

Mr. Judeh says that there should be zero tolerance for any unilateral actions, by either side, which could undermine trust and confidence.   While there is, he believes, a need for an extension of the settlement freeze (in practice if not in name), Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop negotiating across the airwaves, forcing each to posture for certain audiences. Coalition politics pose understandable difficulties, but leaders must have long-term vision of their peoples’ and countries’ needs. Actions and words must be in synch; one can’t profess peace and then act contrary to its requirements (at least if one’s claim to be a peace-seeker is to be credible).

The settlements are illegal and illegitimate; this is the US position, not only the international consensus. Once the borders are established by agreement, both sides will know where Israel ends and Palestine begins, and where it is legitimate for Israel to build settlements. Changing the demography on the ground will completely derail the current momentum and erode the chances for a contiguous Palestinian state. When Israel confiscates Palestinian land and property; when it evicts Palestinians from their homes and takes other unilateral measures in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including excavations in areas of religious sensitivity, these steps undermine confidence and the negotiations themselves.

(Some American Jews, I would add, still don’t grasp why settlement construction undermines confidence during peace talks, and as public support for diplomacy wanes and support for violence rises, can sabotage them.  They imagine that the settlements are not part of the problem, that the only problem is Arab recognition and acceptance of Israel, as right-wing propagandists often say. But this turns reality on its head and ignores the obvious. Palestinians seek a territorially contiguous state in the West Bank and Gaza, while Israelis seek acceptance and security. For Israelis, the thing that most undermines their trust in Palestinian intentions is the resurgence of violence and terrorism, particularly when the Palestinian leadership (e.g., under Arafat) not only failed to do enough to stop it, but sometimes encouraged it. But that is a thing of the past; the consistent and effective efforts of the Palestinian Authority’s US- and Jordanian-trained security forces in countering terror under Abbas have been frequently hailed as unprecedented by Israeli security officials. And President Abbas has now re-affirmed his commitment to continued cooperation with Israel in preventing the extremists from launching attacks against Israelis.

But since the Palestinians seek a contiguous state in the West Bank, when Israel builds new homes in West Bank settlements – not only the settlement blocs near the 1967 border, but in the far-flung settlements near major Palestinian West Bank population centers like Ramallah, Nablus and Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – it sends a message to the Palestinians that it has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing the territory in a peace agreement; that there will be no contiguous Palestinian state or viable two-state solution. When faith in diplomacy and dialogue fade, support for violence rises – and so, in the end, does violence. That’s how you destroy the chance for peace. Moreover, by unilaterally deciding where it will continue to build in settlements, Israel sends a message to the Palestinians that it intends to unilaterally determine the final borders, rather than negotiating them. It wields its greater power over the Palestinians to force the outcome. It suggests that Israel is prejudicing the contours of those borders before an agreement has been reached, in effect compelling the other side to accept a fait accompli – something the parties previously committed not to do.

Breaking that promise clearly undermines Palestinian confidence in Israeli good intentions, and has contributed to the eruption of both the first and the second intifadas, and a loss of hope among Palestinians; just as the resurgence in Palestinian violence helped undermine Israelis’ trust in Palestinian good intentions, leading to a loss of hope in the chance for peace among many Israelis, even if they long for it and still favor a two-state solution. So contrary to rightist claims, while terrorism and settlement expansion can’t be equated morally, they are functionally equivalent in the role they play in sapping confidence in peace for the other side, and thus in undermining peace talks.)

The third reason this peace effort is different, giving reason for optimism, is this: there is international unanimity that we’ve had enough of the Arab-Israel conflict, and that it must at long last be brought to an end.

Fourth, the US under Obama recognizes the importance of pursuing peace as a regional goal, not simply piecemeal between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and Syria. The Arab Peace Initiative, and the Obama administration’s recognition of the role it can play in promoting a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace for the entire region, is another reason why the new peace effort may be different.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Jordan two weeks ago and emphasized the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative. The US is seeking to bring Syria and Lebanon into the mix, testifying to its understanding of the need for a regional approach.

Jordan has played a lead role in advising the Saudis on the Arab Peace Initiative, a win-win proposition. Israel gains peace and real security and will be genuinely integrated into the region. Once a Palestinian state is created, a just solution is agreed with regard to the refugees, and Syria and Lebanon recover their occupied territory, the Arab states will consider the Arab-Israel conflict to have ended, and all Arab states will establish normal relations with Israel. Moreover, the API affirms the security of all states in the region, including Israel. Israel’s quest for security is legitimate. Treaties and agreements will make Israel’s security a collective responsibility. The opportunities for cooperation between Israel and the Arab states are many: on water, energy, transportation and in other arenas. In fact, every Middle East leader at the UN this week spoke about the desire for regional cooperation in these areas. We need to create a political environment that will make such cooperation with Israel possible.

The Arab Peace Initiative Committee will be meeting in Cairo on Oct. 4th. Foreign Minister Judeh recognizes that more needs to be done to promote the API and its benefits to Israelis. He has been planning a conference of civil society leaders on the Arab Peace Initiative – NGO leaders, academics and others, Israeli, Arab and international – as a way to strengthen awareness of its value among peoples and governments. Originally planned for this past spring, it was postponed when the Gaza flotilla incident unfolded, and has yet to occur.

But Mr. Judeh’s message is simple and direct: If we fail now, the radicals will say, “we told you so; our way is better.” We cannot allow the forces of rejection to prevail.

For the Q&A with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and why Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy's legendary principal advisor, challened him, please click here.

Q & A with Jordan's Foreign Minister & Why Ted Sorensen, Pres. Kennedy's advisor, challenged him

This post is Part 2 of "Why Jordan's Foreign Minister is Optimistic About Middle East Peace."  Click here for Part 1.

The Q & A with Jordan's Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, raised some intriguing points about the US role in peace talks, Israeli public skepticism about Palestinian and Arab intentions, and whether the peace process can succeed without the participation of Hamas, Syria and Lebanon; whether Iran can sabotage peace efforts; the importance of promoting Arab-Israeli cooperative projects in business and civil society now as a way to build mutual confidence; and finally, Ted Sorenson’s provocative question.

1. Michael Hanna asked how the US can play a constructive role in the peace talks. Mr. Judeh responded that the President Obama has affirmed that Middle East peace is a US national interest. The idea of a US plan was discussed last year; but we’re beyond that now. The parties are negotiating directly. Let’s see what happens; Clinton and Mitchell are there with the parties. Perhaps the US will later need to present bridging proposals if the parties can’t reach common ground.

This is why Mr. Judeh is a diplomat: perhaps? As he acknowledged earlier, the gaps are vast; I believe it is inevitable that the US will have to introduce bridging proposals. But the Jordanian diplomat is right that this can only happen once the parties have made a concerted effort to reach an accommodation and it becomes clearer how best to bridge the gaps between their positions.

2. Q: Prof. Ben-Meir: The Israeli public is skeptical of Palestinian and Arab intentions due to the second intifada, the results of the withdrawal from Gaza and from Lebanon. When an ordinary Israeli heard about Prof. Ben-Meir’s work to promote, and operationalize, the Arab Peace Initiative, he remarked: the term “Arab peace” is an oxymoron, reflecting the common skepticism and cynicism in Israel. Ben-Meir wondered whether the Arab states can do something to influence Israelis and show them that they genuinely want peace with Israel.

Mr. Judeh responded that Arab publics are skeptical as well that Netanyahu wants peace. But we have to change these perceptions. Netanyahu is showing seriousness of purpose; but it can’t be selective. We should have mutual gestures to show seriousness and sincerity, by both sides avoiding provocative unilateral actions. The problem we face is that often when there is progress, something negative happens to derail it: the Goldstone Report, the Gaza flotilla, announcing that 1,600 new Israeli homes will be built in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

It’s clear that Mr. Judeh supports Arab gestures to operationalize the Arab Peace Initiative and help build confidence with the Israeli public. But he did not call on the other Arab states, or announce Jordan’s intention, to pursue such steps, preferring instead to focus on the ways in which Israel has bred skepticism among Arabs of its good intentions. By raising Goldstone and the flotilla, I understood him to be implying that the way Israel neglected to show sufficient regard for Palestinian civilian lives during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and the way it bungled the operation on the Mavi Marmara, killing 9 passengers, for a self-defeating policy of blockading Gaza, cast a pall over Arab confidence in Netanyahu’s peaceful intentions. I would have liked to hear Mr. Judeh map out a path to mutual confidence-building gestures, and was disappointed that he did not do so. (More on that in a moment, when I get to Ted Sorenson.)

3. Q: Hamas is not part of the current peace effort; can it succeed without Hamas’ participation?

Mr. Judeh responded that if Palestinian dreams of statehood become within reach, if it’s for real, and a date is attached to the realization of a Palestinian state, he believes that we will hear a different tune from Hamas. The only answer to the radicals is progress on the ground. At the Arab foreign ministers dinner after the UN meetings this week, it was noted that some three out of four Israelis support a two-state solution, with similar percentages on the Palestinian side. Palestinians want a normal life. If we guarantee them the apparatus that will give them a normal life, attitudes will change – in other words, Hamas will be hard-pressed to continue its opposition to a two-state solution, as it sees the majority of Palestinians embracing the unfolding promise of an independent viable state.

Second, unless Syria is brought into the mix, Hamas can’t be brought along. Judeh pointed out that Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem met with Secretary Clinton today. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intensified American efforts to woo Syria into backing the U.S.'s Middle East strategy, holding her first direct meeting with her Syrian counterpart in a bid to find common ground on Iran, Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli dispute.” (“U.S. Woos Syria in Mideast Peace Push,” WSJ, Sept. 28, 2010). Jordan believes that Syria and Lebanon must be brought in to the process.

4) Q: Can Iran derail the peace process and influence the “Arab street” in destructive ways?

Judeh tells of a European diplomat who, when he met his Iranian counterpart this week at the UN, spent the entire time discussing the Arab-Israel conflict. Now imagine if in two years the Arab-Israel conflict has been resolved, he asked the European. What will you talk about with Iran? Mr. Judeh believes that Iran has exploited the Arab-Israel conflict for its own ends. His response to this problem mirrors his strategy for keeping other radicals, including Hamas, at bay. We have to answer them with positive, peace-building actions; and we have to answer them by succeeding at reaching a comprehensive agreement.

5) Ted Sorenson is widely viewed as having been among President John F. Kennedy’s closest advisors, his chief speechwriter and part of Kennedy’s inner circle. He played a key role in advising Kennedy on dealing with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Co-author of Kennedy’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, he is often credited with Kennedy’s celebrated Inaugural call to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (though he insists that Kennedy authored the phrase himself).

Sorenson was born of a Russian Jewish mother in Nebraska, and was among the early endorsers of Barack Obama in 2008, often comparing him to John F. Kennedy. Sorenson, who was seated a few rows before me, challenged Foreign Minister Judeh: Why, he asked, call off the Arab Peace Initiative conference because of the flotilla incident? Why allow a major initiative to be derailed by such an event?

Foreign Minister Judeh explained that this wasn’t a conference of the Arab states, but a civil society initiative to influence various governments - in Israel, the Arab and Muslim states and around the world – about the benefits of the Arab Peace Initiative. After the flotilla incident, we felt that we could not escape the politics of the day. There was no way to get people to be willing to come together to talk about the fruits of peace when they are talking about the flotilla, or 1,600 new Israeli homes in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. To convene a conference of this sort, we need an atmosphere of calm. If the new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations progress, the atmospherics will be conducive, and we’ll convene the conference.

Let's drive home Ted Sorenson’s point: Mr. Judeh’s reply is well-taken, but he dodged the real question: if Israel were to make sufficient confidence-building gestures towards the Arab world, such as extending the settlement construction freeze and applying it to non-Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, what would the Arab states be willing to do to help build Israeli confidence in Arab and Palestinian intentions?

The Palestinian Authority, under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, has made great strides in cooperating with Israel on combating terror, as Israeli security officials often acknowledge. This, by itself, is a crucial confidence building measure for Israel. But if the Arab states want Israelis to be swayed by the sincerity of the Arab Peace Initiative, a series of escalating mutual confidence building steps that both Israel and the Arab countries could take during the peace talks would go a long way towards creating a positive atmosphere for the negotiations, bolstering public support for them both in Israel and in the Arab world. Why shouldn’t the Arab states propose a series of normalization measures with Israel, along with their expectations for Israeli step-by-step reciprocation? The more each side would give, the more it would get.   Worst case, they'd call Bibi's bluff; best case, something good might happen. 

6) Joanne Mort (who writes frequently in Ha’aretz and the American Prospect about Israel and the Middle East and who travels there regularly on business) raised the fact that Al Quds University now has in place a boycott on all joint activities with Israel. While she herself supports a boycott of products made in the West Bank settlements, she believes that a blanket boycott on joint Arab-Israeli projects is deeply counter-productive. She suggests that Jordan can play a role in fostering such cooperative efforts. Echoing Sorenson’s point, she noted that we cannot let bad acts and negative events rule the day. There were numerous, and far worse incidents, during the previous peace effort (Oslo), but nonetheless Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis got together and did much collaborative work.

She reports that there are tons of joint Arab-Jewish business ventures going on right now in the Arab world – but people don’t want to talk about them (implying that this is a mistake). The settlers should not be the only ones influencing the Israeli street. We should be fostering hope among Israelis by showing that it’s being done right now. Mr. Judeh agreed whole-heartedly, but, regrettably, did not take Joanne’s idea as a basis for any specific Jordanian initiative.

7) Prince Zeid on Israel and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – Can the Middle East become a nuclear weapons-free zone?  Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was until recently Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S. and is now its UN ambassador. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with him in past in Washington as part of a group from ALLMEP, the umbrella group for the more than 60 Arab-Jewish-Israeli people-to-people peace-building and coexistence NGO’s. Every American Jew who has an opportunity to spend any serious time talking with Prince Zeid leaves with greater hope for Arab-Israeli peace. Prince Zeid is, quite simply, a mensch. He’s the real deal.

Foreign Minister Judeh asked Ambassador Zeid to speak about Jordan’s wish to see the entire Middle East become a nuclear-free zone (meaning, a zone free of nuclear weapons). Ambassador Zeid believes that if we can make real progress towards peace, it might be possible to explore with Israel the extension of the NPT (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to the entire Middle East. I think he has a point: ultimately, if there’s to be any chance of gaining Iran’s agreement to a robust, intrusive inspection regime – the best way to insure that it does not develop nuclear weapons and, as many Israeli intelligence experts believe, far more effective and preferable to an Israeli military strike – we cannot expect Iran to accede to international demands on its nuclear enrichment program without bringing Israel into the NPT as well. Israel has resisted so far, but the day may come when it will have to play ball.

And yet, given the world as we know it, it’s hard to imagine Israel feeling secure enough to give up its nuclear weapons; and why should it? The US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France all maintain their nuclear arsenals, and are signatories to the NPT. India maintains its nuclear weapons and agreed to place 14 of its 22 nuclear power plants under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. The NPT itself does not truly require complete disarmament by the nuclear weapon states (NWS). The treaty speaks of the signatories’ obligation to move in the general direction of nuclear disarmament someday and to negotiate in good faith towards that end.

The goal for the Middle East should be to reach an international agreement with Israel to join the NPT inspection and safeguards regime, once there is a comprehensive and permanent Arab-Israeli peace treaty; the goal should not be for Israel to eliminate its nuclear weapons.

Once there is a comprehensive Middle East peace treaty, it is not beyond the realm of imagination that Israel would join NATO. The US positions and shares nuclear weapons with NATO countries in Europe. Extending the US nuclear umbrella to Israel, and providing it with the guarantees of mutual military defense by other NATO countries, would go a long way towards easing Israeli insecurities after a peace treaty were signed and all Arab and Muslim states established full, normal diplomatic ties with Israel.

A Middle East nuclear weapons free zone should be a distant future goal, but even under a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, I don’t foresee it happening, or advocate it as a practical objective. I believe that nuclear stability can be achieved, and nuclear war prevented, if Israel, Iran and the Arab states all agree to a safeguards and inspections system under a reformed NPT. Disarmament can come when the Messiah rides his donkey down Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and nations beat their swords into plowshares.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Response to Jerry Haber's objections to "For the Sake of Zion," by Gidon D. Remba

Dear Jerry,

I read your thoughtful and incisive analysis of the “For the Sake of Zion” statement before I decided to circulate and endorse it. In fact, I had considered writing a response to your post along with the endorsement, but in the end I felt that this wasn’t the proper place and time for such a discussion. My considered opinion is that it does far more good than harm to encourage as many American Jews as possible to read and sign this statement.

I reached this conclusion despite the fact that I agree with most of your substantive criticisms of the statement. In some respects, it is decidedly not the statement that I would have written. In fact, if you were to write a different statement reflecting your own view of what should be done now, I would probably agree with much, and might be willing to endorse it and encourage others to do so as well.

I too was disappointed with the statement’s failure to call for pressure on both Israel and the Arabs to make the necessary concessions to reach a peace deal. In fact, I support blunt and brutal pressure – at the appropriate times and in the right ways – on Israel and the Arabs of just the kind that Carter, Kissinger, Ford and Bush pere employed to help achieve breakthroughs for peace which have greatly served Israel’s security and well-being (as I’ve advocated in detail in a number of my published opinion essays - for example, "Israel, Settlements and the 'P' Word," and "What Bush and Olmert Could Learn from Begin and Sadat" ). I find the JCall statement preferable on these and other grounds.

On the other hand, "For the Sake of Zion" endorses pressure using a euphemism that will be less dissonant to most American Jewish ears: “we endorse the American government’s vigorous encouragement of the parties to make the concessions necessary for negotiations to advance.” (As in "Mr. Netanyahu, we encourage your government to accept x if you'd like the United States to do y - where y might represent vetoing certain anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council, or taking certain steps on sanctioning Iran or on enhancing US-Israeli security cooperation: I call this the "mailed carrot" approach.)

The statement appropriately calls on Israel to “immediately to cease construction of housing in the disputed territories” – which includes East Jerusalem, since its status is clearly disputed, despite Israel’s claims of eternal and exclusive sovereignty over it all. Diplomatic pressure is one issue on which you’ve not fairly represented the “liberal Zionist” statement – and failed to recognize the value of choosing language in the present political context which will be politically effective in appealing to the American Jewish center, which liberal Zionist groups like J Street seek to mobilize in support of the Obama administration’s peace efforts.

You observe that “the call to immediately cease construction in the occupied territories” can’t be taken very seriously “when that call was already made years ago by George W. Bush." I disagree entirely. When George W. Bush made such statements he was viewed in many precincts of the American Jewish community as throwing a sop to the Arabs – to the Saudis and America’s other Arab allies. These Bush statements were not viewed by such Jews as pro-Israel. The point of a statement that has all the hallmarks of a deep attachment to Israel and to Zionism is that it is prominent pro-Israel American Jews who are calling for an immediate end to construction in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem – the area which, when Obama called for a settlement freeze there, prompted loud protestations from Netanyahu and various American Jewish leaders, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations under Obama’s Hyde Park pal Alan Solow (leading to much – unfounded, but noisy - talk of disappointment with Obama on Israel by some American Jews). So yes, it is important for American Jews - and American and Palestinian leaders - to hear other American Jews say what George W. Bush has already said: because for prominent American Jews to say it is still quite controversial in the organized American Jewish community, sparking protests in major segments of the "Jewish establishment."

I would even go so far as to say that it is politically valuable for there to be statements in which prominent American Jews call for the Palestinians to disavow their claimed right of refugee return to Israel, while also decrying the occupation and the settlements and calling for an immediate and comprehensive freeze on Israeli construction not only in the West Bank but even in Arab neighborhoods in Israel’s ostensibly “unified capital” of Jerusalem. I am thoroughly convinced of the political utility of such statements in building American Jewish support for peace efforts, even though I agree entirely that the Palestinians cannot be expected to disavow their claimed right of return until a final, comprehensive peace agreement is achieved.

But here’s the rub. You’ve invited writers of the petition to show you where you have offered an implausible reading of the petition. I am not a writer of the petition, only an endorser, but I’m convinced that you’ve misread the line about where the statement suggests the Palestinian capital will be situated. The statement says that it will be located in the Arab neighborhoods of an expanded Jerusalem; that is accurate and unobjectionable, and reflects the principle animating the Clinton parameters that Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem will become part of the Palestinian state, while Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will become part of Israel. The Jerusalem referred to in those parameters is obviously “the expanded Jerusalem” – Jerusalem as defined by something like its current expanded municipal boundaries.

Nothing in this statement implies that the Palestinian capital would be located outside of Jordanian East Jerusalem. The statement implies that the capital will be in the Arab neighborhoods of an expanded Jerusalem, which does not preclude its being located in Jordanian East Jerusalem. The language here simply includes all Arab neighborhoods in the expanded Jerusalem – encompassing the inner and outer neighborhoods – as the likely locus of the capital of the Palestinian state. I don’t agree with your reading that “Sheikh Jarrah or the Damascus Gate or Silwan are not in ‘expanded’ Jerusalem (expanded by Israel); they are in Jerusalem.” These neighborhoods are indeed in the expanded Jerusalem – Jerusalem as defined by the expanded Israeli municipal boundaries.

To be sure, there is an ambiguity in the wording which permits your reading, but it is an uncharitable interpretation of the wording which is not mandated by the language used, and very probably not the intent of the statement. It’s possible, on the other hand, that the statement’s crafters wanted this sort of ambiguity to make the statement palatable to more Jews; if so, I see it as a legitimate effort to appeal to a broad Jewish public, since it in no way precludes what I suspect you and I would consider a just allocation of sovereignty in Jerusalem if there is to be a two-state solution.

Clearly, the statement sought to avoid specifics on the allocation of sovereignty on the Temple Mount/Haram A-Sharif, along with other aspects of what it will take to close the deal (such as dismantling most West Bank settlements). Again, you and I might agree on where the Palestinians should have sovereignty – I support a peace treaty which allots to the Palestinians sovereignty over the Haram, excluding the Kotel. "For the Sake of Zion," like the Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles, skirts this issue.

Why did I decide to endorse the statement, these objections to your reading notwithstanding? The statement consists of seven paragraphs; all of your objections revolve around the specifics contained in a single paragraph – the fifth. But for that paragraph, I suspect that you would find the statement largely positive and worthy of support. To reiterate, I am in agreement with your criticisms of paragraph five – except for the point about Jerusalem, as noted above. But I disagree entirely that the problems with paragraph 5 outweigh the good that the other 6 paragraphs can do in setting an example for, and contributing to the process of persuading and educating, centrist and moderately rightist American Jews, and in reflecting a mainstream moderate pro-Israel Jewish voice supportive of the Obama administration.

Much as states sometimes sign treaties and diplomatic agreements while noting their reservations, I would have preferred to sign the statement with an enumeration of my reservations and objections to the language in paragraph 5, which panders to the American Jewish right. But American Jews need to hear

  • that a group of prominent American Jews who care deeply about Israel believe that the occupation, the settlements and Israeli construction in East Jerusalem are endangering Israel and its quest for security and a peace agreement with its neighbors;

  • that the Obama administration’s “vigorous encouragement of the parties to make the concessions necessary for negotiations to advance” is good for Israel;

  • that the future security and welfare of the State of Israel depends on achieving a two-state solution soon;

  • that Israel faces apartheid and the end of the Zionist dream of as Israel as a Jewish democratic state if it does not achieve a two-state solution in the near term;

  • that despite the skeptics, there is hope in the current round of indirect negotiations, particularly if the Obama administration plays the proper constructive role in overseeing and guiding the talks, offering both tasty carrots and very sharp sticks to both sides when appropriate;

  • and finally, that even while Israeli citizens will ultimately decide their future, American Jews have the right and the obligation to express their views, and to critique decisions of the Israeli government which, in their view, undermine the prospects for Middle East peace and the future of the largest Jewish community in the world and of the Jewish state (along with America’s national security).

While I realize that you may not endorse the statement’s affirmation of the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,” I am confident that you recognize that no statement in support of Palestinian-Israeli peace can be politically efficacious, both in the American Jewish community and in the international arena, if it does not affirm the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. And I say this, and am convinced of its truth, despite my own opposition to right-wing demands that the Palestinians should be required to affirm Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state – an unreasonable and unnecessary demand, in my pragmatic Zionist view. (In this regard, I concur wholeheartedly with an oped in the Forward by Rabbi Eric Yoffie - "How Not to Protect the Jewish State" - which argued against such demands.)

In sum, I believe you’ve attached too much weight to the problems in paragraph 5, and not enough to the strengths in the other six paragraphs. Had I been asked to contribute to the formulation of this statement, I would have vigorously protested some of the language in paragraph 5. It goes against what I believe is needed to help the parties advance towards peace, and reach a just and viable solution.

But now that the statement is out, I am convinced that it does more political good – however much good a statement of this sort can achieve – to encourage American Jews to support this statement for the considerable value it bears. You and I and others can object on our blogs to points in the statement; but to fail to support a petition which says what the other six paragraphs say is politically unwise and does a disservice to the project of building American Jewish support for Israeli-Arab peace.


Doni Remba

Jerry Haber acknowledged the validity of some of my points in a response he posted on his Magnes Zionist blog: