Sunday, September 4, 2011

The story behind my letter in the NY Times on Israel, the Palestinians and the UN

First my letter and a contrary view from the head of the American Jewish Committee (which blames the Palestinians for the failure of peace talks with Netanyahu), both of which appeared side-by-side in the Times, then the back story.

Questions About a Palestinian State, August 12, 2011

To the Editor:
Re “Palestinians and the U.N.” (editorial, Aug. 8):

Historically, Israeli-Arab political breakthroughs have come about only after violent upheavals have changed the political dynamic in Israel, bringing to power more moderate Israeli governments.

The 1973 Yom Kippur war unleashed a political earthquake, enabling a new government to accept the same deal with Egypt that its predecessor had rejected, giving birth to the first Israeli-Arab peace treaty. The first Palestinian intifada ushered in new leadership in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin, paving the way the following year for Palestinian self-government under the Oslo Accords and peace with Jordan in 1994.

Now Palestinian leaders are calling for unprecedented mass nonviolent marches in the West Bank on the eve of a United Nations vote in September for recognition of Palestinian statehood.

This kind of popular resistance by Palestinians, together with Israel’s revolutionary social justice movement, may ultimately be the tipping point for the creation of a new Israeli coalition that will welcome accelerated United States-led negotiations for a two-state solution.

Westfield, N.J., Aug. 8, 2011

The writer, executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change, served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli prime minister’s office during the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations from 1977 to 1978.

To the Editor:

One person stands in the way of Palestinian statehood, and that’s Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. He decided last September to abandon all peace negotiations with Israel.

With that move, Mr. Abbas walked away from the United States, after President Obama had played host to the restarting of direct talks, resumed after Mr. Abbas had previously suspended them in January 2009. He walked away from Israel, even though a permanent, sustainable peace accord cannot be attained without Israel and the Palestinians agreeing. And in May he joined in a union with Hamas, the terrorist organization that rejects any peace.

Four successive Israeli governments, and two American presidents, have been committed to working with the Palestinians to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. Mr. Abbas has consistently spurned them. Perhaps he does not want to be the Palestinian leader to tell his people that the conflict is over and that there will be no “right of return.”

Now, pursuing United Nations recognition of a state that doesn’t yet exist, Mr. Abbas has made himself the chief obstacle.

American Jewish Committee
New York Aug. 8, 2011

To the Editor:

You say “the United States will undoubtedly veto any resolution and that will further isolate both Israel and Washington.” I agree with that, but question if that isolating veto is unavoidable. Would it not be better to inform both parties now that we will abstain and thereby motivate both parties to start serious negotiations immediately?

Stamford, Conn., Aug. 10, 2011

The back story to my letter:

On Sept. 20, the Palestinians will ask the U.N. General Assembly to be recognized as a state, with borders, reports suggest, to be negotiated with Israel based on the 1967 lines with land swaps - the guidelines proposed by President Obama, and accepted by Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

From the outset of the UN debate, through the day of the vote in early October and beyond, mass nonviolent demonstrations for Palestinian independence are expected to unfold in the West Bank.

Polls of Palestinian attitudes show that a solid two-thirds majority of Palestinians support a two-state peace with Israel based on Obama's parameters, with a complete end to the conflict and end to all claims, testifying that Israeli and American Jewish fears that most Palestinians seek Israel's destruction are unfounded.

Even though the polls also show that most Palestinians are opposed to violence, and prefer a diplomatic solution with Israel, many observers fear that events on the ground will spiral out of control, leading nonviolent demonstrations to become a violent third intifada.

A new Knesset report by Israeli defense and security experts, led by former Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, has concluded that "had Israel offered 'a political option' that would have enabled the U.S. administration to draft an agreed formula for resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it might have been possible to" prevent the Palestinian move, and all the terrible consequences for Israel that are likely to follow.
"The report concluded that what happens in September will create a risk of regional escalation and deterioration. Even though the current Palestinian leadership is not interested in another armed conflict like the second intifada, it said, the impact of the atmosphere generated by the 'Arab Spring,' combined with frustration among the Palestinian public at the gap between the UN's declaration and the reality on the ground, could result in an outbreak of frustration that could end in serious violence."
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Prof. Gabriella Shalev has told the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv that that after the U.N. vote, when Israel will be viewed throughout the world as occupying the state of Palestine, it will be treated "like South Africa during apartheid." Israel, she warns, "will be swept by a political tsunami the likes of which has never been seen, and will end up a pariah state, subject to sanctions as well as severe boycotts."

1.  What does all this show?  Will it have to get much worse before it gets better?  

From the historical evidence laid out below, it is hard to avoid the conclusion - terrible and tragic though it may be - that Israel has only made peace with its Arab neighbors after violent conflicts have compelled it to accept what more hardline Israeli governments had refused before. This was the case with Golda's government from 1971 to 1973, and the government led four years later by Menacham Begin, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman (which I served as their senior foreign press translator and editor).   The Begin-Dayan-Weizman coalition made peace with Egypt on much the same terms that Sadat had proposed to Israel, through Kissinger, in February 1973 before the October 1973 war.   And it was again the case when Rabin's government reached an interim peace agreement and mutual recognition with the PLO after more than five years of the first initifada, and after more hardline Israeli coalitions refused to recognize or negotiate Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza with the PLO.

The question poses itself: what will it take for an Israeli government to negotiate a secure two-state solution with moderate Palestinians who oppose violence and accept Israel's right to exist side by side with a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza?  What will it take for an Israeli government to accept what the Netanyahu government has so far refused?

To my great regret, it is beginning to look like it will take dramatically increased steps towards the political and economic isolation of Israel, including sanctions by various countries, following the acceptance of Palestine as an observer non-member state at the UN. And it may well take a third Palestinian intifada - which I can only hope will remain nonviolent, though the odds are not good even if the Palestinian leadership, and the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian public, wishes to keep it so. The reason for this is in large part because Israel "does not do Gandhi very well," as Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Israel Ministry of Defense Maj-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad has admitted.   A just-released Wikileaks cable, "confirms that the Israeli army has, in recent months, decided to increase violent pressure on the demonstrations [in the Palestinian West Bank village of Nabi Saleh] ‘even  [if the] demonstrations appear peaceful.’"

As a progressive Zionist and one who has loved and supported Israel all my life, political and economic isolation and a violent new intifada are the last things I would ever wish on it.  But these are the things that Netanyahu, Lieberman and their intransigent, short-sighted friends appear to be bringing down on Israel's head, just as Golda Meir and Yitzhak Shamir did before them.  We can only take some small comfort in the prospect that there is a silver lining in this dark cloud; that after each of the previous episodes of protracted violence, Israel and its Arab neighbors lurched forward to achieve breakthroughs towards peace. May it happen again, sooner rather than later, and if possible, with a minimum of harm to Israel and its people.

The historical evidence: 

2. How Israel squandered the chance for peace with Sadat from 1971 to 1973 before the tragedy of the Yom Kippur War, and the Yom Kippur War led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The October 1973 war was a terrible conflict which, we now know, Israel could have avoided by negotiating in good faith on the basis either of Sadat's proposal for a peace agreement, or the partial agreement Sadat, and Moshe Dayan, had proposed, but which Golda Meir stubbornly, and unwisely, rejected.

By now, this view is considered well-established by Israeli historians and journalists.   Here is one example:
Last Chance to Avoid War: Sadat's Peace Initiative of February 1973 and Its Failure Uri Bar-Joseph, International Relations, Haifa University, Journal of Contemporary History, July 2006,
Most studies of the attempts to reach a political solution to the Egyptian–Israeli dispute between the wars of 1967 and 1973 focus predominantly on the Jarring mission (1968–71), the Rogers plan (1969–70) and Sadat's plan for a partial agreement in the Canal sector (early 1971). However, as this article shows on the basis of new archival documents, the most important diplomatic initiative during this period was Sadat's proposal for a comprehensive settlement of the Egyptian–Israeli dispute, which was secretly submitted to Kissinger in February 1973. Despite the fact that it met most of Israel's requirements regarding peace, Sadat's proposal was rejected by Golda Meir, who refused to return the territories occupied in 1967. Meir's stand did not change even when, in April 1973, Israel's leadership concluded that the only alternative to the diplomatic process was war — which would break out soon. By making this decision, Golda Meir and her colleagues opted for war rather than peace and turned the October 1973 Yom Kippur War into ‘a war of choice’.
Facts like these must cause any thinking Zionist or pro-Israel supporter to radically re-assess (and jettison) the standard trope that Israel is the eternal victim of Arab enmity and has always done its utmost to strive for peace.

3. How the first Palestinian intifada led - both chronologically and causally - to the Oslo Accords and peace with Jordan.  The Oslo Accords represented the first time the Palestinian leadership formally recognized Israel, and Israel recognized the PLO and entered into peace negotiations with it.   This in turn led to the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty in 1994, and a wide opening for Israel of breakthrough diplomatic relations and new trade relations with many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab world, especially the Gulf states.
For those who have forgotten, Arafat's letter to Rabin from Sept. 9, 1993, affirmed that 
"The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security."  Moreover, the letter stated that with the signing of the Declaration of Principles [the Oslo Accord], and Palestinian acceptance of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, "the PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist, and the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter, are now inoperative and no longer valid."
Whatever Arafat's personal intentions were, Arafat is dead, the recognition by the PLO of Israel lives on, and strong security cooperation between Israeli and PA security forces on the West Bank - a product of the Oslo Accords - have proven highly effective at combatting terrorism over the last few years, as every senior-ranking Israeli security official publicly attests.   And the leaders who have succeeded Arafat, and those who will succeed Abbas - men like the currently jailed Marwan Barghouti - and the great majority of the Palestinian population, continue to favor peace with Israel.  

The first intifada took place from 1987-1993, an uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza whose goal was Palestinian independence in those territories.   

Rabin was elected in 1992 and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, granting the Palestinians self-government and control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza.   
Rabin won the election in 1992 after promising that he would "undertake to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in the [occupied] territories [i.e., the West Bank and Gaza] within six to nine months of taking office."
Rabin campaigned on a platform of peace with the Palestinians in 1992, and won, but only after Israel had endured 5 years of the Palestinian intifada from 1987 until the uprising formally ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.  

Outcomes of the first intifada: "The failure of [Israel's] 'Iron Fist' policy, Israel's deteriorating international image and Jordan cutting legal and administrative ties to the West Bank and the U.S.'s recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people forced Rabin to seek an end the violence though negotiation and dialogue with the PLO."[42][43]

Had Israel sought to negotiate a viable and just two-state solution with the Palestinians before the intifada broke out, explored mutual recognition and a cessation of terrorism with the PLO during the 1980's - the PLO in fact first formally accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338 in 1988, recognizing Israel's right to exist in secure and recognized borders, leading the Reagan administration to enter into dialogue with it; had Israel stopped the exponential growth in settlements and encroachment on private Palestinian land and Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza, both the first and second Palestinian intifadas could very probably have been avoided, saving many lives, on both sides.

As we reach the eve of what may be the third intifada, coupled with an unprecedented wave of international political and economic isolation and opprobrium for Israel, it appears that Israeli leaders are about to repeat the same follies - with the same outcome.

The views expressed here, and in my New York Times letter, are solely my own and not those of any organization I am affiliated with.