Meetings Last Week with Members of the Knesset About the Current Situation in Israel and Operation Protective Edge
Last Wednesday, our group of J Street leaders from the United States and J Street U students spending the summer in Israel, met with four members of the Knesset to get their perspective on the war – or “Operation” as it’s referred to here. One was from Hatnua (which is Tzipi Livni’s party and part of the government), one from Meretz, and two from Labor.
From Labor and Hatnua, we heard a message of support for the war. That it was necessary and needed to be fought. While the fighting is going on, this type of position is not surprising even given the brutal way that Israel has been conducting the war. I think that they all perceive the tunnels as a very real strategic threat that needs to be destroyed and they have no illusions about the nature of Hamas as a terrorist group actively planning to attack Israel.
Because all of those we spoke with are on the center left, it is not surprising that they emphasized the importance of strengthening President Abbas so that he could be in a position to gain enough political power to execute a deal with the Israelis. They felt that one of the not so obvious benefits of this war is that it opened the eyes of many, not only in the government, but in the general population as well, to the fact that they have someone that they can deal with on the other side. All of a sudden, Abu Mazen has gone from being the “Partner we can’t Trust” to being ‘not so bad’ compared to the alternative. Amram Mitzna, former General and Mayor of Haifa and Yeruham, feels that the Operation will help more people understand that there is no better option than the two state solution. There is no military solution to the conflict because Hamas is more than a military organization – it is a state of mind. Israel can destroy all of the rocket caches, blow up the tunnels and kill all of Hamas leaders, but Hamas’ “death to Israel” message will simply be adopted by new leadership.
But the most surprising and most upsetting thing we heard about is what has been going on in Israeli society. Over the past several years, there has been a steady and significant increase in overt racism in the country. This extreme hatred is now being projected against those who oppose the war. Whether it is at physical protests where marchers have been beaten up and forced to disperse – or online bullying which has gone to the extreme of calling out death threats to those posting pieces against the war – we heard about an ugly atmosphere of hate that is getting stronger and stronger. These MKs were concerned that the Cabinet Ministers have remained silent on denouncing these racist attacks. Rather, said one, Ministers are often actually the ones inciting this conduct. Virtually everyone we spoke with was extremely concerned about the increase in societal hatred – even the American Consul General in a separate meeting. Although the tragedy of the death and destruction from the war is heart wrenching, what hits me the strongest is the changing nature of Israeli society. There is something going on here that is abhorrent and rotten. No one drew any links directly to the Occupation, but it is clear that in order to enforce the Occupation, there is a need to dehumanize the Palestinians as “the other”. And once a society labels one group that way, it is a short hop to applying the same attitude to any other group. This trend is taking Israel further and further away from what most of us consider to be our Jewish values.
Along these lines, we also heard about the deterioration of conduct within the Knesset. Of course, it reminded us of home, seeing that Congress continues to set new lows in obstructionism and lack of decorum. One characterization of the way bills are pushed through the Knesset was “violent”. Not a term that one expects to hear describing legislative functioning. Just as in the U.S., we got the sense that there is a general breakdown in decorum and long-standing unspoken rules of how to relate to your political opponents. Whether this reflects the trends of more explicit and blatant religious, ethnic and, now, political hatred, or leads those trends, isn’t clear. But what was being communicated to us by the MK’s was that this was a serious, serious problem.
Finally, all of the MK’s expressed their appreciation for J Street leaders – particularly the J Street U students – for being in Israel at this time of war, and caring enough to reach out to see and hear what was going on so that we could bring what we saw back to those in the U.S.
First, I would like to know whether Kerry’s diplomatic push is spoken of in a positive or negative manner. That is, whether U.S. getting the sides to the table is a good thing or not – NOT whether the chances of success are good. Not whether there is no partner, etc. That is, does AIPAC support diplomacy with regard to the Palestinians?
I am interested to hear how much support you hear for a two state solution. Again, not whether or not it is likely to come about right now – but whether it is a good idea or not that trying our hardest to work towards that goal or not. In that regard, do you hear anyone talking about the importance of coming up with some solution to the current Occupation? Do people think that the status quo can continue indefinitely? Or, annexation of Judea and Samaria into one Jewish state where the Palestinians have less rights than Jews? Annexation of Judea and Samaria where it’s one person, one vote? Or, again, Do you hear anyone talking about creative solutions, like saying that it might be a good idea to freeze construction in the West Bank temporarily to see whether this might force the Palestinians to ‘put up or shut up’?
Do you hear anyone talking about very real everyday facts on the ground in the West Bank? Like in East Jerusalem that Palestinians are being forced from their homes and replaced by Jews? Or, about Settler violence (so called “price tag” attacks) including burning of olive trees, torching of mosques, and even firing guns at Palestinians by both settlers and even IDF – with almost no legal recourse? Or the destruction of Bedouin structures (as flimsy as they may be) that are on their own land? These are facts which are written about in Israeli papers that should be discussed here as well. In the same way that the rocket firings from Gaza, or the buildup in arms by Hezbollah, or the fact that Hamas is going broke need to be discussed. (One excellent thing is there isn’t much to discuss about violence from the West Bank against Israelis because as I understand it, in the last two years, thank God, there has only been one killing of a Jew by an Arab from the West Bank. That is one too many – but frankly if you look into it, I believe that you will find that it is less than the number of Palestinians that have been killed by settlers and IDF during that same time period.)
Next, I am curious to know whether you hear support for diplomacy with Iran – and what the nature of the agreement is that they would support. I personally am a big supporter of keeping the military option on the table – but even more importantly, I believe that we need to push very hard to make this diplomatic effort work. Public criticism of the administration makes very little sense given that we are in negotiations at the moment. Doesn’t this type of rift show weakness, not strength? Although AIPAC finally backed off pushing the Senate Sanctions bill when the Republicans tried to force a vote (and they are still trying to force a vote by attaching the language to other bills), they essentially ignored Kerry’s specific call during Senate hearings for them to hold off on this bill until the talks had run their course. If sanctions were supposed to force the Iranians to the bargaining table, then they worked. It is time to support the negotiations and the negotiators. While I have heard the argument that the Senate sanctions bill will provide more leverage, that is not the Administration’s position. The move in the Senate appears to be more grandstanding than anything else – and particularly now that the Republicans are moving to call a vote. Wouldn’t it be more effective to work behind the scenes to make sure that the Administration drives a hard bargain?
Also, I would like to hear about the diplomatic proposals that are being discussed. Although it would best if Iran dismantled their entire program – no enrichment, no centrifuges, no missiles – realistically, they will never agree to this. It would be too much of a loss of face for them both internationally and domestically. Therefore, be aware that anyone proposing no enrichment is not seriously supporting a diplomatic agreement. They aren’t necessarily warmongers – but many do in fact know that the Iranians will never accept this, but it is their way of “supporting” diplomacy while knowing that their position has no chance of acceptance. Listen carefully to people. Some will say that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear . Others will say that it must be prevented from having a nuclear capability. This is a significant difference and you should listen closely for who says which. If they say capability, they are usually also saying that Iran must eliminate their entire nuclear program – which as I said above is totally unrealistic.
I am particularly interested to know how much talk there is about the consequences of possible military action – and what the speakers say about it. I haven’t seen the agenda, but I believe that there may indeed be some experts discussing this and I would be interested to know what their assessments are.
Finally, a little prognostication on my part. My bet is that every Congressman and Senator will say the following:
“Israel is our greatest ally”
“Israel shares our values”
“Iran is the greatest threat to Israel, the US and the entire world”
“Iran is the greatest supporter of terrorism in the world” [What ever happened to Al Qaeda?]
“The military option must not be taken off the table” [A very true statement – but how many folks are willing to talk about the exact make up of the military action – and what the resulting risks and consequences might be. Are folks willing to risk Hezbollah raining down hundreds or thousands of rockets on Israel? The question needs to be discussed]
“Israel’s security is our number one priority”
“I love Israel [more than the next guy]”
Don’t get me wrong, these are all good things. Most of these are true statements. However, the answers are so pat, that they border on pandering – and most important, it is not good if this is the level of sophistication with which these people are going to be basing their votes on when it comes to legislation that has such serious consequences for the US, Israel and the entire world.
Looking forward to hearing about the Conference. Have a great trip and enjoy!
On Monday, Secretary John Kerry gave the most significant foreign policy speech of his short tenure as the head of the State Department. When listened to in conjunction with the speech that President Obama made in Jerusalem in March, it becomes clear that this administration has put the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the very top of its foreign policy agenda despite all of the other pressing matters in the world.
I believe that anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue should take a half-hour and listen to this speech because it clearly lays out this administration’s beliefs about what needs to be done – and done soon. You can access it here: Sec of State Kerry’s Remarks to AJC 6/3/2013
Kerry’s points were straightforward:
- Israel’s security is top priority. However, “best way to truly ensure Israel’s security today and for future generations is by ending once and for all the conflict with the Palestinians…by reaching a negotiated resolution that results in two states for two peoples…A realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side”
- This is the time to move forward
- A negotiated solution (which would include a demilitarized Palestine) is needed
- We must recognize the “Palestinians’ fundamental aspirations” for a state of their own
- Time is running out for a two state solution
- The status quo is not sustainable
- The Palestinian Authority has shown its commitment to non-violence and nation building
- What will happen if there is not a negotiated solution? Any or all of the following:
- Widespread civil disobedience, possibly leading to a third intifada
- Going back to the UN for more recognition
- Going to the International Criminal Court
- Peace pays in economic benefits to all
- The Arab League has re-emphasized its Peace Initiative – with the addition of allowing for land swaps
- The American Jewish community must use its voice in pushing leaders to take bold steps for peace
These are almost verbatim the talking points that J Street has been using since its inception in 2008. One of J Street’s primary missions has been to support the American administration to put this issue on the front burner – and it is obvious that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have done that. It is now time for the rest of the American Jewish community to join in.
- When Kerry says ‘both sides,’ AIPAC says the Palestinians (jta.org)
- Kerry warns Israel that status quo cannot hold (washingtonpost.com)
I very intriguing post about conceptualizing Israel, Palestine and our relationship with them. This is from Jerry Haber, a pseudonym for an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor who blogs as The Magnes Zionist.
As a religious Jew, I believe that the Jew qua Jew has three homes: the state of which she is a citizen; the Jewish community of which she is a participant, and the land of Israel. Jews do not need political sovereignty in an exclusivist ethnic state in order to feel at home in that land. In fact, increasingly I am feeling less at home in the State of Israel, then in the United States.