To the dismay of peace activists and Israeli opposition parties, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu rudely rejected President Obama’s mild parameters for Israeli/Palestine peace and then managed to receive twenty-nine standing ovations for his militant intransigence as he delivered a fiery rejectionist speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
Netanyahu has lots of chutzpah to come to our country and treat our president disrespectfully — which is precisely what he did when, the day before meeting with the president, he rejected Obama’s suggestion that negotiations between Israel and Palestine should begin (not end) from the point of the 1967 borders that Israel trampled when it captured and then retained the West Bank for the last forty-four years.
We want the Jewish people to be secure, and we want a strong Israel. But that can only be achieved when Israel is perceived by the world and by the Palestinians as seeking a peaceful solution that is based on justice for the Palestinian people and security for both sides. That day will never come if Israel insists on holding on to the occupied territories and placing troops in the tiny Palestinian state it envisions, nor will it come as long as the Palestinian people are treated disrespectfully and oppressively.
Somebody has got to talk sense into the heads of the leaders of Israel before the anger its current policies are engendering explodes once again and causes both sides even more suffering.
Obama is reported to have told his advisers on May 19, 2011, that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will never make the concessions necessary for a peace accord. Well, we in the peace movement say, duhhh. While the official organs of Jewish life — many of them controlled by those who believe Israel is always right and Palestinians are always wrong — managed to corral congressional leaders into a large public celebration of the most right-wing government and policies Israel has ever had, most Jews under fifty find Netanyahu’s behavior obnoxious. In fact, most younger Jews applauded Obama for finally taking a stand, however weak, for a policy that has been insisted upon by every U.S. president since 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. It took some courage for Obama to stand up to the little tyrant from Jerusalem who claims to represent an Israeli democracy while simultaneously refusing Palestinians the vote in Israel or national self-determination in a separate state. Unfortunately, our president backed down very quickly in face of public criticism by members of Congress.
Tikkun’s contributing editor Stephen Zunes offered an insightful description of how these dynamics played out:
In an apparent challenge to her president, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) told Netanyahu, in response to his harsh retort to Obama, “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.” Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) rebuked President Obama by stating, “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else,” and that terms for peace talks, “will not be set through speeches.” As former president Jimmy Carter observed in an op-ed in The New York Times, in embracing Netanyahu’s position, the current Democratic leadership is not only rejecting the current U.S. president, but previous agreements involving the Israelis and longstanding positions taken by the United Nations (UN) and previous administrations.
Palestinians and most other international observers believed Obama did not go nearly far enough in challenging Netanyahu’s colonization and annexation of occupied Palestinian territories. He did not call for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian West Bank — which the Israelis invaded in a June 1967 war and which is legally recognized as a non-self-governing territory under belligerent occupation — only that the pre-1967 borders be the starting point of negotiations. Obama assumes Israel should be allowed to annex parts of the West Bank with large concentrations of Israeli settlers who moved into the occupied territory in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. (In return for allowing Israel to annex these illegal settlements, Obama called on Israel to swap Israeli land, something that Netanyahu has rejected.) In addition, while Jewish West Jerusalem remaining part of Israel was a given, Obama insisted that Arab East Jerusalem — the largest Palestinian city and center of Palestine’s cultural, religious, commercial and educational institutions — was subjected to negotiations. Obama defended Israel’s right to “self-defense,” but insisted the Palestinian state be demilitarized. Indeed, he rejected Palestinian independence except under conditions acceptable to their Israeli occupiers. He even questioned whether Israel should negotiate with the Fatah-led Palestine Authority if it included Hamas in its ruling coalition because the Islamist group refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist even as it insisted the Palestinians negotiate with the Israeli government despite the fact that some parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition refuse to recognize Palestine’s right to exist.
If Obama really understands how far-fetched it is to believe that Netanyahu will ever negotiate a deal that Palestinians could live with, it is time for him to create a new initiative. Our president needs to go over the heads of the leadership in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Speaking directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people, he should propose a peace accord that the United States could enthusiastically support. Presenting a full picture of what a U.S.-backed peace could mean for both sides would have a powerful impact on public opinion in both Israel and Palestine, and could create the political pressure from within both societies to push their political leaders toward a rational agreement.
President Obama is foolishly urging Palestinians not to push for UN recognition of a Palestinian state. What else does he expect them to do when Israel’s leaders remain intransigent in their desire to annex yet more of the West Bank, and all he offers is hope backed by nothing but new agreements to strengthen Israel militarily?
For Israel to achieve security, it must reject its strategy of domination and instead embrace a strategy of generosity toward the Palestinian people; as long as Israeli leaders choose to harden their own hearts, they can expect little else but rejection from the Palestinian people. In this context, Obama’s reiteration of previous presidents’ contention that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement should depart from the 1967 borders by allowing substantial land swaps to enable Israel to incorporate part of the settlements in the West Bank and give an equal amount of high-quality land to Palestine risks coming across as useless rhetoric. To be powerful, Obama’s statement on land swaps must come along with a public embrace of a larger agreement involving a demand for sacrifices from both sides, a compassionate and caring attitude toward the needs of both sides, and an understanding that only openhearted reconciliation will unthaw both sides.
Here is what a peace plan must involve for it to have any chance of swaying hearts and minds on all sides:
1. The peace treaty will recognize the State of Israel and the State of Palestine and define Palestine’s borders to include almost all of pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza, with small exchanges of land mutually agreed upon and roughly equivalent in value and historic and/or military significance to each side. The peace plan will also entail a corresponding treaty between Israel and all Arab states — including recognition of Israel and promising full diplomatic and economic cooperation among these parties — and accepting all the terms of this agreement as specified herein. And it should include a twenty-to-thirty-year plan for moving toward a Middle Eastern common market and the eventual establishment of a political union along the lines of the European Union. This might also include eventually building a federation between Israel and Palestine, or Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
2. Jerusalem will be the capital of both Israel and Palestine and will be governed for all civic issues by an elected council in West Jerusalem and a separate elected council in East Jerusalem. The Old City will become an international city whose sovereignty will be implemented by an international council that guarantees equal access to all holy sites — a council whose taxes will be shared equally by the city councils of East and West Jerusalem.
3. Immediate and unconditional freedom will be accorded all prisoners in Israel and Palestine whose arrests have been connected in some way with the Occupation and/or resistance to the Occupation.
4. An international force will be established to separate and protect each side from the extremists of the other side who will inevitably seek to disrupt the peace agreement. And a joint peace police force — composed of an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis, at both personnel and command levels — will be created to work with the international force to combat violence and to implement point number six below.
5. Reparations will be offered by the international community for Palestinian refugees and their descendents at a sufficient level within a ten-year period to bring Palestinians to an economic well-being equivalent to that enjoyed by those with a median Israeli-level income. The same level of reparations will also be made available to all Jews who fled Arab lands between 1948 and 1977. An international fund should be set up immediately to hold in escrow the monies needed to ensure that these reparations are in place once the peace plan is agreed upon.
6. A truth and reconciliation process will be created, modeled on the South African version but shaped to the specificity of these two cultures. Plus: an international peace committee will be appointed by representatives of the three major religious communities of the area to develop and implement teaching of a) nonviolence and nonviolent communication, b) empathy and forgiveness, and c) a sympathetic point of view of the history of the “other side.” The adoption of this curriculum should be mandatory in every grade from sixth grade through high school. The committee should moreover be empowered to ensure the elimination of all teaching of hatred against the other side or teaching against the implementation of this treaty in any public, private, or religious educational institutions, media, or public meetings, along lines pioneered by the U.S. in Japan and Germany after the Second World War.
7. Palestine will agree to allow all Jews living in the West Bank to remain there as law-abiding citizens of the new Palestinian state, so long as they give up their Israeli citizenship and abide by decisions of the Palestinian courts. A fund should be created to a) help West Bank settlers move back to Israel if they wish to remain Israeli citizens and b) help Palestinians move from the lands of their dispersion to Palestine if they wish to be citizens of the new Palestinian state. In exchange for Palestine agreeing to allow Israelis to stay in the West Bank as citizens of the Palestinian state, Israel will agree to let 20,000 Palestinian refugees return each year for the next thirty years to the pre-1967 borders of Israel and provide them with housing. (This number — 20,000 — is small enough to not change the demographic balance, yet large enough to show that Israel cares about Palestinian refugees and recognizes that they have been wronged.) Each state must acknowledge the right of the other to give preferential treatment in immigration to members of its leading ethnic group (Jews in Israel; Palestinians in Palestine).
8. Full and equal rights will be afforded to all minority communities living within each of the two states. All forms of religious coercion or religious control over the state or over personal lives or personal “status” issues like birth, marriage, divorce, and death will be eliminated. Each state, however, will have the right to give priority in immigration and immigration housing (but not in any subsequent benefits) to its own leading ethnic community (Jews in Israel; Arabs in Palestine).
9. The leaders of all relevant parties will agree to talk in a language of peace and openhearted reconciliation, and to publicly reject the notion that the other side cannot be trusted.
Inequalities of power may create circumstances in which a less generous agreement is eventually reached, but only an agreement like the one I have outlined — an agreement based on a new spirit of generosity — has a chance of lasting. Anything else is just a product of leaders jockeying for temporary advantage and political popularity, not for an actual end to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
In my forthcoming book Embracing Israel/Palestine, which is partly an update of my 2003 book Healing Israel/Palestine and partly a new discussion of how embracing a love-oriented emancipatory Judaism could energize peace efforts, I show what could help spread the new spirit of openheartedness necessary to solve this conflict. It should be in bookstores by the end of November, just in time to share with friends and family as a Christmas or Chanukah (or other winter holiday) gift. I would be so grateful if you could help me draw others into this discussion by setting up a speaking engagement for me in your local synagogue, church, mosque, ashram, local book store, community center, college or university, or any other institution that can afford to pay my way and give a little something to help keep Tikkun alive, which is one reason I’m willing to do this kind of travel! If you want to arrange something, contact Mike Godbe (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell him what you have in mind.
But in the short run, there is really only one thing that might move Israel and Palestine toward serious peace negotiations: the threat or reality of Palestine being accepted as an equal member of the United Nations along with a resolution that also acknowledges and reaffirms Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders as a Jewish state that gives equal rights in employment, housing, education, and financial support to its Arab citizens and to members of every other religious community, including secularists, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, Sikhs, and any others I’ve forgotten to mention.
Why would this spur along the peace talks? Because Palestine, as an equal member of the UN, might sue Israel in the International Court of Justice to leave the Occupied Territories! In truth though, that’s not much of a threat, since that court has no army and since the U.S. will veto any UN Security Council plan to send troops to enforce a World Court decision for Israel to leave the West Bank and Gaza.
The real spur to the peace process would be the hope that might emerge from Palestinian membership in the UN. Let us embrace this path and bring that hope into the world! If the UN raised Palestine’s flag and accepted Palestine as a UN member, Palestinians would feel less of the humiliation they’ve endured for decades as they’ve been denied their rights, first by Jordan, which occupied them till 1967, and then by Israel in an even more brutal way in the past decades. The dignity and recognition that come with UN membership would likely translate into a more flexible attitude toward negotiations, and that could break the impasse in the peace process.
If all that comes to pass, Israel could really move along negotiations by releasing the thousand Palestinian prisoners whom it has held, some for many years, denying them the rights of “prisoners of war” and treating them like hated criminals — in exchange for the U.S. releasing Jonathan Pollard and Hamas releasing Gilad Shalit. This exchange would be a tremendous icebreaker, along with UN membership for Palestine.
Most analysts believe that the last thing Netanyahu wants is a peace breakthrough that might break up his right-wing coalition and put his prime ministership in the hands of a coalition with slightly more moderate forces like Member of Knesset Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu can easily head that off by saying he refuses to make any deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. In that case, Hamas’ leaving the proposed unity government of Palestine would actually force Netanyahu’s hand slightly. But on the other hand, an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that did not include Hamas would be virtually useless. You “make peace with your enemies,” and that means negotiating with them. If they are not part of the agreement, they are not part of the peace. So refusing to include them in negotiations is a surefire way for Netanyahu to avoid negotiations. All the more reason for us to push for UN membership to smooth the way toward serious negotiations.
Obama is already under tremendous pressure from the Israel lobby to veto Palestinian membership in the United Nations. That’s why you could make a difference by joining our campaign to support Palestinian membership in the UN along with a UN resolution restating its commitment to Israel’s security. If you want to get involved, sign our petition at tikkun.org/recognizepalestine.