OK, it’s 11pm again. Not sure how coherent I am in my sleep-deprived state. It was an intense day. We started very early with a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City. There was a Bar Mitzvah at the Wailing Wall, so men were praying and dancing on the men’s side, and women were praying on the women’s side, and standing on stools to look over the partition to the men and throw them candy. There were a lot of young women praying very intently. The wall is the emotional center of Judaism, and I was very moved by the experience of moving through the women and touching the wall.
Today we went to the university and heard a professor from Hebrew University speak about the Arab-Israeli conflict — what stuck in my mind was his insistence that the Arabs hate the Jews and don’t believe they have a religious right to be in Jerusalem – because Christianity superseded their right, and Islam came after that to claim the city as holy. His entire analysis seemed based on religious and moral discourse — who said what about whom — and resulted in a rather depressing assessment on his part that Israel is always alone, Muslims are enemies (even Turkey now), and basically that there is no solution. A two-state solution would mean “millions of enemies will be poured into the West Bank.” One of our group pointed out that many Palestinians would stay where they were, or there could be a financial settlement, but he was very gloomy. He saw the world as a continual threat.
Next was Ehud Yaari, journalist and TV commentator, who gave a different analysis, but no less depressing. “Palestinian society keeps collapsing into our unwilling arms.” He believes that Palestinian society in its present state can’t stand on its own (unable to be a credible state). The Palestinians have no economy, but a patronage system. Donor money goes right into the bureaucracy.
He also thinks that Palestinians are no longer fighting over land, but for “buckets of blood”. I believe he was quoting Hamas, but was also referring to Hezbollah. There was a tendency among the speakers to lump all Muslims together as potential or actual enemies, something that used to be common in Washington as well. His solution? Contain the threat through a massive first strike (using ground troops). Go for quick, tangible results, not a final status deal that would put all Israel’s eggs in one basket and just, in his estimation, lead to yet another bloody deadlock. Rather, he argued, you need to change the geopolitics of the conflict and get a momentum for change.
Have a Palestinian state established, declared and recognized before striking a peace deal. Evacuate Jews from the West Bank, dismantle 100,000 settlements, put up interim borders. Jerusalem would be divided by ethnic neighborhoods, with each group retaining control of its holy sites. And offer Palestinian refugees settlement and/or compensation. Sounds good to me, but he thinks you need that massive strike to change things on the ground enough so this will be possible.
Next was Dr. Ahmet Tibi, Palestinian member of Knesset, whose talk was equally depressing, but from the Palestinian side. He complained that Arab citizens were called “enemies of the state” if they criticized the state (eg over its attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla).
20% of Israel’s population is Palestinian, but only 6.3% is employed in the public sector, 1.3% Arabs in the Knesset, no Arabs in high decision making positions in ministries. He sees a tense atmosphere in the Knesset and the streets, and sees this government as extremist. Israel is defined as Jewish and democractic. Tibi: “Israel is democratic toward Jews and Jewish towards Arabs.”
Next Prof. Jack Habib, demographer (I won’t summarize here), and then the highlight of the day: together, Hana Swaid, Palestinian member of Knesset, and his friend Shalom Dichter, a Zionist who directs the Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality. They both had interesting, creative things to say, and their interaction was warm and respectful, which in itself gave us hope. Although I won’t go so far as to say we weren’t depressed anymore. Any way you slice the pie, it looks bad.
Swaid belongs to a party based on an Arab-Jewish partnership. 11 of 120 members of Knesset are Arab. All support a 2-state solution, he said. But it has a price tag: Israel must give up occupied territories and dismantle settlements. But the price tag for a 1-state solution might be steeper: given the higher Arab birthrate, after a while it won’t be a Jewish-majority state of Israel anymore.
Swaid supported what Tibi said about Israeli discrimination and negligence toward its Arab population, and it’s emphasis of Jewish over democratic. “We say it’s a mega-Jewish and nano-democratic state.” 50% of Arabs live under the poverty line. Both he and Tibi said there were many bills recently introduced in Knesset that would limit the civil rights of Arab citizens. He also objected to a potential plan by Israel to swap Israeli Arab land for illegal Jewish settlements in any deal. He said that would be treating its Arab citizens like slaves who could be sold with the land.
Swaid: Jerusalem should not be divided; it should remain one city, either capital of both states or of neither. He prefers a 2-state solution, but as the present situation goes on this becomes less and less viable. Some Israelis don’t want a 2-state solution, so they support the illegal settlements, thereby making a solution impossible. (Conflict and opposition between Jews of different types and political positions was also a theme.)
Shalom Dichter pointed out that in any dismantling of the settlements, those settlers will be coming back and will demand a price. This will include the Judaization of the Israeli public sphere and will include systematic discrimination against Israeli Palestinians, perhaps dual citizenship. The only way to preclude this, he suggested, was to build an inclusive form of citizenship beforehand, so it’s not damaged by the effects of a two-state solution.
OK, that’s it for today. Obviously these talks were all quite long and followed by probing and intense discussion with the group, but it’s impossible for me to reconstruct all of that here. I learned an awful lot. And regrettably I became and remain quite pessimistic.
One other theme of interest is that almost every speaker that mentioned Turkey — a good friend to Israel for decades — did so by putting it in the category of ‘Islam as enemy’ along with Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah… There was no sense that anyone understood (or was particularly interested in) the internal intricacies of Islam and politics in Turkey (e.g. see my previous posts on the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident). Israelis seem to categorize people, countries, and groups by whether or not they are friends or enemies. You are one or the other. If you criticize the Israeli state, you can flip from one status to the other in an eye-blink.
My take on what I heard was that this tendency to generalize and evaluate worthiness on moral/religious/racial lines tends to blind Israelis to the nuances that, say, could see a friendship through rocky waters or create an ally or neutralize a former enemy. Instead it results in eternal confrontation.