Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Liberal Disenchantment With Israeli Policy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues his game-playing on the Palestinian question by trying to have his cake and eat it too. It is patently obvious that Israel, under its present government anyway, has no intention of seriously negotiating any of the outstanding issues that stand in the way of peace including the Jerusalem question.

Last month the Obama Administration attempted to jump start peace negotiations by obtaining a concession from Israel that might get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, and with that objective in mind, Vice President Biden went to Israel to meet with Mr. Netanyahu to discuss the settlements issue in East Jerusalem. While Mr. Biden was in Israel the Israeli government publicly rebuffed him by announcing additional settlements to be built in East Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly stated (in the style of Ariel Sharon before him) that he has no intention of giving up any part of Jerusalem and he continues to insist that all of Jerusalem is now and shall remain forever Israel's undivided capital city. The ultimate status of Jerusalem is one of the issues in contention that is to be the subject of negotiations between the parties, so the announcement by Israel of continuing the controversial settlements policy seems to have been calculated to upset the Palestinians and discourage them from coming back to the negotiating table, and the snub to Mr. Biden also had to be a calculated attempt to see if Israel could continue to push back on the U.S. and get President Obama to back off his criticism of the settlements.

So after the public humiliation of the Vice President and a refusal to apologize for the affront, the U.S. made light of the public insult [either through weakness and fear of the Jewish lobby, or by a calculated decision to take the high road] and proposed sending George Mitchell, the special envoy on Mid-East peace, back to Israel and Palestine to hold separate talks with the parties. Enter now Mr. Netanyahu, with a proposal for a Palestinian state with “temporary borders”—an approach previously rejected by the Palestinians, once again making Mr. Netanyahu appear to be giving up something that he knows the other side will reject. [See April 23 Reuters article carried in the Washington Post.] Just today as I was writing this paragraph [April 25] Mr. Netanyahu announced that he was “temporarily” suspending new construction in East Jerusalem, despite opposition by his party and the threat by some in his coalition to bring down the government.

For those having trouble keeping up with the machinations on this 50-year old unsettled conflict, every few years there are negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians brokered by the United States. The negotiations break down because neither side really wants to give up anything it believes is important because any concession tends to weaken the political standing of the negotiators who do not get more than they give. Each side then pressures the other, the Israelis by closing down trade, limiting travel, and general harassment of the Palestinians, and the Palestinians respond with rock-throwing at Israeli troops and occasional Katusha rockets launched from within the Palestinian territory, some of which actually reach Israel and cause minor damage. The attacks serve each side as an excuse to escalate and so it goes. The extremists in Israel do not want to concede territory and do not want a Palestinian state. The extremists among the Palestinians, particular Hamas and Hezbollah, want Palestinian land back and do not want to have to concede that the land taken from the Palestinians for the new State of Israel is permanently lost, a position that leads them to call for the destruction of Israel. The extremists on both sides know how to wreak enough trouble to keep the peace process from moving forward. The result: stalemate.

After the last intifada, the Israelis launched a brutal, indiscriminate and devastating attack into the Palestinian territories that clearly went beyond reasonable retaliation. Israel's friends were embarrassed and appalled at the attack. The UN launched an investigation under Justice Richard Goldstone, an eminent jurist, a Jew, a supporter of Israel and a Zionist. The Goldstone Report was lengthy, exhaustive and detailed, despite the fact that Israel refused to cooperate in the investigation and arrogantly questioned the motives of anyone who questioned Israel's honorable actions, their conduct or their intentions.

We now learn, through an extensive article by Chris Hedges in Truthdig [Israel Crackdown Puts Liberal Jews on the Spot] that, in the words of Mr. Hedges,

“The Israeli government ... has implemented a series of draconian measures to silence and discredit dissidents, leading intellectuals and human rights organizations inside and outside Israel that are accused—often falsely—of assisting Goldstone’s U.N. investigators. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to shut down Israel’s premier human rights organizations, including B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund (NIF) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It is busy expelling or excluding peace activists and foreign nationals from the Palestinian territories....”

“The campaign against Israeli dissidents has taken the form of venomous denunciations of activists and jurists, including Justice Goldstone. It includes a bill before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, which will make it possible to imprison the leaders of Israeli human rights groups if they fail to comply with crippling new registration conditions. Human rights activists from outside Israel who work in the Palestinian territories are being rounded up and deported. The government is refusing to issue work visas to employees of 150 NGOs operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The new tourist visas effectively bar these employees from Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation.... Im Tirzu, the front organization behind many of the attacks, includes among its financial backers the John Hagee Ministries and the New York Central Fund, which also support extremist settler organizations...."

“The Knesset bill, if passed, will force human rights groups to register as political bodies and turn over identification numbers and addresses of all members to the government. These groups will lose their tax-exempt status. Most governmental organizations, such as the European Union, which is a large donor to Israeli human rights organizations, cannot legally pay taxes to another government, and the new law will effectively end European Union and other outside funding. The groups will be mandated to provide the government with the records of all foreign donations and account for how these donations were spent. Any public statement, event or speech, even if it lasts half a minute, by these groups must include a declaration that they are being supported and funded by a foreign power. Those who fail to follow these guidelines, including local volunteers, can face a year in jail....”
There is no rational basis to justify these attempts to shut down criticism and deny freedom of political speech. These extreme measures show how deadly serious the current Israeli government is about stifling criticism and the extent to which they will go to silence those who speak for values of freedom and truth. The article is powerfully written and readers are encouraged to read for themselves the trouble and second guessing these government actions are generating among those who would ordinarily have been inclined to be sympathetic to Israel. It is often true that we become the enemy, and Israel surely must begin to take a look at itself and see what it is becoming and whether it likes what it sees. More important for the U.S, we must begin to see the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the harsh glare of reality and begin to ease ourselves away from uncritical support of whatever Israel does. It is long past the days when Israel can continue to gain international support by merely mentioning the Holocaust and playing on the guilt of the world. American interests are not tied to Israel and American policy cannot afford to ignore our country's national interests only to be held captive to the interests of Israel.

It is apparent that many Americans do not understand the Palestinian issue. There are many reasons for this. The events that started this conflict occurred at the end of World War 2 and most Americans were not yet alive or not old enough to remember the early history of this conflict, and that includes most reporters who cover the continuing story. American attitudes have been honed by our affinity for the underdog and carefully developed by Jewish organizations and by friends of Israel in the United States, including a number of dual Israeli-US citizens who serve in our government. Religious Israelis argue that the land of Israel is the same as biblical Israel and that god has given them this land, an argument that resonates with Christian fundamentalists but fails to acknowledge the Muslim interest in Jerusalem as sacred to its past just as it is to Jews and Christians. The frustration of the Palestinians at their treatment by Israel and their failure to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, the failure to understand the root issues of Palestinian anger, the attacks on the Palestinians by Israel that are characterized without challenge as “defensive strategies,” and the unwillingness of the U.S. to criticize Israel and end massive military and social services funding for Israel, are the root causes of the Palestinian acts of terrorism against Israel and hatred of the U.S. by Muslims throughout the world who see the United States as an enemy because of our uncritical support of Israel.

A quick refresher on the history of this conflict–After the War, Palestinians who owned homes and businesses in Palestine were displaced, many moving into large refugee camps to make a place for the Jews of Europe, who were encouraged by the Zionists to emigrate to Israel. They were supposed to be compensated, but they weren’t. Israel declared itself an independent nation. A series of wars occurred between Israel and displaced Palestinians supported by neighboring Muslim states, who intended to regain control of Palestinian land and abolish the new state of Israel. The Israelis won the war and decided to keep the land they took from their neighbors, now called the “occupied territories.” Israel controlled this land surrounding their fledgling nation and began to move new settlers there, taking homes from Palestinians and forcing more Palestinians to lose their homes. The Israelis had captured east Jerusalem in the war and subsequently declared all of Jerusalem was Israeli territory and Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. Other nations, including the US, do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. However under their view that all of Jerusalem was Israeli territory, despite international law to the contrary, and despite repeated UN Resolutions, the Israelis have continued to build houses for Jews and are forcing more and more Muslims from their homes in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want their lands and homes back and they are doing it in the only way they can–by fighting the Israelis. They see themselves as freedom fighters. But Israel is very vicious in its retaliatory offensives against Palestinians and thinks it can justify revenge attacks by calling what they are doing “defending Israel.”

Without recognizing the root cause of Palestinian and Muslim anger and frustration and finding a way to resolve those underlying issues it will not be possible to resolve the Arab-Palestinian problem. This is NOT an anti-Israel or pro-Arab conclusion; it is merely a statement of the underlying issues that seem to have become lost in the Israeli attempts to characterize the standoff as Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism. There is a reason for the terrorism that the current discussions ignore. Whether or not the Palestinians are patriotic freedom fighters trying to recover their land from an outside conqueror or terrorists, seems to be a matter of perspective on which side's argument one is inclined to believe has the most merit.

Because humanists do not have a religious bias for or against the parties on underlying religious grounds, they may be able to see the issues more clearly. Unfortunately given the political realities and the intransigence of the parties that may not help resolve the problem.

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