Prospects for Peace: Obama’s Last Stand and Opportunities in the New Administration

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon of Churches for Middle East Peace hosts Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now and myself for this discussion about the end of the Obama era and the prospects of a Trump administration for Israel and Palestine.

Across the Spectrum: Responses to Im Tirtzu’s Inflammatory Video

Recently, the right wing Israeli group Im Tirtzu created a highly inflammatory video singling out leaders of four leading Israeli human rights groups as “plants” by foreign powers seeking to undermine the State of Israel and supporting terror attacks. The video has been widely condemned as incitement to violence against these individuals and their organizations. The Foundation for Middle East Peace quickly moved to support our Israeli colleagues, as did many other organizations.

Still from Im Tirtzu’s video showing mock “files” on Israeli human rights leaders

Still from Im Tirtzu’s video showing mock “files” on Israeli human rights leaders

The groups – B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Hamoked, and the Public Committee Against Torture In Israel – are among the many peace and human rights NGOs that are increasingly targeted by hateful rhetoric and even by anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, much of which has been spurred by Im Tirtzu and their allies in the Likud and Jewish Home parties, the two largest parties in Israel’s governing coalition.

Defenses of these human rights workers and condemnations of Im Tirtzu have come not only from the Israeli left and its supporters, but also from key officials in the Israeli government, military and intelligence communities. Read more at “Facts on the Ground,” FMEP’s blog

Let’s Take A Deep Breath on BDS

Yair Lapid, Israel’s former Finance Minister, told a hawkish “pro-Israel” gathering in New York that the leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) are anti-Semites and their followers are “bleeding heart, so-called intellectuals.” Lapid went on to say that European citizens and American students “…are cheering for the people and values that brought 9/11 to this country. You are supporting people that kill gays and suppress women.”

Mutual Demonization

Lapid is far from alone in elevating the movement to a threat on par with Israeli descriptions of Iran. Whether it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placing a high-ranking Likud Member of the Knesset in charge of battling BDS or grandstanding on the issue by prominent members of Congress, the “threat” of BDS has never seemed greater.

The hyperbole around the issue has never been greater either. All of it is transparently overblown to anyone who actually knows the various players in this game. The BDS movement is not made up, as Netanyahu’s Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked stated, of radical Islamists, anti-Semites and naïve fellow travelers.

I have known many BDS leaders for many years, as I have also known many of my fellow two-state supporters. I understand their motivations. I disagree often with BDS leaders, but I have never known most of them to wish for violence of any kind, express support for al-Qaeda or ISIL, or express animosity towards Jews as Jews. Many of these folks are, indeed, anti-Zionists, and support a single democratic state in all of what they call “historic Palestine.” I disagree with them on that point, but my disagreement does not mean they hate me, or I them.

That doesn’t mean there are no anti-Semites in the BDS movement. Any pro-Palestinian movement is naturally going to attract those who wish to hide their anti-Semitic agenda under a more acceptable cloak. This small minority within their ranks does not define them.

Unintended Consequences

Israelis, and too many of its supporters, continue to bury their head in the sand about Israel’s diminishing standing in the world. The blame is on Palestinian public relations, the reach of the BDS movement, global anti-Semitism, or their own failure to adequately explain their position to the world. The one thing it never is, according to the Netanyahu government and too many “pro-Israel” groups around the world is Israeli policy.

Part of avoiding the policy debate is presenting Israel as a country constantly facing imminent destruction. While Israel faces very real threats to its citizens, it has not faced an existential threat in a very long time. Iran has never been that, as many Israeli security experts have confirmed. If a deal limiting its nuclear program is finalized, the world is unlikely to buy Israeli complaints that Iran could ever “wipe Israel off the map.” So, BDS is being primed for the role of menacing villain.

For their part, the BDS movement seems to be feeding eagerly on Israeli public relations. Despite having had no discernible impact on Israel’s economy or its determination to maintain its occupation, they are trumpeting their success.

One can understand this, of course. Bibi needs the perception of an existential threat to bolster his politics of fear, while the BDS movement, a grassroots movement with little financial backing, needs to demonstrate its own effectiveness. These tactics, however, are damaging hopes of progress toward a resolution of this vexing conflict.

By avoiding moves to end its 48-year old occupation and exaggerating the BDS threat, Israel is actually proving that only substantive pressure will convince it to end the occupation. This is a point on which the BDS movement and I agree; I have argued for decades that the biggest obstacle to ending the occupation is that Israel, in this regard a country like any other, is expected to take what it perceives as a huge risk without any pressure. The occupation’s costs are largely covered by the European Union, United States and some Arab states, and despite the terrorist attacks Israel still occasionally endures, almost exclusively in the form of sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, the Palestinians have few means to pressure Israel. This is the logic behind the PLO’s international campaign, which must be understood as distinct from BDS.

Israel is running other risks as well. By conflating so many actors and actions with BDS tactics and movements, it risks galvanizing a much harsher opposition than it has seen in the past. Domestically, this false image of BDS is already being used to push the right wing’s assault on democracy even further, while reinforcing the Israeli sense that the “whole world is against us.”

The Effect of BDS

The fact is that any effect BDS has had on Israel’s economy is imperceptible. The economic issues Israel faces have no connection to any drop in exports or loss of investment. That does not mean it never will, but it does mean that the hysteria about BDS is way out of proportion with its impact to date. So, we are left with the most right-wing government in Israeli history governing a country whose citizens, even the majority that still supports a two-state solution, believe that ending the occupation carries major security risks. That is a country that will not change its policies absent significant pressure.

If we accept that self-evident fact, we confront the fact that many people and groups who do not wish to be associated with the BDS movement, its leadership and some of its specific goals have for years avoided any sort of organized economic action against Israel’s occupation. While one can hardly blame the BDS movement for this (in no way have they acted to prevent more moderate groups from taking actions aimed strictly at the occupation), it is an unintended consequence of their activities.

Netanyahu has taken full advantage of the political void this opens up. When the European Union wants to enforce existing laws that distinguish between products made in Israel and those from the settlements, it is considered a “sanction” against Israel; i.e. the “S” in BDS. As a result, liberal Zionist, centrist and many progressive groups avoid any hint of economic action against the occupation.

Groups like Americans for Peace Now (APN), one of the very few who are standing up to call for boycotting settlement products, are not getting the support they need. Yet the few instances of divestment or refusal to do business in the West Bank (most of which were not attributed to the BDS movement by the organizations that took such actions, some of whom even explicitly stated that they were not acting as part of that movement) have all been firmly rooted in opposition to the occupation. They have not been connected to the other conditions of the BDS movement’s call to action, regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The Need for Economic Action

It is unfair, however, to expect the BDS movement to abandon its tactics because they are being used to scare more moderate peace groups away from action. Instead, it is the responsibility of moderates, two-state solution supporters and those who support Israel but loathe the occupation to stand up for our beliefs. Let the BDS movement do what it is doing. If you are really worried that BDS will “de-legitimize” Israel with rhetoric, then counter it with a principled, pro-Israel stand for Palestinian rights and statehood and an end to the occupation.

The distinction that Netanyahu and his cohorts in AIPAC and in Congress are trying to blur must be sharpened instead. The settlements are not Israel. They are an immoral and illegal enterprise that should not be supported — through tax dollars, investment or purchases. From such a position, classifying corporations that are profiting from the occupation, especially American ones as “socially irresponsible” can be supported on a pro-Israel basis. From that position, groups can stand up for Israel and support Israelis who are working to end the occupation, and combat the discrimination against Arabs that has become so bitter in recent years.

That is also a pro-Israel position from which Americans can demand that our government name the settlements the illegal enterprise they are, and treat them accordingly. It is a position from which one can promote a secure Israel within the Green Line that can, at long last, find some peace in that tumultuous region. It just has to stop denying millions of Palestinians their basic rights and any hope for the future. That, not Netanyahu’s demagoguery, is truly pro-Israel.

Elliott Abrams’ Shell Game on Settlements

The shell game is a tried-and-true method of persuading people to give their money to the person running the game. Abrams-Elliott-620x350In political terms, it’s also a reliable method of persuading people to buy into the political stance of the man running the game.

Elliott Abrams is a master of the shell game. He provides what seems like a serious and sober analysis, with just enough cherry-picking of facts and omission of detail to convince you of his point of view. That is a big reason why this man, who is responsible for some of the greatest foreign policy fiascos in American history, continues to be considered a legitimate source for foreign policy analysis.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. Despite the enormous catastrophes brought on by the neoconservative school of thought of which Abrams is a part, the philosophy, such as it is, continues to be an influential voice in the foreign policy debate in the United States. This is, however, even more reason to look at an apparent change of course from Abrams with a skeptical eye.

The Reversal that Isn’t

That so-called change of course came in an article last week in Foreign Affairs where Abrams seemed to admit that settlements were indeed an obstacle to reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

For Abrams, the growth of major settlement blocs where the vast majority of Israeli building in the West Bank has occurred under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s watch is not an impediment to a negotiated solution between Israel and the Palestinians. However, he argues, growth outside those major blocs is. To some, this is a major reversal of Abrams’ long-held position on settlements.

That’s what we’re meant to think. It certainly took in Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism. In an op-ed in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, Yoffie opines that

After admitting that it is ‘remarkably difficult to discern what is going on outside the blocs,’ Abrams states that according to his most recent calculations, there were 73,000 settlers living outside the security fence in 2009 and 93,000 in 2015. If the new Netanyahu government continues to settle at this rate, there will be 115,000 settlers outside the blocs by the end of the government’s term. The implications of this growth, Abrams writes, is (sic) that it will be exceedingly difficult and costly to make a two-state solution happen under these circumstances.

Actually, this is nothing new from Abrams. Over a decade ago, he was a driving force behind the letter George W. Bush sent to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which spoke of the need to adjust the 1967 borders to accommodate “demographic realities” since that fateful year. The result was that Israel felt free to build in the so-called “major settlement blocs.”

That has become an accepted reality in Jerusalem and Washington. In Ramallah, though, not so much.

Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, and one of the leading experts on settlements, clarified the evolving debate:

The greatest threat on the ground to the two-state solution is construction in the so-called blocs. ’So-called’ because they have never been formally delineated. This has allowed them to be defined according to the ever-evolving whims of settler apologists and advocates (including Abrams), to become ever-expanding to the point where they encompass so much of the West Bank—and in key areas, especially around Jerusalem—that if we go with the “everybody knows” argument (i.e. that there is a basic understanding that Israel will keep these blocs in an eventual peace agreement) that Abrams favors, the two-state solution is already effectively dead.

Why?  Because no Palestinian leader ever will sign (or should be expected to sign) an agreement that leaves Israel in control of “blocs” of the West Bank that leave behind an only nominally contiguous state. The reality on the ground is that the Maale Adumim bloc reaches to the edge of the Jordan Valley; the Etzion bloc south nearly to Hebron and East to the Jordan Valley ridge; Givat Zeev reaches the outskirts of Ramallah; the Ariel and Kedumim blocs reach more than halfway to the Jordan border; and the new “Beit El” blocs is east of Ramallah.

Friedman is quite correct. The idea that these settlements would remain in Israel’s hands was always problematic. But when Ehud Barak first broached this idea, during the Camp David II talks in 2000, those settlements were also much smaller than they are today. Every settlement or bloc also has an area around it that is much larger than the built-up settlement itself and considered that settlement’s land. That area expands outward as the settlement does.

As B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights group, puts it:

The radical changes Israel has made to the map of the West Bank preclude any real possibility of establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state as part of the fulfillment of the right to self-determination. The settlements have been allocated vast areas, far exceeding their built-up sections. These areas have been declared closed military zones by military orders and are off limits to Palestinians, except by special permit. In contrast, Israeli citizens, Jews from anywhere in the world and tourists may all freely enter these areas.

Two States Versus One

The situation Friedman describes is hardly unknown to Abrams. It was his idea, after all, for the United States to send Israel a message that it could build all it wants to in the major settlement blocs. His so-called “concern” over the settlements outside the major blocs is a red herring. The real problem, as Abrams well knows, is the fact that, over 15 years after the idea of two states where the bulk of the settlements would remain in Israeli hands, expansion of those blocs has made this incompatible with a Palestinian state.

That doesn’t mean that something can’t be worked out. There are many other options for a two-state solution than the stale ideas of decades ago that no longer match the realities on the ground. But let’s not kid ourselves about what we’re up against if we want to make that idea a reality. The right, and especially the neoconservative right, is not waking up to the error of its ways. On the contrary, what Abrams’ article demonstrates, if one looks beneath the sheep’s clothing he draped over it, is that those same wolves that have thwarted peace efforts until now are today mapping out the one-state future they have been driving at for decades.

Yoffie expressed the hope that if someone like Abrams could change his position, it might influence Benjamin Netanyahu. But Abrams has not changed, and there remains no reason for Netanyahu to do so either. Bibi may not be the most popular guy in foreign capitals, or even in Israel. But he just won his fourth election to be prime minister of Israel. He knows what got him there, and it wasn’t making concessions or giving a damn about the rights of Palestinians or the security that peace could bring to Israel. And Elliott Abrams will still be in his corner.

Americans for Peace Now: Statement on PCUSA Divestment

In this case, I felt APN’s statement captured a realistic, nuanced and reasoned view so well, I thought it appropriate to reprint it APNhere in full. The original can be found here.


June 23, 2014

APN Statement on PC (USA) Divestment Decision

Washington, DC – Following the decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three U.S. companies whose products, they argue, are used to support Israeli occupation, Americans for Peace Now today issued the following statement: Continue reading