Jerusalem: The Price Of Despair

In recent weeks, an upsurge in violence in Jerusalem has brought the embattled city back into the headlines. According to Danny Seidemann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem and one of the leading experts on the city, this violence, boiling at a level unseen in Jerusalem since 1967, actually began over a year ago, and it is not just another spoke in the “cycle of violence.”Occupation in Jerusalem

“Usually there’s a tendency to overstate the instability of Jerusalem,” Seidemann said at a meeting of journalists and analysts in Washington this week. “But Jerusalem is normally a far more stable city than its reputation. What we are seeing now are significant developments that go well beyond tomorrow’s headlines.”

Seidemann described a dangerous confluence of factors, with the political stalemate creating an atmosphere of despair in which the conflict, which has always been political, will finally become the religious conflict that many have believed, until now incorrectly, that it is. The current conflict centered on the Temple Mount is only the tip of the iceberg. According to Seidemann, “The entire fabric of this conflict has changed.” Read more at FMEP’s site

Toward A New Two-State Solution

The idea that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead has been repeated so many times in the
past several years that it has taken on the droning sound of a mantra. Yet at the same time, we continue to hear pleas like the one that Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour made as the Security Council was about to reject the Palestinian resolution calling for an end to Israel’s occupation: “Those eager to save the two-state solution must act and cannot continue to make excuses for Israel and to permit, and thus be complicit in, its immoral and illegal behavior.”

So which is it? Must we abandon the two-state solution and think of other formulations or do we desperately need to revitalize and resuscitate the process we’ve been working on since 1993? Perhaps there is a better answer: a completely different approach to the two-state solution. Read more at the Foundation for Middle East Peace

Why Is Netanyahu Targeting Abbas for the Har Nof Massacre?

This past Tuesday saw the latest in a horrifyingly long line of atrocities in Jerusalem. Two armed Palestinians entered a synagogue in the Har 374713108_04a72adb2b_zNof neighborhood, killed five Israeli civilians and wounded six others before police gunned the murderers down. The reactions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders are worth examining.

Hamas, unsurprisingly, praised the murders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, equally unsurprisingly, condemned them unequivocally. In his official statement, Abbas said that he “…condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.”

But this didn’t stop Israeli leaders from continuing their campaign to demonize Abbas, the Palestinian leader who has tried harder, made more compromises and sacrificed more of his own credibility to achieve a two-state solution than any of his predecessors.

“Abbas has intentionally turned the conflict into a religious one between Jews and Muslims, and the systematic incitement he leads against Jews…is the ‘go-ahead’ for these despicable terror attacks,” said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Nov. 18, the day of the attack.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett meanwhile told reporters that “Abbas, one of the biggest terrorists to have arisen from the Palestinian people, bears direct responsibility for the Jewish blood spilt… while we were busy with delusions about the [peace] process… Abbas has declared war on Israel and we must treat that accordingly.”

Not to be outdone by the rivals within his own governing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “This [attack] is a direct result of the incitement lead by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas), incitement that the international community irresponsibly ignores.” He also dismissed Abbas’ condemnation of the attack because Abbas had said: “While we condemn this incident, we also condemn the aggression toward Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places and torching of mosques and churches.” To Netanyahu, such a statement, though demonstrably based on factual Israeli actions and statements, is “incitement.”

Netanyahu didn’t stop there. He accused the Palestinians of “blood libel,” a term that refers to historical incidents where false charges against Jews of ritual murder were invented to incite anti-Jewish violence.

The vast majority of Netanyahu’s venom, and that of the other Israeli leaders was directed at Abbas, despite the shameful way Hamas applauded this heinous crime. There was a touch of irony to that, as on the same day of the attack, the head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency charged with internal security, had declared quite clearly that “[Abbas] is not interested in terror and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table.’”

All of this raises a question: Why is the Israeli right ignoring the low-hanging fruit of Hamas and going full bore at Abbas instead? After all, Hamas praised the attack, and Netanyahu and company could easily have stopped at tainting Abbas with the argument that he was in partnership with the Islamists via the unity government. Instead, the Israelis went much farther, to the point of virtually ignoring Hamas and the other Palestinian factions who voiced support for the attack.

The explanation for this behavior involves both the long-term and the short-term. In the short run, this is all part of Netanyahu’s broader public relations campaign linking Iran, Hamas, the Islamic State and now the Palestinian Authority. This campaign has several goals: to make it politically impossible for the United States to work with Iran against Islamic State (ISIS or IS), to make a deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries more difficult, to forestall any further international scrutiny of the siege of the Gaza Strip and to legitimize harsher Israeli measures in Jerusalem, among other goals.

On most counts, the strategy is failing, with the usual exception that Israeli actions in Gaza and Jerusalem are being downplayed, although not totally ignored. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is having more of an effect toward his long-term goal.

The endless refrain of “Iran is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas” is designed to use the universally despised Islamic State to further de-legitimize Iran and the Palestinians. The reasons for this are obvious: to paint both Hamas and Iran as such implacable enemies that Israel would be justified in any action taken against them. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric is gradually broadening its scope of Palestinian targets. By blaming incitement from Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the recent attack in Jerusalem, and by repeatedly pointing out that the PA is now run by a unity government (however dysfunctional) that includes Hamas, Netanyahu is, in effect, subtly folding the PA into the “Hamas-ISIS-Iran” equation.

The strategy is working in Netanyahu’s target areas: Israelis at home and Israel’s supporters abroad, and Washington. After the synagogue murders in Jerusalem, John Kerry sounded just like Netanyahu when he blamed Palestinian incitement, clearly including the PA, for the attack. He was followed by a slew of Congress members from both parties, some of whom singled out Abbas by name.

This is part of the Israeli right’s “solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It begins with rolling back the arrangements under the Oslo Accords. The vision is something similar to what existed before the Accords were signed in 1993. Israel would have full security control in the West Bank, and the PA would be reduced to an administrative body in the increasingly isolated Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Freedom of movement for Palestinians would be increased in the hope that their economic conditions would improve (possibly through increased Palestinian employment in Israeli businesses) and that this would be enough, with increased Israeli security, to maintain relative calm.

This is a shared vision among Netanyahu, Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, and numerous other right-wing figures in Israel, even though they each present it differently. It was sketched out in broad terms in the Israeli media recently. Another prize in the arrangement for Israel is that it would diminish the PA as the international representative of the Palestinians, thus blunting the gains the Palestinians have gotten through various international recognitions of their statehood. The PA would still exist, but it would be disconnected from the Palestinian street in the Occupied Territories. This would, indeed, resemble the pre-Oslo era.

Even if Netanyahu is ousted from the Prime Minister’s office in the near future (not likely, but possible given the current political waves in Israel), another right-wing leader would certainly be his successor. Thus, the rollback of Oslo would continue, as would the freeze in the peace process. And without a visible representative Palestinian leadership, international pressure for peace would diminish, simply because there won’t be anyone to press Israel to talk to (the United States, Europe and even the United Nations will not, in any foreseeable future, push Israel to talk with Hamas).

The Israeli right believes that this is a status quo that could be maintained indefinitely, with the occasional flare-up of violence with Gaza and sporadic, but disorganized attacks by individual Palestinians from the West Bank. And since right-wing leaders will be controlling Israel until an opposition that can sway the Israeli public toward a more moderate course coalesces, the vision will be pursued.

But we’re already seeing some of the reasons why this vision is unsustainable. Israeli radicals will continue to agitate for greater Jewish control of the Temple Mount, and any right-wing Israeli government cannot simply ignore them. That will lead to more and more individual acts of violence like the one this week in Jerusalem and the several that preceded it recently.

Perhaps the Israeli right thinks they can handle that as well, and they may be correct. But there is another aspect about the pre-Oslo existence that they may be overlooking.

The separation of the Palestinian masses from the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1980s led to the development of a more grassroots, locally based Palestinian leadership. It was that leadership, not the PLO, which created the first, and by far the more successful, Intifada. Palestinians have been yearning for a new leadership, and a new generation of leaders with popular support would be most welcome among them.

The first intifada was certainly not non-violent, but it relied much more on strikes, protests and civil disobedience than the second one did. Violence was a very minor aspect of it at first, until Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of “breaking the Palestinians’ limbs” increased it. Even so, the non-violent aspects of that uprising remained front and center. It was then that the United States, and soon after, Israel, embraced the idea of peace with the PLO, in order to end the intifada and to blunt and co-opt that new Palestinian leadership.

If such a leadership arose again, it would be impossible to ignore politically, even in Washington and Tel Aviv. But Palestinians need to hope for it, because if the Obama administration is so removed from this issue that it is willing to blame Abbas for acts that he has strongly condemned, then the Oslo rollback-vision will prove successful, and there will be even less pressure on Israel to compromise. But that would also present an opportunity for the new Palestinian leadership to encourage renewed international activism aimed at economically pressuring Israel. And that could bring real change.

There is, however, a very long road between that sort of hope and where we are right now.

The Palestinian Refugee Issue is Not Going to Resolve Itself

When I started getting serious about action on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the associated US foreign policy, I found it imperative to Talbieh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordanconvince people that the Oslo Accords were doomed to fail. There were the obvious critiques of the accords: the lack of any sort of human rights framework, the absence of consequences for failing to abide by conditions or fulfill agreed upon commitments, and the formal recognition of Israel without any mention whatsoever of a potential Palestinian state. But I saw an even bigger obstacle.

Conventional wisdom has it that Jerusalem is the most difficult stumbling block. But I have always maintained that it is the Palestinian refugees that were the most serious obstacle to a negotiated solution.

When various compromises were discussed about Jerusalem, they were always regarded as controversial and difficult to sell. Yet in my experience, people on both sides saw pretty clearly how a compromise could be crafted. Israel was willing, at least in the past, to permit the Islamic Waqf to continue administering the Temple Mount while official sovereignty would belong to both sides–the Old City would be divided and the border of East and West Jerusalem would be part of the agreement on borders more broadly. No one thought this would be easy, of course, but Israel appeared willing to compromise on this issue, in part because it understood that this was not just a Palestinian issue, but one that the entire Muslim population of the world had a stake in. The parameters of an agreement were visible.

When the matter of the Palestinian refugees came up on the other hand, there was a visible disconnect between the sentiments among the Palestinians, both in and outside the Occupied Territories, and the diplomatic framework that was being discussed. Many observers believed that the path forward on the refugees was clearer than that for Jerusalem, even though this was an area that Israel, no matter who was in the prime minister’s office, was going to be a lot less flexible on.

They believed that to be the case because, from available evidence, it seems that Yasser Arafat was assuring the Israelis and Americans that he was prepared to essentially sacrifice the refugees’ right of return settling for some token number returning to Israel while the rest would get some sort of compensation package and some limited option of returning to the presumed Palestinian state. This was, of course, not what he was telling the Palestinian people, to whom he continually pledged that he would not compromise on the right of return.

While many hold Arafat responsible for the disconnect between diplomacy and reality, obviously not without some justification, the real problem was the disinterest that Israeli and US diplomats routinely showed toward the Palestinian people. One need go no further than to read books by key figures such as Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller. While the complexities of Israeli politics were always dealt with in careful detail, the Palestinian side was ignored to such an extent that virtually everything you see in the writings of these and other diplomats of the day about Palestinian opinion was obtained simply by asking the Palestinian leaders. Can anyone imagine Israel being approached that way?

The Palestine Liberation Organization leadership (PLO) under Arafat was neither prepared to hold the difficult national dialogue about possible compromise on the refugee issue nor to admit to their Israeli and US interlocutors that the right of return was as core a national Palestinian value as the land itself and that public sentiment strongly opposed the sort of compromise that Israel had, not without reason, come to expect.

This held true after Arafat’s death and Mahmoud Abbas’ assumption of the leadership. In truth, even Hamas has not specifically spoken about the refugees very often, although that is largely because its agenda, unlike the PLO after the mid-1970s, remained focused on liberating all of Palestine, which would mean the refugees could simply return. The result is that the national conversation on this issue never occurred, and all through the Oslo talks, even if one believed they had any chance of going anywhere, the refugee issue hung over the table like a pendulum with a razor-sharp blade, coming nearer to splitting the table with every passing swing.

The biggest danger was that, in the case of a miracle where Israel and the Palestinians were able to agree on a lasting peace deal, the refugee issue would shatter it. In several incidents, most recently with the revelations contained in the “Palestine Papers,” confirmation of the framework around the refugees caused great concern among Palestinians.

It is not always easy for others, including myself, to fully grasp the importance of the refugee issue to Palestinians. Nor is it fully understood by others how deeply Israeli Jews fear this issue. For the Palestinians, refugees are a deeply personal as well as a national issue. After all, the accepted estimate of the number of Palestinian refugees is approximately five million, and the total global population of Palestinians is eleven million. So, pretty much every Palestinian has refugee relatives, many of them living outside the Palestinian Territories. Families, in other words, have been sundered for 66 years.

Palestine-Refugee-KeyThen there is the reality, often vastly underestimated, of how central the refugees are to Palestinian nationalism. They are as core a value as the land, Jerusalem, anything. The key to the lost home in Palestine is the overriding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, and it is the symbol of the refugee.

This is not to say that some practical and negotiated agreement cannot be reached on the issue. But thus far, that hasn’t been even remotely attempted. Instead, Israel has insisted that the right of return be forfeited and their Western allies have concurred, as have, in a more circumspect fashion, many of the regional Arab leaders, Lebanon being the main exception. That makes the issue even more sensitive, if that is possible, because for most Palestinians, the framework in which the refugees have been discussed is a surrender, and one that they do not believe the PLO leadership has the authority to make (many Palestinians argue that the right of return is an individual as well as a collective right and as such cannot be negotiated away in a collective bargaining framework. There is considerable basis for this argument).

What is needed is a national conversation, and that will take time. The debates need to happen in communities, in coffee shops and in mosques as well as on the internet and in the halls of the Palestinian Authority. Over time, a general consensus of what is and is not going to be tolerable for the majority of Palestinians, including the refugees themselves, will emerge. From there, realistic negotiations on the issue can manifest.

This needs to happen because it is the only way to turn the refugee problem from a poison pill that would almost certainly torpedo any agreement into part of the solution. The Israeli public also needs to know what the Palestinians want from the right of return.

There is no subject that the Israeli Jewish public is more united and rejectionist on than the refugee issue. Outside of the radical anti-Zionist left–a small portion of the population–you will be hard pressed to find an Israeli Jew who would agree to any significant return of refugees. You’ll find it equally difficult to find an Israeli who would acknowledge any right of return. The refugees, you see, touch on the most intimate identity crisis for Israeli Jews: the fact that Israel could have only come into existence by forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out.

This “original sin” is not something that Israelis can simply live with as we in the United States can live with the legacy of slavery and the genocide of the native population here. In the US, we have left too few natives to be worried about any claims to the land, and they are far too disempowered. Slavery is considered a historical shame, but the ongoing issues of racism are largely seen by whites as the legacy of Jim Crow laws (read: apartheid) rather than of slavery. These horrific crimes are regarded by most of the white US as history, however sordid.

Israeli Jews cannot do that. No doubt, the leaders of the Zionist movement in the 1940s believed that, by now, the Palestinians would have resettled in various Arab countries and that Israel could make peace with that past in a similar way to the United States. But that view did not take into account the fact that Palestinians were going to be in refugee camps nearby, would refuse to assimilate (or be barred from it) into the countries they fled to, and would maintain a sense of national identity that kept them–much like Jews throughout the centuries–as strangers in strange lands.

The reality of the Palestinian exodus from Palestine from 1947-49 was largely known in Israel all along. In the late 1980s, Israel’s “New Historians” produced controversial, but generally accurate tomes documenting that the Palestinians did not leave of their own volition or in response to broadcasts from Arab leaders telling them to do so. They either fled or were very frequently driven from their homes.

Many Israelis are aware of all this. But, as with most nations, the people of Israel want desperately to believe in the righteousness of their country’s creation. Moreover, there is enormous fear of what the world would think if this history became more commonly known, especially in the United States and other friendly Western countries where, among supporters of Israel, this history is largely unknown or papered over with some rather incredible myths (e.g., the Palestinians of 1948–all 800,000 and more of them–just picked up and left). Even acknowledging the Palestinian right of return threatens this, creating a situation where history, even when known, produces a visceral discomfort and threatens the Jewish self-image of a just and decent people trying to finally create a home for ourselves.

By itself, that could be overcome. But for Israelis, that sensitivity is piled on top of a fear of Palestinian return that borders on hysteria. And this fear is greatly exacerbated by the lack of clarity about Palestinians’ ambitions regarding the right of return. Israeli Jews treasure, more than anything else, having a homeland where they are the majority. Having such a homeland is also very important to many Jews living in the diaspora. That importance is every bit as strong as worldwide Muslim concern over the fate of Jerusalem.

Israelis are desperately afraid that if they cease blocking the right of return, even to the extent of merely acknowledging the existence of such a right, there would be a massive influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel, which would ultimately make Jews a distinct minority. True, many argue, Jews are doing pretty well as a minority in many countries; but many countries in the world are completely bereft of any Jewish population, especially in the Arab world. And, while they won’t name it, Jews also have the same visceral fear of Palestinians that white South Africans, whites in the US and in other places have had of those they oppressed: the fear that anger over those years of oppression will result in yet another incident of Jewish persecution.

It’s easy for me to say that the fear is born only out of prejudice and misplaced feelings, that the truly hateful among the Palestinians, like the truly hateful among the Jewish Israelis can be dealt with much more efficiently when Palestinian grievances, so long left to boil, are finally addressed. But for most Israelis and Jews in many other places, they look at the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, places where the cycle of oppression kept spinning with death greasing the wheel. Given Jewish history, it’s an understandable fear.

But it’s also a fear that must be dealt with, not pandered to. When Arafat convinced Israelis that the PLO had backed off liberating all of Palestine and would settle for the lands Israel conquered in 1967, it made a big difference in Israeli perceptions of Palestinians. Even in the toxic atmosphere of 2014, such clarity from the Palestinians on refugees would have a similar effect. This would be true even if the Palestinians’ stance turns out to be (as I believe it would if the popular will was reflected) that each and every refugee should be offered the options of return, return to a Palestinian state (if a two-state solution is ever reached) or compensation, and it is up to each to choose for her or himself. At least Israel would know what the bargaining position is.

The International Crisis Group undertook what I consider to be the first serious effort at finally taking the veil off this critical issue by releasing a report entitled, “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question,” on Oct. 9. It is a serious and pragmatic analysis of what Palestinian leaders and people can do to begin to bring this question out of the shadows and, crucially, to the center of diplomatic efforts. The recommendations include renewing and revitalizing local leadership councils in refugee camps, improving conditions for refugees as well as supporting refugees in building lives wherever they are without worrying that they are sacrificing their claims as refugees, and beginning the sort of national dialogue I have been discussing.

Now is the perfect time for such efforts, although Israel and the United States will oppose them. Even Abbas has realized that his old strategy has failed and he needs a new one. Refugees, long marginalized, have an opportunity to raise their voice and have it impact Palestinian negotiators in the future. And, despite the fact that Israelis would be vexed by such a development, it is an absolute necessity if there is ever to be a resolution to this conflict, be it one state, two state or whatever else.

This strategy will be uncomfortable for the Palestinian Authority. But it must materialize for the region to move towards substantive rather than illusionary visions of peace. We must hope that good sense can overcome fear.

Changing Course: Mahmoud Abbas At The UNGA

Reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly today was swift and sharp. One of the most incisive

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Israeli columnists, Chemi Shalev of Ha’aretz, broke it down very well. He considered Abbas’ speech to be a welcome gift to the Israeli right. And I agree with him. But that’s not really the point.

Abbas has often used the UN podium as a way to be more direct and combative than he usually is regarding Israel, de-emphasizing the “partner for peace” charade and instead being more of an advocate for and leader of the Palestinian cause. But this time, he really turned up the heat. His reference to the attack on Gaza as “genocide” was calculated to play very well in Ramallah and Gaza City, and he willingly sacrificed the rest of the world’s approval. Continue reading