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The tragedy of the past decade, the tentative hope of the next.
I was 11 years old, and it was my first time back to Israel since my family had left, when I was five. We decided to visit the Wall, and I remember, clearly, being surprised by how many soldiers there were, by the flood of olive green around the ancient, cool sandstone. I asked my parents about the soldiers and they shrugged and responded, “That’s just how it is in Israel.” It was 11:00 in the morning, and the date was September 28th, 2000. It was the day I began to be conscious of the political reality that gripped my birthplace, and it was also the day that the Second Intifada began. I began my personal struggle to understand and make sense of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians in what was arguably the worst decade in the history of the conflict. True, they have all been pretty bad, but what made this past decade so painful was that it followed the 1990s, its glow of optimism and potential and hope shattered by violence- and not only violence, but violence laced with despair. But, that confusing September day at the Wall prompted me to begin to learn more, and to care more, my hopes for peace were born right about when much of the world’s died.
The past decade was marred by the blood and brutality of military raids and suicide bombs, by men with guns and murdered infants, by hopelessness and fury. The past decade was torn by war: war with the Palestinians, war with Hizballah, threats of war with Syria and talks of war with Iran, seemingly incessant war culminating in the horrors of the Gaza crisis, one year ago. The past decade was one of desperate half-fixes, of incomplete withdrawals, of separation barriers, and of flawed reliance on the fake panacea of democratic elections. The past decade was one of international polarization, of increased talking and decreased listening, of formulas of right and wrong, at fault and blameless. The past decade was one of American complacency, of Israeli repression, of Palestinian radicalization. The past decade was one of misery and of tragedy. And yet I refuse to believe that “That’s just how it is in Israel.” Or in Palestine. Or in our world.
We must enter this new decade not swaddled in nearly giddy hope, as many were at the beginning of the past decade, but rather cautiously hopeful, tentatively optimistic. Allow me, in a burst of such tentative optimism, to paint a picture of the potential the next decade- and indeed the next year- holds. Obama and Mitchell are preparing for a new, revised and strengthened effort to get the process moving in January. Bibi Netanyahu, to the surprise of many, seems somewhat serious about making peace. Moreover, [speaking very optimistically,] talks between Hamas and Israel over the release of Gilad Shalit could progress, and lead to a landslide of potential: Gilad would be released in exchange for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. With his release, the Israeli government would lose their central rationale for the morally odious and strategically blind blockade of Gaza. (1138809.html) Moreover, chances are high that Marwan Barghouti would likely be released as one of the Palestinian prisoners. A reformed revolutionary with immense Palestinian street cred, there is a high chance he would take the reigns of the faltering Fatah. Barghouti also has a better shot than perhaps any Palestinian leader at forging a unity government between Hamas and Fatah- and only with such a unity government could Hamas be brought into the process as a negotiating party, and not a deal-breaker. Avigdor Lieberman, arguably the most internationally loathed figure in the Israeli ruling coalition today, is currently on trial for complex corruption charges: his removal would be have an impact both symbolically and politically, as he is the beating heart of his rightist, nationalist party. Negotiations with Syria, under already existent frameworks, could lead to peace between the two countries, and shift the dynamics of the region greatly. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process could get back underway, and perhaps this is the decade in which the dream of an independent Palestine and a safe, non-occupying Israel could finally be realized.
The aforementioned laundry list of positive potential, as a whole, is not staggeringly likely, but all of the developments mentioned are within the realm of possible, and the main point is that there is positive potential in the region for the new decade. If you are interested in learning more about this potential, or about the immense problems in its way, or simply continuing the conversation about the issues affecting Israel and Palestine, we are starting a new group on campus, J Street Middlebury. The group’s primary goal will be focused and sustained education, through meetings, an email list, programming, student and faculty presentations and discussion. Email me if you would like to join (firstname.lastname@example.org) and help shape this new group, the discussion on this campus, and perhaps the region itself.
Let nation not lift up sword against nation, may we learn war no more. Happy New Year, and may this decade be better and more peaceful than the last.
Addendum: I just discovered that on January 1st, the op-ed I wrote entitled “I am a Zionist,” was article.php?id=22400&ref=search.php published on the official English language website of the Muslim Brotherhood. How’s that for breaking expectations to start off a new decade?
An excellent piece by Gershom Gorenberg on the question, in which he posits that the future of peace negotiations will in many ways determine our read on the past.
Interesting thought, right? Read Bradley Burston (my boy) on the subject: It’s a stretch, but there are some very valuable thoughts embedded in the op-ed: 1133342.html
However, the Golan and (obviously) Jerusalem, are going to be more complicated (The Knesset just approved the first stage of a bill that would require a national referendum to pullout of East J’lem and the Golan: 2009129132730663827.html
So, public opinion is going to matter a lot, and if we get closer, J Street and co. are going to need to kick up the ‘convincing’ strategy.
Anyway, neither Syria nor Golan activists have responded with particular fervor: Satellite?cid=1260181033196&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
The Golan is a complicated issue, and has a different status in the greater Israeli consciousness than the rest of the Occupied Territories, due both to its huge strategic and security relevance, and its less “occupation-y” of occupation.
The idea of a pullout from the Goland is not popular among Israelis, but to give an idea of what I think needs to happen, I will quote from a paper I wrote last year:
The central point in negotiations between Syria and Israel was, is and will remain the status of the Golan Heights. Resolution of the status of the Palestinians is also indubitably a critical issue for the Syrian side, but it is not a sine qua non for a peace treaty with Israel…
al-Asad, promulgating his father’s Israel policies and thus a quest for regaining Syria’s honor, will accept nothing less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights…
[However] it is quite obvious that there will be no peace with Syria unless Israeli security concerns are addressed, which could then result in a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. And despite its reservations, Israel seems to recognize that reality. This recognition was epitomized by the formerly right-wing former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in an interview with Israeli Newspaper Yediot Achronot: “I’d like to know if there’s a serious person in the state of Israel who believes that we can make peace with the Syrians without, in the end, giving up the Golan Heights.” Moreover, negotiations have reached points in the past -despite Israeli qualms and Syrian stubbornness- in which there existed a “considerable overlap of positions,” (Hinnebusch, page 52).
I am disappointed, I truly am. I agree with you that it is time for the Obama administration to make certain changes to their approach on bringing peace to the Middle East, but to give up? In your opinion, we are watching the rerun of the same tired story, wasting efforts on two peoples so obsessed with conflict that our struggle is bound to be futile. Mr. Friedman, I hope you will forgive me when I say that you are wrong. This is not the same tired story: this is the beginning of a new story. When in history has an American president made the amelioration of the Israeli-Arab conflict a priority within the first months of his presidency? Granted, it has been a rough few months, but has opened the forum for groups like J Street, and other moderate voices stifled under during the years of Bush and Intifada. And it has only been a few months. The Israelis and Palestinians are indeed defensive and distrustful, but they are above all tired of conflict, and moreover unable to free themselves from its grasp without American help. Your approach, Mr. Friedman, strikes me not only as off the mark in terms of analysis, but also as dangerous in terms of implications. If you disagree with the premise that ending this conflict is important not only for the sake of the people of Israel and Palestine but also for the sake of world peace, security and American interests, then so be it. But having read your work in the past, I do not think that you would disagree with such a premise. Thus it is truly disappointing, and surprising, hearing you tell Obama and his administration to give up, to go home. Do I believe that Obama’s push for peace is going perfectly? Of course not, but that should lead to a rethinking of strategy, perhaps a decision to shift focus from the settlements, or to push forward with Syrian-Israeli peace talks as a first step. It should not lead to giving up. Things are not going well now, Mr. Friedman, but what we need, as thinkers, human beings, and American constituents, is not cynicism, but hope, and creative, thoughtful alternatives.
(published in the campus, although without the post script):
I am a Zionist and therefore I am pro peace: Reflections after J Street’s first national conference.
Having just returned from the J Street conference, I want to add my voice to the media controversy surrounding the new Pro Israel Pro Peace organization and its first conference in DC. I am writing from the perspective of a student, a connected Jew, a liberal, an Israeli citizen, and an American citizen when I say “finally.” Finally, a Pro Israel organization that does not deny or turn a blind eye to the immense suffering of the Palestinian people and the deep legitimacy of their narrative. Finally, a Pro Peace organization that does not demonize Israel and grossly oversimplify the situation with labels like colonialism and apartheid. Finally, an organization that proudly declares its support for Israel as a Jewish State, and that proudly emphasizes the need for the creation of a viable Palestinian State. Finally, an organization that embraces neither AIPAC’s dangerous and simplistic approach of unquestioning support for each and every Israeli policy, nor the ignorant, self-congratulatory tactics of the “Boycott Divestment Solidarity” movement. Finally.
J Street has shown its ability to provide an organizational voice to people like myself, people who love and are deeply connected to Israel, and who are immensely frustrated with and critical of many Israeli policies. But perhaps most importantly, J Street has represents a chance for people like myself to reclaim Zionism. The word Zionism has taken on such a pejorative connotation in the liberal world that many, myself included, have been hesitant to use it to self-describe. This hesitance has been compounded by the fact that the majority of those loudly proclaiming to be “Zionist” are from the expansionist, extremist Settler movement, which cares nothing about the plight or rights of the Palestinian people. I vehemently disagree with the latter group, but I am a Zionist. I believe in Israel, and I believe in Israel as a Jewish state. I believe in a Jewish state based on the best ideals Judaism has to offer, ideals of justice and repairing the world, ideals of tolerance and equality, ideals of hope. I believe in a Jewish state that acts as a “light unto the nations.” Do I see the Israel of today as embodying the best ideals of Judaism, as acting a light unto the nations? No, I do not. But that does not mean that I should abandon my ideals, my goals and my dreams as to what the Jewish State should and indeed could be. Does the fact that the American system has left so many disenfranchised and suffering mean that we should give up on America and American democracy, or that we should work to change and better America, bringing it closer to its foundational ideals?
Returning to the subject of what Zionism means, my attendance at the J Street conference reemphasized something that I have always believed: Zionism, while a clearly a Jewish movement, has profoundly universalist implications. Zionism was a movement formed from communal longing, from religious and cultural dedication, from historical roots and from the desire that Jewish people be safe, secure and able to flourish. Thus, it is in fact through the very lens of Zionism that I am best able to understand the Palestinians desire for independence, for national self-determination and for freedom from the oppression and repression they have suffered throughout history. As such, it is through this reclaimed paradigm of Zionism that I aim to struggle for two viable and independent states, for the sake of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and for the sake of Palestine and the Palestinians.
Finally, the J Street reaffirmed that the best way for me to support Israel and to assure that Israel is the type of Jewish state that I and many others long for it to be is not silence nor is it reactionary defensiveness. The best way for me, a Jew, a liberal, a student, an Israeli, an American, and a Zionist to support Israel and fight for the ideals of Zionism is to speak out, loudly, strongly and with conviction, when the Israeli state carries out unjust, immoral policies, actions and war. For indeed, such policies (the Occupation, for example) are, in a sense, anti-Zionist, both in their negative effects on the possibility of a democratic, Jewish state and in their inconsistency with core Jewish and Zionist values.(Post Script):
It is with that last point in mind that I would like to conclude with a critique a recent op-ed: My own, a few weeks ago, on the Goldstone report. I maintain that the Goldstone report had many flaws, indeed Goldstone himself has stated that many of the findings in the report “would not hold up in a court of law.” I maintain that the UN, and especially the UN Human Rights Council, has a deep bias against Israel, and singles it out far more than other states that carry out worse violations. However. The fact that the Goldstone report has many flaws, that its mandate was skewed, that the UN does not press Libya the way that it presses Israel, does not give the Israeli government the right to write off the report in its entirety and to refuse to cooperate and conduct an in-depth investigation, as the report recommends. Goldstone stated in an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post that he would be happy if some of the findings were proven wrong; so would I and all supporters of Israel. But there is no way to prove the findings wrong without an investigation. And if, after investigation, some of the findings prove to be accurate, that is something that Israel and the Israeli people, and supporters of Israel must reckon with, just as the United States had to reckon with Abu Ghraib. So, were I to rewrite my op-ed, I would maintain a criticism of the UN’s bias, the report’s flawed mandate and execution, but would emphasize that the onus is now on the Israeli government to address the report, and to conduct an investigation.
Two very well put -and different- opinions on the report and its implications.
I am off to the first ever J Street conference, which begins this Sunday, October 25th. As some of you may have heard, the conference has been the cause of much controversy and heated exchange within the Jewish community.
I’m Jewish. And I like them. And I like Israel. Controversy solved.
On a serious note, I will be be live blogging from the conference, and will post the link to the site as soon as it goes up. It should certainly be interesting, and I am looking forward to a conferencing filled with voices that take refreshingly nuanced and complex stances on this polarized, polarized issue.
I thought it’d be nice to start out blogging with something positive. Burston is one of my favorite journalists, he has a an excellent op-ed section in the English language version of Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper. So, let’s keep praying.