I went to Amityville, Long Island with trepidation last week, to speak before a left-peace group called “PeaceSmith” (named for the deceased founder of the group, a woman named Smith). The event was filmed for local public access cable TV.
I’m happy to report that the evening came off well. It was interesting to see that the audience included activists who were strongly pro-Israel (more protective of Israel’s honor than I am, in fact), as well as critics.
Hany Khalil, the United For Peace and Justice coordinator for Palestinian matters (not his title, but largely his job) turned out to be a reasonable and civil individual. We had a nice ride back to the city on the LIRR. We don’t see the world and Israel in exactly the same ways, but if he were more representative of leftist temperaments on this issue, we’d have much less of a problem.
It helped that I didn’t argue against the proposition that Israel has made mistakes or committed wrongs in the past (e.g., in terms of the refugees) and continues to perpetrate wrongs in the present. But I didn’t leave it there; I challenged anti-Israel positions that excuse or fail to recognize ongoing instances of Arab violence, both at the origins of the conflict when Palestinian fighters came close to destroying the Yishuv, before the state was proclaimed and in more recent times.
I challenged Hany Khalil on the fact that the UFPJ does not take a stand for the two-state solution, choosing to be “agnostic” on one state versus two due to the influence of Al-Awda and other constituency groups who oppose Israel’s existence. Hany admitted that the UFPJ will not take such a position because this would shatter its coalition; this begs the question why it has a coalition on an issue tangential to the Iraq war that called the UFPJ into existence.
I was largely insulated on the Palestinian refugees and other contentious issues because I take the position of the Geneva Initiative, which outlines a feasible comprehensive compromise on these and other pressing matters.
If this seems too much of an indulgence, you don’t have to read further, but the following is the text of my opening remarks:
The never-ending saga of Israel at war with and being warred upon by its neighbors has driven me to distraction. The Al-Aksa Intifada years have mostly ended, but now we have a whole new set of images and variables to contend with.
Like all of you, I’ve been horrified by the scenes of carnage in Lebanon. I’ve also been heartsick about the dangers and casualties and hardships suffered by one million or more Israelis in the north. I was just there; almost all of my many Israeli relatives live in the north, under the arc of the missiles and rockets. And one young cousin that I know of fought in Lebanon.
I. But now for some encouraging news: I was gratified to hear that Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, acknowledged that their attack on the Israeli patrol on Israeli soil was a mistake or miscalculation. They didn’t realize that Israel would react so dramatically. Israel wasn’t just reacting to a pinprick attack that left eight soldiers dead and two captured; it was reacting to the strategic threat of 12 to 13,000 rockets and missiles, and the firm belief that Hezbollah is a proxy for Iran; with Iran in their thinking, this becomes a potential life or death struggle for Israel. This is why so much of the Israeli left endorsed the concept of the war. Israel was reacting to aggression and that Israel was ultimately in a life or death struggle with a fanatical anti-Jewish regime in Iran that is intending to go nuclear and threatens Israel’s physical existence.
I don’t know if all this is precisely true. I don’t know if anyone on earth knows if this scenario is totally true, with the exception of Iran’s Pres. Achmadinejad and the clerical rulers of Iran. In fact, I’m suspicious of these apocalyptic scenarios, but I know that Jews cannot ignore the possibility of apocalypse because it’s happened to us more than once. It happened to us with the Babylonian conquest and exile around the year 600 BCE, it happened in the wars with the Romans in the first and second centuries CE, it happened in Spain in 1492, it happened during the Crusades, it happened in Poland and the Ukraine in the 17th century and it happened when one-third of all Jews in the world were murdered during WW II.
Nasrallah didn’t expect this massive Israeli reaction because Hezbollah has gotten away with such incidents before. Every few months, something happens along the border. A shooting, some rockets, an attempted kidnapping. Israel has mostly ignored these incidents, occasionally responding with a local air attack or some artillery fire. this time, because the gov’t. of PM Ehud Olmert is very new, Olmert felt provoked and that he could not ignore the provocation, that he had to prove himself as a security-conscious national leader in a way that Rabin or Sharon never needed to.
We all know something of Sharon’s past as a general and a politician who engineered the first Israeli war in Lebanon. Considering the results, this should have ended his career. But he didn’t want to get involved in Leb. again during his tenure as PM. Olmert, as with Labor party leader and coalition partner, Amir Peretz, his defense minister, wanted to prove themselves as competent on this primary issue of Israeli national life– the question of security. Instead, they did the opposite, and have almost undermined their tenure in office.
But Nasrallah’s statement helps them. It says that Hezbollah was hurt more than they are admitting. And Hezbollah very carefully shapes the message it provides the press; reporters know that they have to be careful not to elicit their displeasure. They have not provided casualty reports. A colleague of mine has heard from an Israeli source that they lost at least 20% of their fighting force, 600 out of 3,000 men. He says the Israelis know this because they have their names, probably because they have their bodies and found identification. I don’t know if this true or merely a rumor, but I think it’s likely that Hezbollah was badly hurt.
II. The second thing I find enouraging is that Israel has sought international help in dealing with its security. It traditionally never does this. It is kind of a Zionist prime directive that it has the last word in its own defense, because Jewish history proves that relying on international protection is not a good idea. Obviously, this is a sign that it didn’t win a decisive victory. But it’s also a sign of political maturity and realism.
And Israel won one of its war aims that the Lebanese army returns to the border area to exercise sovereignty within its own territory. If a strengthened (as they say, “robust”) UN presence bolsters the Lebanese to keep armed Hezbollah elements away from the border, this is a good thing. The boasts or exhortations from Olmert and Peretz during the war that the IDF would smash or destroy Hezbollah were stupid bravado; it set these two gentlemen up for ridicule and the aura of failure when this was not as deserving as at first sight.
But Israel needs to see itself as having limitations. And the world needs to see this too, not maliciously in looking for vulnerabilities to exploit, but to understand that Israel is a very small country with a tragic past and with enemies who have too often been uncompromising and murderously vicious.
The notion that Israel is the fourth major military power on the planet is a form of flattery in a way, for a Jewish people who have been defenseless at the point of repeated assaults and persecutions for most of two millennia. But it’s not true. By any rational analysis, Israel ranks somewhere closer to #10 or 15 in some objective ranking of military powers in the world. But it is a major military power.
An ongoing tragedy of Israel is that so small a country (with no more than seven million citizens) must remain a major military power in order to survive. It pays a high price to do so, with most Israeli men spending three years of their youth as regular conscripts and then one month of each year until their mid-40s in active reserve units and subject to unlimited emergency call-up.
Both Israel and its critics need to see Israel for what it is – a small country, forced into an unnatural situation of being the region’s most potent military power. The Israeli habit of over-relying upon force is a reaction to those long centuries of oppression and humiliation. But it’s not just psychological; Israel has clear vulnerabilities due to its very small population and its long narrow borders.
III. the third and last bit of encouraging news I heard is the denounciation of the Palestinian habit of blaming all their troubles on Israel. This was a bombshell of a statement by a prominent Hamas activist or official.
The Palestinians had an opportunity for a new beginning with Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in August of last year. James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank who was appointed as US envoy to help facilitate the process of transition, had secured funding to purchase greenhouses left over from the Israeli settlements that were evacuated for Palestinian benefit. The ongoing violence from Gaza, aimed at Israel, has created a situation where these businesses have gone nowhere. Produce prepared for export has surely gone rotten, within the harsh closure that Israel has imposed upon Gaza in reaction.
Just as Mahmoud Abbas has differentiated himself from his predecessor Yasir Arafat, in declaring the Al-Aksa Intifada to have been a terrible mistake, there needs to be an acknowledgment by more Palestinians that armed resistance, which is mostly implemented as attacks on random Israeli civilians, brings them nothing but increased grief. Israel must accept blame for much, perhaps most, of the misery in Gaza (especially now as the IDF rampages thru it) and for the misery in the West Bank. But what rational expectation do Palestinian fighters have for how Israel would react to rockets launched against the town of Sderot, next door in the Negev, continually, since before withdrawal and ever since. Or what do they expect when Israeli soldiers are attacked inside Israel, with two killed and one taken prisoner, a few weeks before and almost exactly parallel to the event that sparked the Lebanon war?
Now, I don’t support Israel’s harshest tactics. Although I don’t support an embargo on US arms assistance to Israel, I would support an end to the shipment of cluster bombs. I hope never to see their use again. It is justified that Israel seek the return of captive soldiers, in Gaza and in Lebanon. Negotiations are clearly the way to go, but probably some exercise of force was necessary to get us to this point.
The Israeli party that my group is affiliated with, the Meretz/Social-Democratic Israel party, is a member of the Socialist International and has pioneered efforts to bring about a two-state solution, such as critical agreements in the Oslo Accords and the non-official document known as the Geneva Initiative. We see an opportunity for getting out of the impasse in the north by reaching out to Syria, to again try for a peace treaty involving renewed Syrian sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
We also hope dearly for a renewed effort at peace with the Palestinians. With Pres. Abbas apparently given the go-ahead by Hamas PM Hasniyah, to negotiate, we hope for progress. But Hamas does have to change its stripes. Meretz does not believe in pre-conditions, but we know from recent history that a final agreement cannot be reached unless the use of violence as a tactic to improve one’s negotiating hand is totally eliminated. Meretz is very encouraged by the renewed Saudi/Arab League initiative for peace and would like to see it explored and acted upon.