Pres. Obama’s much publicized speech on the Middle East at the State Department on May 19th caused a stir by advocating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based upon the pre-June 1967 borders (the so-called Green Line), with modifications in the form of “land swaps” negotiated between the parties. This has been the general framework that moderate and pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians have promoted since at least 1995, when it was realized that most West Bank settlers live in thickly-populated “settlement blocs” contiguous with the Green Line.
Unfortunately, too many people (most importantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu) seized upon Obama’s statement about the pre-June ‘67 lines, disregarding his call for trading territory. That Netanyahu and so many others found this controversial, defies belief and illustrates how far we’ve come from a peace agreement almost arrived at in 2008. It also indicates that the US needs to be more assertive in helping the parties finally achieve peace; yet it further underscores how little hope there is to expect such heavy lifting now, with next year’s election campaign already taking shape.
On Friday morning, May 20, I watched Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, on “Democracy Now,” being double-teamed by anti-Israel author Norman Finkelstein and Palestinian-American human rights lawyer Noura Erakat. Ben-Ami defended Obama’s formulation, while the other two argued that international law and justice demand that Israel simply withdraw to the pre-’67 lines, without requiring an exchange of territories.
The program led me to some insights:
For one thing, although he does not advocate Israel’s destruction (as many assume), Norman Finkelstein seems emotionally consumed by hostility toward Israel. (He’s suffered as a result–e.g., being more or less persecuted by Alan Dershowitz and not obtaining tenure at a university–but he is a caustic polemicist and not a fair-minded scholar.) He–along with the very articulate and impressive Ms. Erakat–epitomizes doctrinaire and rigid thinking in insisting that Israel totally withdraw to the pre-June ‘67 lines.
I would agree with them that the construction of settlements was a very bad idea and probably a violation of international law. I wouldn’t be opposed in principle to a dismantling of all settlements in exchange for an ironclad peace – but we know this is not going to happen. This is neither a politically viable proposition nor even practical. Even if Israel were willing to risk a civil war to do so, we don’t know that it’s physically capable of removing half a million people from East Jerusalem and the West Bank; it is a very small country of seven million citizens, without the large standing army that many people presume it to have (as often expressed in the ludicrous notion that Israel is the fourth largest military power in the world).
So the best hope for peace is one that involves land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. Only ideologues (such as the other two guests) would argue against this.
After seeming a bit startled, Ben-Ami reacted calmly to a Finkelstein effort to smear J Street by associating it with the Kadima party (which he wrongly claims that J Street is “closest to”) and some objectionable statements allegedly made by its leader, Tsipi Livni, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead offensive in Gaza. I’ve gotten this reaction from another observer:
Jeremy doesn’t hang out with the far left enough! I saw that he was slightly dumbfounded by Finkelstein, though anyone who has seen him knows that is what he does. It’s what he lives for.
My response would have been: Thanks Norman. Always great having you pose questions that try to corner the opposition and strike a blow for truth and justice. Back in the real world, J Street emphasizes a negotiated settlement because simply repeating international law or UN resolutions hasn’t actually worked – not for Israelis and not for Palestinians. Our judgment is that when it comes to international diplomacy and politics, stressing shared interests and negotiated agreements works better. Most importantly, it’s a conversation that has the support of majorities of Palestinians, Israelis, and American Jews.
The “Democracy Now” website also includes a transcript of this program.