Stephen Scheinberg, professor emeritus of history at Montreal’s Concordia University, a friend of Meretz USA and currently co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now, toured with Americans for Peace Now in June. These are most of his observations:
I’ve returned from the Peace Now mission to Israel of June 17-22. … We met with many outstanding individuals but they failed to give me the stimulation in the form of new ideas that I took back from past trips.
… We arrived within days of the Hamas takeover of Gaza and we heard not clear strategies but instant responses which tended to be replays of familiar positions. Maybe it will take more time for creative responses to evolve but I am not too hopeful. We did meet with some outstanding individuals.
I was impressed with Rabbi Michael Melchior, former chief rabbi of Norway, and now a member of the Knesset. Melchior is a voice for a refreshing religious pluralism both within Judaism and especially with Islam. He has organized international conferences with leading Imams and is hopeful that a vital, moderate Islam is emerging. We shall see.
Within Israel he serves on the Knesset education committee and is deeply concerned with the future of Israeli democracy. The haredi [ultra-Orthodox] schools are a growing force and together with schools for Arab Israelis they enroll the majority of Israel’s youth. The latter is a concern but one poll of teachers in the haredi schools showed that 90% of them did not believe in democracy. What does that promise for the future of the state and what can be done when any coalition government depends on conciliating the haredim?
A second outstanding presentation was made by Prof. Khalil Shikaki the leading Palestinian pollster. He was just completing work on a new poll taken in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover. The results were somewhat surprising. Even in Gaza, Fatah is now more popular and most Palestinians regard the Hamas coup as a criminal act. However neither President Abbas nor deposed P.M. Haniyah has much popular support. There is one figure that is held in high regard. If the still imprisoned Marwan Barghouti was released and headed a Fatah slate, it would triumph easily. 65% would vote for a Fatah slate headed by Barghouti and 30% for Hamas and Haniya. Barghouti would even win by a handy margin in Gaza. One of the problems is that Fatah, headed by a weak Abbas, is still corrupt and factionalized. It might take more than Barghouti to remake a hopefully strong and moderate Fatah. It will take even more to rebuild the Palestinian institutional structure. He cited a substantial number of Palestinians who would like to immigrate. Among the young and educated 60% would like to get out. 70% of those polled felt that the chances for creation of a Palestinian state were remote. Shikaki’s dismal conclusion was that “I have never seen a more depressed environment,” among the Palestinians,”but the Palestinians’ willingness to compromise (toward a deal with Israel) has not been eroded.”
We heard again and again about the weakness of Abbas but also, more importantly, that the Palestinian Authority exists mostly in name. It would be termed a “failed state” if it had ever achieved statehood. Everything is in disarray. There is no unified security force, civil servants have gone unpaid, and there is only the merest semblance of an education system. Much, I suppose, can be blamed on Israel and the United States, but I would not exempt the Palestinians from responsibility. Corruption, clan rivalries (armed militias) and Islamism have played defining roles.
Some in our group were impressed with Meir Shitreet, until yesterday the Housing Minister and a leading candidate within Kadima to succeed Olmert. He sounds as if he was almost a spokesman for Peace Now, urging a positive and vigorous response to the Saudi peace plan. I hate to be cynical but I caught a different undertone. I believe that he hopes, within the present context, to support a peace diversion. I mean that given the weaknesses of Olmert, Abbas, and Bush, there is not going to be any peace with the Palestinians in the short run. There are no partners for peace. Given that situation, a generous response to the Saudis will not lead to a real negotiation with the Palestinians. Thus, I think that while we heard words of peace from this Kadima leader, they are best understood as an electoral platform. We heard from one other Kadima MK, Amira Dotan a former Brigadier General in the IDF and a hard-headed management specialist. I am surprised that she has not achieved more prominence within the government but bet that she will. I can see her with Labor if Kadima collapses.
We also met with some of the left wing Meretz people. … The Meretz leader Yossi Beilin is, to my mind, the most honorable politician in Israel, not only on the peace front but on behalf of Arab-Israelis, Bedouins, etc. … He was a protégé of Shimon Peres, served as Deputy Foreign Minister and Justice Minister under Labor, was a major architect of Oslo, but he is an intellectual without the populist touch. He also lacks the security credentials which Israelis understandably desire. Our meeting with him was not reassuring. He seemed very tired and his answers to our questions were in the familiar words of the peace camp, as if little had changed. Of course, he did warn about isolating Hamas and creating a humanitarian disaster in Gaza but he did not offer any new way out of the morass. I understood him to say that accelerated negotiations over the broad principles with Abbas were desireable because the President was in a weak position. My own judgment is that his weakness makes it even more difficult to make concessions.
Beilin’s Knesset colleague Chaim Oron (better known as Jumas), a former Minister of Agriculture, was somewhat interesting, in that he has regularly visited with Barghouti and assured us that, even as a prisoner, Barghouti had a strong voice on the naming of the new PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Moreover, Jumas told us that Barghouti aredently desires negotiations on a peace process. I am sure that those on the Israeli left would like to see Barghouti released. They probably see him as a Nelson Mandela but I am not sure that is the case. He has been convicted in the planning of five murders and thus from the official Israeli view Barghouti has blood on his hands. Of course, most leaders of anti-colonial struggles had a similar background and I think the issue is not blood or so-called criminal acts but what he might accomplish, if released.
We met with only three Palestinian moderates and all favored his release. They see him as clean, a reformer, and the only man who might clean up and unite the Fatah camp. Prominent Israelis of the left and center agree with them. Of course, on the Israeli side, there may be some who fear Barghouti either as a more demanding figure than Abbas or even as the potential leader of a renewed intifadah. My own feeling is that if Olmert and the United States really want to help the West Bank moderates then they should run the moderate risk of freeing Marwan Barghouti, but I am very conscious that I do not live in Israel nor do I have access to their intelligence. It is not my risk. However, Israel also faces the risk of not doing all in its power to combat the Islamists, at this very moment, and Barghouti could make the difference. MKs Braverman, Oron and Beilin all told us that they supported Barghouti’s release. The other Palestinians we saw were Jihad Abu Ziad a Fatah leader from Gaza who got his family out of there six months ago and Hanna Siniora, a permanent fixture of peace meetings.
One of the most interesting evenings in Jerusalem was spent with Alon Liel and Akiva Eldar. Liel, a former director of the foreign office, has recently taken the lead in the informal contacts with the Syrians and has urged that the negotiations progress to the formal level. Eldar is the outstanding columnist with Haaretz. I have heard him before and always read his columns with great interest. The evening was almost surreal. I had hoped that Liel would shed real light on the Syrian peace prospect and Assad’s intentions but he did not give us the desired details, only his hopes and beliefs. In addition, he seemed to find it necessary, perhaps because we were Peace Now, to argue against any attempt to talk to the Palestinians. He seemed to fear that negotiations with the Palestinians would undermine an approach to the Syrians.
Eldar seemed almost amused by this. Why would Liel take this tact? I can only surmise that he believes a Palestinian peace is, at least for now, a dead issue or that the Israeli public could not tolerate giving up both the Golan and significant control over the West Bank. For his part, Eldar continues to see negotiations with the Palestinians as an urgent matter and the advent of Hamastan makes this more evident. He saw no reason why both sets of negotiations could not be conducted under the umbrella of the Saudi peace proposal. Two of us ran into Eldar, later in the evening. He told us that he had just been on the phone with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who confirmed his judgment. The Palestinian track must be pursued. …