Sunday night, Israel time, 24 hours into the Israel Symposium. How to summarize this intense first day?
We kicked off the seminar last night with Prof. Naomi Chazan, who touched on issues as seemingly diverse as war and peace, Zionism, gender-segregated bus lines, and the feminist revolution among Bedouin women. But with intelligence and finesse, Naomi tied these all together and sketched out the immense internal dangers facing Israel, especially the dangers to Israeli democracy.
But Naomi offered rays of hope, which were seconded by other speakers we had today: Look at the growth of civil society in Israel over the last decade, she said. And look at the new generation of activists demonstrating week in and week out at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem against the expulsion of Palestinian families. Others referred to the spontaneous growth of the urban kibbutz movement in Israel as a sign of continued or renewed idealism.
We heard a lot about Prime Minister Netanyahu: The main message we heard – from journalist Akiva Eldar, from Gadi Baltiansky of the Geneva Initiative, from Haim Oron of Meretz – is that Netanyahu has to decide which direction he intends to take. If he’s on the side of the anti-Zionist, messianic settlers, he should stop talking about two states and continue building beyond the Green Line. But if he’s really for two states, he should suspend all construction over the Green Line, reorganize his coalition by bringing Kadima in and showing the extremist right-wing parties the door. And then he needs to pick up negotiations where Israel and the Palestinians left them when Olmert was Prime Minister or at least when President Clinton laid out his parameters for a peace deal.
Another repeating message: There’s absolutely no time to waste. Although no one would set an exact expiry date for the two-state solution, everyone seemed to agree that we are getting frighteningly close to the point in which the two-state solution will no longer be feasible. True Zionists, we were reminded, need to push hard for two states, as a one-state situation will be disastrous, under any of the scenarios in which it plays out (Apartheid or the end of a Jewish-majority nation.)
We also heard alternative visions – from those who feel we should be looking past the two-state solution. Journalist Daniel Gavron sought to sketch out a vision of a post-Zionist reality in which a single state of Israel/Palestine would include autonomous structures for Jews, Arabs, etc. And Avraham Burg insisted that while Israel would continue to be the national home for the Jewish people, it could no longer be an ethnocracy – a state that gives extra rights to one group, the Jews, over another group. Israel, he said, needs to be a democracy – full stop. Both Gavron and Burg suggested that the Israeli left – Meretz and Hadash – need to collaborate to help bring Israel to a better place.
We also heard from former Foreign Minister and today head of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni. Unfortunately, her remarks were made off the record and cannot be reported upon here. All I can say is that although I came away impressed by Ms. Livni’s realism, I was less impressed by her sense of the dual narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many of our speakers tried to explain how an extremist minority in Israel – the settlers – had managed to ‘abduct’ (as Avraham Burg termed it) an Israeli society in which 65%-70% still believe in a two-state solution (even if the same percentage doesn’t believe it’ll be achieved in their lifetime). Naomi Chazan explained with understanding that Israelis had to deal with years of fear, disappointment, and uncertainty, which had made them vulnerable to populist, super-nationalist slogans. Many referred to the fact that much of Israel’s center-left has, out of despair, escaped into escapism, now choosing to watch “Big Brother” instead of the once top-rated evening news programs. Oron and others noted that things in Israel seem normal on the surface – the economy is doing well, and terror in 2009 was at its lowest in 10 years. The downside is that this is lulling Israelis into a sense that this can continue, that the Occupation can coexist over time with security and international legitimacy. Israelis, these speakers feared, will come to their senses only after disaster strikes. Hopefully, the situation will still be reparable when it does.
Many are looking for the international community, including American Jewry, to step up before it’s too late. They’re not pinning their hopes on Obama alone, but do believe that, to a degree, Israel needs help from the outside so that its leaders don’t lead the country down a path that’s headed for disaster.
It was an intense first day – full of frightening scenarios, but also with a series of speakers who aren’t throwing in the towel, and who will continue to fight for a peaceful, egalitarian Israel.
Almost midnight. More tomorrow.
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