Notes on a Trip to Israel and the West Bank, Part I
Part I: Among the Rueful and Anxious
I recently returned from a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, my first time in Israel in many decades. I had badly wanted to go. I had grown weary of the Israel and Palestine situation being explained and distilled for me by others. I wanted to see it and hear it for myself, without intermediaries. I wasn’t expecting an upheaval in my understandings and attitudes, but I was hoping I would come away with a new sense of the region’s political and spiritual geography. I would be guided by two old friends, a married couple, Michael and Kathy.
Michael has my pedigree; a socialist-Zionist adolescence in the 1960s and 1970s, and an involvement with all sorts of progressive causes since. But unlike me, Michael took this Zionism thing seriously, made Aliyah, lived in Israel for 15 years. He can be sharply, derisively critical of the policies of the Israeli government, but if you spend any time with him, you soon get to know that he is a lover of Zion, and that while he might live in the United States, Israel is his true home. He arranged the trip, introduced me to his remarkable panoply of friends, and was, from beginning to end, a remarkable tour guide. Kathy is a Mennonite, a pacifist, and she has spent much of her adult life in human rights work, much of it on the West Bank. She is a passionate advocate for justice for the Palestinians.
The three of us traveled widely: to the big cities of Israel, to the Lebanese border, to the caves at Rosh Hanikra and the destroyed Maronite Christian village of Ikrit, forcibly emptied after 1948. (We were there the day after Christmas, on the day that former residents and their supporters make a pilgrimage to Ikrit to attend services in the church, the only building still standing in the town.) We visited several kibbutzim, in various stages of privatization; saw the sights, hung out in Tel Aviv. And we also spent time in the West Bank, in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron. Wherever we went, we talked with people, those who agreed with us, those who did not, looking for lively discussions. We were not disappointed.
During my two weeks in the region I found myself obsessively looking for two things; for cats and for optimists, those who thought that things in Israel and Palestine were moving in the right direction, towards a resolution of the conflict, towards (to use a very imprecise term) “peace.” I found plenty of cats. My wife, a cat fancier, did not accompany me, and I thought I could present her with a portfolio of urban cats, on the prowl, unobtrusively going about their business. Cats have been doing this, in this part of the world, for about 5,000 years. They are nimble, walking, as the poet says, on little cat feet, rather than big clod-hopping galumphs, which is the basic human style here. I admire cats.
My search for an optimist was more difficult and prolonged. Pessimists, however, were a shekel a dozen. Whether Jew or Palestinian, leftist, centrist, and rightist, for all the difference in their explanations, almost all traveled to more or less the same conclusion. The peace process, long moribund, is now expired. The prospects for its revival are nil. Israel and Palestine both suffer from weak, venal, timid (and at the same time, bellicose) leadership. The respective leaders of both countries had forgotten nothing and learned nothing, and are, as the saying goes, doomed to repeat their mistakes. Or at least there was no rational reason to think they wouldn’t do so.
And then, on my last day in Israel, I found an optimist, or at least found someone who said she knew an optimist. An old friend, Danny, had arranged a tour of the Peres Peace Center, whose headquarters is a striking but somewhat incongruously located rectilinear mass on the Jaffa waterfront amid a Palestinian neighborhood. The Peres Center, created shortly after Peres’s defeat by Netanyahu in 1996, is an NGO committed to foster Israeli-Palestinian understanding and comradeship, through a number of initiatives, through sports programs and through dialogue. Our guide told us a program of training Palestinian physicians in Israeli hospitals continues, with a new class entering this fall, including, quite surprisingly I thought, a number of physicians from Gaza, allowed to participate by Hamas.
When I asked our guide if the general pessimism about peace after the Gaza War has changed the work of the center, she dismissed the thought. Polls show, she said, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, and two independent states. She added that Shimon Peres has always been a congenital optimist since the beginning of his very, very long career, and he remains undaunted about the prospects of a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. We did not actually see or speak to him—our tour ended at the outer sanctum of Mr. Peres’s office. (He was in, and we were hoping the great man would take a bathroom break or something similar while we were standing there, to no avail.) Peres will not be the leader of a new peace movement, but I have no doubt that it will take people with his canniness and instinct for survival (the nine lives of a cat), on all sides of the conflict, to move things forward. And even if Peres doesn’t mean it and his optimism is just for show, it was good to hear.
Among those of the many pessimists I met in Israel and Palestine was Danny, who arranged the tour; an American-Israeli who made Aliyah some thirty years ago, and now works in fund raising for major Israeli educational institutions. I have known Danny since the early 1960s, when his parents and mine were summer residents of that now extinct Catskills institution, the bungalow colony, this one serving as a way station for former Communists, such as his parents and mine, slowly rejoining the political mainstream. In the late 1960s and 1970s in New York City, Danny and I were also members of Hashomer Hatziar, the socialist-Zionist youth organization.
He told me that in some ways he felt like our parents: “An ex-communist, however far they have moved from their initial beliefs, still remains, in some deep sense, a communist. But a communist who has learned that Stalin was a monster, that Soviet collectivism was worse than the very real problems it was intended to cure, and that the ideology of communism was, essentially, a pack of lies. And yet, at the same time, our parents remained committed to the ideals that brought them to communism in the first place: international peace and brotherhood, a betterment of the lot of the working classes, an end to racial injustice and discrimination. But they learned to evaluate the empirical evidence of communism’s manifold failures seriously, and moved away. I remain true to my ideals of the early 1970s, that a lasting peace is possible between Israel and Palestine, and that the settlements have been a disaster; but I am also aware of much evidence to the contrary, and that things are much complicated.”
“I don’t believe the demands of Jews and Palestinians can be easily reconciled. I don’t agree with our guide from the Peres center: I don’t think there is a majority, on either side, for a real peace. What happens if a Palestinian state is created, and a Hamas government takes control six months later? What would have happened if Israel had returned the Golan, and forces backed by ISIS were now on the shores of the Kinneret? Nothing annoys me more than the hollowness of left-wing rhetoric on Israel. Without security, there can and will not be peace.” Danny will vote for labor and Tzipi Livni in the coming election.
These sentiments were, in different degrees, quite common among those we spoke to. One morning we spoke to Sam, another American-Israeli fundraiser. (Given that, unlike almost every other developed country on the planet, Israel’s philanthropies and non-profits are largely supported by residents of a foreign country, the United States, there are a lot of fund-raising positions that are occupied by those who know how to speak and think American. ) He is working for a glitzy and splashy hi-tech project. Much of the money comes from AIPAC types who want Israel to succeed in every possible arena and endeavor. He has met several times with Sheldon Adelson, and was surprised how polite, supportive, and even unassuming he was; opening his pocketbook without barking orders, without demands to put his people on the board. We made some Adelson jokes, which Sam had no doubt heard many times before. He laughed politely.
But Sam doesn’t share Adelson’s politics. He said that “the last 18 months have been the most dispiriting in recent Israeli history. Netanyahu was a failure domestically. He couldn’t even pass a token bill drafting Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jew) into the army. And the last Gaza war was necessary but a failure and in many ways a disaster. I respect Begin and Sharon, the older generation of Likud leadership, who cared about all Israelis, and not just the settlers, for whom Israeli security was always paramount, but who were willing to take risks for peace. But Netanyahu, in his internal politics, and dealing with the Palestinians, is entirely risk-averse.” He said his Sephardi uncles in Beersheva, uncritical Bibi lovers until now, are now in a centrist mood, feeling that Netanyahu can only follow up last summer’s Gaza War with the next Gaza War, and the Gaza War after that. They want an end to rockets from Gaza, and don’t think that Netanyahu can deliver. Sam, like his uncles, will probably vote for Labor, or possibly the new party being organized by Kahlon, the somewhat centrist Likud refugee.
Like several people we spoke to, Sam felt that that organizing opposition to Netanyahu around Israel’s plummeting lack of international respectability was a good idea. When we spoke to Adam Keller, who works with Uri Avneri in Gush Shalom, he argued that most Israelis don’t care about peace with the Palestinians, or at least don’t think it’s really possible, but do worry about Israel’s isolation, because they fear that they will need the United States and the EU in case of an emergency, and in Israel emergencies occur with an alarming frequency. The EU and the Americans need to feel that Israel is at least open to the possibility of peace, and it clearly isn’t. Keller, as did several others we spoke to, pointed to Obama’s recent decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba as perhaps evidence that the “real” Obama, the one who detests Netanyahu, will separate himself from the Obama he has played in his presidency until now. Perhaps.
Keller also argued, as did others, that the real battle will not be in Washington but in Brussels, and that the actions of the EU, a dominant trading partner with Israel, should not be underestimated, and that European disapproval of Israeli actions will eventually uncozy the relations between the United States and Israel. I find myself thinking that this seems unlikely, and mild, highly nuanced disapproval of Israeli actions is the outer limit of Obama’s criticism, and that this is unlikely to change, with him or his eventual successor.
Keller, like Avneri, favors a joint Labor/Livni and Meretz list (Meretz being the only remaining left of center, avowedly Zionist party) in one final, desperate effort to correct the rightward lurch of the state. He thinks a center-left victory is possible. Keller thought a combined list might win, though among people we spoke to, almost all of whom wanted such a victory, most were dubious.
But after a few days of discussion with a number of representatives of the chastened, sadder but wiser left, I wanted to chat with leftists of another brand; supporters of Meretz, and then those beyond Meretz, adherents of the unadulterated, unsweetened, 200-proof left, for whom all the Zionist parties were, at best, pitiful compromisers with oppression. And then I wanted to speak to the obverse, those intending to vote for Likud, or parties further right, in the upcoming election. You just have to know where to look.
[Click here for Part II.]