Report from the 2011 Israel Symposium: Reflections on a Country in Turmoil

Report from the 2011 Israel Symposium: Reflections on a Country in Turmoil

Israel is experiencing momentous changes, both domestically and in its foreign relations, and the developments of the next few months are likely to shape the country for decades to come.

This is the overall impression I bring back from my 10-day working trip to Israel and Palestine, including 7 days with Meretz USA’s incomparable travel-and-learning program, the Israel Symposium.

Having met more than 50 individuals – Jewish and Arab; Israeli and Palestinian; left, right and center; senior politicians, activists, intellectuals, journalists and ‘regular folk’ – in over a dozen locations, my mind is still awash with fresh information, new data, contrasting assessments and conflicting narratives.

Here are some of my unbleached reflections:

1.      The “Arab Spring” is an opportunity that must not be wasted.  By and large, the pro-democracy movement sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East is not preoccupied with Israel or Israeli policy, and it certainly has no built-in anti-Israeli agenda.  But that is not to say that the citizenry there is indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians.  Like almost the entire rest of the world, they are fed up with Israeli settlement, and want to see the occupation end with an independent state of Palestine.

As new Arab governments begin to take power, their immediate focus will be domestic issues, and their foreign policy will still be malleable.  Israel has an opportunity to lay the foundation for solid neighborly relations if it swiftly joins the effort to reach an equitable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Failure to do so – reliance on American support to try and maintain the untenable status quo, or perhaps worse – could poison relations with a new generation of Arab leaders for years to come.
2.      The battle for (and against) Israeli democracy has been joined.  It has taken time for Israeli centrists to wake up to the true danger to Israeli democracy represented by Avigdor Lieberman, Danny Danon, Michael Ben Ari and other members of Knesset.  Now that they are starting to, they are helping to energize Israel’s pro-democracy and pro-human rights community, which in January produced the left’s largest rally in recent years (which hundreds of you supported through Meretz USA’s online campaign).  Indeed, following the assault launched by the Im Tirtzu movement (the group that depicted Naomi Chazan with a horn on her head) against Israel’s human rights NGOs, these organizations have seen a sharp uptick in their Israel-based fundraising.

But before we uncork the champagne, it’s important to remember that Israel’s anti-democrats are still the stronger force, exploiting the fear and lethargy of much of Israel’s mainstream to advance legislation such as the just-approved “Admissions Committee” law.  This anti-democratic law, passed while I was in Israel, thanks to the decision of Kadima party Knesset members to stay neutral, allows rural, Jewish-majority communities to reject Palestinian Arab citizens (or others) for residency on the basis of a vague, subjective “social unsuitability” criterion.
3.      The threat to democracy is creating a New Left in Israel.  The assault on Israel’s democratic principles, and the understanding that this is no longer “just” about anti-Arab discrimination, is creating a new awareness among Israeli democrats, Jewish and Arab, that they need to unite around their shared citizenship, rather than remain divided along ethnic/national/religious lines. Allegiance to ideals is trumping allegiance to the tribe.

Israel’s human rights community is thus moving past the old ‘co-existence’ model to embrace the more inclusive, integrative ideal of a ‘shared society’ in which Arabs and Jews work, learn and struggle together.  This is the sensibility that is guiding the organizers of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, for example, and the founders of the bilingual Jewish-Arab Hagar school in Beersheva.

Though this is by no means a mass movement, it boasts an impressive array of young, up-and-coming leaders who are arriving at different answers because they are asking different questions.  When one such Jewish Israeli leader was asked, for example, whether her ideas still allow her to support the two-state solution, she replied that regardless of whether it was one, two or ten states, the more important issue was whether the state in which she lived cherished true equality, democracy and human rights for all.
4.      Expect major shifts in Israel’s parliamentary center-left:  The politicians and parties representing Israel’s left-of-center community have reached the conclusion that they are far too splintered and far too small, and that they need to come together to create a significant parliamentary bloc.  But that doesn’t mean that this will necessarily come to fruition.  As we were reminded during the trip, politicians also have agendas and egos, and the question of who will lead and who will follow, and of which campaign themes will be out-front and which relegated to a small mention in the platform might get in the way of the much-discussed union.

The other question still in play is who will be part of this new party or electoral list.  Most of the people we spoke to suggested that the new party will be “between Kadima and Hadash” – i.e., that it will be composed of Meretz, the remnants of Labor, the Green Movement and other smaller groups.  But other possibilities were raised as well – that the new party could draw off some of the left-wing members of Kadima; or that the new party would be based on Meretz and Hadash, rather than Meretz and Labor.  Although, by law, elections don’t have to take place until late 2013, there is a prevailing sense that political developments could force elections to occur much sooner (see next entry).  The parliamentary center-left knows this, and is getting ready.
5.      September 2011 will be a turning-point.  With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations indefinitely in mothballs, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has decided that rather than wait for a new, hopefully moderate, government to emerge in Israel, it will turn to the international community as a way of jumpstarting diplomatic movement.  It is almost definite that this September, the PA will appeal to the UN for admission as a member-state, the “State of Palestine”, which would be defined as including all the land beyond the Green Line: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Should this occur, Israel would no longer be regarded as the occupier of ‘disputed territory’, but of the sovereign territory of another UN member.

Although no one is yet sure how this move will play out, the potential repercussions for Israel could be severe – including a level of international isolation unlike anything we have seen to date.  Meanwhile, the PA figures with whom we met, including Yasser Abd Rabbo and Nabil Sha’ath, are displaying pride and confidence: They seem invigorated by the feeling that they have taken their future into their own hands and are no longer begging for ‘scraps’ at the ‘Israeli table’.  They are also employing a refreshing discourse of non-violence, state-building and ‘post-victimhood’.

The choices made by the Israeli government, and Israeli people, come September will be crucial to the nation’s future.
6.      Americans – particularly American Jews – can help.  It was instructive to see how much impact a group like ours could have – just by showing up in Israel and representing our values and beliefs.  Senior politicians with whom we met informed our organizer what a strong impression we had made with them.  Palestinian workers patiently awaiting their turn to cross into Israel via the Kalandia checkpoint in northern Jerusalem wanted us to know that our appearance there, together with Hanna Barag of Machsom Watch, had made Israeli security treat them much more humanely that day.  The residents of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Al Araqib, fighting eviction, were strengthened not only by the funds we raised for them, but by our readiness to show our solidarity with them in searing 90-degree heat.

I come away from these last two weeks reinforced in the belief that for pro-peace, pro-democracy American Jews to play an influential role, we need to put our feet on the ground as often as possible and involve ourselves first-hand with the building of a more progressive Israel.  In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa, in Haifa, in Sderot, Beersheva and Nazareth, as interns, professional volunteers, students, interlocutors, and observers – as partners with an embattled Israeli left fighting for the country’s future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ron Skolnik
Executive Director
Meretz USA

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