This past week, Shalom TV posted a video on its website of a roundtable discussion it held called Netanyahu /Abbas: Obstacle To Peace?. Ostensibly a discussion of the meeting recently held between Bibi and Obama in Washington, it quickly devolved from open discussion to agitated and unproductive debate, in which Ron Skolnik, Executive Director of Meretz USA, faced a barrage of typically center-right talking points which place blame predominantly on the Palestinians for the status quo, and because of his opposition to many of their assumptions and claims, was cast unfairly as a representative of left-wing, Palestinian interests.
The roundtable discussion began with a question from the moderator about the consequences of the recent Bibi-Obama meeting. Ron was asked to answer the question first. The video showed him saying that we should not put too much stock into this meeting or any one particular event but instead should situate them within longer-term historical trends, which reveal that US-Israel relations are in fact changing over time; Shalom TV cut out Ron’s more holistic answer, which discussed the consequences of the Occupation for Israeli’s stability and international reputation. The other commentators believed that the meeting was important because it revealed Obama’s increasing warmth toward Israel. They thought that his tone earlier in his term favored the Palestinians and not Israel, a political move which came at the expense of Israel’s security needs. This theme, that is, the US government’s neglect of Israel’s security, recurred in subsequent conversations.
The moderator then moved on to a discussion about obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was precisely at this point that the discussion transformed into a left-right debate. Ron was asked to answer the question first, since the moderator believed that he was likely to have the strongest opinion against Israel on this matter. Indeed, Ron did note Israel’s complicity in the status quo, but emphasized that Israel was one part of the problem and not the whole. More specifically, he argued that Israel’s current settlement policy suggests to the Palestinians that they are not genuinely interested in meaningful peace and reconciliation. This comment sparked hostile questioning predominantly from the moderator, a participant in a discussion who is normally charged with maintaining neutrality. However, he questioned Ron on the subject of settlements, asking him why the instatement of a settlement moratorium cannot be understood as a good enough gesture to the Palestinians. Ron replied that the moratorium is in reality more of a “chill” or deceleration: Palestinians cannot see a palpable improvement in the status quo even with the moratorium in place since Israel still allows construction. He noted that the moratorium may be even less meaningful if it is lifted in September.
The moderator and other commentators continued to press Ron on the issue of settlements, asking him about his problem with building up settlements which already exist; noting that Israel had taken down settlements already; and that the construction of settlements creates jobs for Palestinians. Ron mostly re-iterated his earlier point, arguing that the continuation of any settlement construction undermines the trust of the Palestinians.
The debate moved naturally into a discussion of Palestinian reluctance to come to the table and talk to Israel about creating peace, and ultimately, to their unwillingness to enact tangible trust-building measures. Again, a typical topic of discussion in these fora. The consensus of the moderator and other commentators was a feeling of frustration and mistrust, a tendency to blame the Palestinians for not doing enough while leaving Israel blameless. Israel was willing to give up most everything, they said, if they could be assured that Palestinians would not attack them. The onus was clearly on the Palestinians, and not on Israel, to take the next positive step toward peace. Ron responded by saying that the Palestinians cannot continue to come to talks that they know will be empty, as they will look like puppets of the Occupation to their people and will become too weak to create long-term change.
The moderator and commentators would not accept this, and were instead quick to question whether it was Abbas and not Bibi who made the talks empty. Ron then named a number of trust-building measures that the Palestinians have initiated, most notably its establishment of an effective domestic security apparatus. The moderator was quick to respond that Abbas only established this out of self-interest, that he was still ideologically against the existence of the state of Israel and was only making these gestures as a pragmatic move.
This segment was clearly an exhibition of the “Israel can do no wrong/the Palestinians can do no right” voice on the conflict. Never did the moderators or other commentators concede that Israel had erred, or that the Palestinians had made gestures toward peace. Indeed, they did not accept any of the examples Ron brought up which showed that the Palestinians were working to build Israeli trust. For example, although they noted that the warming of Obama’s tone toward Israel was a positive and productive step, they would not accept that the warming of the Palestinians’ tone toward Israel over time was similarly positive and productive. The moderator called upon the Palestinians to show the state of Israel on their maps, without demanding that the Israeli Ministry of Education put the Green Line on textbook maps.
The debate amounted to the perpetuation of a long-ago established echo chamber of mistrust, hostility, and nerves, one which excluded the views of Ron Skolnik, Meretz USA, and many other Jews and non-Jews worldwide. These are the precise moments, in which different viewpoints are invited to the table to talk about peace and social justice in Israel and the future Palestinian state, that these echo chambers should open, and ideally, should begin to erode. We as a Jewish community must be more open and frank in our discussions, accepting differences as useful to our progress as a people and a nation. I personally do not look forward to a future in which my Jewish peers will still wring their hands and lament at the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us use this moment and moments like it to improve, to move forward and support more meaningful conversations and more genuine teamwork towards peace.
To see the full segment, visit http://www.fliqz.com/aspx/permalinkblank.aspx?vid=1f865ed49b3845288b415ad5b48fa24f
I appreciate Mimi Micner’s review of the Shalom TV panel discussion in which I recently took part, but I would like to add a few comments to round out the picture and correct a few perhaps mistaken impressions.
First, and most importantly, I can’t concur with the post’s description of, “hostile questioning predominantly from the moderator”. Although moderator and Shalom TV President, Rabbi Mark Golub, was spirited in the questions he put to me (and to others), I never felt the slightest personal hostility, either before, during or after the filming.
Indeed, in the three segments I have taped for Shalom TV in the last two years, Rabbi Golub has been nothing but respectful and welcoming. The fact that we often strongly disagree on matters related to Israel in no way stands in contradiction to this.
Second, the post refers to some of my opening remarks being cut out. This is true (and unfortunate, as I feel that I spelled out my position best in my opening remarks), but should not be interpreted as a sign of malice on the part of Shalom TV. With about 90 minutes of discussion filmed at Shalom TV’s studios, it was inevitable that some of the exchanges would be left on the cutting room floor to fit into the one-hour format.
Although I might disagree with this or that editorial decision, the editing process trimmed the remarks of all panelists in places, and was not used to tilt the debate in favor of one panelist or another.
Finally, the post suggests that the panel discussion excluded my views and those of Meretz USA. Again, I think this assertion needs to be tempered. I appreciate Shalom TV’s efforts to include the voice of the pro-Israel/pro-peace community and, if Shalom TV were intent on truly excluding our voices, it would never have invited me in the first place.
Having said that, there is indeed sometimes a sense on these occasions of the panel being ‘stacked’ with representatives of the center-right. This may or may not be quantitatively representative of the American Jewish community as a whole, or of the Israel-activist segment of that community. Either way, it is the prerogative of Shalom TV to invite the panelists that it sees fit.
But it’s precisely because Shalom TV probably caters to a center-right audience on Israel that it is important for representatives of Meretz USA, and likeminded organizations, to appear on these broadcasts when invited. The question then becomes: How to utilize this forum so that the discussions do not become ‘dialogues of the deaf’, in which each side ritualistically defends its political ‘turf’ – looking from the get-go to disagree, rather than search for points of agreement.
On this level, I think that Mimi raises a most valid point, and I agree that, much too often, representatives of the American Jewish establishment put their critical faculties on hold when it comes to Israel, and devote themselves exclusively to reflexive, unthinking hasbara efforts that focus on one, and only one, narrative. Instead of being considered carefully and synthesized into the mainstream outlook, criticism of the Israeli government is too often rebuffed ad limine, making for a discourse on Israel that is at once unhelpful and uninspiring.
But Shalom TV certainly is not to be blamed for this flaw that is present in much of the American Jewish community. If anything, it is to be praised for hosting panel discussions that at least get the different viewpoints together around one table – instead of each being locked within its own ‘chorus of the converted’.