Perhaps never before have Israeli and American Jewish liberals felt so angry, frustrated, and, above all, impotent regarding both Israeli and American policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our red lines have been repeatedly crossed, our warnings have gone unheeded; we have little influence in Washington and less in Jerusalem and we are reduced, Cassandra-like, to cautioning darkly of inevitable catastrophes that will materialize in the near and medium futures. Perhaps it is all too appropriate that Tisha b’Av is the next holiday on the Jewish religious calendar.
As the week from May 8 through May 15 unfolded, we were barraged by events we oppose and have warned against for years: Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the glittering and religiously toxic ceremony transferring the American Embassy to Jerusalem and, most horrific of all, the killing of 61 Palestinians and wounding of over 1500 Palestinians at the Gaza border fence as the culmination of the six week ‘March of Return’, led by Hamas, while the ceremony in Jerusalem proceeded. Israelis supported all of these actions by wide margins. This is on top of Israel’s biggest air operation in years, directed against the Iranian military buildup in Syria in the wake of Bashar Assad’s apparent victory in the seven-year Syrian civil war. The other shoe has yet to drop in the latter operation; i.e., whether, when, and how Iran, together with its Hezbollah allies, will retaliate against Israel or maintain its Syrian buildup.
As I sit in a beautiful Jerusalem garden the morning after Shavuot waiting for the heat to drive me indoors, I am forced to contemplate what we on the Left who support Israel but abhor its current policies should do – and what we can do to make our voices heard in effective ways. While neither Trump nor Bibi will be with us forever, their legacies – and especially the fears they have engendered – will continue to add to the violence and belligerence in the entire region for years to come.
Let’s unpack these issues one by one and see where we are and what we might do about it.
On the Iran deal, there is little we can accomplish. The question is whether the European powers, together with Russia and China, who also have a stake in a non-nuclear Iran, can make it worth Iran’s while to maintain the safeguards intended to be locked in through the JCPOA. President Rouhani of Iran is no western-style democrat, but he represents the only effective domestic opposition to the hardline Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC). We should be empowering him in that opposition, instead of reinforcing the IRGC’s worldview that the West is single-mindedly bent on regime change. The only hopeful development that can be discerned is that Iran apparently is by no means eager to get into a war with Israel or the US, would prefer to stay in the JCPOA, and may calibrate its actions accordingly, perhaps even including its military activities in Syria.
With regard to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, they seem to be at rock bottom, which by no means precludes their getting even worse. Nonetheless, it appears that, in the short run, the current Israeli policy of ferocious and murderous response to any Palestinian initiative to change the status quo is succeeding, at least for the moment. I cannot believe that, at some not-too-distant point, Israel’s almost casual killing of over 100 Palestinians and wounding of over 7000(!) more will not come back and haunt us.
Israel’s actions on the Gaza border have already been raked over from every conceivable point of view and it is hard to add much new to the acrimonious debate, except this, based on years of observing and studying Hamas. Black-and-white scenarios that separate the “innocent” (ordinary) Palestinians from the “guilty” (Hamas, along with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other such groups) rarely approximate reality, nor do they lead to effective policy, except in the shortest of runs. Hamas has now ruled Gaza for exactly ten years and, since Israel makes it virtually impossible to leave, everyone living there must find a way to coexist with Hamas in power. It seems clear that the “March of Return” was originally planned by independent groups (which should not even exist under the black-white scenario) but Hamas became a major player more recently.
There is no doubt that Hamas members (whether designated as operatives, soldiers, or terrorists) were among the tens of thousands of marchers, but there is likewise no doubt that the vast majority of them were ordinary Gazans, who are utterly fed up with the impossible conditions under which they have lived for more than ten years, and refused to heed the Israeli admonitions to stay home. Belief that this continuous experience of horrendous living conditions with no realistic hope for change is what brought out the large majority of marchers is invidiously labelled the “Hamas narrative.” The other (Israeli) narrative is that the innocents were paid, forced, or both, and that they were simply a smokescreen for the terrorist arms, bombs, and kites. In other words, ‘ordinary’ Gazans are solely pawns, to be passively trotted out to be killed or wounded whenever Hamas wishes.
This fantasy defies belief. As many have pointed out, any self-respecting person cooped up in Gaza for 10 years would almost certainly seize the opportunity to get the world’s attention for their plight, whether fan or foe of Hamas. And Hamas is eager to come to some sort of open terms with Israel. Just last week, it offered Israel a 10 year hudna (truce), which was immediately and contemptuously rejected by Defense Minister Lieberman. Israel, as by far the stronger party, can and must take the lead in transforming Gaza’s reality, of course taking into account Hamas’s response as well. There is no doubt that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and calls for its destruction, but it also appears to accept the two-state solution in Article 20 its most recent ‘Document of General Principles and Policies’. Israel must try to ‘engage’ Hamas since it knows it can’t destroy it. Instead, it seems to hew forever to its long- failed policy based on hope that Gazans will throw out Hamas if only their situation becomes horrendous enough, and that they will blame Hamas for the death and wounds inflicted by IDF snipers.
Of course the dichotomy between “peaceful, unarmed marchers” and “terrorists invading Israel” is simplistic and false. Among the thousands of unarmed marchers there clearly were some who were determined to kill or capture Israelis if the opportunity arose – and it was indeed the IDF’s responsibility to prevent that opportunity. But the other dichotomy – the one between killing and wounding thousands, on the one hand, and watching passively while the marchers invade Israel, on the other – is equally absurd. The IDF and Israeli police have successfully and nonviolently confronted numerous Haredi marchers in Jerusalem and evacuated settlers from Gaza in 2005, so it is not exactly without experience in this area.
Finally, there is the specious argument that because the marchers’ official slogan called for the ‘Right of Return’, they were therefore bent on Israel’s destruction and that justified anything the IDF could do to stop them. The fact is that the 1948 refugees and their descendants, who comprise the vast majority of Gaza’s population, will continue to demand RoR until some realistic alternative is presented to them, such as a genuine Palestinian state. Those marchers were not in any way an existential threat to Israel, and should have been dealt with as protesters, not invaders.
So I want to invite all those who feel like I do about these calamities to do what they can, whether working on the midterm elections, supporting the many active and progressive Israeli NGO’s working for positive change, or helping to convince their friends and neighbors that this is not the way, and Bibi’s Israel can and must be changed. And also, please support Partners for Progressive Israel in our educational activities that demonstrate a different way to support Israel, that does not involve lining up behind Bibi.
Paul Scham, President