Monthly Archives: June 2012

Israel/West Bank trip, day 5

(Tel Aviv) After talking last night with the editor of the very liberal Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz (Aluf Benn), I’m thinking that the most interesting question is which of these two views most accurately represents the Israeli government:

  1. We (the state of Israel) offered to remove almost all the Jewish settlements as part of a reasonable peace deal that Yasser Arafat rejected. We would do the same again. We have continued to build settlements, but we are willing to remove them for peace. We have been building them because the domestic politics of stopping them is too difficult in the absence of a peace offer, and also because we have a right to a Plan B. Plan A is peace through a treaty, but Plan B is putting settlements on the high ground so that we can strengthen our defense against rockets.
  2. Previous Israeli Prime Ministers offered to remove most of the settlements, but (thank God) the Palestinians didn’t take that deal. Right now, we are deliberately trying to build as many as we can so that we can change the facts on the ground in Israel’s favor. If we ever agree to exchange land for peace, we will cede much less land than we would have offered in 2000. At most, for every two new settlements, we’ll renounce one, and that will be a better deal.

I’m not saying that 1 is OK, but 2 is decidedly worse. Now, states do not actually have opinions, plans, or goals; people do. It is most likely that the individual decision-makers in Israel–who range from voters to the Prime Minister–hold a mix of these two opinions, along with others. In that sense, there is no real truth about the Israeli position–unless the government decides to sign a deal.

I’ve written political commentary all week. Heading home on Sunday (and before taking a week off from blogging), I’ll sign off with a few random observations about the West Bank and Israel as I have experienced them.

  • The Israeli Defense Forces conscript all Jewish 18-year-olds except the ultra-Orthodox. So there are units of very young adults in uniform all over the place, especially in Jerusalem. The Israeli army is famously informal, not exactly spit-and-polish. You see teenage female soldiers with pony tails and earrings, and skinny guys who look about 16 lounging around on duty. I have never seen such un-threatening military units in my life. On the other hand, several people have told me that the border police and regular police are aggressive and disliked.
  • Israelis are genuinely afraid about a whole range of what they call “existential threats” (from an Iranian bomb to social disintegration), but Tel Aviv is a real estate boom town, and lots of Jews who hold US passports and advanced degrees are choosing to live here instead of LA or Boston. In that sense, the market’s prognosis is optimistic and secure.
  • I don’t want to sound like Tom Friedman, but clearly there is another profound division in this region, beside the Arab/Jewish divide: the 21st century versus anti-modernists. Rawabi, the planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, has more in common with Tel Aviv, which is Miami-Beach-on-the-Mediterranean, than either city has with Muslim or Orthodox Jewish religious communities around Jerusalem. We’ve met Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs who are, to my eyes and ears, indistinguishable. I’m sure that if you forced them to discuss who’s been responsible for the conflict between Israel and the Arab world since 1900, they would disagree. But what they share is a relative lack of interest in such matters, along with a common fascination with high tech. That doesn’t mean that Shimon Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East” (Saudi tourists on the Tel Aviv beaches) is realistic, but both communities have their modernists.
  • Notwithstanding the millions of times you have been told that Israel is small, crossing back and forth across the security wall and the Palestinian zone of control drives home how tiny the distances are and how complex is the political landscape. Major Palestinian and Israeli populations are not just nearby on the map; they are in plain sight and hailing distance of each other.
  • Little children here, whether Arab or Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian, religious or secular, are notably cute, and I really hope they can all live safely together some day.

Israel/West Bank trip, day 4

(Tel Aviv) Since I last blogged, we have met with Vice Prime Minister (and Lieutenant General) Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon,* Ethiopian Israeli politician Shlomo Molla (who’s very talented, by the way), human rights attorney Hanny Ben Israel (who painted a fairly horrifying picture of Israeli treatment of African refugees), an entrepreneur named Amir Peleg, at his startup’s office, and two vintners, at their vineyard.

The number of people we have interviewed is now approaching 20. One way in which they vary is their ability to articulate the perspective of opponents or enemies. Some Israelis like to talk about the Israeli and Palestinian “narratives,” and they preface their remarks with empathetic summaries of both sides’ stories. On the other hand, some people just speak for their side and may take pains to dismiss the other perspective. Dr. Abdallah Abdallah of the Palestinian Authority, for example, said that Israelis’ security concerns were “imaginary.” Settler leader Israel Harel said that Palestinians are just Jordanians.

Normally, I would argue that being able to articulate the other side’s views is both a moral and intellectual achievement. It broadens your mind and can constrain your own interests. Once you have explained the beliefs and hopes of your historical enemy with reasonable accuracy and justice, it becomes harder to dismiss their interests. Even if you don’t sincerely care about their “narrative,” expressing it constrains you in the way that la Rouchefoucauld meant when he said that “hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.”

But let me complicate that a bit. Being able to articulate your opponent’s deepest beliefs and values is also a source of power and influence. In bilateral discussions, it makes you more effective, because you know what to offer and what buttons you can push. In dealing with third parties (such as my colleagues and me, on this trip), it makes you far more persuasive. Compared to a person who dismisses his opponents completely, one who begins with a thoughtful and respectful version of their “narrative” comes across as much more reliable and decent. An example would be Colonel Danny Tirzah, the man who designed and built Israel’s security barrier with the West Bank. He expressed great sensitivity for Palestinian concerns and identity, and he ended with a devout wish that the wall may be torn down so that both peoples can live in peace. By the way, he is good-looking, funny, confident, and completely fluent in English. But what if the wall has been placed–as the Palestinians claim–in locations designed to maximize the amount of territory the Israelis can settle before they cede portions of the West Bank in negotiations? Then all Tirzah’s sensitivity and breadth of understanding is irrelevant, and we should be critics of the wall. In advocating for his side, he is far more effective than a Palestinian or an Israeli who comes across as a hard-liner lacking empathy. But that doesn’t mean that he is right. I see variation in sophistication on both sides, but my limited sample suggests that Israel’s official representatives and negotiators are generally more effective communicators than their Palestinian counterparts. Whether that reflects greater moral maturity or sheer PR superiority would be a matter for debate.

By the way, is that thing that Danny Tirzah built a wall, a fence, or a security barrier? Almost every descriptive word in this place is controversial, starting with what to call the place itself. Is the region to my east right now Erez Israel, Judea and Samaria, Zone C of the Palestinian National Authority, a part of Palestine, the Holy Land, the West Bank, or the Occupied Territories? Examples like this are legion. To name one more, are the people moving into Israeli territory from Eritrea migrants, refugees, or infiltrators?

These words combine facts and values in way that Bernard Williams (developing an idea from J. L. Austin) called “thick.” A classic example would be murder. In order for that word to apply, someone has to be killed and the killing must be unjustifiable and deliberate. So moral and empirical considerations combine. We often try to separate the two, but I have long been convinced that they interpenetrate–or, to put it another way, reality is best described by thick terms; propositions that include thick terms most closely approximate the truth. What is true is both accurate/valid and good/just.

To a large extent, the rhetorical contest in this region is about incompatible “thick” concepts. But there are also disagreements about basic facts. I am keeping a list of purely factual claims that are disputed among respectable groups, e.g., between centrist Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. Example: Was the wall/security fence the main or sole reason for the decline in suicide bombings? Answering that question would hardly resolve the larger issues, but I would like to know.

*Actually canceled. I composed this before I that last meeting occurred.

notes from the West Bank

Today, we talked to senior officials of the Palestinian authority in the Palestinian Authority’s capital of Ramallah. We also visited a brand-new, planned Palestinian city called Ramabi. And before we entered the West Bank, we toured the Israeli separation wall with the colonel who had planned it.

If you’re a pessimist about Palestine, its future is Ofra. If you’re an optimist, its future is Ramabi. If you’re a realist, its future is Ramallah. I will explain …

Ofra is the Israeli settlement we visited yesterday. One of the first settlements, it dates from the 1970s and still has a feel of that era. For one thing, it’s a dusty place that looks as if it’s held together with duct tape and staples. You are greeted by a large photo of one of the community’s members who was killed in Lebanon in 1982, and his big mustache, grin, and tan make him look like someone out of “Easy Rider.” (The landscape looks exactly like Arizona, by the way: high desert.) But the prevailing ideology reminded me of Mississippi circa 1950. We were told that the Arabs who live all around were originally grateful to the Israeli settlers for bringing them medical care and other modern conveniences, but then outside agitators turned them into terrorists. Whatever you think about it, Ofra is all about the past: the past of David and Solomon, and the past of 1947 and 1967.

Within sight of Ofra, Ramallah is bustling, dynamic, and large (maybe 25,000 to Ofra’s 3,200 people). Most of the city seems to be a construction site right now. Signs advertise a mix of international brands (Dominos, Hyundai), local bargains, and trademark violations like “Star Bucks” coffee shops. I am not a good judge of income and development, but it looked to me like an upper-middle-income city, by global standards. Public services look a little weak (unpaved roads, for example), but the apartments and stores look modern and comfortable. The people on the streets are diverse, some religious and others secular. I can’t read the signs in Arabic, but to go by images, Disney is a more pervasive force than either Islam or nationalism.

The Palestinian Authority’s officials were smart and knowledgeable. They made many valid points. But their argument was all about past grievances with Israel, and their only answer when someone asked how they could obtain peace was to hope that the Americans or liberal Israelis would recognize the injustice of their side and back down. Their goal was to persuade us to sympathize with them as victims.

Meanwhile, Palestinian businesspeople are building Ramabi on a vast scale on barren hills north of Ramallah. It will cost $1 billion to erect and will provide jobs and homes in an environmentally friendly, postmodern, urban, planned community. The company is corporate, on the global model, with nice logos, smoothly produced PowerPoints, gifts for visitors, and financial lingo. The staff emphasize their cooperation with Israeli companies and the substantial number of Jewish investors, who are taking a risk on building in a politically volatile region because they believe that Ramabi is the best thing that could happen to Israel. (I agree, by the way.) The leaders of Ramabi have legitimate grievances with Israel–they can’t get a permit to build a convenient access road to the nascent city, and when checkpoints are closed, their trucks can’t get through. Politics is inescapable, and in fact, the main reason for the city is Palestinian patriotism. Bashar Masri, a major international business person who happens to be Palestinian, wants to invest in his home country to strengthen it. But the company tries to be minimally divisive. Their politics is explicitly win/win, not zero-sum, Above all, they are thinking about the future, not the past.

In Ramallah, I asked about the combination that Israeli negotiator Tal Becker had recommended: Israelis should acknowledge Palestinian suffering and take some responsibility for it (implying also that many Arabs lived in what is now Israel), and Palestinians should acknowledge that the Jewish people have historic roots in Palestine. I noted that recognizing Jewish origins in Palestine does not commit one to endorse Zionism; it is just a matter of accepting a historical truth and recognizing the sincerity of the Zionists’ motives.

Dr. Abdallah Abdallah is Deputy Commissioner of FATAH’s International Relations committee and Chair of the Political Committee of the Palestinian Authority. He gave a long answer to my question; I wish I had transcribed it. I believe he basically wandered among four different themes: (1) just because you lived somewhere in the past doesn’t mean you should own that place now–do the Native Americans have a right to America? (2) The ancient Jews lived in parts of the Holy Land, but not in most of it. (3) The Jewish people may or may not have lived in Palestine in ancient times. Some Jewish historians doubt the reality of the diaspora, and he doesn’t have opinions about ancient history. And (4) the Jews conquered Palestine from the Arabs in ancient times, coming up from Egypt, which makes them one of many “waves” of conquerors, just like the Romans.

Now, Dr. Abdallah may actually believe that the Jews originated in Palestine. Earlier, in an entirely different context, he had noted that all three Abrahamic faiths originated here, which sounds like an acknowledgement that Judaism started in ancient Israel. But what struck me was a refusal to state publicly something that Israeli liberals desperately want to hear, an explicit acknowledgement of ancient Jewish history. Arguably, what he says shouldn’t matter. I doubt it matters much to right-wing Israelis, who don’t care what Arabs think. But if it does matter, it’s for this reason: to doubt the reality of the Jewish historical narrative is to read Zionists as sinister conspirators, European colonialists who invented a wild excuse for seizing Arab land. And as long as you believe that, you have no reason to make a sincere deal with Israelis today.

Israel, day 3

(Jerusalem) Since I last posted, we have met with an Arab member of the Knesset, Ahmad Tibi, in the Knesset building. One of the founders of the settler movement, Israel Harel, showed us around his controversial West Bank settlement of Ofra (within sight of the settler outpost that is being evacuated today). We’ve also talked with Vice Commander Bentzi Gruber, who led a brigade into Gaza in the last Israeli operation there; Tal Becker, chief of the Israeli team in the Annapolis negotiations; and Yossi Klein Halevi, journalist and scholar. Tomorrow, we’re going to Ramallah, where we’ll hear more from the Palestinian leadership.

After experiencing all these personalities and perspectives–and so much pain, pride, sorrow, and fear–I’ll just mention one theme that recurred in at least four of the conversations: Arab moral recognition for Israel. Tal Becker said that Israel needs to acknowledge Palestinian suffering much more than it has, and Palestinians must recognize that Jews were a nation in Israel in ancient times (even if they contest the legitimacy of the modern state).

By the way, I am withholding judgment on whether Palestinians deny the Jews’ historic connection to the region. In 2000, the Palestinian negotiating team told Bill Clinton there was no evidence that Jews had lived in Israel in ancient times, but I am not sure whether that remains their position or how widely it is shared. What I do know is that we have met Israelis who hold at least four views on the topic:

  1. Palestinian recognition of the Jews’ historical role in Israel (and hence the sincerity of Israelis’ claims to the land) is a precondition for any kind of serious peace negotiation. I told Halevi I understood why he wanted this recognition–as a moral and emotional matter–but I didn’t see what it had to do with his security. He replied that open recognition of the validity of the Jewish position would reduce the danger to Israel in the whole Arab world.
  2. Palestinian recognition of the historical link should be part of a deal, combined with Israeli recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over their territory. This pair of statements is not a precondition for negotiations but should be part of the outcome. I think this was Tal Becker’s view. [Later: I should partly correct that. I think Becker would like the Israeli side to start acknowledging Palestinian suffering now, because it is the right thing to do. He just doesn’t think that Palestinian acknowledgement of Israeli historicity should be a precondition for negotiation.]
  3. Palestinians’ views about Israel’s status really aren’t important. A deal is all that’s needed, and a deal should be accepted if it protects Israel’s security. I think Commander Gruber took that position.
  4. Palestinians do not have a legitimate claim to sovereignty, so recognizing their nationhood certainly should not be traded for Palestinian recognition of the Jewish people’s connection to the land, which is manifest and absolute. I am reading between the lines in thinking that would be Israel Harel’s view.

I am not sure about the strategic implications of these options, but it’s true that the Palestinians have suffered and been humiliated, and it’s true that the Jews lived in the Holy Land in ancient times and now experience their presence as a “return.” Acknowledging the truth is generally good for the speaker; it’s a matter of integrity, in the root sense of wholeness or oneness. In general, one ought to speak truth regardless of whether truth is spoken in return.

Israel, day 2

(Jerusalem) I am here on a political study tour; our main business is a large number of meetings with experts and representatives of various sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society. I won’t try to narrate the whole trip but will touch on selected themes.

An Arab Christian Israeli Justice who can’t sing “Hatikvah”

One of the people whom we met today was Justice Salim Joubran of the Israeli Supreme Court, who (among his many other distinctions) is the only Arab member of the court. He has been criticized in some quarters for standing but not singing along with the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” whose words include: “As long as in the heart, within / A Jewish soul still yearns, / And … an eye still gazes toward Zion; /Our hope is not yet lost …/ To be a free people in our land.”

Earlier in the same day, we had visited the national Holocaust museum and memorial, Yad Vashem, where “Hatikvah” plays the following central role. Near the entrance, one sees footage of a group of Jewish children in Eastern Europe in the year 1930, singing that song. One then passes through a powerful chronological exhibition about the Shoah, in which all of those children were murdered. At the end of the exhibition, the light that has been visible in the distance turns out to be a view of Jerusalem itself, and “Hatikvah” is heard. The implications are left unstated, and any specific formulation would prove controversial even among Israelis, but it seems implied that the children’s hope was redeemed by the formation of the State of Israel. Or perhaps Israel is the redemption of their hopes.

But of course, their hope is not Justice Joubran’s, nor could it be. Twenty percent of the citizen population are not Jews. Mr. Joubran’s presence on the Israeli Supreme Court helps confer legitimacy on the Israeli justice system, especially because he is a passionate defender of that system. He insisted to us that Jews and Arabs not only live together in Israel, they enjoy living together.

Here are three ways of thinking about this:

  1. Jews were killed in Europe because there was no Jewish state to protect them. The state of Israel is and must be Jewish. That can be true if a few Muslims and Christians hold public office (which has been the case since 1948), but “Hatikvah” must express the national creed. An Arab Israeli official should at least stand in respect for the song (as Justice Joubran does), and perhaps a clear majority of voters and officials should always actually endorse its words.
  2. The Jews were killed because they were Jews. Who are Jews?–the people who hold the “hope of two thousand years”: a Jewish state in Zion. Thus Israel was a spiritual, redemptive response to the Holocaust. This is a different premise from #1 but it leads to a similar conclusion.
  3. Jews were killed in Europe because the institutions and norms that protect human rights failed. Liberal democratic states (and citizens committed to preserve those states) are needed to prevent human rights abuses. Israel is an answer to the Holocaust if and only if it is a liberal democratic state that treats all its citizens equally without respect to creed and ethnicity, where the leaders represent the population, and where everyone has unfettered freedom of conscience.

In what sense is Jerusalem an old city?

Today, I stepped into the space where Jesus is said to have been buried and then walked close to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Those are old places. Everyone insists that Jerusalem is old, and that is true in some respects. Everywhere you look, important events happened (or are believed to have happened) long ago. Also, anywhere you dig, you’re going to find layer upon layer of human settlement.

But most of the actual buildings are new. The city expanded about seven-fold in the 1900s, necessitating much new construction. Almost all of the Christian churches and monasteries–very prominent features on the cityscape–were built after 1870 (which would make them relatively new in Boston). Even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, founded by St. Helen in the 4th century, the walls are much newer and most of the furnishings and decorations were added after 1850.

This is because the city has been relentlessly flattened. I am reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem; A Portrait. I’m only up to the beginning of the Common Era, and already Jerusalem has been raised to the ground at least eight times. That process has never stopped; for example, the Jordanians raised the Jewish quarter of the Old City in 1948, and Israelis still knock down old buildings today. The result is a comparative lack of major old buildings compared to other Mediterranean cities that were capitals centuries ago.

The fact that the city has been flattened so many times is not by itself unusual. My guidebook says that the relatively little known town of Beit She’an sits on top of 18 previous cities, each ruined or abandoned. And the same could be said of many other places in Europe and Asia. But there is a difference. In Jerusalem, people care very deeply about the buildings that are gone. This started in the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews made a central metaphor of their lost city and destroyed Temple. That was really the beginning of Judaism. Their metaphor had at least four important features: the place was endowed with enormous significance, a destroyed structure was treated as supremely holy, its destruction was understood as punishment for sin, and the fact that another people now owned the place was viewed as sacrilege. That set the pattern for how Jews and the other Abrahamic faiths have always viewed this city.

In short, in Jerusalem, it’s not the physical structures that are old. It’s the ghosts of the former buildings that make the city ancient.