Ibrahim Project, June 2: Primer on Israel/Palestine before takeoff

← Previous: Ibrahim Project, June 1: Orientation in D.C.

This is part of a series of posts on my participation in the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project during June 2012.

Mark’s lecture on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Before our departures, the group had lunch at Bistro Français in Georgetown, where Mark delivered a lecture to prepare us intellectually for the trip. Mark’s primary realm of expertise is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so this was the focus of the conversation. He started by talking about the Arab Spring in this context—phenomena that he called the “Israeli summer,” where Israel’s middle class rose against increasing costs and huge inequality, and the “Palestinian fall,” in which Palestinians gave up on negotiations and Abbas took their statehood bid to the UN. Also, Israel has itself moved the focus away from peace with the Palestinians—and instead toward war with Iran. With concerns growing about the Iranian nuclear program, IAEA demands with lack of compliance, and a loss of faith in diplomacy and sanctions, for many people the situation is basically, “either Iran gets the bomb or gets bombed.” This is the foremost foreign-policy concern of Israeli politicians at the moment, so it’s easy to see why there is now such little traction on the Palestinian issue.

Mark devoted more time talking about the Palestinians than such politicians, however. He noted that the dominant paradigm for peace, the two-state solution, is in danger—because now, “between the seas,” there are four distinct entities:

  1. The State of Israel, based on UN Resolution 181 that was rejected by the Palestinians
  2. A growing settler “proto-state” in the West Bank
  3. The remaining Palestinian land in the West Bank, controlled by the PA
  4. The Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas

In this respect, the two-state paradigm has duplicated itself: there are essentially both two Israeli states and two Palestinian ones.

Within entity #2, the settler movement, there are further distinctions. Mark pointed out that many settlers are willing to leave if paid—like the East Jerusalem settlers, for example. On the other hand, the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of settlement councils, seeks to turn the land into Israel-proper, and previously, settlers had refused to leave Gaza for money. Then there is the serious phenomenon of “hilltop youth,” who resort to violent resistance and do not truly recognize proper Israel or its government; they believe they have the power to fight “de-occupation” and also want the settlements to be the “real” Jewish state.

This seriously threatens the Palestinians in the West Bank, who gave up 78% of the surrounding land to Israel and would like to have the remaining 22% completely. Mark described the “culmination of the Palestinian national movement” in this agreement to a peace deal with two states. Unfortunately, the rise of the settlement enterprise directly clashes with that ideal. But the Israeli government can’t actually annex the West Bank because of its Palestinian majority—doing so would require “either a non-Jewish state, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing,” the latter two of which Mark thinks the settlers would be fine with doing.

Over a decade ago, at the time of the Oslo Accords, it seemed like the two-state solution was close to becoming reality. But Mark was there when Arafat received the news of Rabin’s assassination—he said that Arafat “turned to jello,” realizing that “not even the Israeli Prime Minister was safe” in what clearly “was not a utopian democracy.” In his mind, this meant the Arabs could not have it either. He’d truly believed that Rabin could have sold the peace, and so with Rabin’s tragic death, Arafat lost his naïveté.

Now, the picture is quite different, with a strong settler presence in the West Bank, and the stronghold of “annihilatory” Hamas, with its “anti-Semitic covenant,” ruling the Gaza Strip. Mark said that a plausible two-state solution requires “addition through subtraction”—of the settlers and Hamas. The Israeli government must have the “spine” to reject the settlers in order to avoid national suicide and the execution of Zionism; the “overwhelming priority” of Israelis is not the land, but a Jewish state. This begs considering how much money would it take to buy out “the 60% of settlers who are willing to leave.” Personally, knowing how much money the destructive settlement enterprise takes from the Israeli government, I don’t think spending more or less money on their removal should be that controversial a notion, especially given that it would lead to developments that are actually positive.

Mark also talked a little about what he does not believe is “a Jewish lobby” but actually Jewish “lobbies.” There is, obviously, AIPAC, but also the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—which is less of a lobby and doesn’t necessarily have “real” power, because many/most of the members disagree with some AIPAC positions, leading it to have more “nominal” power, in its supporting names. He believes the lobby is strengthened by Islamophobia—for Israel is painted as a “little America” in the “terrible Middle East.” Recently, this fact has become a more common subject of discussion, as the Anti-Defamation League condemns rampant attacks on American mosques but faces criticisms for often aligning with people who incite the Islamophobia that causes them. This is just one of many aspects of the larger realm of pro-Israel politics in America.

Back on the subject of Israeli politics, Mark reinforced different things that need to be done to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, including: Israel standing up to settlers, the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas (which he noted was now being attempted for the 13th time), and a new electoral commission under the PA in order to update the electoral roles of the Gazans.

He said it’s not certain whether we are going from a “four-state reality” to two states, claiming there’s no “inevitability” of peace, but no “impossibility” of it either—just many contingencies. For example, at Bill Clinton’s Camp David, Israel brought up the idea of land swaps—which Mark described as a “give and get, win-win” situation, illustrating that this is not a zero-sum game. Olmert and Abbas also negotiated endlessly; at the end of his term, Olmert offered a plan giving 98% of the West Bank to Palestinians, with only 2% land swaps—but Abbas rejected it. Land swaps seem to help the settler issue—so, given this solution, Israelis think that the biggest problem is that they have no “real partner” for peace. There’s often a dichotomy drawn between “good” and “bad” Palestinians—those who reject violence vs. those who do not, or those who recognize Israel vs. those who do not. This is wrong, of course. The picture clearly isn’t that black-and-white, and the purpose of this trip was to see that for ourselves.

The group posing with our awesome (and I mean awesome) D.C. driver before entering the airport. He was a hilarious guy who made D.C. traffic enjoyable, chatting with us and showing us pictures of his children. And, when we pointed out he was driving pretty well with no hands, he said “Of course I can—I’m from Gaza!”

We finished lunch and took these thoughts with us straight to the airport. After waking up in Germany, hopping on a connecting flight and briefly stopping in Saudi Arabia, we finally arrived in Oman, marking the beginning of our journey in the Middle East.

Next: Ibrahim Project, June 3: Student introductions & arrival in Oman →

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