Category Archives: Israel

The Hypocrisy of neutrality

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This has been on my mind for a long time, and it is time that I say something.

For the last three years I have been extremely active in a coexistence program that brings Israeli teens (Jewish and Arab) to the U.S. for a two week intensive immersion in shared society, living together, working together, doing service projects, public speaking. I have found it to be a very valuable experience, for them and for those they interact with, and I think it is a key element to an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It isn’t the only part of the solution, it is one important part.

This year’s delegation has been in the U.S. (in Bloomington-Normal) the past ten days, and those who follow me on social media will notice that I have not made a single post about it. Why? Well, because I am no longer part of the local advisory board. Why would I leave the board of a group that I think is so important? Well, it wasn’t exactly by choice.

In January I learned that the parent organization had created a series of new rules, one of which was particularly unacceptable.  All local volunteers could neither speak, write, nor take any positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Complete neutrality was required. Hmmm… I understand that for an employee of the organization, it is important for there to be no pre-conceived biases, but for volunteers? This struck me as authoritarian and over-the-top. As most people who know me know, I do a lot of advocacy work on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. I am a vocal supporter of a two state solution — two states, two peoples, one peace. I do this through my work with Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. I have spent fifty days in Israel and Palestine meeting organizations and people, doing fact-finding, and studying the issues at play. I also do similar work promoting a two state solution with various Jewish Federations. At ISU, I advise Hillel, the Jewish Student Union, and have worked hard not just to better understand Jewish culture and religious beliefs, but have done my best to expose the students to the same work I do on two states for two peoples. And, I write on the topic – here in my personal blog, and in my occasional column in the Times of Israel, a Jerusalem-based online newspaper.

So when told I could either stop writing and speaking out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or continuing to work in the co-existence project, my choice was simple. I am not going to remain silent,or neutral. I have many Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian friends. I advocate for ALL of them. Everything I write, even with criticizing the Boycott Divest Sanctions Movement, focuses on self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Everything I write is intended to promote that one goal: two states, two peoples, and one peace. The idea that volunteers need to be completely neutral on the peacemaking issues that so much time, energy, and talent is invested is nonsensical. While it makes sense that paid staff need to remain neutral and not speak out on issues, to impose that on volunteers — volunteers whose professional work is focused on justice and conflict resolution is incredibly short-sighted. There is a hypocrisy in thinking that one can advocate for peace while remaining completely neutral.  Yes, an organization can create whatever rules it wants. I accept that.  I can also decide how to focus my energies.

I am not going to suggest that I don’t have biases. If there is one thing you learn in studying narratives, it is that we all have our own narrative. So, yes, I work with Jewish organizations; yes, I write a column for an Israeli newspaper. And yes, I work to promote the two state solution while opposing efforts to delegitimize Israel. I am also a public intellectual. I do research on the shared society efforts and the efficacy of “co-existence” programs, while also engaging in public advocacy. Will some view me as being a “Zionist” or pro-Israel because of my work, and the time I have spent in Israel? Sure. I am Pro-Israel. I am also Pro-Palestine, and Pro-Peace.

It makes me sad that I can not interact with the current group, or be a part of the program anymore, but I remain committed to the participants and teachers I have worked with in the past three years. My friends in Haifa, Nazareth, Rama, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Eilat are why this work is so important. It is more important than any one program’s short-sighted policy edicts.

Listening to the narratives

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As those of you who follow me on Facebook might have been able to tell from my photo posts, the last week has been quite the adventure.  I was able to participate on an Academic Partner for Peace study trip to Israel, focused on conflict-resolution and peacemaking.  I traveled with a group of faculty from across the U.S. and Canada, joined by two close friends from the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel Action Network.  I had joined in on a few days of a similar interfaith trip in 2016, so I knew what I was in for — a remarkable opportunity to hear multiple narratives, and meet a wide variety of people, and experience Israel and the Palestinian West Bank in ways that the vast majority of visitors never do.   

We heard from government officials from the Foreign Affairs ministry, we met with leftist Israeli NGOs, we spoke with Israeli-Arabs and traveled to the oldest Peace Center in Israel, to learn about efforts at bi-lingual education and building a shared society within Israeli schools.  We met with a Palestinian doctor in Ramallah, and head of a medical relief agency, who espoused the strongest viewpoint of Fatah — the Palestinian National Authority — and then  we met with a Palestinian business man building a multi-billion-dollar city in the desert, which is either SimCity Palestine or a real effort at a middle-class Palestinian existence.  We visited with Settlers and Palestinians in the Etzion bloc who were actually engaged in efforts at shared society.  We met faculty at Hebrew University in the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.  We heard from Arab-Israeli political activists and from women who are “waging peace” because “the men aren’t doing to well of a job at it,” putting pressure on politicians, and learning how to effectively lobby .  We had a security briefing by a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Force about external threats, while on a mountain-top overlook in the Golan Heights, while looking into Syria and Lebanon, and heard gunfire in the distance.   We traveled to the immediate outskirts of the Gaza Strip, visiting a town (Sderot) that regularly is subject to rocket-attacks from Hamas.  We visited a Moshav  adjacent to Gaza (a kibbutz-like community) in which every building is a bunker.  We learned about the ways they try to live a normal life, while being in constant threat from rockets.  We met with a lawyer and activist who is trying to achieve equality for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, while overlooking the security barrier which literally divides part of East Jerusalem in two.  

What we did not do, was hear one voice, one narrative.  It was the complete opposite of many mainline protestant-organized trips.  We learned multiple narratives, we were forced to grapple with a wide variety of perspectives, and try to make sense of them, identifying the incongruity and dissonance that such an exploration can provide.  This was not my first trip, and not my first time hearing many of these narratives, but this week expanded my understanding, and provided new context.  It reinforced the need to listen to the narratives.

I can’t pick any one thing that was most compelling, as so many were, but I will forever remember how being in a space and learning about it is so dramatically different than hearing a talk in a hotel meeting space.  Standing on top of Mount Bental in the Golan Heights, standing a few hundred meters from the Gaza Strip, or learning about the geopolitics of Jerusalem, while over-looking the city, looking at French Hill (a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem – or should I say a settlement), two Palestinian neighborhoods, and then looking across to the largest Israeli settlement, Maale Adumin, splitting the West Bank, practically in half, and beyond it to the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan, all provided a visual element that dramatically enhanced the speaker’s message.  Throughout it all, I tried to listen for the unique narratives, and to find the similarities and differences. 

I could write about many experiences, and I will in the next several weeks do that as I go through my notes.  Today, I am enjoying the benefits of being 100 yards from the Mediterranean sea, taking two days of rest and relaxation, before returning to Jerusalem for more meetings and explorations.    The beach awaits.

Freedom for two peoples

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I am now blogging for the Times of Israel, an English-language newspaper in Jerusalem.   Posts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be posted there, and linked here.

Read my latest here: Freedom for Two Peoples

 

A reflection on two very different perspectives on freedom. Israelis seek to be free from terror. Palestinians seek self-determination. Both are essential to the peace process.

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When history and facts don’t seem to matter: The Presbyterian Church, BDS, and the ‘largely non-violent First Intifada’

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a mainline protestant denomination that has been tied up in the politics of the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel for more than a decade, culminating in a narrow four-vote majority in its 2014 General Assembly (GA) to divest church funds from HP, Motorola, and Caterpillar because of those company’s products being used to violent ends by Israel in the Palestinian territories. The GA tried to claim that its vote to divest was not about joining the BDS movement, but was a statement on socially responsible investment. This was wishful thinking as within 30 minutes of the GA’s vote, the New York Times immediately reported that the Church had been tied to the BDS Movement.

Two years later, the Presbyterian Church nears another General Assembly. This time, the BDS agenda is a bit more nuanced. A task force was commissioned in 2014 to examine the continued viability of the Church’s commitment to a Two State solution. Responsibility for this study fell on the Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), which recently issued a report titled Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Justice Peace, that it is seeking to have endorsed by the GA this summer in Portland, Oregon, when it meets in mid-June. It should surprise no one that the report that was written mimics many of the BDS arguments that have been used again and again.

It does not take even the casual reader long to realize that this report is fundamentally flawed and dishonest at its core. On the very first page, the report provides a brief history of the conflict, in which the First Intifada is described as a “largely non-violent movement that led to the Oslo Accords.” Let that sit in for a minute. The First Intifada was a non-violent movement?  What the authors of the report apparently are trying to do is to equate the Palestinian resistance, then led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO as being on the same moral level as the American civil rights movement, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience to effect change.   King led bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches to over-come legal segregation and accomplish voting rights for Black Americans in the American south.

Yet, the First Intifada included far more than boycotts of Israelis by Palestinians. Arafat’s uprising consisted of widespread throwing of stones, Molotov Cocktails, and assaults on Israeli citizens. It is estimated that over 1100 Palestinians and 200 Israelis were killed between 1987 and 1991. Yes, the First Intifada was far less violent than the Second, which began in September 2000, and was characterized by suicide bombings, and on going acts of terrorism, but in no way was the First Intifada a non-violent movement.   For a report by the Presbyterian Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to even use such language not only questions the intellectual integrity and honesty of the committee itself, but also calls into question the entire report that follows.   The Report treats the conflict between Israel and Palestine as entirely one sided, with Palestinians always the victim, seeking justice, and Israel as always the aggressor.

The ACSWP Report’s duplicity goes beyond this however. The report’s authors make blatant historical errors and distortions of facts that serves to push the Church to pursue an extremely narrow BDS agenda. The Church’s BDS supporters realize that their affiliation with BDS is one that most Presbyterians have little desire to be associated with, so it is not surprising that the report itself never uses the words BDS. Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to avoid mention of the movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. While the words BDS never appear, the message is clear. The historic commitment to a Two State Solution is called into question, and the Report seeks to open the door to consideration of a One State Solution; a solution in which all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would gain Israeli citizenship. What they never say, of course, is that simple math would mean that Israel’s Jewish citizens would immediately become a minority in a Palestinian state. In some ways it is a confidence game, in which ACSWP and its allies seek to push the Church into opening the door for a One State Solution by approving a report that delegitimizes the State of Israel, without ever acknowledging it.

The reality is the conflict is far more complex, and both sides have acted in ways that have perpetuated it over time.   The description of the First Intifada is just one of many problems with the Report, but it illustrates the intellectual dishonesty that the Church’s BDS proponents are willing to engage in. Such a blatant effort to tie violent resistance to the American  civil rights movement is an insult to the faithful members of the Church who are truly interested in pursuing the difficult job of peacemaking.   Hopefully Presbyterian commissioners in Portland will see beyond the smoke and mirrors offered by the Church’s BDS advocates.

Powerful words from Bassem Eid

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I came across this blog post from last year from my friend the Palestinian Human Rights Activist and political commentator, Bassem Eid, .   Powerful words that capture a lot about the role the Palestinians can and should play in building a better future.  This does not exonerate the Israelis, but makes it clear that the problems are not one sided.

 

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/we-palestinians-hold-the-key-to-a-better-future

 

I am a proud Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp and raised a large family. I want peace and prosperity for my people. I want an end to the misery and the destruction.

After 66 years of mistakes and missed opportunities, it is time for us Palestinians to create the conditions for peace and to work for a better future. It is time that we stopped pretending that we can destroy Israel or drive the Jews into the sea. It is time that we stopped listening to Muslim radicals or Arab regimes that use us to continue a pointless, destructive, and immoral war with Israel.

Let’s be realistic. We Palestinians are not doing well.

In Gaza, our schools are controlled by Muslim fanatics who indoctrinate our children, and Hamas uses our civilians as human shields in a losing battle against Israel. Hamas maintains power through violence, and it ensures that money is spent on its arsenal rather than on making the Palestinians’ lives better. While President Abbas is quick to denounce Israel whenever it attacks Hamas, he has absolutely no ability to stop Hamas from provoking Israel.

In the West Bank, while Abbas has been incapable of stopping the construction of Israeli settlements, the only good jobs are with Israeli companies, and the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment) movement is doing its best to take those jobs away from us. Abbas runs a corrupt dictatorship that uses international funds to consolidate its own administration rather than to develop the Palestinian economy.

In East Jerusalem, the PA is so mistrusted that most Palestinians would prefer to live under Israeli rule than under PA rule, and yet some of us seem unable to live in peace with the Jews.

 

When the Church distorts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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A recent study report  by the PCUSA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) demonstrates its one-sided, distortions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, it is exactly what I expected from ACSWP.  The report was commissioned by the 221st General Assembly to study the commitment to the Two State Solution.  I’ll say that the report is less inflammatory than I actually expected, and it treads lightly about being affiliated with the BDS Movement, but the reality is the report will provide commissioners to the General Assembly this summer with a very one-sided view of the conflict.  
A report was released today by NGO Monitor, by a Israeli watch-dog organization, and highlights the biases in the study, and illustrates how one-sided their focus was.
The almost-exclusive reliance on sources that are, in many cases, openly hostile to Israel and present highly distorted analyses resulted in a one-sided distorted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to promoting BDS, the document downplays the threat of terrorism directed against Israeli civilians, while blaming Israel for Palestinian terror attacks and the hostility of neighboring states. Moreover, it views the conflict solely through the prism of ostensible Israeli strength and Palestinian weakness. This narrative patronizes Palestinians by absolving them of responsibility for their own actions and presents a sympathetic view of Palestinian violence.
Look, I understand that everyone approaches this issue from a particular view point (and even NGO Monitor has its own lens and biases).   But my experience in the past several years of being focused on these issues is that when one puts on a narrow lens, and fails to even acknowledge the counter-narratives (there are more than two) in this complex area, then a huge dis-service is done.   This is even more problematic given the emphasis that social justice policy towards Israel and Palestine plays in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Our commissioners are generalists, not public policy experts, and they are asked to vote on hundreds of different issues over a week long assembly, setting the church’s agenda for the next two years or more.  When the advisory bodies of the denomination itself are co-opted and so biased in their views, then everyone loses.    The very naming of individuals to the study group was stacked to promote a specific viewpoint or narrative, and as a result, the  report did just what one would expect.
Just as the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” and its highly inflammatory “study guide” Zionism Unsettled is a front for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, this report should be viewed in the same light.  It presented a highly distorted view of exceedingly complex issues.  For Presbyterians, it is neither decent nor orderly.   These are issues that I take very seriously, and issues which I have dedicated a huge amount of time studying, exploring both sides of the issues.   Neither peace-making nor conflict resolution is served by such approaches.
Think of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a puzzle – like a Rubik’s Cube.  The puzzle can be solved, but it takes a lot of work, and effort.   The ACSWP/IPMN approach is to tear the stickers off the cube, and put them back again, and say “look I have the answer!”   In doing so, we all lose.

An Israeli perspective on the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Starting to Make Sense of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire

When I was in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to listen to Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute (Israel’s equivalent of the Brookings Institution) give a hour-long dinner talk about the state of affairs in Israel today.  Yossi did a remarkable job providing an overview of the development of issues today by putting them into the context of the political developments of the last 30 years.    Many of the things he said appeared this Saturday in a compelling essay in the Wall Street Journal.

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Yossi began his talk by exploring the question of why is it that nobody in Israel really wants to talk about the current wave of violence. And why “everyone is just pretending this is normal time.” His response was intriguing. “One reason is when I don’t have to talk about it, I don’t.  Our coping mechanism is to pretend we live in a normal place and can live normal lives.”

I found that interesting, as in many ways I thought there was a disconnect between the culture I was experiencing, traveling throughout Israel, and the elephant in the room — the low level terror wave that has continued without stop for even a week, in the past five months.  I remember walking down Jaffa Street at night thinking this, or sitting at an outdoor café in Tel Aviv, and thinking, there is this rich culture here, and this strange sense of normality, yet, at any time, really bad things can happen.  Now, to be fair, one can say that about my favorite American city Chicago, too.  Chicago is experiencing a terrible homicide wave right now.  But it doesn’t stop people from continuing with their lives.  The difference, however, is that the murders in Chicago are contained to specific neighborhoods, and in Israel it is far more complex.

Yossi continued by arguing that “we are experts in containing a pretense of a daily life. And it gets us through a situation in which we have been, in one way or another, at war, since the day this country was created.     Three months after the Egypt peace treaty, we were at war in Lebanon.  We shift from border to border from conflict to conflict.”    But he thought there was a deeper reason, for the unwillingness to address it today.  “as a society, we have exhausted our political options.”  To explain this, he provided us with a succinct, yet extremely persuasive overview of the evolution of  Israeli politics since the 1980s.   What follows is my summary of what his lesson in Israeli political history.  All errors are my own.

The 1980s was the decade of unlimited settlement building.  It was the era of the quest for “Greater Israel.”  The era of Menachim Begin.  This was where the “vitality and energy of the Israeli people was focused.  Israel was going to settle the territories won in the 1967 war, the land known as Judea and Samaria – the ancient home of the Jews.   This seemed acceptable because the 1967 war was a defensive one.”  After 1967,

we find ourself in possession of the biblical heartland of the Jewish people, the heart of our story.  These lands,are very small.  Greater Israel is the size of New Jersey.  Without Judea and Samaria, its the size of Rhode Island.  We are really looking at a territory that is geographically intimate, unbearably intimate, in which Israel has profound religious, historical, and security interests.   So in the 1980s it seemed like a fairly inevitable idea, that this is what we were going to do.  No country in our place would have given up this territory, To this day I am convinced of it. Given the threats we face, and the lands we won in a war we didn’t seek, I don’t believe any country in our place would have done any differently.

Things change with the coming of the First intifada which began in Gaza in 1987 and spread to the West Bank.  (Intifada actually means “uprising” in Arabic).   An uprising in which people threw rocks and molotov cocktails.  Israel had control over the entirety of the territories at that time, so the violence was limited in that sense.

But what the First intifada did was make Israelis realize the cost of occupation.  To build Greater Israel meant to occupy another society, and to marginalize another people.  Israelis learned that their quest for Greater Israel was not cost free.  By the end of the first intifada, for many, the dream of Greater Israel was gone, and it was replaced by the era of what he called the “guilty Israeli.”  Many Israelis who had initially supported the settlements came to believe we had pushed the Palestinians into a situation where they had no alternatives.  There was a political awakening by some, but not all Israelis, that there was a counter-security rationale to holding onto the territories, and it ultimately resulted in the 1992 election of Yitzhak Rabin.  He came to office with the slogan “Let’s take Gaza out of Tel Aviv  and Tel Aviv out of Gaza.”  It was the beginning of the push to withdraw from Gaza, and hopefully, the West Bank. The 1990s became the decade of “Peace Now.”

The 1990s was also the time when Israel learned a painful lesson that remains to this day.  The Israelis sought peace, but they had been tricked by Arafat.   Arafat and Rabin together came to sign the Oslo Peace Accords, which paved the way for the Palestinian authority, and the first step towards a two state solution.    But Arafat had played a trick.

“He spoke peace when he went on CNN, but spoke jihad to his own people, when he spoke in Arabic… and no one was listening.  it became clear to me that it was a one way peace process, in which Israel would give up territory, it did not get peace in return.  Instead we experienced more terrorism than at any time in our history.

The decade of Peace Now, gave way to the second intifada.  Arafat returned to Palestine out of exile in Tunisia, and brought with him tens of thousands of PLO soldiers.  “They were at our doorsteps.  It all came to a head in September 2000, at the end of the Oslo agreement.”  Oslo was supposed to be a 7 year process.  Bill Clinton, at the end of his presidency, sought to prevent the beginning of widespread violence that the Palestinian national movement was on the verge of, and proposed splitting Jerusalem, with the Palestinians getting the temple mount, and Israel would get the Western Wall.  More importantly, land swaps would increase so that Palestine would get 96 percent of the original Green Line.  “The Palestinians would have to make one concession — limiting the right of refugees to return to their original lands.  The Israelis accepted the deal.  Arafat walked away from the table, and what followed was four years of the worst terrorism experienced in the nation’s short history.”

The second intifada effectively ended the era of the “guilty Israeli.”  Sympathy for Palestinians and their plight largely went away, and was relegated to the pages of the leftist newspaper Haaretz.  Israeli guilt over the occupation was wiped away by 4 years of terrorism.

What we learned in the second intifada, is that no amount of Israeli concessions, except for Israeli agreement to commit suicide by opening the border to allow hundreds of thousands if not several millions of refugees from 1948 into the Jewish state, which would mean we would lose the one place on the planet where the Jewish people is a majority which is the goal of the Palestinian national movement. The price for peace is my agreement to commit suicide.

Yet, exhausted by the second intifada, the closing act of the “Peace now” period was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005, to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, pulling out of the settlements there, and setting it loose.   The 2000s had become the decade of unilateral disengagement. The end result of that was a complete disaster, with rockets raining down on Southern Israel and Hamas seizing control of the Gaza strip.   After the 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas soundly defeated the Fatah (the political party of the P.L.O.) and gained control of Gaza. Hamas is designated as a U.S. State Department designated terrorist organization, and its very charter is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza left a sour taste in the mouth of most Israelis, and led to the periodic cycle of violence and conflicts between Gaza and Israel, the most recent of which was the 2014 summer war.  Each cycle has made the two state solution of the Oslo accords harder and hard to accomplish, and has pushed many Israelis to simply accept the status quo, in spite of desperately wanting to see a close to a 50 year period of occupation end.  And in many ways, it enabled the right-wing Likud coalition under Bibi Netanyahu to govern for the past eight years, and propelled by the far right, to continue expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

This left Israelis with the status quo, where the devil you know (Fatah in Ramallah, Hamas mostly contained in Gaza) was better than the unknown.  But while the status quo might be the lesser of two evils, it was not without its own problems.  ”

An indefinite occupation would make Israel more and more of a ‘pariah’ and we would find ourselves in more and more complicated and often unbearable moral dilemmas as occupiers, and find ourselves increasingly alone.”   BUT If Israel were to disengage from the West Bank, the assumption is that in a month, or year, or five years, it would not be Mahmoud Abbas in charge, it would be Hamas…  The second threat is we will create a Palestinian state, but the rockets will fall on Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion.  Just as when we withdrew from Gaza in 2005.  For me a Palestinian state is an existential threat if it doesn’t happen, and it is an existential threat if it does happen.

And now the status quo itself is becoming untenable, with stabbing and terrorist attacks continuing for five months, and more and more questions being raised about the stability of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah government, and the future of the Palestinian Authority itself.  Add to that, much greater threats in the region, with ISIS in the Sinai and hovering near the Golan Heights in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The fact that the status quo is becoming untenable, is forcing the issue, making this a very important time.  If the 1980s were the period of Greater Israel, the90s represented Peace Now, and the 2000s focused on unilateral disengagement, it is unclear what this decade, will ultimately be described by.  Time will tell.

Yossi’s Wall Street Journal article suggests that the problem of ISIS and Iran have the potential to bring together a gulf state alignment, but that does not provide an answer to the conflict.  Other Israelis, like Zionist Union and Labor leader Isaac Herzog are arguing for total separation from the Palestinians, as an emergency measure.    My own take (not necessarily Yossi’s) is that efforts at democratization and ways to build a more robust economy in Palestine are the most important thing that can be done.  Economic prosperity can help support a Democratic Palestine.  The current Arab world offers few models for that, but the Israeli democracy could.

 

Rawabi – the Palestinian City of the Future

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One of the key obstacles to implementing a two state solution is ensuring that once a sovereign state, Palestine has a robust enough economy to develop democratic institutions and traditions.  Economic development and cooperation between Israel and Palestine is essential to the eventual resolution of the conflict.   Proponents of the BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement seek to focus their energies on an economic boycott of Israel, and an economic boycott of products produced in any Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  All divestment does is result in hurting Palestinians, and weakening the economy. Divestment does not really impact Israel’s robust economy, but when pressure is put on companies like Sodastream, who operated a plant in the West Bank, and they simply re-locate to another plant in Israel’s south, Palestinian workers lose jobs.

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Rawabi’s entertainment area – an 8,000 seat amphitheater looking up at the city

Positive investment in the Palestinian economy is a far better approach to long-term conflict-resolution.  Positive investment will result in more jobs, and better chances of prosperity – and less likelihood of militancy by young Palestinians. Investment in the economy is not “normalizing” the occupation, it is creating the conditions necessary for a future democratic Palestine.  I recently had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique and impressive efforts at building a future Palestine, in the hills north of Ramallah, at a place called Rawabi (arabic for “the Hills”).

Rawabi is a new city being built on 1500 acres (6 million square meters) of land.  It is the first new city to be built in Palestine since the  1967 war.  Rawabi isn’t a subdivision.  It is an intentional, planned city, with all of the things that are needed to make it a self-sufficient economy.  Think of the old computer game SimCity, where you design an entire city from scratch, and you have Rawabi.  It is in effect, SimCity Palestine.  Currently 20 percent of the 1500 acres are being developed, with 18 neighborhoods intended to provide 5,000 residences.  Rawabi is the brain-child of Palestinian American entrepreneur Bashar Al-Masri, who is the principal investor and owner in the project.   His corporation provided 1/3 of the funding, with additional financial support from the Qatar Investment Authority, and other private investors.

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The city includes a municipal office, schools, commercial center, industrial center, mosque, church, transportation system, clinic, and entertainment areas.  The core area, once complete will house about 25,000 people, and can expand to as many as 40,000 people.  The project began in 2007, ground was broke in 2012, and in August 2015, the first residents moved in.   Right now it is small, only 600 people live in the city, but the goal is to occupy another 250 apartments every six months, until it reaches 6,000 people in five years.   The project has injected $1.2B USD into the Palestinian economy, and the employment of 5,000 with another 2,000 contractors, has resulted in a 4 percent reduction in unemployment in the entire West Bank. The stones for the buildings come from the quarry on-site, and workers at the city’s industrial park cuts the stone, and produces the cement for the project.

Rawabi’s commercial center, under construction

a model of Rawabi

a model of Rawabi

What makes Rawabi unique is that not only does it have modern facilities, but apartments sell for as little as $65,000 USD for a 2 bedroom, 1000 sq. foot furtnished apartment.  Larger, 3, 4, and 5 bedroom apartments are in the $100-200K price range.  The prices are about 30 percent cheaper than in Ramallah, and in an effort to attract young people, a rent-to-own program permits residents to have two years of rent go entirely towards a down-payment on a home. Even the development of mortgage programs was a challenge, as the Palestinian Authority did not have a traditional mortgage system.

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Rawabi is not intended as just a bedroom community for Ramallah or Nablus.  Instead, the plan is to develop a robust commercial area, in which people will work and shop and live.  The commercial area, which is still under construction, will include two restaurants, a “fun factory” for kids, a night club, a 7 screen cineplex, grocery store, bank, and two high rises with 50,000 sq. meters of office space.  In addition, there is an 8,000 seat outdoor amphitheater for concerts and entertainment.  More importantly, Rawabi is intentionally trying to create long-term sustainable jobs, by focusing on Information Technology, and creating a business incubator for young entrepreneurs.  The goal is not to displace jobs from Ramallah, or elsewhere in the West Bank, but to create new jobs, and add to the economy.

show-room

show-room

Rawabi has been slowed down in its development due to the politics of the West Bank, with obstructions from both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.  The Palestinian Authority made a commitment to provide Rawabi with much of the public service infrastructure, schools, fire, police, roads, water treatment..   The commitment never materialized, and the developers had to take it on themselves, adding another $120M to the project budget.   The Israelis refused to allow Rawabi access to the Israeli water grid, this prevented many of the apartments from being occupied for as many as two years.  An agreement was finally reached, although water issues remain an issue for the future.   In addition, because Rawabi’s land crossed both Area C (under Israeli control) and Area A (Palestinian control), there have been tie-ups about the development of the main access road to the city.  These issues also remain a challenge.

 

the amphitheater

In spite of the challenges, Rawabi’s developers have worked with Israeli businesses – partnering with more than 600 firms in the building of the city, but also working hard to grow Palestinian business. For example, the company invested in a small carpentry workshop (a family owned business in Ramallah that used to produce one kitchen every three months) and gave it a $600,000 order.  The project’s general manager Amir Dajani said “you have the talent, you need support.  We stepped in, gave them money, hired a warehouse brought in a quality manager, a financial manager, a general manager, gave the continuous orders, brought the raw materials up front. And they became a $3 million dollar business. Now, we are exiting from them after 5 years, selling our interest back to them.”  A similar investment was made in a struggling natural gas firm in Nablus.

General Manager Amir Dajani

General Manager Amir Dajani

BDS advocates have criticized Rawabi, claiming it is merely “normalizing” relations with Israeli, by its developers partnering with Israeli companies. Rawabi’s general manager had this to say:

“I’m in the business of economics.  I am trying to create jobs.  My bread and butter is job creation.  But I always like to focus on the fact that we are building for the future.  We have to overcome different political argument about what is good.   Some people see this as normalization.  You are normalizing with the Israelis, and therefore you are a traitor….

We argue as a real estate developer, as a developer with a vision, that cross-border cooperation is a force for peace. Therefore  we continue to advance our agenda, we continue to foster our relationships across the border, we continue to build bridges of hope and cooperation for peace…

We are very realistic, and believe we are building a prospective economy for the future, with a  huge focus for the young generation, with sustainable jobs.”

Rawabi is far from complete, and its ultimate end-state remains to be seen, but it is a model for Palestinian economic prosperity that should not be over-looked, and those who argue that divestment is the path to peace are completely missing the boat.  The slogan of Rawabi is “the best is yet to come,” and from what I saw when visiting it, I am convinced it offers a model for a new Palestine.   Its construction alone has injected a huge amount of money into the economy, and provided 7,000 jobs.  It has resulted in a 4 percent drop in unemployment in the entire West Bank.  Absorb that for a minute.

When the commercial zone and business incubator are functional, it will continue to provide income and jobs.  And that is essential to any two state solution.

IMG_1406

 

A Discussion with Palestinian Human Rights Activist Bassem Eid

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One of my first meetings in Israel was with the Palestinian Human Rights Activist and political commentator Bassem Eid. He began his career working with the watchdog group B’Tselem, and  worked as a researcher documenting violations by the Israeli army in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  In 1996, he created a Palestinian human rights organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.  Eid was once arrested for his activism by Yasser Arafat, and was released after 25 hours, when U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, intervened.  Today he is a vocal critic of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, a political commentator, and a harsh critic of the BDS or “Boycott Divest and Sanction” movement.

Bassem EidOur conversation began with a discussion of the current wave of violence that started with stabbings by young Palestinians in October. He was disturbed not only by the violence, but by the self-destruction it was causing to Palestinians themselves. “I just heard some statistics about how the Palestinian economy  has been affected since the first of October.  Billions of dollars. Imagine that the Palestinians have lost billions of dollars in the past  four months.   Take for example, Christmas. On Christmas, Bethlehem was totally empty. Not one room was booked. Imagine how much money you are losing, as a nation, as an authority, as a country on its way to being established.”  Tensions in Bethlehem had resulted in tourists avoiding the city recognized as where Jesus was born, and all this did was hurt the Palestinian economy.

This turned to the broader concern over what these attacks accomplish.  “Sometimes I get very nervous, what we are going to achieve if we stab another 1000 Jews, what are we going to achieve if another 2,000 Palestinians are going to be killed?  We know exactly what happened during the summer war in 2014 in Gaza.  What did we achieve in that?”  Since the first of October, 173 Palestinians are dead, and another 31 Jews.

I asked is this a third intifada? Bassem insisted that it wasn’t. It wasn’t organized, but was almost spontaneous, or emergent behavior of your people who appear to be motivated by their own economic despair rather than by organized political resistance.   He spoke about a lawyer’s interviews with some of the accused girls who are imprisoned in the Nizhan prison in Ramla for some of the attacks.  “When she talked to them about the motivation of their actions.  Not one of them mentioned Israeli aggression or oppression.”  Instead, the girl’s actions appeared to be motivated by family disputes.  “In one case, their family wanted them to get married to someone they didn’t like, the other fell in love with a guy, whothe family rejected..”

In another case, where two girls stabbed a 70 year old man on the street, Bassem asked,

What was the motivation?  The teenagers used to have a joint school breakfast, and in that morning when she asked her mom for 20 shekels to participate in the joint breakfast, the mother said she only had 2 shekels.  When the girl left her home, she found her friend, and it looks like the the friend had the same problem.  They felt so ashamed to go to the class without having money to participate in the joint breakfast, then they decided to come to Jerusalem,  I don’t know how they came to Jerusalem.  But they took the light rail and got out at Davidka station and stabbed a man with a pair of scissors. The guy they stabbed was a Palestinian.  They thought he was a Jew.

The telling thing here is the explicit lack of a political motivation, but instead economic despair that drove the girls to violence.  Yet, Bassem also pointed out that when his lawyer friend reported the interview on Palestinian tv, she told a very different story, claiming that they acted not because of personal reasons, but instead “the motivation was Israeli aggression.This is how things are working now.   She knew that the girls were motivated by personal reasons, but when she went public she said it was motivated by Israeli aggression.”

 

Criticizing the Palestinian Authority

I asked why would she change her story?  We spoke about how difficult it is to criticize the Palestinian Authority, and the risks that democratic advocates face.  Bassem spoke about a Palestinian professor who was arrested in Nablus the prior week for criticizing the government.

 I don’t like the professor’s ideology and his politics.  He became so extremist, that he tried to criticize without trying to present any kind of solution, but in the meantime, I said this is very healthy.  We need people like that to criticize us, to criticize the Israelis, to criticize the international community. Of course we need it.  I remember this professor from 1997 when someone from the security force shot him in his knees in the street.  He suffered a lot.  But arresting him doesn’t solve the problem.  Just as by stabbing Jews,  we are not going to solve the problem, just as shooting anther rocket from Gaza will not solve the problem,  What’s really going on?  In my opinion, the major tragedy of the Palestinian people is their own leadership, rather than the occupation.  The real problem is a lack of leadership.


On Mahmoud Abbas

Bassem had harsh words for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.   “He is the kind of president who is just waiting for his people to die and be declared as martyrs. I haven’t seen,  in the last four months, even one statement where Abbas has tried to calm the situation, or tried to advise his people that you are leading us to nowhere.  By stabbing Jews, that will never liberate the Palestinians; by stabbing Jews that will never create the Palestinian state. By stabbing Jews, that will never give us any liberty or independence.”   Abbas’ failure to call for non-violence has the opposite result.

“By not discouraging the stabbings,  he is encouraging it.  He is paying money to these people.  He is meeting with them.   He is paying money for what he calls ‘the martyrs,’to their families. He is paying money to the families. Why are the families are running to Ramallah, to meet with him? To get the checks.  This is how he succeeds in buying his popularity.  He is buying it by money rather than by any other political strategy.  And that is exactly what he learned from Arafat. Arafat did the same, but Arafat gave more money than Abbas, because there was more money coming to the PLO.”  \

Abbas’ failure to speak out against violence has created distrust among Israelis that the Palestinians want to find a peaceful solution.He pointed me to an essay he wrote on the subject just a few months ago.

 

Living under a coma… and “lovers of death instead of life”

Eid then used the metaphor of “living under a coma” to describe the state of mind in Palestine today.  It is as if “no one is trying to wake up and even see what is really going on around them.  What has really happened here?  Why are people so blind to their own situation?  This gives  me a very very bad feeling about our political future.  If you are looking today to what is surrounding us, I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the safest place in the Middle East today.   ISIS is in Syria, even in Jordan, even in Gaza.  This is what makes Abbas so popular right now.  He appears to be a moderate, even though he refuses to speak out against acts of terror.”

But the failure to speak out against the violence ponts to an even bigger problem. Somehow in the past several months, the Palestinians have become “lovers of death rather than life. I don’t ever remember, since 1967, how we the Palestinians, have come to love death rather than life. It  reminds me of an Israeli advertisement when they put out a boy, shouting “I am dying to life!  I am dying for life!” We the Palestinians today, are shouting, we are dying for death!    That makes me sad.  How have we shifted from life-lovers to death lovers?”

Bassem’s explanation turned philosophical.

What is really happening here?  I don’t think that for any kind of aggression or oppression, I have to kill myself.  To come and stab.  This is a suicide.  It is very clear in Islam, not to commit suicide.  It is very clear.  God said it.  So, with the such kind of the extremists who are saying that the suicide is a part of jihadism, that  this is what  God is commanding us to do.  Which God are you talking about?  Which God said it?  The God of Hamas? or The God of Hezbollah? The God of the Shia?  or the Sunni? It looks like we have several Gods here.  The God in Saudi is different than the God in Jordan, different from the God in Syria, different from the God in Libya.  So, that’s in my opinion, one of the major problems, you know, sometimes they said, that if the Israeli occupation will end, all of the problems of the world would be solved.  Who told you that?  That is rubbish.  I don’t believe that…   I used to say all the time, that in my opinion, and talking with the people in Refugee camps, in the cities in the West Bank, in my opinion, the majority of Palestinians these days are people looking for dignity rather than identity.  I have no problem wherever I am going saying “I am a Palestinian.  People recognize me. They know where I am from.

Dignity comes from economic prosperity, which he sees as the primary goal of the majority of the Palestinian people.  They are “a people seeking a better economic future.  And this is why I am always trying to encourage the Israeli government, that you should increase the number of working permits inside Israel.”  If there is more cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, economic prosperity can only improve. “But the opposite, today’s politics, is keeping us far away from each other.  In my opinion, the biggest mistake of the international community is that they invest more in politics rather than in the economy.  We are at a time when we need to start building a strong economic prosperity for both sides.”

 

BDS and Economic Prosperity
Our conversation ended with a discussion of the BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. Will a boycott of Israel help the cause of economic prosperity in Palestine?  Bassem strongly believes that an actual boycott of Israel would devastate the Palestinian economy.   He spoke first about the issue of the expansion of settlements.

When the international community talks about the settlements as the obstacle of peace, I think they forget how important the existing settlements are to the Palestinian economy.  Right now, we have 25,000 Palestinian workers who are entering into the settlements to go to work every day, plus another 92,000 workers who are entering to work inside Israel.”  What would happen if those workers were unable to work in the settlements, or to work within Israel?  If that were to happen, “what will happen to us?  We will starve tomorrow morning.  And no one will pay attention to us.

Recounting some of the recent terror attacks, Bassem described Israeli discussions about preventing Palestinian workers from entering the settlements.  The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actually went to the government and said  “you couldn’t stop letting Palestinians work in the settlements. That will only escalate the situation.”

Compare this to the recent events in Ramallah, when three men stabbed a border police woman. “When the workers of Kabatia went to go to the check point to go to work, , all of their work permits were taken away.   Imagine the scandal that will create inside Kabatia, For 3 terrorists, we will punish 10,000 workers? Imagine that. And of course, the Palestinian Authority can’t produce one job right now.”  This plays right into his argument against the BDS movement.

“The BDS is calling for a boycott of Israel.  But they never provide any alternatives to improve the lives of Palestinians.  To continue obtaining medical insurance for our children.   I am so happy that haven’t seen any effect, for the BDS, except with what happened with Sodastream.  I think that the Palestinians are aware that a boycott will be counter-productive.  I haven’t seen the Palestinian leadership say ‘Boycott Israel,’ because that will really dismantle the Palestinian authority. BDS is symbolism.  What we need is investment and economic prosperity.  That can’t come from BDS.”

My time with Bassem Eid was extremely enlightening, and covered much more than I have written here.  The issues are complex.  His focus wasn’t on abuses by Israel, but on the problems within Palestine itself, and  how those problems serve as a stumbling block towards advancing a two state solution.  This is not to excuse Israel for its responsibilities.  Indeed, the relationship between Israel and Palestine is one in which the Israelis hold all the political power, it is not a level playing field. But for things to move forward, it is essential to find both new leadership in Palestine, and take steps to improve the economic situation of the average Palestinian.  The conditions have to be present for a Palestinian democracy if a two solution can ever succeed.  For Bassem Eid, economic prosperity and growth is the essential first step.

 

Musings on Tel Aviv

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I don’t think I knew what to make of Tel Aviv when I arrived here on Monday.  I had driven through the city (at least on the freeway) and then into Jaffa last year, when Roger and I went to the Peres Center.  But I really didn’t see Tel Aviv. Oh, I saw lots of buildings and skyscrapers.   This week I am staying in a hostel, a block from the beach.  Its not as nice as the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, but its pretty cool opening the windows and smelling the salty air of the ocean.     The area is filled with hotels, and a mix of shops and restaurants, but in the immediate vicinity it isn’t the nicest place.  Oh, its not dangerous (or doesn’t feel dangerous), but there are more upscale areas.

I have done a lot of walking, along Allenby Street, King George Street, Rothschild Blvd, Frischman Street, and Denzaghoff Street.   Each night exploring many of these areas, often just looking for the cafe or restaurant that I wanted to visit.  It is a city of young people.  A city of attractive young people.  A city where people ride bikes on the sidewalks.  A city where there are pets everywhere.  People walking dogs, usually on leashes, sometimes not.  A city where cats roam, but only some are feral.   There is something wild about seeing a little dog just walking the block, and then heading into the store where his owner is.

It is a city with shops everywhere.  Israelis really really like to buy boots apparently.  Between Jerusalem and here, I have seen more shoe stores than anywhere.  They also like cell phone accessories. These stores are everywhere.  Candy shops.  Ice cream and froyo shops.  And fruit stands.  There are large urban malls. The Derzgoff Center has a multiple, four or five story mall, with food carts spread out within it.   Tel Aviv is a city of book stores.  Lots of book stores, most appear to be independent private shops.  It is a city with lots of bike shops, and lots of music stores.

Tel Aviv is famous for its night-life.  I’ll admit I haven’t explored that aspect.  Hell, when the bars open (around 10) I am getting ready for bed.  I know, I know… old man.  It is also a city with a seedy side.  There is only one other city (Las Vegas) I have ever been to where the streets (all the streets) are littered with what in Vegas we jokingly called “porn cards” for female “escorts.”  This is not something you find in Jerusalem.  Definitely not.   There are strip clubs as well (including one on Allenby Street).

Tel Aviv is very very different from Jerusalem.  For one, it is the rare person you see wearing a kippa.  It is certainly secular Israel.  I have seen just one synagogue (“the great synagogue”).  In Jerusalem, you are surrounded by religious jews; in particular by Orthodox and utra-orthodox.  It is sometimes called “The state of Tel Aviv” and it is very different.  Its a fun city.  It lacks the history (other than Jaffa/Yafo) that Jerusalem has.  It is young, and it attracts the young, and business people.  In many ways, the neighborhoods remind me of Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan in Washington DC.   I like Tel Aviv, more so than I did when I arrived.  But it doesn’t have the magnetic appeal of Jerusalem.   It is also very different from Haifa, which while a big city, has a more sleepy feel.  But sleepy in a good way.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved Haifa.   Both cities are definitely worth visiting.   Together Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv provide three really different aspects of Israel.

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