Saturday, June 3, 2017

Being a peace activist - after fifty years

(Written for De Brug, Amsterdam, where it will appear in Dutch)
I started being politically involved in the summer of 1969, when I offered myself as a volunteer to do menial work at the elections campaign headquarters of Uri Avnery’s "HaOlam HaZeh / New Force" Party. Uri Avnery, then a radical young Member of the Israeli Parliament, had been one of the first Israelis to call for creating a Palestinian state in the newly-occupied territories. As a matter of fact, it was not this which initially drew me to the party – but rather its opposition to "the rotten old parties" which dominated Israeli politics, as well as the call to separate religion and state. HaOlam HaZeh was, in fact, rather similar to the Dutch D-66 party, launched at much the same time. It was only gradually, over a period of some two years, that I fully accepted the idea of Israel making peace with the Palestinians and getting out of the Occupied Territories.

There was a key moment – an evening in 1971 when I was sitting with some twenty other youths in the a dingy basement of a house in downtown Tel Aviv, and heard a soldier in uniform who had just come from the Gaza Strip. He was telling of horrors: extrajudicial executions, the victims’ bodies thrown into dry wells; torture; soldiers beating up passers-by on the streets of Gaza "just for the fun of it"… We were shocked, we did not want to believe it, we said "This can’t be true, our army does not do such things!". The soldier said:"Yes, it is true. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night". Later that night, we went out with some three thousand leaflets, badly printed on an old stencil machine, which contained what the soldier had told. We put them into postboxes around Tel Aviv – "To let the people know what the government was hiding from them" – and looked behind our shoulders to make sure there were no police patrol cars in the streets.

There followed the daily exhausting routine of activism – distributing leaflets on street corners, endless debating with passers-by, going after midnight to write graffiti and paste inflammatory posters on the walls, visits to Palestinian villages, protest vigils of a few dozens outside government offices, sometimes a bit bigger demonstrations which required weeks of intensive preparations and sometimes had disappointing results…


Even if the going was difficult and there were many setbacks, for some decades we felt we were making a headway. PM Golda Meir said that "There is no such thing as Palestinians". Gradually, the idea that the Palestinians are indeed a people and deserve to have their own state became widely accepted in the mainstream of Israeli society, and Golda Meir’s opinion is nowadays held only by the extreme right lunatic fringe.

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel and spoke on the Knesset podium, there was a month of peace euphoria. Peace stopped being an unattainable dream and became a concrete, real possibility, peace rallies grew from hundreds to thousands and to tens of thousands, sometimes to hundreds of thousands. When it became clear that Menachem Begin wanted peace only with the Egyptians and had launched an invasion of Lebanon in order to crush the Palestinians, there was for the first time in Israeli history an active grassroots anti-war movement, with large rallies on the streets and soldiers going to prison for refusing service in Lebanon and eventually the protest of soldiers’ mothers forcing the government to terminate the Lebanon adventure.

The outbreak of the First Intifada convinced many that continued occupation was both immoral and impractical. For decades, the PLO had been considered "a terrorist organization", and the activist and philanthropist Abie Nathan served two six-month prison terms for the "crime" of having met Yasser Arafat and shaken his hand. "We will meet the PLO only on the battlefield" was what Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin said in the earlier part of his career, and he ordered soldiers to "break the bones of rioting Palestinians". Little did Rabin realize that eventually he himself would shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, in a blaze of worldwide publicity – or that he would pay for that courageous act with his life and become after his death the archetypal Martyr for Peace, at the focus of vast annual memorial rallies.

At the time when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat, we felt that our task was nearly done, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand and only a few last details needed to be worked out. Even after the assassination of Rabin, peace activists were far from losing heart. The first time that Netanyahu got elected, we in general regarded it as a regrettable accident to be soon corrected. Many of us considered Netanyahu an altogether illegitimate Prime Minister – a bit like many Americans consider Trump nowadays – and the three years of Netanyahu’s first term were stormy, full of intensive demonstrations and protests.

In 1999 Ehud Barak was elected, claiming to be Rabin’s successor and complete Rabin’s unfinished task. The fact that this claim got wide public credibility enabled Barak to give the Israeli peace movement the most grievous blow it ever suffered. In August 2000 Barak, Arafat and Clinton were closeted for intensive negotiations in Camp David. Opinion polls in Israel indicated that, if an agreement was reached and presented to the Israeli voters, it would have gotten at least 70% support and possible as much as 80%. A vast coalition was formed, including the Labor Party and more or less everybody to its left. Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), on whose behalf I took part in this coalition’s meetings, was the most radical and critical participant – but we, too, were ready to throw our full backing behind a Barak-Arafat deal. A full-scale campaign was planned in great detail. A very beautiful color poster was prepared, with a large dove and the words "Back the Agreement – Vote YES for Peace". Everybody in the room fell in love with it - If things had gone as we hoped, a hundred thousand copies would have been printed and everybody around the country would have seen them.

What did happen is that Barak came back with the announcement that he had made "generous offers" but the intransigent Arafat had rejected them, and there was "no partner". Shortly afterwards, Barak allowed Sharon to stage his provocation at the Temple Mount, the most sensitive spot in the entire Middle East – resulting in 13 dead Palestinians, the outbreak of the bloody years of the Second Intifada, and the increasing isolation of the peace movement. There had never been a more difficult and uphill task, in all my years of peace activism, as the effort to convince Israelis that Barak’s "generous offers" had not been so generous at all. The general Israeli public just refused to listen, convinced that "Barak offered EVERYTHING to the Palestinians and they reacted with bloody terrorism and suicide bombings".

There was a partial upsurge in 2003, when hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians met in Geneva and signed a draft peace agreement – just needing the signature of the official leaders on the dotted line. But the crafty Sharon, Prime Minister by then, diverted this political energy into a unilateral move in Gaza. Israeli settlers were removed from the Gaza Strip, but direct military occupation was replaced by a suffocating Israeli siege of the Strip – and on the West Bank occupation and settlement expansion continued unabated. There followed several rounds of fighting in and around Gaza, shooting of missiles at Israel and large scale bombings by the Israeli Air Force – altogether cementing the feeling of ordinary Israelis that "peace is impossible" and that "every territory given to the Palestinians will just become a Hamas shooting pad".

And so we come to the present – the incredible fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, which none of us really believed we would see. There was an impressive big rally on the Rabin Square, and numerous smaller protests and events are planned at various locations. But there can be little doubt that Netanyahu – now far more firmly seated than he was twenty years ago – fully intends to continue and perpetuate the occupation.

So why should we continue being active under these inauspicious conditions? For two overlapping reasons. Because it is immoral to occupy and oppress and dispossess another people – and when your country is committing injustice, to be silent is to be an accomplice. That would be true in any country – and doubly true in a country which prides itself as "The State of the Jewish People", given the centuries-long history of Jews suffering injustice and discrimination and persecution.

But also, we must continue to act and strive and protest and hope against hope because of sheer self-interest. Because Israel’s present course is a deadly threat to our future. As things now stand, the survival of Israel depends of three factors: On Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East, on the American domination of the world and the United States being willing and able to give Israel unlimited political, military financial and diplomatic support. An undermining of any of these three would put Israel in very grave trouble. And history shows conclusively that no military superiority, regional or global, lasts forever – nor are there any eternal alliances.

Only a peace agreement, making Israeli a legitimate part of its geographical environment, can truly ensure our long-term survival. And only the Palestinians can sign such a peace.

Ultimately, the reason to continue being a peace activist in Israel is very simple: we just can’t afford to stop it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Women and the army

- with such rabbis, who needs Trump?
- women enter tanks and military prison

This week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein made a new provocative pronouncement. To the students whom he is educating and preparing for their term of military service in his pre-military academy at the settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank, the Rabbi he told to "marry a warm woman, a religious woman who did not serve in the army" and embarked on a barrage of condemnations for the service of women in the IDF in general and  the military service of religious women in particular: "Our women are holy and chaste. What is the mission of a woman? The Talmud says it clearly: to bring up the next generation. That is their destiny. Only our holy women know how to do it. What is she going to be? Commander of an infantry company? Madness, this idea belongs in the lunatic asylum. They are making our girls crazy, recruiting them into the army. They go in as Jews, but they will not come out Jewish in the end. Their values and priorities will be totally disrupted; home-career, everything falling into confusion. It must not be allowed!"
Rabbi Levinstein was not religious in his youth, having "seen the light" as an adult, and he is very familiar with the Israeli secular society. He knew full well what the reaction would be for his making such a statement precisely on International Women's Day - just as six months ago, he knew what the response would be to the statement he made on the eve of the Gay Pride Parade ("Those perverts have broken with full steam into the army - and no one dares to open his mouth about it").
Indeed, the responses were immediate - women's groups issued a series of sharp condemnation of the Rabbi’s intolerable words, joined by secular politicians from various parties as well as parts of the religious community. Michal Nagen, who herself maintains a pre-military academy to prepare and encourage young religious women to join the army, wrote: "I was shaking with grief and shame at the words you uttered before the very Ark in your synagogue. I felt that God's name was being desecrated. I have had enough of men telling ‘the girls’ what they should do and think. The army is not your private property, Rabbi Yigal, as it is not the property of the liberal secularist or of the women. The army belongs to all of us, to the entire people. I cry for your students who laugh at your banter which insults their sisters, their women friends, and sometimes even their mothers at home."
In the big wave of vehement response, the women who enlist in the IDF - especially those who in increasing numbers join combat units and take up belligerent tasks –were held up as a shining example of women's empowerment as well as of Zionism and patriotism. "The warrior women of the IDF and the Border Police, as well as the heroic women police in the streets of Jerusalem, are taking an active part in safeguarding the security of Israel, they are part and parcel of the nation’s defense system, and we are proud of them" said Prime Minister Netanyahu. For his part, Defense Minister Lieberman said: "Since the establishment of the State of Israel, women have served in the IDF and contributed enormously to the security of Israel. Rabbi Levinstein damages not only the women but also  the heritage of the IDF and at the basic values ​​of the State of Israel. I intend to re-examine the status of Rabbi Levinstein and his competence to prepare young people for service in the Army."
Rabbi Levinstein, however, was not really bothered by all the fuss. He feels secure of his backing deep in the political establishment , which would prevent anyone touching the funding and official status of his pre-military academy. Like no concrete steps were taken after his inflammatory remarks about the homosexual perverts. Standing his ground, the Rabbi reiterated: "In recent years, a deep cultural process is taking place. A feminist approach is infiltrating the IDF, which is completely incompatible with Judaism." Other senior rabbis met with the cabinet ministers of the Jewish Home Party to ask their help in a counter-offensive: "The army is being stolen from us! The previous Standing Orders regarding women's service in the army, were formulated with the aim of reaching a consensus and maintaining dignity and respect for the divergent lifestyles of all who serve in the IDF. Now, there is a new and completely different set of Standing Orders, which were composed in secret, behind everybody’s backs. These are infused with radical liberal and feminist agendas prevalent on the extreme left. Trying to force religious people to serve in mixed units of men and women, contrary to Jewish law and to the Jewish lifestyle upheld by our ancestors for countless generations. The result would be to push them altogether out of the army. "
Also two hundred reserve officers who were disciples of Rabbi Levinstein gave him their public backing: "Recently, the Rabbi sounded a warning about the changes and the transformation in the military, particularly with regard to the integration of women in combat units. These changes might severely and painfully damage the army. Being highly familiar with the military system, we well understand the problems of which the Rabbi was speaking and the inherent dangers. The grave criticisms which he made come of a great heart, full of love and pain, having before his eyes nothing but care for the IDF and of the State of Israel. The Rabbi’s position reflects the opinions expressed by the greatest of Sages and the generations-long rulings of the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of integrating women into the army."
Amid this debate - almost forgotten the position of young Israeli women who have no shred of sympathy for Rabbi Levinstein and his ranting and who yet refuse to seek women’s empowerment via service in an occupation army, whose main function already for many years is to maintain an oppressive Israeli rule over millions of Palestinian men and women.
This week, the IDF Spokesperson published statistics on the immense efforts which the army makes to reduce the number of women soldiers serving as secretaries in military offices, and to move more and more of them to service in combat units. The idea of training women tank crews is still in the stage of an experiment which for the time being includes no more than fifteen women. However, in the Border Police, the military-police force handling the daily routines of maintaining Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, the number of women already reached 35 percent - more than a third. The trend is expected to increase, so that in future women will comprise a full half of the Israeli soldiers holding on roadblocks throughout the West Bank and late at night carrying out raids to remove"wanted terrorists" from their homes and transfer them to interrogation under "moderate physical pressure."  As it turns out, not all young women relish such a role.
Under the slogan in the "Neither secretary nor tank crew – a refuser and a Feminist", three young women this week repeated the ritual which the IDF forces upon those who were examined by the army’s "Conscience Committee" and ruled to be lacking a conscience. Again and again, those who refuse military service (male or female alike) are called to present themselves at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center. There, they are given an order to join the army, which they disobey and are promptly sent off to a month in jail - after which the ritual will repeat itself. The "Two Tamars", Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, have this week gone through this procedure for the sixth time. Atalia Ben-Aba, a refuser of a bit shorter seniority, was now sent to prison for the second time.  The military authorities took care to separate the three and send them to different prisons.
Vered Lee, reporter of Ha’aretz who was there, wrote: "Tamar Alon was radiant, inspiring optimism among the accompaniers. When asked where does she get her optimism, she laughs and replies: 'Also the girls imprisoned with me do not understand my optimism. They wonder how I can smile with such a long-drawn incarceration.' The other prisoners, she says, got there for going AWOL, for disciplinary offenses or for drugs.' Never before did they meet a real, actual leftist. They thought of us as traitors, enemies of the state. During our stay in prison, they learned to look at us differently, see us as human beings. Not that it was always easy. When we got to prison the first time we had a sudden shock to find ourselves behind bars. We felt suddenly alone. We asked ourselves again and again whether this act is significant, whether anyone cares. But yes, there are many who do care. "
Muhammad Awda of East Jerusalem, who is active in Combatants for Peace during the last nine years, said at the modest ceremony: " I realize that there are at this moment only three female objectors in the Israeli army, and no male ones. I see them and I salute them. I see them and I think about my daughter who is their age and who is also struggling for a just society. They deserve support, not only from the immediate family but from everybody. I'm speaking here, not only for myself but for many Palestinians who could not come and express support for you today, because of the policies of the occupation rule which denies them freedom of movement. We are proud of these young brave women, who are struggling for our rights and for justice and freedom. Thank you, from all of us! " He then added, with a smile: "We'll meet again in freedom. Freedom for all!"

The three refusers en route to another term in the military prison

A woman graduate of the Border Police training course, en route to the Occupied Territories

Friday, February 24, 2017

Scales of Justice

On September 13, 2015, young Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sur Baher in East Jerusalem threw stones at Israeli cars near the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, one of the Israeli neighborhoods built after 1967 on confiscated Palestinian land. A stone hit the car of Alexander Levlovitz, causing him to suffer a heart attack. Levlovitz began to convulse, swerved into a ditch and hit a pillar. He was seriously injured and died in hospital the next day.

There is no reason to claim that the Palestinians who threw the stones specifically meant to kill Alexander Levlovitz, of whom they never heard, nor that they at all intended to kill anyone. In fact, the vast majority of stone throwing cases end without casualties. Certainly, however, it can be argued that anyone throwing stones at moving cars is responsible for this act and should have taken into account that the outcome might be fatal.

By an intensive action of the Israeli security forces, the Palestinian stone throwers were apprehended. The 19 years old Abed Rabu Dawiat, described by police as "The stone-throwers’ ringleader" was charged with manslaughter. After lengthy legal proceedings, he signed a plea bargain whereby he got a term of eighteen years' imprisonment only. The Israeli media widely publicized the protests of the Levlovitz Family at the plea bargain and the leniency of punishment. "We had hoped for complete justice against my father's murderers. The judges should have been free to proceed to the full severity of the law, to impose the maximum penalty. I strongly object to the mitigation of punishment," said Nir, Levlovitz’s son.

On March 24, 2016, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a resident of Hebron, approached the Israeli soldiers guarding the settler enclave at Tel Rumeida, in the heart of Hebron. He stabbed one of the soldiers, and was then shot by other soldiers and severely injured. As clearly seen in footage taken by the hidden camera held by a field worker of the B'Tselem Human Rights organization, al-Sharif was lying on the ground, constituting no threat to anyone. A 19-year old soldier, Elior Azaria – a medic, arrived on the spot and deliberately aimed his weapon at the head of al-Sharif, shot and killed him .

Elior Azaria was detained by military police and charged with manslaughter. During the prolonged trial, the defense lawyers argued that Azaria felt subjectively threatened and suspected that al-Sharif was hiding explosives on his body. However, the evidence of Azaria’s commanding officer and of other soldiers who had been there convinced the court to dismiss such contentions out of hand. Rather, the judges ruled that Azaria had shot and killed al-Sherif out of seeking revenge and from the perception that "terrorists" should be killed without trial, whether or not they still pose a threat. This is a perception shared by quite a few people in Israel, some of them much older than the conscript soldier Elior Azaria, among them Knesset Members, cabinet ministers and newspaper columnists.

After the media reported that the prosecution was seeking to have Elior Azaria sentenced to three years in prison, his mother collapsed and had to be taken to hospital, full of fright and pain at the severe and cruel punishment facing her son. The media reported extensively on the difficult situation of the worried mother.

In the end, the judges resolved to impose on Elior Azaria a sentence of 18 months. Opposite the court room, hundreds of Azaria’s supporters demonstrated in protest of the severity of this sentence. Senior politicians from several Israeli political parties joined the protests and demanded an immediate amnesty to Azaria: "He already suffered enough, he should not have to sit in jail. End the story now, just send him home!"

Coincidentally or not, this week also saw the culmination of a long struggle over the appointment of new judges to the Supreme Court. Members of the Jewish Home Party have long asserted that Israel's judicial system is biased in favor of the Arabs and does not give due weight to national and patriotic considerations. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the same party, redressed this negative tendency, making a successful effort to change the composition of the Supreme Court and include more conservative judges, especially some who belong to the Religious-Zionist sector. A particular success was recorded with the appointment of David Mintz – a British-born jurist who came to Israel in 1970 and immediately moved to the West Bank settlement of Dolev. His judicial career has been marked by strict and rigorous treatment meted out to foreign nationals accused of illegal entry to Israel.

David Mintz’s neighbor at the settlement of Dolev is Knesset Member Moti Yogev, also a member of the Jewish Home Party. Yogev became known for his way of objecting to a ruling of Supreme Court: "We just need to go to the the Supreme Court with a D-9 bulldozer and raze it right off the face of the earth."

The new Supreme Court Justice David Mintz will not bulldoze the Supreme Court. He will enter by the main entrance and sit in judgment to consider petitions on human rights violations.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The bitter morning

So, the nightmare really came true.

After the East Shore polls closed at 2am Israeli time, I continued watching on CNN the unfolding drama, following the discussions of the elections experts, with their sophisticated maps and detailed knowledge of every county in every state. There were the initial moments when Hilary Clinton still seemed headed to win Florida and North Carolina. But then, in state after state the same specter was repeated: the vast red-colored regions of countryside and small towns overwhelming the embattled blue Democrat dots of the big cities.

Behind these red expanses on the CNN maps were the people whom Michael Moore depicted in his film: The workers left behind in "rust belts" when the industries went away to countries where the salaries are much lower. Embittered and hopeless, they were ready to embrace Donald Trump’s demagoguery and his promise to "Make America Great Again" – a vast tide under the surface, which the pollsters altogether missed.

In the time ahead of us there would be many recriminations. What if the Democrats had paid more attention and given better answers to the blue-collar workers who had once been their party’s mainstay? What if the Democratic Party had voted Bernie Sanders as its Presidential candidate? What if Hilary Clinton had not arrogantly taken Wisconsin for granted, but had bothered to pay that state some visits during the campaign? What if she had not cast herself for the second time for the role of The First Woman President, but rather promoted for that role a younger woman not associated with unsavory past affairs?

Many things are seen clearly in hindsight which should have been clear in real time, many roads not taken. The road which was taken has led to President-Elect Donald Trump making a jubilant victory speech to his gathered followers. How sincere were his conciliatory words? Would he be able - even if he wanted - to put down the flames of hatred which he had constantly fanned in his year of wild campaigning? Could he get rid of this blazing hatred, even if he tried? Does Trump have anything real to offer to the hopeless people to whom he gave a fleeting hope – and if he disappoints them, to whom and to what will they turn next?

Thinking of President Obama, being saddled with this very unwanted successor who personifies the undoing of all Obama stood for. Maybe this might increase Obama’s willingness to use his remaining two months in order to leave at least one final lasting legacy– i.e., removing the American veto and letting the UN Security Council adopt a binding resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for whatever it is worth.

Too thin a crumb of hope on a bitter morning.

The bitter morning

So, the nightmare really came true.

After the East Shore polls closed at 2am Israeli time, I continued watching on CNN the unfolding drama, following the discussions of the elections experts, with their sophisticated maps and detailed knowledge of every country in every state. There were the initial moments when Hilary Clinton still seemed headed to win Florida and North Carolina. But then, in state after state the same specter was repeated: the vast red-colored regions of countryside and small towns overwhelming the embattled blue Democrat dots of the big cities.

Behind these red expanses on the CNN maps were the people whom Michael Moore depicted in his film: The workers left behind in "rust belts" when the industries went away to countries where the salaries are much lower. Embittered and hopeless, they were ready to embrace Donald Trump’s demagoguery and his promise to "Make America Great Again" – a vast tide under the surface, which the pollsters altogether missed.

In the time ahead of us there would be many recriminations. What if the Democrats had paid more attention and given better answers to the blue-collar workers who had once been their party’s mainstay? What if the Democratic Party had voted Bernie Sanders as its Presidential candidate? What if Hilary Clinton had not arrogantly taken Wisconsin for granted, but had bothered to pay that state some visits during the campaign? What if she had not cast herself for the second time for the role of The First Woman President, but rather promoted for that role a younger woman not associated with unsavory past affairs?

Many things are seen clearly in hindsight which should have been clear in real time, many roads not taken. The road which was taken has led to President-Elect Donald Trump making a jubilant victory speech to his gathered followers. How sincere were his conciliatory words? Would he be able - even if he wanted - to put down the flames of hatred which he had constantly fanned in his year of wild campaigning? Could he get rid of this blazing hatred, even if he tried? Does Trump have anything real to offer to the hopeless people to whom he gave a fleeting hope – and if he disappoints them, to whom and to what will they turn next?

Thinking of President Obama, being saddled with this very unwanted successor who personifies the undoing of all Obama achieved. Maybe this might increase Obama’s willingness to use his remaining two months in order to leave at least one final lasting legacy– i.e., removing the American veto and letting the UN Security Council adopt a binding resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for whatever it is worth.

Too thin a crumb of hope on a bitter morning.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A man of peace? Not exactly. But still…

The first demonstration I ever attended was at the end of 1967. On one school day, the principal went through all parts of the school, announcing: "The last two classes are canceled, everybody is going to demonstrate at the French Embassy!". We broke into a great cheer and went through the school gates. En route to the embassy we encountered the pupils from other schools, all joining in the great organized spontaneous demonstration. Someone started chanting "De Gaulle / Has a big nose!" (it rhymes in Hebrew) and everybody joined in.

In the Israel of late 1967 it was very fashionable to hate France, and in particular to hate French President Charles de Gaulle. As we read in newspapers and heard from our teachers, France had betrayed Israel and violated the alliance with us at the crucial moment and imposed an arms embargo on Israel. (Israel won the war anyway, but that's another issue.) And to add insult to injury, we were told that de Gaulle had said anti-Semitic things, though we did not know exactly what. Therefore, we were very happy to demonstrate at the French Embassy instead of studying. Some of us also wanted to throw stones and break the embassy windows, ​​but the police prevented that.

As it happened, a few weeks later I was browsing at a dusty back shelf in my favorite lending library. There a book with an intriguing title: "A Bridge Over The Mediterranean". On the front page appeared a large photo of the Israeli Minister Shimon Peres shaking hands with French President Charles de Gaulle, both smiling broadly, over the background of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris skyline. I read the first chapter in which Shimon Peres spoke at very great length about the strategic alliance between Israel and France. As described in the book, it was a strong and enduring alliance, serving the best interests of both countries. (As far as I can remember, the one thing Peres did not mention was the French aid in building the Dimona Nuclear Pile…).

Actually, it was not such an old book. It had been published just three years earlier, in 1964, but it seems somebody at the library decided to exile it to the back shelf. It was then, at the age of 12, that I was first introduced to Simon Peres "the man of great visions and designs" (not always the same visions and designs...).

In 1976, during a brief leave from the army, I participated with several dozen youths at a Tel Aviv protest against the new settler movement, "Gush Emunim" (Block of the Faithful), whose members were determined to establish themselves at the heart of the Biblically-hallowed "Judea and Samaria". After the demonstration, we sat in a cramped office and listened to the news on a tiny, black and white TV set. "Again, Gush Emunim activists managed to evade the military checkpoints, reach the old railway station in Sebastia and barricade themselves in." said the announcer "Evicting them is expected to result in violent clashes with soldiers". 

"What is this nonsense about their evading the checkpoints?" cried one of the organizers. "Defense Minister Shimon Peres is the settlers’ best friend. What more do you want to know? It's a con game, pure and simple". In that small office, we all felt a very visceral hatred of Shimon Peres.

The next morning, in the bus on the way back to base, I read of "compromise agreement" reached late at night with the blessing of Defense Minister Peres. The Gush Emunim settlers were allowed to remain "temporarily" at a nearby military base. Later, temporary became permanent, the settlers stayed and the it was soldiers who eventually left, and the military base became the settlement of Kedumim. 
Shimon Peres definitely had a major share in this outcome.

May 1981 – a crowded meeting at the Tzavta Hall in Tel Aviv, to celebrate the election of Francois Mitterrand as President of France. The keynote speaker was Shimon Peres – Leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Leader of the Parliamentary opposition and Vice President of the Socialist International. "Europe is becoming a Socialist Continent!" cried Peres. "This is the wave of the future, and we in Israel should become part of it!" It was the first time I heard Shimon Peres praising Socialism, and it did not last long. (In truth, Mitterrand himself, as well as the other members of the Socialist International, have not shown a real commitment to the principles of Socialism…)

September 1982: the First Lebanon War had been raging for three months, culminating with the terrible massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A wave of demonstrations and protests throughout the country, I have spent the previous night at the Abu Kabir Detention Center in south Tel Aviv. A crucial meeting between major activists of the "Committee Against the Lebanon War" on one hand and the leadership of "Peace Now" on the other.

- "Peace Now wants to have on Saturday night a very big rally, a huge one, on the Kings of Israel Square. It should really be a mass event, bigger than anything anyone of us ever did before. But you of the Committee got first to the police, you have the permit for using the square on that night. If you don’t pass it on to us, Peace Now will not be able to do it. And you, too, know that if you mobilize only your own supporters, the rally would be much smaller." - "OK, we are ready to give you the license." - "But there is a problem. The Labor Party is ready to join, to change their position. They are going to stop supporting the war in Lebanon start speaking out against the war. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin are willing – they very much want - to mount the podium and speak very sharply against Begin and Sharon. But I hate to say this, Peres and Rabin are not willing to share the podium with anyone from the Extreme Left. "

All eyes in the room turned to the radical poet Yitzhak Laor, who was going to be the keynote speaker for the Committee Against The War. After a moment of silence he muttered a pungent oath and said: "The hell with it! No one will be able to say that I spoiled a big rally against the war crimes. Let Rabin and Peres have the podium to themselves and welcome!". So was born the memorable "Demonstration of the Four Hundred Thousand", the biggest public event in Israel's history until then.

Some two or three years later - again a small demonstration of several dozens, and again sitting afterwards to see the TV evening news at a dusty office (color TV this time). In this demonstration, as in many protests and events held at the time, we chanted "Talk peace / With the PLO / Now, now, now!"/ . We distributed to the indifferent Tel Avivian passers by leaflets about the meetings which activists of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace held with PLO officials, and about the positive messages which they got from the Palestinians.

On that evening TV interviewed Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s cabinet. Peres rejected out of hand the option of negotiating with the PLO - "It is a terrorist organization, they are opposed to peace, they have nothing positive to contribute – absolutely nothing." Conversely, he greatly praised King Hussein of Jordan - "The King is a serious, reliable partner. The real option for peace is the Jordanian Option!"

"What an idiot!" said one of the people sitting next to me. "He wants to give the Territories to Jordan. And then the Palestinians will say that the agreement does not bind them, and will continue fighting Israel. What a clever deal - pay the full prize and get nothing in return! How can such a stupid person get so high?"

As we learned later, at that time Peres had held a secret meeting with King Hussein in London and reached a draft agreement, but Prime Minister Shamir vetoed it and the initiative failed. We did not share Peres’ outrage and protest at "The loss of a historic opportunity".

April 1990 - the government coalition crisis which came to be known in Israeli history as "The Dirty Trick". With the outbreak of the First Intifada the Jordanian Option was definitely off the agenda. The Americans suggested that Israel negotiate with a Palestinian delegation not officially representing the PLO but including representatives from East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Shamir rejected the proposal out of hand and accused Foreign Minister Peres of discreetly encouraging the Americans. Peres and the other Laborites resigned and brought down the Shamir Government in a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Thereupon, Shimon Peres announced that he had managed to form a new government headed by himself, and that it would be presented to the Knesset on the morning of April 12. But on that morning, as we waited, the hours passed and there was no sign of the new cabinet. There were increasing rumors the ultra-Orthodox have abandoned Peres at the last minute and deprived him of the expected parliamentary majority. This turned out to be true. By noon, Peres appeared on the screen, tense and pale, and announced "a delay in presenting the new cabinet". "Damn!" said one of my friends. "This means that we remain stuck with Shamir, and he will continue to block everything. God damn the ultra-Orthodox to Hell! "


1994 - After the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced the award of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres for their part in the Oslo Agreements, Yedioth Ahronoth published a nasty commentary. The writer attacked Peres harshly, accusing him of being "a publicity stunt man" who had "pushed through the signing of the horrible Oslo Accord" for the sole purpose of getting the Nobel Prize.

So I immediately sat down and wrote a Letter to the Editor. I don’t have the exact text (at that time, such things were not yet preserved on the computer), but I remember quite clearly that I expressed unreserved support for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. I wrote that he was a statesman of the first order, of whom any country could be proud. I wrote in that letter (as I wrote and said very often, at the time) that Shimon Peres deserved praise and the Nobel Prize for understanding that Israel must end the occupation and achieve peace with the Palestinians - not only for the sake of the Palestinians but also for its own future.

I praised Peres for understanding that in order to talk to the Palestinians one needs to talk with those that the Palestinians themselves regard as their representative – namely, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Head, Yasser Arafat. I also wrote that Peres deserved to be praised for having managed to overcome his bitter rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin, work closely with Rabin and convince the Prime Minister to shake hands with Yasser Arafat.

For all these reasons, I concluded, Shimon Peres fully and rightly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize - more so than many others who got it before him. "Yediot Ahronot" shortened my letter, but the essential parts did get published on the next day.

November 1995 - The bitter night of the Rabin Assassination. A very successful peace rally on the square, the big crowds who came to express confidence in the Peace Process that began in Oslo, Rabin and Peres on the podium singing the Peace Song. The rally over, hundreds of young people dancing merrily to the tune of Brazilian Samba music from the loudspeakers. Suddenly the honking of a long column of police cars, wild rumors of a terrorist attack, the news that Prime Minister Rabin was hit by an assassin’s bullets, hundreds of people running all the way to the gate of the Ichilov hospital, Cabinet Spokesperson Eitan Haber appearing and reading out the communiquי: "The Government of Israel announces with shock ...".

Returning to the square. Sitting in mourning circles around the lighted candles. The radio reported that the cabinet convened in the middle of the night for an emergency session and elected Shimon Peres as Prime Minister Pro Tem, pending Knesset approval. Several youths walk to the wall of the nearby Tel Aviv Town Hall and spray paint a huge graffiti: "You will never walk alone, Shimon Peres!". 

Already that night, we started talking about what Peres should do. Immediately dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, so as to win a large majority? Act firmly and strongly against the settlers, now that their public standing is at a low ebb?

Alas, Shimon Peres did not follow any of our "advices". Instead, he soon got entangled in a completely unnecessary, bloody military operation in Lebanon - "Operation Grapes of Wrath". In April 1995, after 106 Lebanese civilians were killed by a stray Israeli artillery shell at the village of Qana, I was at a protest outside the home of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Ramat Aviv. It was a militant demonstration, with very sharp slogans chanted against The Prime Minister, including such terms as "murderer", "assassin" and "war criminal". We collided with the police cordon which barred our way, and came very close to spending the night in custody. Yet, during the dispersal I told my fellow demonstrators: "There is no choice. Despite everything, in the elections we will have to vote for him." - "What? For this bastard?" - "What else? Do you want Netanyahu as Prime Minister?".

At that moment, the expression "Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu" still seemed a kind of science fiction, a remote and highly unlikely eventuality. But a bare month and a half later, it became a reality that accompanies the state of Israel up to the present. On elections night we sat awake, with the predictions showing a victory for Netanyahu – a victory by a narrow but clear margin. Hour after hour we sat in front of the screen, hoping against hope for a change - until with the morning light, predictions became certainty and Shimon Peres lost irrevocably his last chance at holding Israel’s helm of state.

I could continue this article on and on and specify more moments in the life of Shimon Peres - lights and shadows, contrary landmarks, times when we were very angry with him for agreeing to serve Netanyahu and represent him on the international arena and other times when Peres tries at least to some degree to face up to the leader of the Likud and take all sorts of initiatives to promote peace. There was the failed attempt to be elected as the (purely titular) President of Israel and a second attempt which succeeded. And the last years, when he was very popular with the general Israeli public and increasingly pushed aside the vision of peace and of The New Middle East and chose to focus on a new, non-political dream and vision – i.e. the intensive promotion of nanotechnology and of the enormous blessings nanotechnology could give to mankind.

Still, now that Shimon Peres’ long career definitely ended in a huge state funeral in the presence of Heads of State and assorted VIP’s from all over the world, I'd rather finish my personal review with that decisive moment of failure in the 1996 elections.

Was Shimon Peres a Man of Peace? Many of my political friends are skeptical about that, to say the least. It is not difficult to gather damning evidence and point to black spots all along Peres’ career.

As for me - I would have been very happy indeed if it were possible to turn the wheel backwards, go back to May 1996 and give Shimon Peres the extra thirty thousand votes which would have made him a Prime Minister for an extra four years and reduced Netanyahu to a forgotten footnote in Israel’s history.

The Shimon Peres of 1996 was completely committed, politically and personally, to the Oslo Accords. There is good reason to believe that, with a solid mandate for four more years, Peres would have embarked with his typical energy and determination on the Permanent Status negotiations with the Palestinians. That he would have seriously tried to reach an agreement by the May 1999 deadline agreed upon. And that with an agreement reached, he would have worked very hard to implement it on the ground.

Would he have succeeded? Would we now be living in a completely different situation, in a real New Middle East? Or would Peres have wasted this chance, too, and ended in a dismal failure? We will never know.

In reality it is impossible to go back in time and change history. Hopefully, we will still succeed to change the future.

The photo which no Israeli paper published this week - Peres, Arafat and the Oslo Accords

Friday, August 12, 2016

Thirst and narrative

"Here at Fasayil, in the Jordan Valley, we get water twice a week," explained our host, to the group of activists from Tel Aviv. "Twice a week the water is flowing through this little water pipe which you see here on the ground, a pipe with a 20 mm diameter. When the large container is full we distribute the water among all the families, it has to last for three days. And by the way, we are more fortunate compared to the Palestinian communities more north. To them, Israel does not give any water at all, and often the soldiers even confiscate the water which they buy for themselves. That  is because the area where they live had been declared as a firing range, and the army says they are living there illegally. So far, they did not declare Fasayil a firing range. "

So what could we do about it – we, fifty Israelis who had followed the call of “The Water Coalition" and came to Fasayil  on a Saturday afternoon? We could say a few words of sympathy and encouragement, and express shame at the acts of the country whose citizens we are. We could take down from our bus the 120 bottles of mineral water which we brought with us as a completely inadequate gesture of solidarity. (The tanker which we intended to bring got stuck on badly paved roads, and came only the following day.) But at least a cardboard box full of toys was immediately assaulted by the Fasayil children with cries of joy. We could help build a simple playground from local materials and sit down with our hosts for a modest meal. And to raise big signs “Open the tap! Water is a right” towards the camera of the Social TV.  And then we got back on the bus and went back to our homes in Metropolitan Tel Aviv where the water is always flowing in the taps. Always.

Two days later, there were other visitors arriving at the village of Fasayil. In the morning, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces came to Fasayil, accompanied by bulldozers. Two residential buildings were destroyed in less than half an hour. Twelve people, including seven minors, were left homeless.

Was that in any way related to our visit? Probably not. B'Tselem documents in recent weeks a sharp rise in the number of house demolitions carried out by the army throughout the Occupied Territories. At the Al-Moarjat community, also is the Jordan Valley, four residential buildings were demolished, leaving homeless 14 people, including two children. And five buildings were destroyed at the community of Umm al-Kheir in the South Hebron Hills, in this case leaving 27 homeless people, including 16 minors. And so on and so forth. Seven more Palestinian communities have gotten a destructive visit from the army in the past week.

The day on which  the soldiers and bulldozers came to the village of Fasayil in the Jordan Valley was also the day when Sima Vaknin, Director General of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, attended an urgent session at the Knesset in Jerusalem. She informed the Knesset Members of a severe situation - "Israel is perceived in the world as a Pariah State". But hope is not lost. The Ministry for Strategic Affairs has established an ten-member inter-ministerial team, charged with formulating an alternative narrative, and Israel will make every effort to get it accepted by the world. The ultimate goal is to instill this alternate narrative globally during the next ten years, until 2025. "For me, victory means a narrative change in the world’s perception of Israel.  That the world will no longer equate Israel with Apartheid" she noted.

How exactly is that to be achieved? Vaknin, who until a few years ago served as the Chief Military Censor, refrained from providing Knesset Members with any detailed information. "The fight against the de-legitimization of Israel is a very sensitive topic. I'm pushing the ministry to work in utmost secrecy, and I asked for the minister in charge, Gilad Erdan, to refrain from public statements regarding the work of the ministry. We want most of the work of the Strategic Affairs Ministry to be classified. There are very many sensitivities. I can’t even explain in an open forum what these sensitivities are... Much of what we do goes under the radar. I can explain in detail only at a close session of the  Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, with an absolute prohibition on publishing anything said there. All I can say here is that the operating budget on the campaign against de-legitimization of Israel comes to 128 million in 2016. "

Still, some of the methods to be used were exposed two days later. Strategic Affairs Ministry officials held a work meeting with their colleagues from the Interior Ministry and the Interior Security Ministry, and informed them that "Dozens of international organizations are active on  the West Bank, under various guises. They are gathering information on IDF operations in the Territories. Foreign activists then make use of this information to promote a boycott and isolation of Israel. Boycott-supporting activists are agitating Palestinian residents of the West Bank, inciting them against the IDF forces and disrupting military operations.” It was  estimated that “there are several hundred such foreign activists, who enter either through Ben Gurion Airport or via the Allenby Bridge, and pretend to be tourists. Some activists are leaving after a short stay, but some remain in the West Bank for long periods".

Therefore, Ministers Gilad Erdan and Aryeh Deri resolved to establish a joint team tasked with preventing such activists getting through passport control and expelling those who already managed to enter the country. Among other things, the team will collect intelligence on foreign activists who are in the country in order to establish a judicial case justifying their deportation. Also examined by the team’s legal advisers is the option of "criminalizing" entire organizations, so as to be able to deport or deny access to anyone who is a member with no need of gathering specific evidence against each activist separately.

On the pages of "Israel Today" (aka the Bibinews) Itai Reuveni spelled out  who is meant: "For a long time, various agencies are sending to Israel extremists disguised as tourists, in order that they will document ‘Human Rights violations' [quotation marks in the original].  

“The most blatant example is the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, a project founded in 2002 by The World Council of Churches. Its declared purpose is to bring volunteers to ‘experience life under occupation and influence the International Community's involvement in the conflict’. This project is sending activists from dozens of countries for a period of three months, after a training in their home country which includes ways of dealing with the military and briefing to get into Israel. When arriving, they get a further briefing and then go into the field, wearing brown vests with the program logo. They are deployed at the crossings and points of friction, and even in the Old City of Jerusalem, and make one-sided documentation of  alleged Israeli violations. At a peak moment activists positioned themselves at the Wailing Wall and documented the security forces’ activities. At the end of three months, many activists return to their home countries and promote various anti-Israeli campaigns at the explicit request of the program managers. An end should be put at last to the activity of this and other organizations of the same type such as the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and The American Friends Service Committee of the Quakers, who until now got humanitarian visas."

This morning, the radio news reported that the French Government condemns the demolition of buildings in Nabi Samwil, north of Jerusalem, whose construction was financed by France. “It is the third time this year that Israel is destroying or confiscating humanitarian aid structures which were erected by France, including a school which was destroyed six months ago. The increasing pace of demolition  is in contravention of International Law.”

Perhaps the French Ambassador should be expelled, too?