Hollow Visions of Palestine’s Future

David Grossman’s widely publicized speech at the annual memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin earlier this month has prompted some fine deconstruction of his "words of peace" from critics.

Grossman, one of Israel’s foremost writers and a figurehead for its main peace movement, Peace Now, personifies the caring, tortured face of Zionism that so many of the country’s apologists – in Israel and abroad, trenchant and wavering alike – desperately want to believe survives, despite the evidence of the Qanas, Beit Hanouns and other massacres committed by the Israeli army against Arab civilians. Grossman makes it possible to believe, for a moment, that the Ariel Sharons and Ehud Olmerts are not the real upholders of Zionism’s legacy, merely a temporary deviation from its true path.

In reality, of course, Grossman draws from the same ideological well-spring as Israel’s founders and its greatest warriors. He embodies the same anguished values of Labor Zionism that won Israel international legitimacy just as it was carrying out one of history’s great acts of ethnic cleansing: the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians, or 80 per cent the native population, from the borders of the newly established Jewish state.

(Even critical historians usually gloss over the fact that the percentage of the Palestinian population expelled by the Israeli army was, in truth, far higher. Many Palestinians forced out during the 1948 war ended up back inside Israel’s borders either because under the terms of the 1949 armistice with Jordan they were annexed to Israel, along with a small but densely populated area of the West Bank known as the Little Triangle, or because they managed to slip back across the porous border with Lebanon and Syria in the months following the war and hide inside the few Palestinian villages inside Israel that had not been destroyed.)

Remove the halo with which he has been crowned by the world’s liberal media and Grossman is little different from Zionism’s most distinguished statesmen, those who also ostentatiously displayed their hand-wringing or peace credentials as, first, they dispossessed the Palestinian people of most of their homeland; then dispossessed them of the rest; then ensured the original act of ethnic cleansing would not unravel; and today are working on the slow genocide of the Palestinians, through a combined strategy of their physical destruction and their dispersion as a people.

David Ben Gurion, for example, masterminded the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 before very publicly agonizing over the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – even if only because of the demographic damage that would be done to the Jewish state as a result.

Golda Meir refused to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people as she launched the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, but did recognize the anguish of Jewish soldiers forced to "shoot and cry" to defend the settlements. Or as she put it: "We can forgive you [the Palestinians] for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours."

Yitzhak Rabin, Grossman’s most direct inspiration, may have initiated a "peace process" at Oslo (even if only the terminally optimistic today believe that peace was really its goal), but as a soldier and politician he also personally oversaw the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian cities like Lid in 1948; he ordered tanks into Arab villages inside Israel during the Land Day protests of 1976, leading to the deaths of half a dozen unarmed Palestinian citizens; and in 1988 he ordered his army to crush the first intifada by "breaking the bones" of Palestinians, including women and children, who threw stones at the occupying troops.

Like them, Grossman conspires in these original war crimes by preferring to hold on to what Israel has, or even extend it further, rather than confront the genuinely painful truth of his responsibility for the fate of the Palestinians, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees and the millions of their descendants.

Every day that Grossman denies a Right of Return for the Palestinians, even as he supports a Law of Return for the Jews, he excuses and maintains the act of ethnic cleansing that dispossessed the Palestinian refugees more than half a century ago.

And every day that he sells a message of peace to Israelis who look to him for moral guidance that fails to offer the Palestinians a just solution – and that takes instead as its moral yardstick the primacy of Israel’s survival as a Jewish state – then he perverts the meaning of peace.

Another Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, diagnoses the problem posed by Grossman and his ilk with acute insight in a recent article. Although Grossman wants peace in the abstract, Avnery observes, he offers no solutions as to how it might be secured in concrete terms and no clues about what sacrifices he or other Israelis will have to make to achieve it. His "peace" is empty of content, a mere rhetorical device.

Rather than suggest what Israel should talk about to the Palestinians’ elected leaders, Grossman argues that Israel should talk over their heads to the "moderates," Palestinians with whom Israel’s leaders can do business. The goal is to find Palestinians, any Palestinians, who will agree to Israel’s "peace." The Oslo process in new clothes.

Grossman’s speech looks like a gesture towards a solution only because Israel’s current leaders do not want to speak with anybody on the Palestinian side, whether "moderate" or "fanatic." The only interlocutor is Washington, and a passive one at that.

If Grossman’s words are as as "hollow" as those of Ehud Olmert, Avnery offers no clue as to reasons for the author’s evasiveness. In truth, Grossman cannot deal in solutions because there is almost no constituency in Israel for the kind of peace plan that might prove acceptable even to the Palestinian "moderates" Grossman so wants his government to talk to.

Were Grossman to set out the terms of his vision of peace, it might become clear to all that the problem is not Palestinian intransigence.

Although surveys regularly show that a majority of Israelis support a Palestinian state, they are conducted by pollsters who never specify to their sampling audience what might be entailed by the creation of the state posited in their question. Equally the pollsters do not require from their Israeli respondents any information about what kind of Palestinian state each envisages. This makes the nature of the Palestinian state being talked about by Israelis almost as empty of content as the alluring word "peace."

After all, according to most Israelis, Gazans are enjoying the fruits of the end of Israel’s occupation. And according to Olmert, his proposed "convergence" – a very limited withdrawal from the West Bank – would have established the basis for a Palestinian state there too.

When Israelis are asked about their view of more specific peace plans, their responses are overwhelmingly negative. In 2003, for example, 78 per cent of Israeli Jews said they favored a two-state solution, but when asked if they supported the Geneva Initiative – which envisions a very circumscribed Palestinian state on less than all of the West Bank and Gaza – only a quarter did so. Barely more than half of the supposedly leftwing voters of Labor backed the Geneva Initiative.

This low level of support for a barely viable Palestinian state contrasts with the consistently high levels of support among Israeli Jews for a concrete, but very different, solution to the conflict: "transfer," or ethnic cleansing. In opinion polls, 60 per cent of Israeli Jews regularly favor the emigration of Arab citizens from the as-yet-undetermined borders of the Jewish state.

So when Grossman warns us that "a peace of no choice" is inevitable and that "the land will be divided, a Palestinian state will arise," we should not be lulled into false hopes. Grossman’s state is almost certainly as "hollow" as his audience’s idea of peace.

Grossman’s refusal to confront the lack of sympathy among the Israeli public for the Palestinians, or challenge it with solutions that will require of Israelis that they make real sacrifices for peace, deserves our condemnation. He and the other gurus of Israel’s mainstream peace movement, writers like Amos Oz and A B Yehoshua, have failed in their duty to articulate to Israelis a vision of a fair future and a lasting peace.

So what is the way out of the impasse created by the beatification of figures like Grossman? What other routes are open to those of us who refuse to believe that Grossman stands at the very precipice before which any sane peace activist would tremble? Can we look to other members of the Israeli left for inspiration?

Uri Avnery again steps forward. He claims that there are only two peace camps in Israel: a Zionist one, based on a national consensus rooted in the Peace Now of David Grossman; and what he calls a "radical peace camp" led by … well, himself and his group of a few thousand Israelis known as Gush Shalom.

By this, one might be tempted to infer that Avnery styles his own peace bloc as non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Avnery and most, though not all, of his supporters in Israel are staunchly in the Zionist camp.

The bottom line in any peace for Avnery is the continued existence and success of Israel as a Jewish state. That rigidly limits his ideas about what sort of peace a "radical" Israeli peace activist ought to be pursuing.

Like Grossman, Avnery supports a two-state solution because, in both their views, the future of the Jewish state cannot be guaranteed without a Palestinian state alongside it. This is why Avnery finds himself agreeing with 90 per cent of Grossman’s speech. If the Jews are to prosper as a demographic (and democratic) majority in their state, then the non-Jews must have a state too, one in which they can exercise their own, separate sovereign rights and, consequently, abandon any claims on the Jewish state.

However, unlike Grossman, Avnery not only supports a Palestinian state in the abstract but a "just" Palestinian state in the concrete, meaning for him the evacuation of all the settlers and a full withdrawal by the Israeli army to the 1967 lines. Avnery’s peace plan would give back east Jerusalem and the whole of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians.

The difference between Grossman and Avnery on this point can be explained by their different understanding of what is needed to ensure the Jewish state’s survival. Avnery believes that a lasting peace will hold only if the Palestinian state meets the minimal aspirations of the Palestinian people. In his view, the Palestinians can be persuaded under the right leadership to settle for 22 per cent of their historic homeland – and in that way the Jewish state will be saved.

Of itself, there is nothing wrong with Avnery’s position. It has encouraged him to take a leading and impressive role in the Israeli peace movement for many decades. Bravely he has crossed over national confrontation lines to visit the besieged Palestinian leadership when other Israelis have shied away. He has taken a courageous stand against the separation wall, facing down Israeli soldiers alongside Palestinian, Israeli and foreign peace activists. And through his journalism he has highlighted the Palestinian cause and educated Israelis, Palestinians and outside observers about the conflict. For all these reasons, Avnery should be praised as a genuine peacemaker.

But there is a serious danger that, because Palestinian solidarity movements have misunderstood Avnery’s motives, they may continue to be guided by him beyond the point where he is contributing to a peaceful solution or a just future for the Palestinians. In fact, that moment may be upon us.

During the Oslo years, Avnery was desperate to see Israel complete its supposed peace agreement with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. As he often argued, he believed that Arafat alone could unify the Palestinians and persuade them to settle for the only two-state solution on the table: a big Israel, alongside a small Palestine.

In truth, Avnery’s position was no so far from that of the distinctly unradical Oslo crowd of Rabin, Peres and Yossi Beilin. All four of them regarded Arafat as the Palestinian strongman who could secure Israel’s future: Rabin hoped Arafat would police the Palestinians on Israel’s behalf in their ghettoes; while Avnery hoped Arafat would forge a nation, democratic or otherwise, that would contain the Palestinians’ ambitions for territory and a just solution to the refugee problem.

Now with Arafat gone, Avnery and Gush Shalom have lost their ready-made solution to the conflict. Today, they still back two states and support engagement with Hamas. They have also not deviated from their long-standing positions on the main issues – Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees – even if they no longer have the glue, Arafat, that was supposed to make it all stick together.

But without Arafat as their strongman, Gush Shalom have no idea about how to address the impending issues of factionalism and potential civil war that Israel’s meddling in the Palestinian political process are unleashing.

They will also have no response if the tide on the Palestinian street turns against the two-state mirage offered by Oslo. If Palestinians look for other ways out of the current impasse, as they are starting to do, Avnery will quickly become an obstacle to peace rather than its great defender.

In fact, such a development is all but certain. Few knowledgeable observers of the conflict believe the two-state solution based on the 1967 lines is feasible any longer, given Israel’s entrenchment of its settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank, now numbering nearly half a million. Even the Americans have publicly admitted that most of the settlements cannot be undone. It is only a matter of time before Palestinians make the same calculation.

What will Avnery, and the die-hards of Gush Shalom, do in this event? How will they respond if Palestinians start to clamor for a single state embracing both Israelis and Palestinians, for example?

The answer is that the "radical" peaceniks will quickly need to find another solution to protect their Jewish state. There are not too many available:

  • There is the "Carry on with the occupation regardless" of Binyamin Netanyahu and Likud;
  • There is the "Seal the Palestinians into ghettoes and hope eventually they will leave of their own accord," in its Kadima (hard) and Labor (soft) incarnations;
  • And there is the "Expel them all" of Avigdor Lieberman, Olmert’s new Minister of Strategic Threats.
  • Paradoxically, a variation on the last option may be the most appealing to the disillusioned peaceniks of Gush Shalom. Lieberman has his own fanatical and moderate positions, depending on his audience and the current realities. To some he says he wants all Palestinians expelled from Greater Israel so that it is available only for Jews. But to others, particularly in the diplomatic arena, he suggests a formula of territorial and population swaps between Israel and the Palestinians that would create a "Separation of Nations." Israel would get the settlements back in return for handing over some small areas of Israel, like the Little Triangle, densely populated with Palestinians.

    A generous version of such an exchange – though a violation of international law – would achieve a similar outcome to Gush Shalom’s attempts to create a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Even if Avnery is unlikely to be lured down this path himself, there is a real danger that others in the "radical" peace camp will prefer this kind of solution over sacrificing their commitment at any price to the Jewish state.

    But fortunately, whatever Avnery claims, his peace camp is not the only alternative to the sham agonizing of Peace Now. Avnery is no more standing at the very edge of the abyss than Grossman. The only abyss Avnery is looking into is the demise of his Jewish state.

    Other Zionist Jews, in Israel and abroad, have been grappling with the same kinds of issues as Avnery but begun to move in a different direction, away from the doomed two-state solution towards a binational state. A few prominent intellectuals like Tony Judt, Meron Benvenisti and Jeff Halper have publicly begun to question their commitment to Zionism and consider whether it is not part of the problem rather than the solution.

    They are not doing this alone. Small groups of Israelis, smaller than Gush Shalom, are abandoning Zionism and coalescing around new ideas about how Israeli Jews and Palestinians might live peacefully together, including inside a single state. They include Taayush, Anarchists Against the Wall, Zochrot and elements within the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions and Gush Shalom itself.

    Avnery hopes that his peace camp may be the small wheel that can push the larger wheel of organizations like Peace Now in a new direction and thereby shift Israeli opinion towards a real two-state solution. Given the realities on the ground, that seems highly unlikely. But one day, wheels currently smaller than Gush Shalom may begin to push Israel in the direction needed for peace.

    Author: Jonathan Cook

    Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran, and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Visit his Web site.