What’s the point of Liberal Zionists?
John Kerry waves goodbye to hopes for a professional politicians’ peace process.
By Larry Derfner
May 19, 2014
Not even Ben-Gurion would be able to rally the political support necessary to displace masses of settlers as long as there is no price to be paid for the occupation. So how much longer can liberal Zionists sit and watch the status quo remain static? If instead of trying to persuade Israel to change, two-state supporters started holding it responsible for refusing to change, it could have a jarring psychological impact on the country and its leaders.
Now that the Kerry peace talks have failed and everyone has given up hoping that Netanyahu will change, what’s the new plan for ending the occupation one day? For liberal Zionists – people who want Israel to become a Jewish state that respects Arabs – it would seem to focus on Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor Party. Unlike fellow centrist party leaders Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, Herzog hasn’t been in a position of leadership long enough yet to fail or sell out, so he’s the one. The hope is that he can get elected in the coming years to head a coalition government of the center, left, maybe an ultra-Orthodox party, maybe even an Arab party for once, and do what prime ministers going back to Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago tried but were unable to do – reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Liberal Zionists’ last great white hope, Labour party chair Isaac Herzog seen in front of a painting of late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin prior to a party meeting in the Knesset, March 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90
Putting their hopes on Herzog is a natural progression for liberal Zionists. After all, they can’t just throw in the towel and resign themselves to the occupation being permanent; it’s unthinkable, psychologically insupportable. Besides, who can tell the future? Herzog seems solid; he’s very smart, competent, likable, the son of a beloved army general and president – a consensus-type figure. And now that the Kerry initiative has failed, and even the timid Obama administration is blaming the Netanyahu government for it while exonerating the Palestinians (off the record), clearly the thing to do is replace the Netanyahu government. Then there will be a fighting chance for peace again (unless of course the Republicans get elected).
Here is my heartfelt, urgent advice: forget it. It’s a waste of time. Electoral politics in either Israel or America, as far as it concerns the peace process, is a waste of time – hopefully not forever, but certainly for now and for the next several years. And maybe forever. This is what liberal Zionists are going to have to face, or they’re going to continue wasting their time, which will make it that much more likely that the peace process will not just be dead for now, and not for the next several years, but indeed forever.
100,000 to 170,000 settlers
Even if Herzog (or Livni, or Lapid) could get elected to lead a center-left government with Meretz and Arabs and all sorts of other good people – which is unlikely; polls show Netanyahu and the right gaining popularity because the public blames the Palestinians for the peace talks’ failure – such a government could not end the occupation and carry out the two-state solution. The reason is that neither a Herzog government nor any other government in today’s Israel can do what’s necessary to meet the Palestinians’ demands, which are backed by the entire world (myself included), and which involve, but are by no means limited to, the removal of between roughly 100,000 and 170,000 settlers from the West Bank.
The first 100,000 live mainly in “ideological” settlements, many of which, such as Hebron, Yitzhar, Bat Ayin and the little “hilltop outposts,” are extremely violent, racist, religiously fanatic and politically deranged. The second 70,000 or so are the population of Ma’aleh Adumim and the Ariel bloc, considered by the great majority of Israelis to be too big and too “normal” to move – though not by the Palestinians and the rest of the world, which see them as Israeli wedges deep in the West Bank whose evacuation is necessary for Palestine to be a “contiguous” state. The removal of the second 70,000 settlers may or may not be negotiable. The removal of the first 100,000 absolutely is not; Ehud Barak offered to take down those settlements at Camp David in 2000, and so did Ehud Olmert in the Annapolis talks of 2007-8. Since then, of course, their population has grown.
Trying to move out 100,000 people from the most dug-in settlements in the West Bank is, for the coming years at least, the mother’s mother of all non-starters. It’s a joke. The specter of the sort of cataclysm that would be triggered is enough to stop any government from touching it. As I write this, the hot topic in Israel is the runaway anti-Arab violence by young radical settlers, a story that’s been spiced up further by the discovery that in Yitzhar, they’re debating whether the Torah allows them to kill an Israeli soldier who comes to tear down one of their illegal bungalows. So it’s just silly to talk about “trading land for peace” now. The only way it may, just may, ever happen is if Israelis find themselves paying such a high price for the occupation that they’re ready to empower a government to end it, and to put down settler resistance by any means necessary because they feel Israel itself and their future here are at stake. (More about this later.) But that’s not anywhere close to how Israelis feel now, so a Herzog government or any other government could talk all they wanted about peace and the two-state solution, but they’d be spinning their wheels; until further notice, the settlers aren’t going anywhere, not 100,000 of them, not 1,000, not one.
In retrospect, it was wishful thinking to believe that peace could have been made if the Palestinians had accepted Barak or Olmert’s offers; either of those prime ministers would have had to uproot those same fearsome settlements. Barak was terribly unpopular when he got to Camp David and so was Olmert during the Annapolis talks; there’s no way either one could have rallied the massive support necessary to beat back the kind of rebellion the settlers and the Right would have mounted against them. Most of the public and the politicians would have cowered. So back then, as now, the two-state solution was a non-starter, and I don’t think it would have been any different for Rabin, either, had he lived. It’s not a coincidence that the two prime ministers who’ve evacuated settlers were both highly determined, cunning and popular figures from the Right – Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. To pull off such a feat, it takes a very powerful leader, someone who can get the mainstream Right behind him, which no prime minister from the Left could do. And who did Begin and Sharon uproot? In the first case, 7,000 settlers who’d been in the Sinai for a few years, in the second case, 8,500 relatively moderate settlers in Gaza, a land most Israelis were happy to get rid of. And both times all hell broke loose in this country. I’ve only read and heard about the “trauma,” as it’s called, of Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai, but I was here for the disengagement from Gaza, and it was clear then as it’s clear now that no one but Sharon could have overcome the revolt by the settlers and the hard Right and gotten Israel out of the Strip.
Not even Ben-Gurion could now
Yet what we’re talking about now is not 7,000 settlers in the Sinai or 8,500 in Gaza, but 100,000 to 170,000 in Israel’s “Biblical heartland,” not many of whom are anyone’s idea of moderates. I don’t believe Sharon, or Begin, or Ben-Gurion or anyone else could clear out those settlements under today’s conditions, when Israel isn’t paying any price for their presence. It would seem insane – why turn a stable, safe, prosperous country upside down, why invite bloodshed, why force such huge masses of Jews from their homes, why fork over billions to them in compensation, when nobody and nothing of consequence is bearing down on us to do it? What could Isaac Herzog say to get the Israeli public behind such a project? Aside from the committed Left, which is less than 10 percent of the population, and the Israeli Arabs, who unfortunately don’t count in the national debate, no one would support such a move; again, certainly not now and maybe never.
So what good is replacing Netanyahu with Herzog? Or Livni? Or Lapid?
And what about the hope of getting America to do in the coming years what it’s been so plainly unwilling to do up to now: force Israel to end the occupation by threatening escalating punishments if it doesn’t? That’s not going to happen. The United States is through trying to solve this problem; after Kerry’s remarkably strenuous, remarkably futile effort, the Obama administration will not get back on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road again. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine a more idealistically anti-occupation team than Obama and Kerry running American foreign policy in the future. And if America can’t force Israel’s hand, neither can the European Union or the United Nations or anybody else.
So for liberal Zionists, what’s the point of lobbying Congress or trying to move the American Jewish establishment away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats?
As for the last corner of the peace process triangle – the Palestinians – Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is by far the most moderate leader they’ve ever had. He’s 79, and after him comes only less moderate Palestinian leadership, not more so, because more so doesn’t exist.
Palestinian protesters hold flags and a banner during a demonstration against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem November 6, 2013. Photo by Mohamad Torokman / Reuters
This is the political map in the wake of the Kerry initiative’s failure. Where does it point to? The end of the peace process as we know it. The end of it as an American-Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic project, which goes back formally to the 1991 Madrid talks, and informally to well before that. This has been the traditional method of Middle East peacemaking, and there’s nothing left of it. It has no further to go. The peace process has finally, truly hit the wall. Myself, I thought it was over in 2009 when Obama caved into Netanyahu and the Israel lobby and dropped his demand for an open-ended, total freeze on settlement construction. But now, after the Kerry talks, it’s hard to see how even the most optimistic liberal can make a sincere argument that American diplomacy can get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on ending the conflict.
Chance to transform?
I know this is a dismal view of the way things are. And I’m not going to pretend that there’s a sure way to turn things around; it may well be that the occupation is permanent, or that the only way it’s going to end is by Israel starting one war too many, so that the end of the occupation takes Israel with it, or at any rate leads to a mass exodus of Jews, and that would be a catastrophe. But I do believe there is still a chance to transform the situation peacefully, and the way to do that, again, is by bringing such international pressure to bear on Israel that it uproots those masses of settlers and ends the occupation for the sake of its own basic well-being.
From the Palestinians’ side, I’m talking, obviously, about the UN strategy, which ultimately means the threat of trying Israel for war crimes in The Hague. Their other viable options include unarmed “popular resistance”; “people power” marches to the separation barrier and the settlements; dismantling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and “handing back the keys” to Israel; and/or demanding Israeli citizenship.
For everyone else, I’m talking, of course, about supporting the Palestinians in such actions, and supporting the BDS movement at one level or another.
Such a political stance is foreign to liberal Zionists. It was foreign to me, a liberal Zionist in Israel, until recent years, when I began to run out of justifications for not supporting non-violent tactics against the occupation. If a substantial number of the liberal Zionists who are appalled at what Israel does to the Palestinians were to give up trying to persuade Israel to change, and instead start holding it responsible for refusing to change, I believe it would have a jarring psychological impact on this country and its leaders. What I know for sure is that a continuation of the genial, toothless, J Street-style approach will continue to change nothing, at least not over here.
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions
About BDS. A lot of people denounce the movement because it singles out Israel for punishment when so many other countries that do much worse things get off scot-free. In fact, the opposite is true; as I wrote recently, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Yemen, Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and lots of other countries are sanctioned and boycotted, and not by minor academic groups and trade unions as in Israel’s case, but by the United States, European Union, UN Security Council or all of them together. Israel, meanwhile, gets $3 billion dollars a year in arms, along with “unbreakable” political support, as Obama likes to say, from the world’s greatest superpower. So yes, there is a double standard when it comes to Israel, and it tilts heavily in Israel’s favor.
Members of Philly BDS protest outside a JNF meeting, March 2013
But it is also said that the BDS movement is run by people who don’t just want to dismantle the occupation, they want to dismantle the Jewish state altogether in favor of a “state of all its citizens,” which is something liberal Zionists can’t support. In fact, the boycott movement as a whole has now spread beyond the “one-staters” who started it – and for which they deserve full credit, whether one agrees with them or not – and moved to “two-staters” that include the European Union and numerous financial institutions within it. As Stephen Hawking had visited Israel four times before boycotting a major event in Jerusalem last year, it’s fair to assume he’s a two-stater as well. I’m a two-stater myself. And I have no problem supporting BDS because I know that if Israel ever gets to the point where it’s ready to concede to international pressure, it will be responding not to the small left-wing groups calling for it to give up Jewish statehood, but to the powerful forces in the democratic world calling for it to give up the occupation alone.
But then some people say a massive BDS campaign will just harden Israelis, make them more resistant to change. Since this is speculation, I can’t disprove it, but I am completely convinced that even if that were the immediate reaction in this country to an intensive, steadily mounting BDS campaign, it would turn around very soon and an urgency to finish with the occupation would start to be felt. If push ever comes to shove, very few Israelis will be ready to endure the kind of ostracism that apartheid South Africa faced – and so they will throw in the towel well before things get that bad. The great majority of Israelis are practical people; they are not going to become the world’s pariahs for the sake of the settlements, or the dubious privilege of hearing Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or the right to keep Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley indefinitely, or for any other barricade that their right-wing leaders put up in the occupation’s defense.
But let’s say for argument’s sake that there is a risk BDS will backfire; what the alternative? What other tactic is there that might challenge the status quo, now in its 48th year? I would love to fight the occupation by kinder, gentler means than supporting the boycott of this country, or supporting the Palestinians at The Hague, but I don’t know of any, and I haven’t heard of anyone who does. So the choice is either BDS – whose potential is reflected in the alarmed reaction of the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish powers-that-be – or impotence.
Moreover, BDS isn’t an all-or-nothing tactic. If liberal Zionists don’t want to boycott Israel, let them just boycott the settlements. If they want to support the economic boycott but not the cultural boycott, or the cultural boycott but not the academic boycott, that also helps. But if they don’t want to boycott anything, let them come up with a better idea for transforming the status quo, or just any idea that hasn’t already failed.
How much time?
Again, while I think the occupation may be irreversible, I don’t think that’s proven yet; I believe there’s still time to try to reverse it. But there are reasonable limits to that time. If beyond a certain point the occupation is still in force, then believing it can end becomes pure self-deception – the politics of denial. If the occupation is still here, for instance, after another 47 years, will it still be possible for clear-thinking liberals to try to uproot it? Of course not.
So how much more time is there to fight before the cause becomes, in all honesty, lost? I’d say six, seven, eight years – I think in terms of 10 years maximum. Why 10 years? Because if a decade of escalating punishment from the world and the Palestinians doesn’t make Israel crack, I can’t see why 15 years of it, or 20 years of it should. And if the world does not get its act into gear against the occupation in the coming years, if the “greater BDS movement” does not become an irresistible force within a decade at most – then why should it become one afterward? With the failure of the Kerry talks, what more does the world need to know before realizing that Israel cannot be persuaded to move out at least 100,000 settlers and give up control of the territories, that it can only be forced into it? There’s nothing left to wait for; all that’s left is for people to decide whether they will go on accepting Israel as the lord and master of 4 million Palestinians, or they won’t.
For a liberal Zionist whose commitment to Israel depends on his or her belief that one day the occupation will end, the decision whether or not to tolerate the status quo is, of course, especially meaningful. Because now that the decades-long, U.S.-led peace process lies in ruins, now that the old tactics have failed, if one doesn’t oppose the status quo in a new, more forceful way, then one is coming to terms with its permanence. And for a liberal Zionist who cares deeply about Israel, whose hopes and maybe even identity are tied up with this country, that would be a kind of death.
Therefore choose life.