Breaking the impasse

A 1982 Israeli poster, picturing soldiers beating a Palestinian, alludes to the Holocaust with the Hebrew text “Don’t say you didn’t know!” (Image courtesy of Liberation Graphics)

A friend once remarked that human rights is too important a matter to be left to politics.

But the left is dead in Israel. And if you hold to the observation that social change related to human rights in Israel will be initiated by the left, this is a worrisome trend.

In the land of home demolitions, military assassinations, movement restrictions, settlement construction, religious and secular strife, collective punishment, military incursions and legal and socio-economic discrimination, and all thepsychological and physical damage associated with the Occupation there is a growing chorus of those who believe that the situation will deteriorate before it gets better.

Vicki Knafo, a single mother of three, momentarily captured the imagination of a country mired in violence in the summer of 2003 when she walked 200km from Mitzpeh Ramon to Jerusalem when her social security had been cut by 1,200 shekels a month. She then proceeded to camp out in front of the Finance Ministry demanding to meet with Binyamin Netanyahu and was joined by 600 single mothers. She had a compelling story and she brought people together.

As Sigal Haroush, the Director of the Left Bank Club in Tel Aviv and spokesperson for the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow noted in the pages of Haaretz recently, the left is “too busy writing for those bullshit websites.” According to her, they are the intellectuals looking to give themselves visibility and are divorced from the real situation, feeding their egos rather than helping the situation.

The question she poses is important - how much does the left help, who stands to gain from their activities, and what responsibility do they have, if any, as its leaders.

Haroush says the left needs to build in the neighbourhoods and at the peripheries. She doesn’t consider mainstream organizations associated with the progressive movement like Peace Now as a leftist organization - she calls them liberals which only pressure the structure as it is now. She sees that the role of the left in Israel, in the context of the occupation in the Palestinian territories, is to aim to change the structure, hegemony, and power relationship that currently exists, through democratic means.

Needless to say, she is a devout Marxist. And as an Arab Jew, while most of her community left the social protest of the 1959 Wadi Salib riots where they fought over “bread and work” in order to get into bed with Menachem Begin and Likud in a strategy shift in the ’70s to advance their rights, the Mizrahis are also at a crossroads, questioning their allegiance to the right.

She sees the left as being more rooted in their communities and with a responsibility to communicate in more popular forms to the marginalized communities that do not consume the culture of power.

She sees Israel as still holding the vestiges of a colonial mindset that has been in the region since the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, and the
establishment of Israel in 1948. This divide between “high culture” and “low culture,” “enlightened culture” and “dark culture,” as has often been cited
by the late Edward Said still holds today according to her, is built into the mainstream body politic of Israeli DNA.

There are bright areas on the Left such as the Jewish/Arab partnership called Ta’ayush and individual members like Khulood Badawi, the former head of the
National Union of Arab students who recently spoke at a rally in East Jerusalem with Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. It was the university students, called the “Stand Tall Generation,” who were protesting in the spring of 2000 before the current intifada erupted.

On one day she is writing an eloquent op/ed in the Israeli newspapers and the next day she is on the front page, being strangled by security forces - such is the bizarre nature of the Israeli political climate today. There is a high personal price for political activity which contributes to the floundering nature of the Left and to constructive dissent in general.

Abir Kopty, an activist and member of the Hadash political party and a spokesperson for the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, says, “There is not a movement that is left[ist] in Israel - the right is mainstreaming their agenda. The left is small and has failed to get out of this marginalization.”

The Geneva Agreement is already dead according to her. The atmosphere isn’t right and the people are not prepared to make peace in this environment. Furthermore, the left is not united on basic issues like the Occupation, the Separation Wall, refugees, the right of return, and Jerusalem. They do not have a common agenda today.

She also adds that due to the socio-economic situation, the effects of globalization, Israel’s economy shifting to a more capitalist system, and the outbreak of violence and the military crackdown, people have lost the readiness to fight back - and that there is a fear of struggling.

Kopty says, “The last ten years have been a disaster. The Palestinians don’t have a lot of options and accessibility to the Jewish people. It will take years
to build an agenda on how to struggle in the long term together. We have to focus on how to be creative in our struggle, we have to build our capacities. Then we have to go to the streets. My dream is to have non-violent massive action by Jews and Arabs in a creative way.”

In Israel, where the prevailing trend is to be European and not be part of the Middle East, it translates into Israeli participation in the Euro Vision Song Contest and Euro League Soccer - the championship incidentally won for the first time by an Israeli Arab team this year, Bnei Sakhnin. This cultural divide between the European identity of Israel and the Middle Eastern Arab world is a fundamental one and not easily surmountable.

And only in Israel could one fairly say that Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party are seen as a moderate political movement. The mainstream Israeli response to the criticism of its policy is a simple one - this is the price of self-preservation for a Jewish state.

The Holocaust is such an important part of the collective memory of the Jewish people and so ingrained in the establishment of Israel since 1948. There is a prevailing argument in the Israeli mainstream that says Israel must negotiate from a position of strength, whatever the consequences to the Palestinian people, in order to avert Jewish suffering.

But what is being done today in the name of protecting Israeli security cannot be justified now or in the long term. And as Israel’s “new historians” have noted, even Israeli history is built on mistruths about the effects of settlement on the existing Palestinian population. The Israeli society as a whole, Jews and Palestinians, are engaged in a “Grand Dissonance” eroding their ability to have a collective memory and narrative. Their entire civil society is in trauma as a result, and their citizenry is mired in suffering. This is the path they have inherited.

In the end, this is also about gaining control over land, resources and establishing a culture. It is through design, power, coercion, and outright bullying that Israel is implementing new facts on the ground as it takes part in the public relations machinations of the current peace processes.

Maybe in the middle of all this dire news, Yossi Beilin still has a trick up his sleeve. Maybe Dr. Gandhi’s call for mass non-violent resistance with the
implementation of international law is the way. But for now, the War on Terror is sufficient cover for Israel to buy time to strengthen and expand their
immense foothold in the West Bank and to build the infrastructure which that entails.

After the death of the 2000 incarnation of the Camp David Accords with Bill Clinton acting as Master of Ceremonies and the backroom wheeler-dealer, running out of time to put the finishing touches on his Presidential legacy, it may yet prove to be the last best hope for peace since the death of Rabin and for at least the next fifteen years.

The failure of reaching a deal in 2000 set the stage for what was to follow. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount and kickstarted the Second Intifada. Months later, Barak ran for Prime Minister saying that his “Generous Offer” had been rejected and the Arabs who could vote boycotted the election and called it “Barak’s Big Lie.”

Naomi Klein’s recent observation about the “Likudization” of world politics, the US in particular through the Bush docrine since September 11th, holds true enough here that it has rendered the left in Israel largely obselete since the beginning of the second intifada. The first intifada as a mass non-violent struggle had material gains to speak for even if everything ended up in failure. The Rabin assassination put an end to it all.

The second intifada and the Israeli military response has a pathetic legacy: a Separation Wall, nearly 5,000 Palestinians and Jews dead since the outbreak of violence, thousands of homes demolished, no end to the useless relic of the suicide bomb despite months of quiet, continued humiliating treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, withholding of equal rights in Israel of the Arab minority, continued settlement construction, outright land confiscations, brutal treatment of Palestinian prisoners, extreme marginalization of the Bedouin, daily movement restrictions - in short, an all out assault on basic freedoms to the benefit of nobody.

There has been a gross failure of leadership at every level in this conflict. The US, in working on their disingenuous “Roadmap to Peace” is too busy worrying about regional interests to be concerned with implementing a just, balanced peace in Israel and Palestine. The US, bogged down in its own wars and in the midst of an election year, has looked the other way when it has come to its Israeli ally and given it ample room to implement a pre-set agenda. A clandestine spy scandal involving the Pentagon and AIPAC won’t change that. A wholesale turnover of its right wing Defense establishment might.

Am Johal is a freelance writer recently working in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. Am Johal is a writer from Canada working on the book “The Grand Dissonance” about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.