September 11, 2010

Peace Dinner, by Carlos Latuff

High Court reprimands Interior Minister Ishai: Gush Shalom

Justices Dorit Beinisch, Miriam Naor and Uzi Fogelman this morning (Monday) scolded Adv. Yochi Genessin of the State Prosecution, when it turned out that Interior Minister Eli Yishai did not answer a letter sent to him by Muhammad Abu Tir and three other Palestinian parliamentarians, who had called upon him to revoke the decision to expel them from East Jerusalem. The letter was sent to the minister two and a half months ago.
Yishai was present at the courtroom in earlier stages, but left before the hearing of the appeal by the Palestinian parliamentarians threatened with expulsion.
In their June 27, 2010 letter to the Interior Minister the four – Muhammad Abu Tir, Muhammed Totah, Khaled Abu Arafa, and Ahmed Atoun – noted that they do not regard themselves as representatives of the Hamas movement, but as representatives of the entire Palestinian people, and in particular as representatives of their constituents; the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. They pledged to act only within Israeli law, as well as not to take up any position in the Palestinian Authority if the holding of this position is in contradiction to Israeli law.
Osama Saadi, the four’s attorney, told the judges that the text of this letter was agreed upon in meetings between high-ranking officials in the Palestinian Authority and senior Israeli governmental and security officials.
“The Palestinian Authority had taken a high profile involvement in the issue after the four parliamentarians met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and sought his help,” said Saadi. “Despite all the conflicts and sharp differences of opinion prevailing in the Palestinian system, all factions and parties regard as totally unacceptable the expulsion of Palestinians from anywhere – and all the more so, from Jerusalem in particular; this transcends any disagreements on other issues. At the time we thought that reaching this the formula with the Israeli officials had solved the problem. However, three days after the letter was sent, Jerusalem police arrested Muhammad Abu Tir and began deportation proceedings against him – and he remains in custody up to the present”.
The State Prosecution’s representative argued that the three other parliamentarians, who over the past two months are holding out at the Red Cross headquarters in East Jerusalem, are “holding Israeli Law in contempt” and “challenging the authority of the Israeli courts.” Justice Uzi Fogelman commented, “We have not issued an interim order, so the authorities can take enforcement measures – but this does not mean you must break into the Red Cross Headquarters. There are thousands of other cases of people who failed to adhere to the Interior Ministry’s expulsion orders, and against whom we allowed the authorities to take enforcement measures against them. But this does not mean that you should expect everyone to immediately leave voluntarily.”
At the end of the hearing the court instructed the four parliamentarians’ attorneys to send again send the letter to Interior Minister Yishai, specifying the circumstances which were referred to during the court proceedings. Minister Yishai was told by the judges to respond within 30 days from receipt of this letter, and to convey his response to the court, and the parliamentarians and lawyers will be able to respond within ten days. No date was set for further proceedings, and in the meantime Mohammad Abu Tir will remain in custody at the Jerusalem police.
Among the audience were former Knesset Member Uri Avnery and other Gush Shalom activists, as well as Jerusalemite peace activists who participate in the weekly demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah. Also present at the hearing was an observer on behalf of the French Lawyers’ Association, who said that he had flown especially from Paris to monitor these proceedings, noting that the case aroused much interest among judicial circles in Europe
According to Uri Avnery, “The Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have an inalienable right to live in their city. Deportation of Palestinians – of political leaders as of ordinary people – is a heinous and stupid act, which causes all of us an immense damage.” He said that in order to achieve a stable peace, such a peace must include all parts of the Palestinian people, including the very significant part represented by the Hamas movement. “We peace seekers came to the courtroom today in order to cry out against an outrageous act of injustice committed by our government does, and at the same time also to offer the government a sober political advice. These two things converge into one call: Tear up the deportation orders, let these four men return to their homes and their constituents, and invite them and their political associates to fully share in negotiations for peace”.

EDITOR: A picture is better than a thousand words…

Just look at them. This picture tells the whole story of those doomed ‘talks about talks’. Obama, rising above realities, and disconnected from them, in his olympus of pure projections, is decisive and clear – he has his goal worked out – to raise his flagging standing and miserable poll results, but even his own face tells us he knows that he has lost already.

Netanyahu is smiling his furniture-dealer smile – he has got a customer, and a very good customer indeed, one which will buy whatever is on offer, and at a very high price, so he has all the reasons in the world to be smug and self-contented. He has snared another idiot, and he can go back to Jerusalem content in the knowledge that Israel can continue its occupation, settlement building and periodic massacres here, there and everywhere, without being bothered by the lame-duck President!

Abbas is indeed as miserable as he looks, certain in the knowledge that his betrayal of Palestine is going to weigh down on him in the very near future, as it becomes crystal clear that he has sold his people and his country for even less than a Nobel Prize. He hjas indeed all the reasons to be damn worried and depressed, as indeed he clearly is.

And, what’s best, I have only used 216 words to describe this perfect image…

The piss-makers in Washington

Israel, Palestinian militants trade fire at Gaza border: BBC

Israel warplanes struck a series of targets in the Gaza Strip on Thursday
There have been exchanges of fire near the Israel-Gaza border, wounding five Palestinians and damaging property.

Militants in Gaza have fired at least five rockets or mortar rounds into Israel since Monday.

Israel said it struck two Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip late on Thursday, but Palestinian officials said five people were hurt in four separate air raids.

Hours later, on Friday, Gaza militants again fired a rocket into southern Israel, a military spokeswoman said.

The rocket exploded in the southern Shaar Hanegev area close to Gaza’s north-eastern border with Israel. Two days ago, a mortar shell landed near a kindergarten in the same community.

There were no reports of injuries or damage in either attack.

The Hamas government has vowed to try and rein in the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip following Israel’s assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008.

The latest exchanges come as Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepare to hold direct peace talks in Egypt on Tuesday.

The talks – which kicked off in Washington last week – are the first direct negotiations between the two sides in almost two years.

PA official: Iran has no business interfering with Palestinian cause: Haaretz

Speaking at an Eid el Fitr prayer, Mahmoud Habbash says Palestinians must reject any outside influence on path to achieve statehood.

Iran’s interests run counter to Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians Ma’an news agency quoted a top Palestinian official as saying on Saturday, urging Palestinians to disregard outside interest and focus on the national cause.

Palestinian Authority Minister Mahmoud Habbash made these remarks days after a Palestinian Authority spokesman lashed out at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for criticizing Palestinian negotiations with Israel, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in particular.

“The one who does not represent the Iranian people, who falsified election results, who oppressed the Iranian people and stole authority has no right to speak about Palestine, its president or its representatives,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said last week, referring to the Iranian president.

Ahmadinejad addressed a rally last week at Teheran University, where he dismissed the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, saying the fate of Palestine would be decided in Palestine and through resistance and not in Washington.

Responding to Ahmadinejad’s comments, Habbash, speaking at an Eid el Fitr prayer on Friday, said that the PA was “committed to the Palestinian national principals,” adding that Iran, on the other hand, was “against the Palestinian national project.”

Iran, the PA minister said, was not “responsible for the Palestinian case,” adding that Ahmadinejad “will not solve” the Palestinian national struggle and that the PA refused “the right of any other to intervene in the internal issues of Palestine.”

Also addressing the long-standing feud between the West Bank-based PA and the Gaza-ruling Hamas, Habbash said Hamas leaders were “preachers of sedition,” urging the Islamist militant group to take responsibility for the “coup in Gaza three years ago.”

The PA minister was referring to the violent coup staged by Hamas in 2007, during which the Islamist group drove Fatah out of the territory and violently seized control.

The price of peace: Al Ahram Weekly

Key players in place, the region waits to see if anything decisive can emerge from direct Israeli-Palestinian talks this time, Ezzat Ibrahim reports from Washington
In an atmosphere of uncertainty, US President Barack Obama has thrown his whole weight behind re-launching direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the hope of reaching a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within one year. Standing by him are Egypt and Jordan, with President Hosni Mubarak sending a clear message to Arabs and Egyptians that despair and anger should not again undermine prospects for peace.

President Mubarak, in a lengthy article published in The New York Times, set out his vision for peace and the hurdles to be surpassed before reaching it. On the endpoint of negotiations, Mubarak said: “The broad parameters of a permanent Palestinian-Israeli settlement are already clear: the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 with Jerusalem as a capital for both Israel and Palestine.” Among hurdles, Mubarak underlined the psychological factor between Israel and the Palestinians as the biggest obstacle to success of the peace process, adding that peace between the Palestinians and Israelis is linked to a comprehensive regional settlement.

President Mubarak referred to the Arab Peace Initiative that offers Israel comprehensive peace for its full withdrawal from occupied Arab lands and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. Mubarak emphasised that the complete cessation of Israeli settlement construction is crucial to the success of talks. Settlements and peace are incompatible, Mubarak said, “as they deepen the occupation that Palestinians seek to end”. Recognising Israeli demands for security, Mubarak responded: “Egypt believes that the presence of an international force in the West Bank, to be stationed for a period to be agreed upon by the parties, could give both sides the confidence and security they seek.” “Security, however, cannot be a justification for Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land, as it undermines the cardinal principle of land for peace.”

Mubarak also stated that Egypt is ready to resume its efforts to address all issues related to Gaza in order to clear the way for a two state solution. “The Palestinians cannot make peace with a house divided. If Gaza is excluded from the framework of peace, it will remain a source of conflict, undermining any final settlement,” Mubarak said. Egypt has offered to host subsequent rounds of negotiations.

The White House and US State Department have been careful about expressing their expectations of the upcoming talks. Hillary Clinton held a series of bilateral meetings to prepare the stage for the launch of direct negotiations. US State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley said meetings in Washington intend primarily to help the concerned parties understand what is required in order to grasp peace in the designated period. On the possibility of a statement or declaration following the talks today, a US spokesman said that the various parties are still working on the substance of negotiations. He noted that the US sees Egyptian and Jordanian support as necessary for the success of present endeavours. Crowley added that Washington would not simply re-launch negotiations but will stay in close contact with all leaders as well as acting as “a real partner” in the process.

Crowley further said that Washington is focussed in two directions: first, concerned with form and how the negotiations will unfold; second, concerned with substance and the issues at the heart of the process. On the place of regional parties such as Hamas and Iran in a comprehensive peace, the US spokesman said that each party that accepts the Quartet principles could play a role in the Middle East peace process. He added that the US recognises that there are parties in the region that will attempt to reverse steps towards peace, but that Washington is counting on the commitment made by leaders to continue the peace process, calling for a show of political will and creativity in order to overcome the complexities and challenges that impede agreement on solutions to key issues. Above all, concerned parties should realise that they have a common interest in reaching a peace agreement.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said the Egyptian vision is clear. He said negotiations should last no more than one year, with implementation of an agreement in a year or two years. Abul-Gheit revealed that Egypt has reiterated during talks with the US over recent weeks the importance of a continued Israeli freeze on settlement building as a confidence building measure. He underlined that negotiations should start from where they last left off and acknowledged US intentions as serious and credible, saying that Obama has put improving US relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds as an agenda priority. He said Egypt would continue to play a central role in the Middle East peace process. The foreign minister added that the Palestinian side comes to negotiations on the basis of a statement of the International Quartet affirming the rule of international law; that the basis for a settlement is ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and embracing a two-state solution whereby a Palestinian state can emerge.

Respect the Palestinian-led picket line: The Electronic Intifada

Press release, Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, 9 September 2010

The following open letter was issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on 9 September 2010:

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) warmly salutes the tens of American and British theater, film and TV artists for their recently published statement supporting the spreading cultural boycott of Ariel and the rest of Israel’s colonial settlements illegally built on occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) due to their violation of international law (“Making History: Support for Israeli Artists Who Say NO to Normalizing Settlements”). We also express our gratitude to Jewish Voice for Peace for its crucial role in bringing this statement to the light. We view your courageous collective condemnation of Israel’s settlements and “ugly occupation,” your expression of “hope for a just and lasting peace” in our region, and your endorsement of the logic of boycott to end injustice as a groundbreaking, precedent-setting initiative that will significantly contribute to ending Israel’s impunity and status as a state above the law of nations in the United States, the United Kingdom and far beyond.

PACBI hopes that your position, which reflects a growing sentiment in the Western mainstream, particularly among cultural figures, will be consistently upheld against all institutions in Israel and elsewhere that are in violation of international law or complicit in covering up and whitewashing this violation. We sincerely hope that this step will usher in further, more effective and bolder steps leading to a comprehensive cultural boycott of Israel — and its complicit institutions — similar to that imposed on apartheid South Africa. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of apartheid” (“Divesting From Injustice,” The Huffington Post, 13 April 2010).

We hope that you shall be inspired by the historic moment in 1965 when the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than sixty cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.” A year before that, in 1964, the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement promoted a declaration signed by 28 Irish playwrights that they would not permit their work to be performed before segregated audiences in South Africa.

International artists fighting against apartheid then took their lead from the oppressed majority, not a few voices of dissent among the oppressor community, as crucial as the latter are for ending oppression. In light of this inspiring history, we cannot but ask, why haven’t you taken your taboo-breaking position in response to appeals by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, including almost all leading artists? Why did you have to wait for a relatively small number of dissenting Israeli artists and academics to initiate a boycott, a peculiarly selective and morally-inconsistent one at that? Do authentic voices of the oppressed, especially those in the besieged Gaza Strip, incarcerated in the world’s largest open-air prison, also count?

The comprehensive and durable peace that you and all people of conscience around the world seek cannot come about except on the foundations of justice, freedom and unmitigated equal rights for all. If justice for the Palestinian people is “the greatest moral issue of our time,” as declared by Nelson Mandela, the great majority in Palestinian civil society has expressed the minimal requirements for justice in the historic call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as: ending its 1967 occupation and colonization of Palestinian and other Arab territory; ending its system of racial discrimination against its “non-Jewish” citizens; and recognizing the UN-sanctioned right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands they were ethnically cleansed from in 1948 and ever since.

In the last few years, many international cultural figures have come out in support of the cultural boycott of Israel as a significant contribution to ending its system of colonial rule and apartheid. Responding to an appeal issued by a great majority of prominent Palestinian filmmakers, artists and other cultural workers, a statement calling for a cultural boycott of Israel was authored by John Berger and signed by dozens of international cultural figures, including some celebrities. This last February, five hundred Canadian artists in Montreal issued a statement committing themselves to “fighting against [Israeli] apartheid” and calling upon “all artists and cultural producers across the country and around the world to adopt a similar position in this global struggle” for Palestinian rights. Irish artists raised the bar even further, pioneering the first nation-wide cultural stance in support of the boycott of Israel.

In reaction to Israel’s Freedom Flotilla massacre which led to the murder of nine unarmed Turkish humanitarian relief workers and human rights activists — one with dual Turkish/US citizenship — and to the injury of dozens more from several countries, leading cultural figures and bands reacted swiftly and decisively.

World-renowned British writer Iain Banks wrote in the Guardian that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state” (“Small step towards a boycott of Israel,” 3 June 2010). This position was later endorsed by Stéphane Hessel, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Holocaust survivor and former French diplomat (“Gaza Flotilla: Global Citizens Must Respond Where Governments Have Failed,” The Huffington Post, 15 June 2010).

Many British literary and academic figures published a letter in the Independent that said, “We … appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organized by Israeli cultural foundations and universities” (6 June 2010).

In the world of performing arts, Massive Attack, the Klaxons and Gorillaz Sound System, the Pixies and other prominent bands canceled their scheduled concerts in Israel, reportedly due to its ruthless and illegal attack on the Flotilla. World best-selling writer, the Swedish Henning Mankell, who was on the Flotilla when attacked, called for South Africa-style global sanctions against Israel in response to its brutality (“Gaza aid flotilla: Henning Mankell calls for sanctions on Israel,” Telegraph, 2 June 2010.

The best-selling US author Alice Walker reminded the world of the Rosa Parks-triggered and Martin Luther King-led boycott of a racist bus company in Montgomery, Alabama during the US civil rights movement, calling for wide endorsement of BDS against Israel as a moral duty in solidarity with Palestinians, “to soothe the pain and attend the sorrows of a people wrongly treated for generations.”

In the weeks before the Flotilla attack, artists of the caliber of Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana all canceled scheduled performances in Israel after receiving appeals from Palestinian and international BDS groups.

Just as you applaud your Israeli counterparts who “find the strength to refuse to cross that line” of “unbearable” moral compromise, we appeal to you not to cross our boycott picket line, which is the simplest, most effective, nonviolent form of solidarity with the Palestinian people in its struggle for justice and lasting peace.

Abbas thanks Assad for Syria’s support of Palestinians: Haaretz

Phone conversation between leaders comes as report claims French envoy will be arriving at Damascus to try and restart Israel-Syria peace talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas briefed his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad on Friday on recently relaunched peace talks with Israel, thanking the Syrian president for what Abbas called his support of the Palestinian people, channel 10 reported.

The phone conversation between the two leaders took place against the backdrop of U.S. efforts to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and subsequent reports of possible efforts to renew negotiations between Israel and Syria as well.

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir reported on Friday that French Middle East envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran was scheduled to visit Damascus in the coming days to meet with both Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in order to discuss the possibility of peace talks between Syria and Israel.

According to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, the Palestinian Authority president called Assad on the occasion of the Muslim Eid el Fitr holiday which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Abbas thanked Assad for his support during “this important period in our history,” and briefed him on the events of a September 2 summit in Washington, which was attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

On Thursday, Abbas called President Shimon Peres to offer greetings for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. During the telephone conversation, Peres pleaded with Abbas to “trust Netanyahu.”

Peres urged the Palestinian president “not to abandon the talks before peace is achieved. There is no one more suited than you to achieve peace for your people, and for the entire region.”

Abbas and other senior Palestinian negotiators have threatened to quit the U.S.-backed negotiations if Israel should resume construction in West Bank settlements. Last November, Netanyahu declared a 10-month moratorium on construction in settlements, but the freeze is set to expire at the end of this month, and it is not yet clear whether it will be renewed.

“Even if things don’t appear perfect,” Peres told Abbas, “the path toward peace and an independent Palestinian state is certainly preferable to an ongoing conflict and bloodshed. Even if there will be crises and disagreements, and the road will seem imperfect, I’m sure that new and creative solutions can be achieved.”

Abbas replied that “we’re serious and our goal is to achieve a peace agreement as soon as possible.” To this Peres responded saying “I’m sure Netanyahu is a trustworthy partner.”

Divestment: from the campus to the streets: The Electronic Intifada

Mohammad Talaat, 8 September 2010
Following a sharp increase in divestment efforts across North American college campuses last spring, this academic year promises an even greater number of initiatives. The success and near-success of efforts at several campuses last year, coupled with Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla this summer, has inspired new efforts among peace and justice activists to target companies that profit from and abet Israel’s apartheid regime.

Perhaps the largest divestment initiative is taking shape in California. The California Israel Divestment initiative is seeking to put a ballot measure to California voters that requires the state pension funds, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), to divest from companies enabling or profiting from Israeli occupation and systematic violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Although not a university-based effort, it is being led in large part by faculty members and students. Their goal is clear: faced by stonewalling from university administrations, the case is being taken directly to California voters.

Students from the University of California (UC) and California State (CSU) campuses are coordinating a major drive to collect the 440,000 signatures required for the ballot initiative, and the list of volunteers keeps growing. The initiative has already received the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Professor Noam Chomsky, a number of other public and religious figures, and CalPERS and CalSTRS members.

Meanwhile, campus divestment efforts continue to grow in number and scope. University administrators, typically beholden to conventional donors and afraid of the “anti-Semitism label,” have moved to limit the “damage” of the mushrooming boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Hampshire College, for instance, sold its State Street fund but publicly denied that it was motivated by divestment from Israel. Some other administrations have tried to ignore the issue, wishing it away. However, these attempts have only backfired.

The response of the University of California (UC) administration to campus divestment initiatives is a prominent example of how desperate the status quo forces are, and the shrinking moral and intellectual ground under their feet.

Last spring, student governments at two UC campuses introduced measures calling for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation and war crimes committed during its winter 2008-09 invasion of Gaza. In response, UC President Mark Yudof, together with the chair and vice-chair of the UC Board of Regents, issued a formal “UC Statement on Divestment” which rejected the singling out of Israel, even though the bills exclusively focused on US companies providing material support to Israel’s illegal occupation and documented war crimes. The statement also referred to the pain the divestment initiatives brought upon the Jewish community, despite the strong support that the bills received from local and international Jewish individuals and organizations. The statement ignored the 41 student organizations, 86 UC faculty members, not to mention five Nobel peace laureates, who publicly supported the resolutions. In addition to attempting to minimize the scope of the divestment initiative’s support on campus by its dismissive language, the statement declared UC opposition to considering any divestment measures to the regents unless the US government declares that the state in question is committing genocide.

However, the notion that an academic institution can follow a socially responsible investment policy only after the US government has made a finding that acts of genocide — no less – are taking place goes against UC’s legacy and the values of citizen-led democracy and activism. It ensures inaction in the name of unspeakable horror and surrenders human conscience and responsibility to the calendar and temperament of American politicians. After all, Washington has yet to make a determination on the Armenian genocide of the First World War!

According to this policy of deference to the US government, UC would have found it unacceptable to divest from companies supporting the Nazi occupation of Europe and the extermination of civilians in death camps prior to the US declaration of war — or even the official recognition of genocide after the war ended. Moreover, had Yudof been UC President in 1986, he would not have voted to divest from companies supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime when the UC Regents memorably did, to ground-breaking success. As an academic and presumed defender of free speech, the UC president should be protesting this policy, not advocating it.

These proclamations by university administrators aim to empty academic conscience and activism of any substance, and to reduce them to empty slogans and colorful parades. The policies they advance are a thinly-veiled effort to incapacitate university campuses from leading any effort to challenge racism and social injustice. As autonomous actors, universities and independent citizens should retain the right to influence the policy of their government. If what is going on in California is any indication, authoritative attempts by campus administrations to muzzle or stonewall the exercise of this right on campus will likely result in their constituency taking their activism to the street! It is this right that faculty and students alike will be exercising this academic year and every year on campus and off campus, until Israeli apartheid is dismantled.

Mohammad Talaat is Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at Cairo University and a UC Berkeley Alum. He currently is on academic leave in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Gideon Levy Interview: Against the Stream: Newleft project

Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Gideon Levy
8 Sept 2010
Gideon Levy
For decades Gideon Levy has used the platform provided by the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz to shine a light on the brutal realities of Israel’s occupation. His journalism, along with that of his colleague Amira Hass, has been an invaluable resource not only for Israeli readers but, through the Ha’aretz website, for international audiences seeking an informed and humane Israeli perspective on the conflict. It would be difficult to overstate how isolated Levy is within his own society, an isolation that increased over the past decade as Israeli public opinion stampeded to the right. He has described elsewhere how Ha’aretz keeps a thick folder of subscription cancellations from readers outraged by his articles. Despite this hostility, his critique of Israeli policies has become more, not less, radical over time.
His recent book, The Punishment of Gaza, is a select compilation of his Ha’aretz columns from 2006, when Hamas’s electoral victory prompted harsh sanctions and violent reprisals from Israel and its international backers, through to the aftermath of last year’s Gaza massacre, which represented a bloody culmination of that same anti-democratic reaction. This chronology is itself something of a novelty – for most journalists, even those critical of the attack, the relevant background to the massacre stretched to the month of Qassam rockets that preceded it, or at most to the year and half since Hamas took control of the Strip. But Gideon Levy is not most journalists, and his critique of Israeli policies and society goes far beyond the weasel words and euphemistic equivocation offered by most of his contemporaries in the media, and those on the ‘Israeli left’. Whereas liberal Zionist intellectuals like Amos Oz and David Grossman supported the attack in principle, if subsequently criticising its excesses, Levy is clear: this wasn’t a “war”, he writes, it was “a wild onslaught upon the most helpless population in the world”, an “aimless, futile, criminal, superfluous offensive”. When ‘Operation Cast Lead’ was launched the Israeli media not only fell into line, it cheered the massacre on with a jingoistic fervour that was almost beyond belief. In this climate, Levy again distinguished himself, condemning the attack from the outset as a “war crime” that crossed “every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom”.
This rare intellectual courage is also evident in his sharp criticism of those Israeli ‘liberals’ who, when their liberal values clash with their Zionist ones, betray the former every time. One of the most remarkable columns reproduced in the book is a response to prominent liberal Zionist A.B. Yehoshua. Despite being friends on a personal level, Levy did not shy from excoriating the author’s gross apologetics for war crimes in Gaza in the most direct and unsparing manner. “It is as if”, he wrote, “the mighty, including you, have all succumbed to a great and terrible conflagration that has consumed any remnant of a moral backbone.” This integrity was evident again in a column published last week, in which Levy criticised his Ha’aretz colleague and editor Aluf Benn for his blindness to and reflexive complicity in the brutalities of occupation. “You were a complete accomplice to the crime,” he writes of Benn’s service in an IDF that tortured and mistreated Palestinian detainees, “and you don’t even have a guilty conscience.” Reading his columns, it is clear that this is what disturbs Levy the most – not merely that his colleagues and fellow citizens tolerate and commit acts of brutality, but that they feel so good about doing so. His tireless commitment to challenging that complacency and dogged determination to force his readers to confront the consequences of their actions stands as an inspiration to and indictment of the vast majority of his colleagues, and not only in Israel. “This is what we look like,” he insists, relentlessly. “This is our moral portrait.”
I met up with him in London a couple of weeks ago to discuss his book, the Israeli left, the political climate in Israel and the prospects for peace. The full interview follows.
Over the past decade Israeli public opinion seems to have gone over the cliff – the last elections produced the most right-wing and possibly, as your recent columns have suggested, the most racist Knesset in Israel’s history. What is behind this trend?
There were two things happening. One was the failure of the Camp David conference in 2000, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak comes back and claims there is no ‘Palestinian partner’. This lie was well spread and convinced Israelis from across the political spectrum. And then came the Second Intifada – the exploding buses, the suicide bombers – and the entire so-called ‘Israeli Left’ totally crashed—which makes me think, ‘how solid was it in the first place?’ Because if it was so easy to crash it, then I’m not sure it was very solid before. But in any case, nothing was left of the Israeli Left, except for some small, devoted, courageous groups which are still very active. Unfortunately, they are not very influential.
Why is the Left so weak – is it for those two reasons?
Yeah, because those two developments – the belief that there is no ‘Palestinian partner’ and Palestinian terror – made it very easy for all the leftists to change their minds. Which makes me doubt very much that they were really leftists in the first place.
Do you see much hope for a revival of the Left in the Sheikh Jarrah protests?
The other day I was there, on one of the Friday protests, with an American friend and she told me, “this is exactly the way it was when the anti-war movement in the United States started in ‘60s”. I am more sceptical, more pessimistic. I think that it’s remarkable what’s going on there and I have full appreciation for those people who come Friday after Friday, but I don’t see it becoming influential, no.
Reading Ha’aretz, it seems like democratic forces within Israel are coming increasingly under threat, for instance in academia.
That’s my main concern now, even more than the occupation, because it’s going to destroy Israel from within. I think that Israeli democracy is now facing its biggest challenge ever: a systematic campaign against any kind of alternative voices. So far it hasn’t touched the media, because most of the media is anyhow recruiting itself to collaborate with the occupation project, and those of us – the very few – who go against the stream, until now we were untouched, but this I don’t take for granted. At the same time there are already the new bills and the campaigns against the NGOs, against academia, and it’s deteriorating day after day. It might touch me personally very soon but so far it hasn’t touched me personally or journalists in general.
Israeli media
You close the introduction to your book with a tribute to the courage of Ha’aretz editors in standing by your writings and continuing to publish them in an atmosphere of increasing intolerance and chauvinism. How unique is Ha’aretz in this regard? I notice, for example, that B. Michael appears to have disappeared from Yedioth Ahronoth [Israel’s largest-circulation daily] after his columns criticising ‘Cast Lead’.
He was just fired. He didn’t ‘disappear’, he was just fired. [See here]
So is the Israeli media quite jingoistic in its coverage generally? How unique is Ha’aretz?
It is very clear to make the division between Ha’aretz and all the rest. It’s a very, very clear division – nobody can argue about this. The Israeli so-called democracy would look entirely different if Ha’aretz didn’t exist, while any other newspaper or TV outlet could disappear tomorrow and there would be no change. Ha’aretz is really the last outpost in the Israel media keeping democracy alive. But Ha’aretz, as you know, is a relatively small newspaper, quite elitist, and it doesn’t approach the masses. All the rest are commercial, free, professional, but when it comes to issues like the occupation, all the media, except for Ha’aretz, recruited itself – nobody recruited it, it recruited itself, voluntarily – to collaborate with the occupation, to dehumanise systematically the Palestinians, to demonise and to spread fears that are often totally artificial and exaggerated. The media in Israel is playing a fatal role, mainly in maintaining the occupation and the nationalistic and militaristic emotions and sentiments in the Israeli society. I think it’s a criminal role that the Israeli media as a whole is playing, really except for Ha’aretz – not because I work for Ha’aretz, but Ha’aretz is really the only sane voice around.
Why do you think the rest of the media “recruited itself” to supporting the occupation?
No censorship – no governmental one, no military one, almost nothing, no pressures of that kind. It’s only about trying to please the readers, it’s only about commercial factors – commercial considerations. To please the reader, not to bother him, not to frustrate him, not to make him furious. And this is the most dangerous kind of bias, because there is no resistance against it – it is voluntary, it is not imposed on anyone, everyone is happy. The government is happy, the readers are happy, the publishers are happy, everyone is happy about it, and so there will be no resistance.
Ha’aretz has significant influence outside of Israel. Is it influential within Israel too?
Traditionally, yes. Ha’aretz was always the most influential newspaper in Israel, because the elite reads it and it traditionally had an influence not only on politicians and the economic elite, but also on other media. I think this influence has decreased in a way, but it’s still there – Ha’aretz still plays a role, it’s not being marginalised, not at all. So the influence of Ha’aretz is much wider than its circulation in Israel. And also the fact that it’s being read all over the world through the website, gives Ha’aretz a special position also within Israel, because people are aware that everyone in the world who has an interest in the Middle East is reading it. This gives Ha’aretz a lot of power within Israel, because they understand that it has influence outside. So from this point of view, Ha’aretz still has its influence – but let’s not exaggerate about it.
Dealing with ‘48
I’ve noticed a shift in your own writings, which seem to have become increasingly radical in their criticism. I’m thinking in particular of a recent column in which you argued that “[d]efining Israel as a Jewish state condemns us to living in a racist state”, and urged people to “recognize the racist nature of the state”. Has there been a shift in your writings, do you think, and if so, what’s behind it?
It’s not a shift, it’s a process. My views became more and more radical throughout the years, in contrast to the opposite stream of the entire society – the more Israel becomes nationalistic, the more the government becomes violent and aggressive, like in ‘Cast Lead’, like in the Second Lebanese War, like with the flotilla, all those developments put me in a much more radical position, obviously, because there is much more to protest against. So yes, I am becoming more and more radical, but you can’t put a finger to say one day I became a radical. It’s an ongoing process.
Would you accept the label ‘anti-Zionist’ to characterise your views?
It depends what is ‘Zionism’. Because Zionism is a very fluid concept – who can define what is Zionism? If Zionism means the right of the Jews to have a state, I am a Zionist. If Zionism means occupation, I’m an anti-Zionist. So I never know how to answer this question. If Zionism means to have a Jewish state at the expense of being a democratic state, then I am anti-Zionist, because I truly believe those two definitions are contradictory – ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’. For me, Israel should be a democratic state.
So would it be right to say that you support a state for Jews, but not a ‘Jewish state’ in the sense of a state that artificially maintains a Jewish majority?
Absolutely. It should be a state for Jews that will be a just state, a democratic state, and if there will be a Palestinian majority, there will be a Palestinian majority. The idea is that Jews have to have their place, but it can’t be exclusively theirs, because this land is not exclusively theirs.
This brings us nicely to the ‘liberal Zionists’, of whom you’ve been very critical. You have written that “[a] left wing unwilling to dare to deal with 1948 is not a genuine left wing”. Firstly, in terms of the Palestinian refugees – do you have a view about whether they should be permitted to return?
First of all, something must be very clear – the problem must be solved. And as long as their problem will not be solved, nothing will be solved. Those hundreds of thousands of refugees cannot continue, generation after generation, to live in their conditions. They have rights. Now on the other hand, you can’t, and you don’t want, to solve the problem and to create a new problem. Full return means creating new refugees. The place I live in Tel Aviv belonged to a Palestinian village. If the owners of this village will come back, I will have to go somewhere else. All Israel is originally Palestinian – if not its villages then its land, its fields… almost all of it belonged to the Palestinians. So if you do a total return, you create a new problem. And also there are very few precedents in history in which everyone was allowed to return to his original home decades after the war. But it must be solved.
I think there could be a solution, but it requires Israel to have good will – which it doesn’t have. It would involve, first of all, Israel recognising its moral responsibility. That’s the first condition. It’s about time for Israel to take accountability for what happened in ’48 and realise and recognise that there was a kind of ethnic cleansing, and expelling 650,000 people from their lands was not inevitable and was criminal. I think that taking responsibility will be the first step. Second step, Israel has to participate in an international project of rehabilitating the refugees – some of them in the places where they live. The third stage, obviously, is full return to the Palestinian state, if there will be a Palestinian state. And the last stage should be a symbolic, limited return also into Israel. It goes without saying, Israel has absorbed within the last few years one million Russians, and half of them were not Jewish. Why can we absorb half a million non-Jewish Russians and not absorb a few hundred or tens of thousands of Palestinians, who belong to this place, whose families are living in Israel? So that’s the way I see it.
Do you have a preference – two-states against one state? And if you prefer a two-state settlement, what is that preference based on? For example, my ideal outcome would be a bi-national or one-state solution, but I think that for now the most just solution that can be achieved is a two-state settlement. So if you have a preference for a two-state settlement, is that because you think it’s the most just settlement, period, or merely the most just settlement that can realistically be achieved in the foreseeable future?
First of all, I totally agree with the way you phrased it, I couldn’t phrase it better. The ideal, the utopia? One state for Palestinians and Jews, with equal rights, a real democracy, with real equality between the two peoples. The problem is that I don’t see it happening now, and I’m very afraid that a one-state would become an apartheid state. The two communities are very – there is a big gap between them. We have to realise that the Jewish community in Israel is more developed today, more rich, and to immediately mix both societies will create a lot of friction. There is also a lot of bad blood between the two communities. I don’t see it working, and for sure I don’t see it working in equal terms. So the only other solution left is the two-state solution. The problem is that it’s starting to become too late for this, because to evacuate half a million settlers – who will do it? No one. So I’m quite desperate. And the other solution, which I think will be the most probable, will be all kinds of artificial solutions – of half a Palestinian state, on half the land…this will not last, and this will not solve anything.
‘Liberal Zionism’
I’ve just finished reading Yitzhak Laor’s ‘Myths of Liberal Zionism’, which is obviously very critical of the ‘Zionist Left’. What do you think of the politics of people like David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Meretz? Do they offer a sufficiently radical critique of Israeli policy, and if not, why is their critique so compromised?
First of all, I had Oz and Yehoshua at my home for dinner a few weeks ago, so I have to be very cautious in what I say, but I am very critical about this kind of thinking. You can add [Israeli President] Shimon Peres and Labor to this. This is the typical Israeli hypocrisy, and I in many ways appreciate [Israel’s far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman more than Shimon Peres, because with Lieberman, at least, what you see is what you get. It’s very clear what he stands for. With people like Shimon Peres or Meretz – and I don’t say they are identical – or Oz and Yehoshua and Grossman, they want to eat the cake and leave it complete, as we say in Hebrew. This doesn’t work.
I think they lack courage, some of them. Others, like Shimon Peres, are hypocrites who talk about peace and do the opposite. I think that Oz and Yehoshua and Grossman, who I know very well personally, mean well. But in many ways they are still chained in the Zionistic ideology. They haven’t released themselves from the old Zionistic ideology, which basically hasn’t changed since ’48 – namely, that the Jews have the right to this land, almost the exclusive right. They are trying to find their way to be Zionistic, and to be for peace, and to be for justice. The problem is that Zionism in its present meaning, in its common meaning, is contradictory to human rights, to equality, to democracy, and they don’t recognise it. It’s too hard for them to recognise it, to realise it. And therefore their position is an impossible position, because they want everything: they want Zionism, they want democracy, they want a Jewish state, but they want also rights for the Palestinians… it’s very nice to want everything, but you have to make your choice and they are not courageous enough to make the choice.
Meretz supported Gaza massacre –
And so did Yehoshua! In the book there is an exchange between him and I. So did he.
Why did it support it? Was it public pressure? Has this had implications for the Israeli left?
Meretz lost its way a long time ago and it’s now almost a non-entity. It’s a group of three members of parliament – which is nothing – each of whom has his own interest, nothing to do with the occupation. One is dealing with gay rights, the other is dealing with economical questions, and the occupation is totally forgotten. Meretz right now is in a deep, deep crisis, and they supported ‘Cast Lead’ like they support most of what this government is doing, in a way that is shameful for Meretz. But Meretz is anyhow very, very marginal – three members of parliament – and they are losing all their worlds, because they will never become accepted by the right-wingers, and they lose the left-wingers, because what are they? To support ‘Cast Lead’, I can vote Likud – what do I need Meretz for?
Let’s turn to the occupation directly. Why does Israel choose to occupy the Palestinians? Is the occupation driven by economic interests, or ideology, or…?
I don’t think it’s the economy, because economically I can also draw you a picture in which peace will bring much more prosperity to Israel. The settlement project is one of the most expensive projects that Israel has invested in, so I don’t see… it’s not economical, for sure not.
But even if overall ending the occupation would be a net benefit for the Israeli economy, are there not certain powerful economic interests for whose benefit the occupation is maintained?
I don’t think so. It’s for sure not a major consideration. The occupation is a continuation of the same ideology that established the state – the more, the better; the bigger, the better… it’s still this old ideology that we have to get ‘dunam after dunam’, as we say in Hebrew. It’s about real estate, it’s about having as much real estate as possible. It’s about believing that the bigger we will be the stronger we will be, which is not the case – on the contrary, the bigger we become the weaker we become. But this ideology never changed since ’48.
I recently interviewed Norman Finkelstein and he suggested that it has got to the point where – and he analogised it in this respect to the occupation of Lebanon – Israel refuses to withdraw simply because it’s already there, and others are demanding that it withdraw, and it doesn’t want to withdraw under pressure. Do you think there’s any truth to this?
There is for sure a lot of truth in the fact that Israelis don’t care so much about the territories, but their life is so good, and their interest in and knowledge about the occupied territories is so little, that what reason do they have to go through the hassle of withdrawal? Why to bother? And in a situation in which the majority of the society is indifferent, the only meaningful active group in the society are the settlers, so they can dictate, because all the rest couldn’t care less, and there is not a real, meaningful movement in favour of evacuating the settlements.
Is there any elite opposition to occupation within Israel?
No. I wrote once that the present Knesset is the first in which out of 120 MKs, there is not one single Jewish member for whom fighting against the occupation is his first ticket. None. There are some supporters of anti-occupation movements, but for none of them is opposition to the occupation his first, main flag. This tells everything.
Turning to Gaza – in your book you describe ‘Cast Lead’ as “a war that was no war”, a “wild onslaught upon the most helpless population in the world”. Can you talk a bit about how the massacre was perceived in Israel – both at a popular level and by political and media commentators?
First of all, it’s the same. The way it was described in the media is the way that the people see it – that’s the big influence of the media in Israel. So first, there was the stage in which there were the Qassams – they were described in an exaggerated way. Then came the demand from the media and the people to ‘do something’. Then came the stage of demonising Gaza – reports like ‘arsenal of Iranian weapons are being smuggled in through the tunnels!’, which turned out to be a big lie, because in Gaza there is hardly weapons, except for the primitive Qassams. But it was all about demonising them and exaggerating their power. And then came the demand to ‘do something and go to war’ – calling it a ‘war’, which is also a lie. This was not a ‘war’, because war is usually between two armies, with some kind of resistance – there was hardly resistance, it was just a brutal attack on a civilian population. There was no fighting. Out of the very few Israeli soldiers who were killed in Cast Lead, many of them were killed by friendly fire. So this is not a war. But that’s the way it was perceived.

To read the rest of this interview, use the link above

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