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The Third Narrative’s ‘Pursuing Peace’ Teach-In, Part 1

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By Ralph Seliger

The Third Narrative and Ameinu “Pursuing Peace” Teach-In — Nov. 1, at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism — featured an impressive array of academics and activists who were (in the words of the invitation) “Exploring Progressive Action to Achieve Human Rights, Justice, and Reconciliation in Israel and Palestine.”  Follow the link for YouTube videos online of most of the plenary sessions (but, alas, not including the panel I moderated with JJ Goldberg and Ghaith al-Omari): https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyqv6Z6GO2U0fdIwR5pusKg.

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Peter Beinart (left) with Dan Fleshler (all photos in post courtesy of Gili Getz)

It began with a powerful keynote speech by Peter Beinart addressing the fact that most American Jews and Israelis don’t know who Palestinians are, and therefore mischaracterize their aspirations.  They tend to be reduced to modern-day stand-ins for Nazis and other implacable historic enemies of the Jewish people.  This produces a skewed and blinkered political climate in which oppressive or bad-faith Israeli measures are never examined as inciting hostility and violence in reaction.

It simplistically reads into history a narrative to support the notion that Israelis have always been reasonable and the Palestinians have not.  For example, it ignores the fact that, in signing onto the Oslo Accords, the PLO surrendered their claim to 78% of the British Mandate of Palestine — a costly compromise to their aspirations — without expecting to have to further surrender much of the 22% that remains for their prospective state.  But this was what Barak and Olmert, to varying degrees, were offering in 2000 and 2008 respectively.  Olmert’s proposal involved nearly a one-to-one tradeoff of territories, yet insisted on retaining Ariel, a large settlement town and its environs that stretches far into the West Bank, as well as Ma’aleh Adumim, that is similarly problematic from the Palestinian point of view.

Since Palestinians and their American supporters today “speak the language of human rights” — which is especially effective in reaching out to non-whites — the only good response to BDS on campus and elsewhere is to advocate a two-state solution.  Beinart drew a laugh when referring to the Sheldon Adelson-funded effort against BDS of promoting so-called “Maccabees”; thus exemplifying the ludicrousness of supposedly reaching out to American liberals by harkening back to this ancient movement of intolerant religious nationalists.

Beinart urged a conscious effort to get American Jews to acquaint themselves with actual Palestinians, including meeting some when they visit Israel.  He also would like to see the United States endorse a UN resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood within the context of a peaceful two-state solution.  And he recommended that the Bernie Sanders campaign be pressured to advocate such a proactive US stance by way of influencing the likely candidacy of Hillary Clinton, who has unhelpfully opined (according to Beinart) that there can be no progress re Israel and Palestine until Syria is fixed.

Beinart firmly places himself in the Third Narrative camp, insisting upon the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, alongside a parallel right for Palestinians.  He holds no faith in the bi-national state that many on the left support, noting that if it didn’t work for Czechs and Slovaks, for example, it won’t work for Jews and Arabs.  But he fears that a “non-democratic Israel is a dead Israel,” warning that “in our lifetime, we may witness the death of the Jewish state.”

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Ghaith al-Omari speaks, with myself in the middle and JJ Goldberg looking on intently. (Photo by Gili Getz)

Next came the panel I chaired on “Conditions on the Ground” with two seasoned observers of Palestine and Israel respectively.  Ghaith al-Omari is currently with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is a former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.  Previously, he served the Palestinian Authority in various capacities, including as advisor to its negotiating team during the 1999-2001 permanent-status talks.  Most of us are familiar with JJ Goldberg, the immediate past editor in chief of the English-language Forward, for which he continues his work as an online and print columnist with the title of editor at large.

To begin with, neither would describe the current wave of violence as comparable to the two intifadas, because they were more widespread and there is no organizing center currently.  Both agreed that its focus has shifted of late from East Jerusalem to Hebron; JJ noted that the violence in Hebron is linked to the same local clan, understood to be pro-Hamas, that was implicated in the abduction and murder of the teenage boys that began the downward spiral of events to the 2014 Gaza war.

They noted that what is also missing in the current outbreak is a “narrative of martyrdom.” Parents of dead Palestinians are mourning them, rather than hailing them as martyrs.

When asked if he saw the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel continuing, Mr. al-Omari said that this is unlikely to endure indefinitely, because its premise, as stated by the American general Keith Dayton who first reformed the PA’s security services, is to deter anti-Israel attacks as part of a peaceful process to establish an independent Palestinian state.  If this is no longer a credible prospect, it’s hard to see Palestinians sacrificing themselves for the sake of Israel’s security.

I then referred JJ to his recent column in which he reflected somberly on “How Yitzhak Rabin’s Assassin Succeeded in Killing Historic Push for Peace,” asking specifically: “Given Israel’s peculiarly fractured electoral system, which allowed Netanyahu to triumph with 23% of the vote for his Likud party, how can we expect any better from Israel today?” JJ noted that only about one third of Israel’s current Knesset is against a two-state solution, but that Netanyahu’s “genius” is in including just enough dovish elements to create a majority coalition; he characterized Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, as probably the most left-leaning member of his government.  

JJ opined that “the left” needs a leader who can rally together the moderate and dovish majority.  He looks to the prospect of one emerging from the highest ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, citing former IDF chief of staff Beni Ganz as one such possibility.  JJ writes his column with an eye to interesting personalities and views emerging within Israel’s security/defense establishment; it’s long been known that retired high-ranking IDF commanders and security chiefs tend to be at least somewhat more dovish than not (think of “The Gatekeepers” documentary on six former heads of the Shin Bet).  In a more recent column, he writes that even currently serving military commanders are voicing their concern over the dead-end policies of the Netanyahu government (“Israel’s Top Generals Split With Benjamin Netanyahu on Roots of Terror Wave“).  JJ’s presentation was something of a preview of that column and also of this one, “Benjamin Netanyahu Ignores Roots of Palestinian Violence — and Betrays His Party’s Founders,” in which he quoted from Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s 1923 “Iron Wall” essay, which advised Palestinian Jews that they will need to prevail militarily until “influence will pass to moderate groups, and these moderates will come to us with proposals for mutual concessions, and negotiations can then begin in earnest over practical questions.…”

Then I asked Mr. al-Omari about his recent analysis of the politics of the Palestinian Authority (which can be read online at this link: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/ResearchNote28-alOmari-2.pdf).  Because of the Hamas-Fatah divide, he does not see the prospect of new elections.  Mahmoud Abbas, now in the tenth year of what was originally mandated as a four-year presidential term, and now 80 years old, is likely approaching his last days in power; al-Omari candidly stated that the PA was never truly democratic.  But he contrasted Abbas’s aloof style with his predecessor Yasir Arafat’s custom of consulting with people in order to given them a sense of participation, even as he proceeded to make his own decisions regardless.  Under Abbas, he characterized their Fatah party as increasingly like the Iraqi and Syrian Ba’ath parties — an arm of the government and corrupt.

There was no major disagreement on the kind of compromises needed and what the final outcome of a peaceful resolution would look like.  Al-Omari suggested that with the current weakness of the PA’s leadership, it rhetorically parrots “maximalist” positions, which may necessitate outside pressure from the Arab League to moderate.  He views the Arab Peace Initiative originally launched in 2002 as providing “a paradigm shift,” for what should no longer be considered a “zero-sum conflict” and cites recent Israeli-Saudi contacts as an encouraging sign.  Both observers see a “problem of narrative,” with the Arabs finding it difficult to concede their mistake in not accepting the UN’s 1947 partition plan, and Israel similarly resisting the reality of the “Nakba,” the catastrophe suffered by Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war.  JJ suggested that Israel will have to take in a token number of refugees to resolve the Palestinian claim of a right of return, while al-Omari advised that the parties need to respect each other’s narratives for now but agree to move forward and return to history only after current disputes on the ground are firmly settled.

Finally, JJ suggested that Israel should free the imprisoned activist leader Marwan Barghouti, “the Palestinian Mandela.”  But al-Omari declared himself “skeptical of silver bullets,” feeling that Abbas would find a way to sideline Barghouti, describing him archly as “a community organizer with no governing experience.”

[Click here for Part 2.]

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