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Demonstration in Jerusalem in support of peace initiative.
News and Opinion

Israel Update
Situation in Gaza is complicated.

-- Kenneth Bob

Standing at the Erez Crossing terminal which separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, Miri Eisen, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's former spokesperson, summed up the situation with two words: "It's complicated."

Although she was describing Israel's options regarding Gaza to participants of The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP) annual leadership mission last week, those words could just have easily been applied to other challenges facing Israel today.

I'll get back to Gaza in a minute, but first I would like to frame this report. The intense four day mission included meetings with Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Palestinian Prime Minister Fayad, President Shimon Peres, United States Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones, Social Services Minister Yitzhak Herzog, opposition leader MK Benyamin Netanyahu, Speaker of the Knesset Dalia Itzik, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, Commander of the Southern Command Yoav Gallant among many others. We also heard from numerous professors, journalists, civil servants, soldiers, Sderot residents, members of Knesset, think tank researchers, grass roots activists and high tech entrepreneurs. All in all, a total of around 65 panelists and speakers addressed the group. Following the mission I also had the opportunity to speak to additional "friends of Ameinu" from the Labor Party and Meretz who shared their views with me.

The panels and main speakers covered a wide variety of issues on Israel's agenda, including both external and internal challenges, but today I am going to address two related issues: Sderot/Gaza and the Israel-Palestinian negotiations. The entire delegation traveled south to express solidarity with the residents of Sderot and receive military briefings. While it is clear that situation for Sderot residents and those in the surrounding settlements is "intolerable" and "unacceptable," to quote Olmert, meeting with adults, children and a psychologist handling the fall out from the daily Kassam rocket attacks was meaningful. An estimated 30% of all Sderot adults are suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the percentage among children is much higher. Using a mobile unit so he can meet with entire families, the psychologist shared troubling stories with us. Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal and Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council Head Alon Shuster thanked the Diaspora Jewish community for our ongoing support without engaging in "saber rattling." In fact, Moyal was quoted at length in the British Guardian newspaper this past weekend in favor of negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas. He denied some of the comments, but the fact that a Likud mayor is engaging in this conversation is significant.

In fact, returning to Miri Eisen's comment that the situation is complicated, the political lines are also getting blurred. Right leaning veteran journalist Ehud Ya'ari stated categorically that he has first hand knowledge that Hamas will agree to an "undeclared ceasefire with nothing on paper." In other words, Israel could try, probably unsuccessfully, to convince other parties that this does not represent negotiating with Hamas.

From multiple conversations with both mission speakers and other political speakers, the following picture emerges. There are non- governmental players on the left that are actively engaged in exploring ceasefire options. There are also left of center politicians who oppose a ceasefire since they believe it will be viewed as a Hamas victory, further weaken the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and thus threaten the peace negotiations. They believe the focus must be on eventually returning Gaza to Fatah control through further weakening of Hamas. Some right wing elements have called on the government to exercise the full-scale ground invasion option, but that is not a uniform opinion as Moyal's interview attests.

It is interesting to note that when challenged by some mission participants as to why they don't just "take care of Gaza," military sources followed the "party line," stating that a decision to invade Gaza is a political, not military one. One sensed that the inevitable loss of significant Israeli military and Palestinian civilian lives weighs heavily on the decision makers. Several sources privately told me over the past week that there is little appetite in the Israeli army for essentially reoccupying Gaza. I was told by a very reliable source that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whom we didn't hear from during the CoP mission because he was out of the country, "is working 24 hours a day" on defense matters and delving into every detail of the Gaza situation.

Israeli public opinion on the Gaza dilemma is coming into focus thanks to a Ha'aretz-Dialog poll published on Wednesday. 64% of all those asked support holding direct talks with Hamas in order to obtain a ceasefire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. This includes a surprising 48% of Likud voters and an overwhelming 72% of Labor voters.

Regarding the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, presentations by Olmert, Livni and Peres followed a consistent mantra. There are close to equal numbers of Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. With that reality in mind, the only path to a Jewish, democratic state is a two state solution. As Livni told the delegation: "We are not doing it for the sake of the Palestinians and not even for the sake of the Americans. We are doing it for our own sake and future." That statement, along with a sense of urgency, really sums up the thinking of the current government. Remembering the days when the proponents of a two-state solution where in the Israeli and Jewish political wilderness, it does feel good to belong to the majority.

Deputy Prime Minister and Shas leader Eli Yishai spoke to the Conference while through the newspapers Netanyahu and other leaders of the Israeli right were calling on him to bring down the Olmert government by leaving the coalition. When pushed by questioners after his presentation as to why indeed he won't pull out of the government and block the peace talks, he had ready answers. First of all he said, Shas stayed in the government while then Prime Minister Netanyahu was negotiating with the Palestinians at the Wye Plantation talks, so why is it so urgent that they leave now. He then gave the answer that ends the conversation and drives a secular democrat crazy: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas Ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader, will decide when it is time to bring down the government, not him.

Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Salem Fayad's presentation drew particular interest as it was the first time the Conference has ever hosted a high-ranking Palestinian figure. The focus of his talk was around the efforts being made within the Palestinian Authority to establish institutional stability, develop economic capacity building and strengthen internal security. Speaking like the technocrat that he is, Fayad detailed the drop in violent crime on the West Bank among other examples of incremental success. He lamented the previous "ten years of bad management" and the "strong sense of defeatism" in the territories. He said that while it is satisfying that the Paris donor conference represents $7.7 billion of investment in major Palestinian projects, he is currently carrying out hundreds of small projects like school improvement and paving rural roads. He believes these gestures will help him "bring along the people." When challenged by an attendee about anti-Zionist incitement in Palestinian textbooks, he replied that the curriculum has been revised to edit out the offensive sections and he would be happy to supply the questioner with copies. His presentation at the Conference, along with Olmert's speech, was front- page news in the English language press the next day.

In and around the mission, I asked journalists and members of Knesset their sense of what is really going on with the peace negotiations. Those who favor a successful completion a peace agreement roughly along the lines of the "Clinton Parameters" or the Geneva Initiative are split on this question. Some feel that the process is going much too slowly and that there is no chance that a peace agreement will be reached by the end of 2008. This camp is convinced that Olmert is managing a balancing act in order to stay in office as long as possible. Others suggest that Livni is diligently making progress with her Palestinian opposite number, former Prime Minister Abu Ala, and they are succeeding in keeping their talks secret. They point out that Olmert and Livni have fully adopted the "negotiations under fire," approach, referring to the Kassam attacks from Gaza. This is a major departure from the policy of several previous Israeli governments. David Horowitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, wouldn't express an opinion as to whether an agreement will be reached in 2008, but based upon personal contact with Olmert, Horowitz is convinced that he sincerely believes in the two state solution as the only way to ensure Israel's future.

A related issue deserves comment as well. Ehud Ya'ari mentioned that there is growing weariness among some Palestinians regarding the slow process dating back to the Oslo era. Senator Sam Brownback happened to be in Israel during our mission and spoke briefly to the group. His focus was on a long discredited confederation arrangement in which Jordan has responsibility for a Palestinian non- sovereign entity. In response to a question in this regard during our visit to the Foreign Ministry, an official commented that "Jordan is worried about right wing initiatives regarding a confederation proposal" and he views it as unhelpful.

At the dinner at the Knesset hosted by Speaker Itzik I was seated next to MK Avshalom (Abu) Vilan from Meretz. As part of our conversation I received an update on the One Home Settler Compensation Bill that he and MK Colette Avital have introduced. This bill would provide financing to purchase the homes of the 80,000 settlers that now live on the east of the security fence. As Abu explained to the mixed political crowd at the table, these settlers' homes currently have little value since if the peace negotiations are successful, they will have to leave. If they are not successful, they will be main targets of violence that will likely follow. They already have 40 sponsors for the bill and hope to get it passed this summer. This would create some additional momentum for the peace process and the departure of settlers would qualify as a "confidence building" measure.

Last but certainly not least, I want to touch upon the question of Jerusalem. The mission dedicated half a day to presentations and a tour around the city to cover the demography, geography and economics aspects of the issue. A great deal of material was shared and I had the opportunity to have Shaul Arieli as my bus guide. Shaul was head of then Prime Minister Barak's negotiating team, involved with the Geneva initiative and a recognized expert on Jerusalem issues. I am sure most of you know that there is a strong international campaign underway opposing any attempt to "divide Jerusalem." We heard it not only during this half day, but also in a heavy handed way on a visit to the Jerusalem City Hall and on other occasions. There is a television campaign now running in Israel with a variety of well-known Jerusalemites calling on people to go to a website and "not forget Jerusalem." In this vein, Along with others who addressed the mission, Arieli made a very strong case for a "shared Jerusalem." In particular, they speak of a partnership with the Palestinians in managing the "historic" or "holy basin," meaning the Old City, the City of David and the Mount of Olives.

Last night, before heading to the airport to return to the United States, I had a delicious dinner at an East Jerusalem restaurant with some colleagues from the World Labor Zionist Movement. On the way out, I spotted a poster with a skyline of Jerusalem and the title "Visit Palestine." One of the owners of the restaurant noticed my interest and pointed out that it is a very rare poster printed in 1936. When I expressed the hope that soon we would be able to visit a state named Palestine, he proceeded to complain about his people's leadership and doubted it would ever happen.

Ameinu National President, Kenneth Bob.

Kenneth Bob is president of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel

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