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Reflections on Israel

June 20, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Current Events, Guest Author, Politics

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Nonviolence, the Peace Process, and Future Directions

by Michael Walzer

(Editor’s Note: This week on NCV, as part of a thematic series, we are featuring articles focusing on the Israel-Palestine conflict and attendant issues, hoping to stimulate a dialogue and suggest potential ways forward.)

I have been coming to Israel every year for the past thirty years, and I spend most of my time here talking about politics. But I don’t understand what’s been going on recently, in Jerusalem and in Washington, beginning with Obama’s big speech. It wasn’t the reference to the 1967 borders that was new in this speech but rather the proposal to deal now with borders and security and postpone all questions about Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. This makes sense to Israeli leftists, my friends here, who think that it’s to Israel’s advantage to get out of the territories — indeed, that withdrawal is an urgent necessity, and more so for the Jews than for the Arabs.

But it makes no sense to Netanyahu and his allies, for whom withdrawal is the great concession, which they are probably not ready to make, and which they could not possibly make unless it brought a definitive end to the conflict — which means that the Palestinians would have to give up the right of return at the same time as Israel agreed to withdraw from the West Bank. But there is no prospect of that and, unfortunately, Obama is dealing with Israeli rightists, not leftists, so he should have expected the reception his proposals got.

Still, Netanyahu could have responded in a different way. He could have welcomed Obama’s rejection of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, his promise that Israel would not be isolated at the UN, his insistence that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce terrorism, his clear statement that a future Palestine would be demilitarized, and his call for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — and then simply acknowledged that there were still disagreements, that needed to be worked out, about borders and settlements and about the order in which the hardest issues would be addressed.

Why did he focus on the line about ’67 and pick a fight? There is a simple answer to that question: he isn’t interested in the peace process; he doesn’t believe that there is a peace process; he is thinking only of his political position at home. His speech to Congress was his reelection platform.

But this can’t be the whole story. I don’t have much respect for Netanyahu; still, he is the leader of his country, and he must have some vision of Israel’s future and not only of his own future. What does he think about Israel’s drift toward pariah status in the world, about the growing strength of boycott movements in many countries, about the likelihood that the UN General Assembly will recognize Palestinian statehood (as it recognized Israel’s many years ago), and about the possibility of large-scale and peaceful Palestinian protests — something Israel has never had to deal with before? His speech addressed none of this. It is being described as a stand-pat speech, but Netanyahu sounded to me like a man walking with his eyes closed toward disaster. He must know that standing ovations in Washington offer little protection to the people he claims to represent. I don’t understand what he thinks he is doing.

Palestinian leaders would be happy to accept an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but they are in no way ready to end the conflict; no Palestinian leader has even hinted at a willingness to give up the right of return. None of them are strong enough to do that, but I suspect that none of them want to do that. Their strategic goal is what I am afraid it has always been: the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state that they don’t recognize and with which they are not reconciled. But tactically they are newly inventive. They worked backward: their first resort was violence and terror; their last resort is peaceful protest. Had they reversed the order, they would have a state by now. There have been small nonviolent protests in the past, and these protests continue today in villages along the Wall, but they have been and still are marginal to the Palestinian struggle, never endorsed by Fatah or the PLO — and certainly not by Hamas. Now Israel faces the prospect of something radically new. How can it resist masses of men and women, children too, just walking across the ceasefire lines?

Actually, if the Palestinians are smart, as they are these days, they won’t walk across the lines, for that raises the specter of return, and the right of return doesn’t (yet) have sufficient international support. Come September, after the UN recognizes their state, they will march inside the 1967 lines, thousands of them — from Nablus, say, into the nearby settlements and army bases, asserting their own sovereignty and territorial integrity. And what will Israel do then? Many Israeli rightists would, almost certainly, prefer a new terrorist campaign, which would put the Palestinians once again in the wrong. That is certainly possible, but it is, suddenly, less likely than peaceful protest.

Obama was trying to help Netanyahu avoid or postpone the UN vote; he meant to give Israel the chance to make Palestinian statehood a joint Israeli-Palestinian project. Whatever the prospects for success, getting serious negotiations on Israel’s borders started is very important, and Netanyahu’s rejectionism seems crazy to me — not unexpected, but still crazy. I hope that someone in the White House has an idea about what to do next.

*           *           *

Here I am, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the Golan, and I can’t figure out what happened there on June 5. There were no independent journalists on either side of the border, and so we have only the reports from Syrian television and the response of the IDF spokeswoman. The Syrians say that Israeli soldiers fired at the advancing crowd and killed twenty-three people. The Israelis say that only a few marksmen fired live ammunition, that the Syrians are making up the numbers and possibly adding people killed by their army in nearby rebellious cities to the list, and finally that some number of protesters were killed when their Molotov cocktails set off anti-tank mines on the Syrian side of the border. Newspapers here and abroad, so far as I can tell, simply report the discrepancy, but Haaretz warns, probably rightly, that the Syrians got there first and are sure to be widely believed.

It is also unclear who the protesters were — Syrians reclaiming the Golan or Palestinians “returning” to Israel. One dissident blogger from the Syrian opposition wrote that people were paid by the Assad government to join the march and promised compensation if they were injured. But that doesn’t sound likely. It can’t have been difficult to round up the 500 to 1000 marchers, given the spirit of rebellion in the Arab world, which has surely reached the Palestinian camps. On the other hand, the rest of Palestine was relatively quiet on the 5th, and neither Hamas nor Fatah sounded particularly enthusiastic about the Golan protests when they, more or less routinely, condemned the killings.

Officials in Netanyahu’s government must feel that they got off easy. They will also be grateful for the Molotov cocktails, which suggest that the discipline of nonviolence hasn’t yet been fully established among the Palestinians (if that’s who threw them, if they were thrown). But nonviolence is in the air, and it promises to be far more effective than terrorism ever was. Watching the Syrian video of the march, I couldn’t help thinking that if all the people in the West who justified or apologized for Palestinian terrorism had been united in their condemnation, this moment might have been reached many years ago. And then there would be a Palestinian state, and so many lives spared.

Whether statehood is in the offing now is radically unclear. The Left’s demonstration for a Palestinian state (in Tel Aviv on the 4th) was disappointingly small. There hardly seems to be a plausible opposition here, and so the government is on its own march, eyes closed, toward what looks to me like disaster. I imagine American and now French diplomats shouting at Bibi to open his eyes. A few Israeli notables, nonpolitical figures like Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, have joined the shouting. Dagan actually urged the government to accept the Saudi peace offer — a brilliant move, which nobody in power seems prepared to make.

Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent. A professor emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey, he is the author of many articles and books — including Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice, and On Toleration. He is also a contributing editor to the New Republic. This article originally appeared on Dissent, and is reprinted here by permission.

1 Comments to “Reflections on Israel”


  1. Walzer writes: “They worked backward: their first resort was violence and terror; their last resort is peaceful protest. Had they reversed the order, they would have a state by now.”

    Not entirely correct.

    (1) Palestinians’ first resort was indeed nonviolent resistance. The history of this resistance has long been overshadowed by negative propaganda, but it cannot be ignored or suppressed any longer. See, e.g., Mazin Qumsiyeh’s “Popular Resistance in Palestine” (2011).

    (2) Palestinians’ use of “violence and terror” to achieve statehood is a complex and debatable issue. After all, there are many contemporary states that came into being, or achieved independence, as a direct result of “violence and terror.” Israel itself is a prime example.

    (3) To say that the Palestinians’ wrong strategy is the main reason why they don’t have a state is to completely ignore the giant hippopotamus sitting in the living room: the tremendous disparity of POWER between the two sides.

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