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Statement Regarding the Palestinian Statehood Initiative

Salvaging September: A ICAHD Statement Regarding the Palestinian Statehood Initiative at the UN

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) has been one of the leading critical Israeli peace and human rights organizations struggling for Palestinian rights during its more than 14 years of existence. ICAHD activists resist the demolition of Palestinian homes, both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territory, and together with our Palestinian and International partners, we have rebuilt 175 homes as political acts of resistance to Occupation. Besides our resistance efforts “on the ground,” we engage in a vigorous campaign of international advocacy on behalf of a just peace. In this we are aided by our branches abroad – ICA HD UK, ICAHD US and ICAHD Finland – as well as by hundreds of civil society groups around the world with which we work.

Where, then, do we stand on the question of the PLO/PA’s September initiative? As non-Palestinians, ICAHD activists do not advocate for a particular solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Overall, we subscribe to the three basic principles embodied in the Palestinian Civil Society Call: (1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
(2) recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
(3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. Believing t hat it is the Palestinian people’s right to determine what they consider a just peace and it is our role as their Israeli partners to support them – with one caveat: that any solution be inclusive of all the people residing in Palestine/Israel – we will follow the lead of our Palestinian partners regarding particular initiatives or resolutions to the conflict.

As non-Palestinians, we find ourselves in a bind regarding “September.” During the months leading up to the approach to the UN in late September, and especially in the last couple weeks, we have received mixed messages from our Palestinian civil society partners. Most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel seem to be sitting out the September initiative at the UN – although Marwan Barghouti did issue an impassioned plea for international support and involvement from his prison cell. One influential Palestinian commentator has called September a “non-event;” others, especially in the Palestinian Diaspora, are act ively opposing it.

Even Abbas himself seems reluctant to go the UN. He recently told a group of visiting Israeli intellectuals that his post-September priorities are to “negotiate, negotiate, negotiate [with Israel].” But he is trapped by the high expectations the idea has generated around the world. The half-hearted juggernaut moves on towards the fateful date of September 21st.

Now, just two or three weeks before the approach to the UN, a fierce debate has erupted within the Palestinian community around a number of key questions:

Will the September initiative be based on the recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders? If so, then what does Abbas want to negotiate with Israel? Minor territorial adjustments or a return to the fruitless trap of negotiations of the past 20 years which render the 1967 borders irrelevant?

Who, in the absence of elections to the PNC or a referendum, has authorized Abbas to pursue a two-state solution? Even if he does approach the UN in his capacity as the head of the PLO and with the backing of its Executive Committee, will the Palestinian Authority, on becoming the recognized Government of the State of Palestine, replace the PLO and thus disenfranchise half the Palestinian people? In particular, would the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders compromise the refugees’ right of return and the national rights of Palestinians within Israel?

Does recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders foreclose forever the emergence of a single state in historic Palestine, be it democratic or bi-national, or will it permit further political efforts and evolution in that direction?

Until these questions are answered, it would be difficult for ICAHD to support the September initiative. This, however, raises two key issues. First, how do we deal with the fall-out of September? Regardless of internal Palestinian politics and the genuine problematics of Abbas’s approach to the UN, “September” is going to happen. With only a week to go, the PLO/PA’s game-plan is still not clear, but a General Assembly vote would undoubtedly see the vast majority of the international community recognizing Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders.

What is our game-plan? How will we channel the energy, if not euphoria, of the “day after” – or the anger and despair if, in fact, nothing happens on the ground? While many Palestinian intellectuals and organizations of the left are critical of the initiative, the Palestinian “street” is nevertheless organizing for the non-violent assertion of their national rights, including marches on settlements. What can be done so as not to abandon them? And what about the expectations that have been raised amongst the thousands of activists around the world who have devoted so much time and effort to the Palestinian cause over the year s? If “September” simply fizzles, will they stay the course? Most important, what if the General Assembly vote does turn out to be a genuine game-changer, if it releases a political dynamic that neither the PA nor Israel nor any other actor can control – the resignation or collapse of the PA if, in fact, nothing does change in the occupied territory, perhaps triggering an Israel re-occupation of the cities of the West Bank and Gaza? How should we respond?

The second issue arises from the first: no struggle for Palestinian rights can be pursued without the leadership of the Palestinian people – which for ICAHD and many activists around the world, means our partner organizations on the Palestinian left, be they inside Palestine or abroad. The popular committees and other activists “on the ground” play a key role in keep the struggle alive and focused, but they have no political program. On the level of international advocacy, boycotts, divestment sanctions (BDS) has become a powerful campaign vehicle for raising public awareness of the Palestinian issue; in fact, ICAHD was one of the first Israeli organizations to endorse it. But, in the end, it is merely a tool. It cannot replace a multi-faceted political strategy.

Two requirements for an effective post-September program seem evident: our Palestinian civil society partners should articulate a clear vision of where they see the struggle headed, if not a detailed program; and all of us working for Palestinian self-determination – Palestinian, Israeli and international activists alike – should hold urgent and critical discussions regarding our next steps. Our activism and our campaigns need to be accompanied by Palestinian-led st rategizing, together with far more coordination and communication. We in ICAHD believe that the vote at the UN – or even a non-vote in the UN – is going be a game-changer. At least it is likely to clear the table of all the obstacles to pursuing a truly just peace: fruitless negotiations, the two-state “solution” and, very possibly, the PA itself, which has too long enabled Israel to prolong its occupation. We must be prepared for that shifting of the political ground. We must be pro-active, united and effective.

ICAHD, then, will respect the internal disagreement among its Palestinian partners. ICAHD has long argued that the two-state solution, which has anyway been buried under the Israeli settlements, cannot serve as a just and workable solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. We would have supported the initiative as a stage in achieving full national rights for the Palestinian people, but since our partners have raised concerns that the recognition of Palestinian state in the 196 7 borders will foreclose those rights, and given the level of opposition, ICAHD will basically “sit it out.” We find this a painful decision, because we believe that civil society engagement in the political process is crucial. Our dilemma certainly highlights the need for all of us to be more strategic and pro-active, so we don’t get caught in such political paralysis.

Remaining concerned over how to deal with the fall-out of the September initiative, we urge the convening of a regular forum of consultation among all civil society activists, which can be networked if the issue of leadership is a problem. We remain committed to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. We stand in solidarity with the people suffering on the ground, in the refugee camps as well as in the occupied Palestinian territory, and we look forward to close cooperation as we develop effective political strategies for achieving a just peace and equality for all the people of Palestine/Israel.

Uri Avnery's memories of Yitzhak Rabin

Uri Avnery

Count Me Out

A YEAR before the Oslo agreement, I had a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Tunis. He was full of curiosity about Yitzhak Rabin, who had just been elected Prime Minister.

I described him as well as I could and ended with the words: “He is as honest as a politician can be.”

Arafat broke into laughter, and all the others present, among them Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, joined in.

FOR THE sake of proper disclosure: I always liked Rabin as a human being. I especially liked some traits of his.

First of all: his honesty. This is such a rare quality among politicians that it stood out like an oasis in the desert. His mouth and his heart were one, as far as is possible in political life. He did not lie when he could possibly avoid it.

He was a decent human being. Witness the “dollar affair”: when his term as Israeli ambassador in Washington DC came to an end, his wife Leah left behind a bank account, contrary to Israeli law at the time. When it was discovered, he protected his wife by assuming personal responsibility. At the time, unlike today, “assuming responsibility” was not an empty phrase. He left the Prime Minister’s office.

I liked even his most evident personality trait – his introversion. He was withdrawn, with few human contacts. Not a fellow-well-met back slapper, not one for lavishing compliments, indeed an anti-politician.

Also, I liked the way he told people straight to the face what he thought of them. Some of his expressions, in juicy Hebrew, have become part of Israeli folklore. Such as “indefatigable intriguer” (about Shimon Peres), “propellers” (about the settlers, meaning electric fans which spin noisily without going anywhere), “garbage of weaklings” (about people leaving Israel for good).

He had no small talk. In every conversation, he came to the point right at the start.

One might imagine that these characteristics would alienate people. Quite to the contrary, people were attracted to him because of them. In a world of pretentious, garrulous, mendacious, back-slapping politicians, he was a refreshing rarity.

MORE THAN anything else, I respected Rabin for his dramatic change of outlook at the age of 70. The man who had been a soldier since he was 18, who had fought Arabs all his life, suddenly became a peace-fighter. And not just a fighter for peace in general, but for peace with the Palestinian people, whose very existence had always been denied by the leaders of Israel.

The public memory, one of the most effective instruments of the establishment, is trying nowadays to obliterate this chapter. Throughout the country one can buy postcards showing Rabin shaking hands with King Hussein at the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement, but it is almost impossible to find a card showing Rabin with Arafat at the Oslo agreement signing ceremony. Never happened.

As I have recounted before, I was an eye-witness to his inner revolution. From 1969 on, until after the Oslo agreement, we had a running debate about the Palestinian issue – at the Washington embassy, at parties where we met casually (generally at the bar), in the Prime Minister’s office and at his private home.

In one 1969 conversation, he objected strenuously to any dealings with the Palestinians. One sentence imprinted itself upon my mind: “I want an open border, not a secure border” (a play of words in Hebrew). At the time, his former commander, Yigal Alon, was spreading the slogan “secure borders”, in order to justify extensive annexations of occupied territory. Rabin wanted an open border between Israel and the West Bank, which he intended to give back to King Hussein. After this conversation, I wrote him that the border would be open only if there was a Palestinian state on the other side, because then the economic realities would compel both states – Israel and Palestine – to maintain close relations.

In 1975, after the start of my secret contacts with the PLO, I went to brief him (in accordance with the express wishes of the PLO). In the conversation that took place at the Prime Minister’s office, I tried to convince him to give up the “Jordanian option”, which I had always considered silly. He refused adamantly. “We must make peace with Hussein,” he told me. “After he has signed, I don’t care if the king is toppled.” Like Shimon Peres and many others, he entertained the illusion that the king would give up East Jerusalem.

I told him that I could not follow the logic of this line of thought. Let’s imagine that the king signed and was then overthrown. What next? The PLO would take over a state extending from Tulkarm to the approaches of Baghdad, in which four Arab armies could easily assemble. Was that, I asked, what he wanted?

In this conversation, too, one sentence imprinted itself on my mind: “I will not take the smallest step towards the Palestinians, because the first step would lead inevitably to the creation of a Palestinian state, and I don’t want that.” In the end he told me: “I oppose what you are doing, but I will not prevent you from meeting with them. If these meetings reveal things to you that you think the Israeli Prime Minister should know about, my door is open.” That was Rabin all over. The contacts, of course, broke the law.

After that I brought him several messages from Arafat, conveyed to me by the PLO representative in London, Sa’id Hamami. Arafat proposed small mutual gestures. Rabin refused all of them.

Consequently I was all the more impressed by Oslo. Later Rabin explained to me, one Shabbat at his private apartment, how he arrived there: King Hussein had resigned his responsibility for the West Bank. The “village leagues”, set up by Israel as pliant “representatives” of the Palestinians, were a dismal failure. As Minister of Defense he summoned local Palestinian leaders for individual consultations, and one after another they told him that their political address was in Tunis. After that, at the Madrid conference, Israel agreed to negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, but then the Jordanians told them that all Palestinian matters must be discussed with the Palestinian members alone. But at every meeting, the Palestinian delegates asked for a pause in order to call Tunis and get instructions from Arafat. Rabin’s conclusion: if all decisions are made by Arafat anyhow, why not talk with him directly?

It has always been said that Rabin had an “analytical mind”. He did not have much of an imagination, but he viewed facts soberly, analyzed them logically and drew his conclusions.

IF SO, why did the Oslo agreement fail?

The practical reasons are easy to see. From the beginning, the agreement was build on shaky foundations, because it lacked the main thing: a clear definition of the final objective of the process.

For Arafat it was self-evident that the agreed “interim stages” would lead to an independent Palestinian state in the whole of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with perhaps some minor exchanges of territory. East Jerusalem, including of course the Holy Shrines, was to become the capital of Palestine. The settlements would be dismantled. I am convinced that he would have been satisfied with a symbolic return of a limited number of refugees to Israel proper.

That was Arafat’s price for giving up 78% of the country, and no Palestinian leader, present or future, could be satisfied with less.

But Rabin’s aim was unclear, perhaps even to himself. At the time he was not yet ready to accept a Palestinian state. Absent an agreed destination, all the “interim phases” went awry. Every step caused new conflicts. (As I wrote at the time, when traveling from Paris to Berlin, one can stop at interim stations. When traveling from Paris to Madrid, one can also stop at interim stations – but they will be quite different ones.)

Arafat was conscious of the faults of the agreement. He told his people that it was “the best possible agreement in the worst possible circumstances”. But he believed that the dynamics of the peace process would overcome the obstacles on the way. So did I. We were both wrong.

After the signing, Rabin began to hesitate. Instead of rushing forwards to create facts, he dithered. This gave the opposing forces in Israel time to recoup from the shock, regroup and start a counterattack, which ended in his assassination.

Perhaps this mistake could have been foreseen. Rabin was by nature a cautious person. He was conscious of the heavy responsibility that rested on his shoulders. He had no taste for drama, unlike Begin, nor was he blessed with a vivid imagination, like Herzl. For better and for worse, he lived in the real world. He had no idea how to change it, though he knew that he had to do just that.

BUT THESE explanations are only the foam upon the waves. Deep under the surface, powerful currents were at work. They pushed Rabin off course and in the end they swallowed him.

Rabin was a child of the classic Zionist ideology. He never rebelled against it. He carried in his body the genetic code of the Zionist movement, a movement whose aim from the beginning was to turn the Land of Israel into an exclusively Jewish state, which denied the very existence of the Arab Palestinian people and whose logic ultimately meant their displacement.

Like most of his generation in the country, he absorbed this ideology with his mother’s milk, and was raised on it throughout. It shaped his ideas so thoroughly that he was not even aware of it. At the critical juncture of his life, he fell victim to an insoluble inner contradiction: his analytical mind told him to make peace with the Palestinians, to “give up” a part of the country and to dismantle the settlements, while his Zionist genetic heritage opposed this with all its might. That manifested itself visibly at the Oslo agreement signing ceremony: he offered his hand to Arafat because his mind commanded it, but all his body language expressed rejection.

It is impossible to make peace without a basic mental and emotional commitment to peace. Impossible to change the direction of a historic movement without reassessing its history. Impossible for a leader to steer his people towards a total change (as Ataturk did in Turkey, for example) if he is not completely devoted to the change himself. Impossible to make peace with an enemy without understanding his truth.

Rabin’s inner convictions continued to evolve after Oslo. Between him and Arafat, mutual respect grew. Perhaps he would have arrived, in his slow and cautious way, at the necessary mental change. The assassin and his handlers must have been afraid of this and decided to forestall it.

Rabin’s failure will find its expression at the memorial rally next week at the very place where we witnessed his murder, 14 years ago. The main speakers will be two of the gravediggers of the Oslo agreement, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, as well as Tzipi Livni and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who belonged to the forces that created the climate for the murder. Rabin, I assume, will turn in his grave.

Will I be there? Not me, thank you very much.