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Uri Avnery on the US election consequenses for Israel

The Nobleman and the Horse

“HALF AND HALF,” the late Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, is said to have answered, when asked whether he wanted tea or coffee.

This joke was intended to parody his hesitation on the eve of the Six-day War. (Though secret documents published this week show Eshkol in a very different light.)

The American public now resembles the man in the joke. They sent to Washington a large group of Tea Party types, but the coffee drinkers in the White house are still in control.

The Israeli leadership did not know how to treat the results of this election. Are they good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

THE BIG winner of the American election is none other than Binyamin Netanyahu.

His policy is similar to that of his political mentor, Yitzhak Shamir. It is based on the Jew who had to teach the Polish nobleman’s horse to read and to write within a year – otherwise the whole shtetel would be massacred. “A year is a long time,” he tried to soothe his weeping wife, “Within a year the horse or the nobleman will be dead.”

Shamir’s game was to postpone everything, miss every opportunity to bring peace closer, gain time.

When the pressure on Israel gets stronger, one has to evade, obstruct, cheat. Sooner or later the nobleman or the horse will die – and with some luck, both of them. The situation will change, the pressure will lessen, those who exert the pressure will disappear. A crisis somewhere else in the world will take people’s minds off us. We shall win another year or two, and then we shall see.

This is Netanyahu’s strategy, too. To prevent any advance towards peace, since peace means the evacuation of settlements and the setting up of a Palestinian state.

For two years now he has succeeded in thwarting every effort by Barack Obama to compel him to start a real peace process. He has defeated him at every turn, time after time. Now Obama has suffered a stinging setback at home, and a new chapter has begun.

But the nobleman has not died, and neither has the horse. How will Obama treat Netanyahu now?

In Jerusalem, there are two contradictory answers to this question.

The first assessment is that there is nothing to fear anymore from Obama. True, the horse has not died, but it is limping badly.

A big question mark is now hanging over Obama’s future. He is in danger of becoming a one-term president. From now on, he will be compelled to devote all his time and energy to his effort to get reelected. In such a situation, he cannot afford to provoke AIPAC and run the risk of losing the votes – and the money – of the Jews.

According to this assessment, when the House of Representatives is in the hands of his opponents, Obama must be very careful. In domestic matters, which decide elections, he will not be able to achieve anything without a compromise with the reinvigorated Republicans. These are led by politicians who are abject lackeys of Israel.

In short: there is nothing to fear anymore. Obama can make gestures towards the Palestinians and even flex his muscles, but in any real test with Netanyahu and AIPAC he will be the first to blink.

That assures Netanyahu two years of quiet. Everything will remain frozen, except the settlements. They will grow. And in two years, with a new President in the White House, we shall see what we shall see. A new nobleman, a new horse.

THE CONTRARY assessment is much less rosy for Netanyahu.

No doubt, Obama is full of fury against Netanyahu, and this fury may by now have turned into real loathing. In the last days before this election, Netanyahu refused Obama the little victory that could have improved his image at the last moment. Obama asked – nay, begged – for nothing more than a freeze of the settlements for another two months, just to make it possible to stage a grand spectacle of the resumption of the ceremony of the Peace Process. Netanyahu turned down the request disdainfully, even though it was accompanied by the offer of a huge political bribe.

Obama is a man who does not show negative emotions. He will continue to smile at Netanyahu, perhaps even to slap him on the back. But an enemy in the White house is a dangerous enemy, and a wounded enemy is even more dangerous. Wounded or not, an American president is still the most powerful person in the world.

True, the coming presidential election is already casting a long shadow over Washington. But the beginning of the serious election campaign is still a year off, and this year may be an opportunity for a determined American peace initiative. The President may want to show his voters an impressive achievement in the international arena, and a historic peace agreement between Israel and Palestine would certainly constitute such an achievement.

And even if this does not come about, a more serious danger for Netanyahu may be lurking after November 2012. Obama may be reelected. Some of his predecessors – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton – suffered stinging setbacks in their first mid-term elections and still had no problem getting reelected.

If Obama is elected for a second term, he may become a very dangerous adversary indeed. Since he will not be allowed to stand again, he will be immune to the pressure of the Israel lobby. He will be thinking about his place in history. And undoubtedly, making peace between Israel and Palestine would be a historic achievement.

Moreover, the Tea Party may disappear as quickly as it appeared. This happens in the US every few decades: a wave of madness sweeps over the country like a tsunami and disappears as if it had never been. Remember Joe McCarthy. If the wave continues until 2012, and Obama then faces somebody like Sarah Palin, he could ask for nothing better.

As to the Congress: as far as Israel is concerned, there is no change. The senators and congressmen dance to the tune of the Israel lobby, and in this respect there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. It “crosses party lines”, as one of the leaders of the lobby recently boasted.

In short, according to this assessment the clash between Obama and Netanyahu is inevitable. It will come to a head within two or three years, maximum. The nobleman will not die, nor will the horse. The question is whether the Jew will survive.

THIS PERSONAL clash hides a far deeper, far more fundamental one.

There is a lot of blabber about the partnership of the two countries. About the joint myths of pioneers, fight against the natives, conquest of a new homeland, a nation of immigrants. About “joint values”.

It all reminds me of Shimon Peres’ blabbering in the 1950s about the “joint values” that bound France to Israel. The joint values evaporated the moment France made peace with the Algerian rebels. The French stance changed overnight. As Charles de Gaulle said: “France has no friends, France has only interests.”

The United States of America, too, has interests, and their friendships, too, are temporary. Both in the State Department and in the Pentagon, the experts know that the present Israeli policy is contrary to the American national interest. This knowledge finds expression in a growing number of books by former senior officials and academics, as well as in the speeches of high-ranking military officers. Lately, it also underlay an extremely unusual editorial in the New York Times, after the editors visited this country. And this in a paper anti-Semites call the Jew York Times!

The US is involved in two expensive wars in Muslim countries – Iraq and Afghanistan – and in a severe crisis with a third Muslim country – Iran. All over the “extended Middle East”, its allies are declining, while its opponents are in the ascendency.

The opponents are a mixed lot: Iran is a religious Shiite country, Turkey is a Sunni secular republic (with a moderately religious party in power), Syria is a Sunni country ruled by the small Alawite sect, whose Islamic credentials are doubted by both Sunnis and Shiites. Hezbollah is fanatically Shiite, Hamas is fanatically Sunni. There is not much all these have in common, except their opposition to the status quo in the region.

Almost all the experts believe that the unlimited American support for Israel is the main cause for the Islamic anti-American wave. Most of them do not speak about this openly, because fear of the Israeli lobby pervades the entire American political establishment. But even the most terrifying lobby cannot withstand, in the long run, the inexorable logic of national interests.

THERE IS something crazy in this situation: our government is rushing light-heartedly towards a clash with the only remaining ally we have in the world. No realistic alternative can be detected on the horizon.

This is, by itself, an ominous fact, because the American Empire is in a slow but continuing decline in all areas – economic, political, military and cultural. This is a protracted process that will take many years, but Israel should be positioning itself to accommodate the rise of new centers of power. The Netanyahu government is doing the exact opposite: it is challenging the entire world and acting consistently to isolate Israel.

Unlike the story about the Jew, the nobleman and the horse – this is not a joke.

Uri Avnery
November 6, 2010

Uri Avnery (87) is the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. Member of the Israeli parliament Knesset 1965-74 and 1979-81.

He is famous for crossing the lines during the Battle of Beirut to meet Yassir Arafat on 3 July 1982, the first time the Palestinian leader ever met with an Israeli.

Avnery has written a number of books on the Middle East conflict, notably: 1948: A soldier’s tale, Israel Without Zionists: A Plea for Peace in the Middle East (1968), My Friend, the Enemy (1986),The Bloody Road to Jerusalem (2008) and Israel’s Vicious Circle (2008).

Uri Avnery's memories of Yitzhak Rabin

Uri Avnery
31.10.09

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.