Category Archives: Conceptions of peace

Obama’s Peace, Our Occupation

Cover of Shimon Peres' book from 1993

Cover of Shimon Peres’ book from 1993

Watching Obama's speech in Rabin square. From Peace Now facebook page.

Watching Obama’s speech in Rabin square. From Peace Now facebook page.

Despite the low expectations about President Obama’s visit to Israel and Palestine, everyone on the Israeli left seems to want to talk about his speech to Israeli students, which was also his direct address to the Israeli public rather than its politicians. Quick off the mark was Moriel Rothman in his Leftern Wall blog, who found five positive points in the otherwise biased, ‘gloop-filled’ speech, such as Obama’s call for an independent, viable Palestinian state to achieve peace, his condemnation of unpunished settler violence, and especially the phrase: ‘Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer’. Similarly, Gush Shalom praised the speech for reminding us ‘that peace is possible and necessary, that we do have a partner for peace, … and that Israel must end the occupation’. Peace Now labelled it a ‘historic speech’. Commentators in Ha’aretz were impressed too. Ari Shavit considered the 18 minutes of the speech dedicated to the pursuit of a necessary, just and possible peace to be ‘a soft admonishment’ to Israelis in what was otherwise ‘a royal visit of love’. According to Barak Ravid, the speech was ‘a combination of a warm embrace and a punch in the gut’, both identifying with Jewish Israeli self-perceptions and also trying to ‘shake their paranoia and their fears’. More critical voices on the +972 blog noted that while the speech contained some ‘niceties regarding peace … the Right proved that the occupation has no cost, that the rift with the U.S. doesn’t exist and that denying the Palestinians their freedom is sustainable policy’. Obama called settlements ‘counterproductive’ to peace, but he did not repeat his 2009call for a freeze. And he endorsed the recent Israeli expectation to be recognized as a Jewish State by the Palestinian Authority, even though about twenty percent of Israel’s population isn’t Jewish but Palestinian Arab.

Obama’s visit to Israel was a successful charm offensive, his speech being a key part of that by taking rhetorical responsibility for the state of mind of the Jewish Israeli public. He did this most clearly when he said first in Hebrew and then in English ‘You are not alone’ so long as the USA exists, a point repeated twice when he said that ‘Israel has the unshakable support of the most powerful country in the world’ and that the USA is ‘a country that you can count on as your greatest friend’. Before first making that point, he had rehearsed the Zionist narrative of Jewish exile, persecution, and longing for return to the promised land, of building the land, of resilient defence in the face of external hatred and military threats to the state’s existence and terrorism, of rebuffed offers for peace to the Arab world. No wonder, then, that for the audience in Ramallah Obama’s speech proved that he’s more Jewish than the Jews, according Amira Hass’s report. And perhaps it’s less surprising, given all this reassurance that Jewish Israeli fears are not only understood but also justified, that the applause continued to punctuate Obama’s speech when he called for justice for Palestinians too, for them to be ‘a free people in their own land’ (echoing the words of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, in reference to Jewish nationhood).

In advance of Obama’s delivery of the speech, we were told that its writer, Ben Rhodes, would want to convey messages that ‘that Israel can no longer rely on authoritarian leaders in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world to help guarantee its security’ and that ‘people can make a difference, even if their leaders are stuck’. Those points were made, but what matters more are the grounds of the American appeal to Jewish Israel (overlooking the non-Jewish fifth of Israel) which is based on complete American identification with Israel. The speech also hopes that the reassurance of this empathetic identification will propel Jewish Israelis to identify with what it takes to be the shared hopes of Palestinians. It offers an image of peace in which both Israelis and Palestinians are said to want the same things: ‘the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education and to get a good job, to worship God in their own way, to get married, to raise a family’. The speech asks the audience to imagine ‘a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land’. In the final section of the speech, Obama focused on Israeli prosperity and innovation, echoing the Israeli PR image of the ‘start-up nation’. He figured Israel as the embodiment of that which people across the Middle East ‘are yearning for — education, entrepreneurship, the ability to start a business without paying a bribe, the ability to connect to the global economy’. In other words, Obama asked Jewish Israelis to identify peace with the sort of prosperity offered by neo-liberal global capitalism, the prosperity that some Israelis do enjoy, but most feel excluded from, as demonstrated by the massive social protests of the summer of 2011. Nonetheless, it is a positive image of peace that speaks to Israeli sensibilities, a continuation of the charm offensive. His host, Israeli President Shimon Peres, had tried to sell a similar image of peace at the time of the Oslo agreements, but his vision of a prosperous new Middle East has long since been tarnished by the absence of peace and the failure of negotiations.

Yet, in another key section of the speech Obama identified peace as justice, first insisting on the centrality of Israeli security to any peace agreement, then calling on Israelis to identify with Palestinians, to ‘put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes’. Briefly, Jewish Israelis were invited to see the Israeli military as a ‘foreign army’ in the Palestinian occupied territories, to see themselves as farmers barred from their land and families displaced from their homes. But only briefly, and then peace as justice gave way to peace as prosperity, and the Israeli audience saw itself mirrored again in America’s unconditional love, the favoured child of its Big (M)Other, tied by a relationship that began just ‘eleven minutes after Israeli independence’.

In this speech Obama failed to ‘create the change that you want to see’, if indeed he wanted to picture peace as justice and for Israelis to identify with Palestinians. Instead, he reinforced the prevalent Israeli view that their security takes precedence over justice for Palestinians (in the form of the ending of occupation and independent statehood). The speech reassures Jewish Israelis that they should repeat their hegemonic narrative of victimhood and persecution, according to which the question of justice pertains primarily to righting the wrong of past generations through present force and might. Seeing itself in the mirror of American power, when asked to see the world through Palestinian eyes, this Jewish Israeli narrative can see only that a Palestinian child is being beaten, not that we are beating the Palestinian child.

No justice, no peace.

Planning Peace from Afar: Stop Repeating the Trauma

Photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943 and one of the best-known pictures of World War II.
The original German caption reads: “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs.”

Samir ‘Awad being evacuated from the scene after being shot, 15 January 2013. Photo: Nasar Mghar

Samir ‘Awad being evacuated from the scene after being shot, 15 January 2013. Photo: Nasar Mghar

In an expression of unbridled American optimism, former diplomat Dennis Ross, a key figure in the post-Oslo process, published in today’s (3 March 2013)  New York Times a 14-point agenda for reviving the halted peace process and reviving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In principle, there is nothing wrong with being optimistic in an effort to imagine the achievement of peace, but ungrounded optimism can become the grounds for the lost hope of failure. Ross is aware that ‘most Israelis and Palestinians today simply don’t believe that peace is possible’ and that ‘neither side believes that the other is committed to a two-state outcome’, arguing that each side needs to overcome ‘the problem of disbelief’. So, he proposes a package of trust and confidence building measures, most of which can be undertaken unilaterally but in coordination by each side, that ‘can actually generate changes that ordinary citizens on both sides could see and feel’. Never mind that the whole approach of ‘confidence building measures’ championed previously by Ross and US administrations has led into the cul-de-sac of disbelief and despair. He has learned from his mistakes and seeks to repeat them perfectly.

One could take issue with Ross’ specific proposals, which reflect American attunement with Israeli rather than Palestinian concerns. He suggests that the Israeli government from now restrict its settlement building to the blocs in the West Bank that Israel intends to keep as part of any future agreement, while preparing to relocate those settlers who currently live outside those blocs. He does not suggest that Israel dismantle all settlements established since 2001, as required by the 2003 Road Map. Ross does call for Israel to expand the scope of Palestinian self-government and policing in Areas A, B and C of the West Bank, but he does not insist on an end to Israeli military incursions into Area A, the 18% of the West Bank that’s supposed to be under the Palestinian Authority’s full civil and security control.

Last week, there were demonstrations throughout the Palestinian occupied territories in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. In an impassioned appeal to the Israeli public on Israel Channel 2 news on 24th February 2013, PA official Jibril Rajoub spoke of the prisoners and their detention without trial in Israeli prisons as the most sensitive issue of the occupation, the focus of unrest that’s been labeled the ‘prisoners’ intifada’. But that’s not on Ross’s radar. Nor are the numerous, unpunished attacks on Palestinians and their land by extremist settlers, despite the ‘culture of impunity’ regarding such attacks, described in detail in a recent UN Human Rights report. There is no mention in Ross’s list of the ongoing friction caused by the completion of the separation barrier, which entails seizing Palestinian land and separating owners from unhindered access to it. The planned dispossession of Palestinians in the South Hebron hills to clear way for military Firing Zone 918 also does not get Ross’s attention. The weekly catalogue of shootings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, their excessive use of force to suppress demonstrations, recorded by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, does not register for Ross as part and parcel of the insufferable burden of occupation that must be relieved before Palestinians can be convinced that the Israeli government is serious about ending its control over them.

Nonetheless, Ross suggests that the Israeli government take some concrete steps that would be felt and seen by Palestinians. By contrast, the measures he proposes that the PA take would not make much difference to the daily lives of Israelis. Instead, he says that the PA should ‘speak’ of two states, ‘acknowledge’ the existence of a Jewish as well Palestinian national movement, ‘show’ Israel on their maps (though he does not ask for a parallel redrawing of Israeli maps so that they show the ‘green line’), and end ‘incitement’. The only practical step that Ross asks of the PA is to build permanent housing in the Palestinian refugee camps (presumably to reassure Israelis that Palestinian refugees will forego their ‘right of return’ to their former land now in Israel). As he acknowledges that Palestinian security forces fulfill their obligations to collaborate with Israeli forces in preventing armed attacks on Israelis (which he’d like the Israeli government to acknowledge publicly, so long as the PA is equally generous about Israeli good-will measures, such as treating Palestinian patients in its hospitals), Ross does not include in his plan increased PA security action against armed militants. Nor does he explain how the PA should continue to repress Palestinian militant opposition to the occupation while also (as he recommends) focusing on ‘the rule of law’.

What then is Ross asking of the PA, with all this speaking, acknowledging, showing and abstinence from inflammatory language? He is asking that the PA take rhetorical responsibility for the state of mind of the Jewish Israeli public. Ross grasps well that much of the Israeli public feels insecure about its existence, dubious that further withdrawal from territory seized in 1967 will bring peace and security – although the two recent withdrawals he mentions, from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 were both unilateral Israeli moves, in the face of incessant armed and civil opposition to their presence. But such an approach, according to which the PA offer Israelis the reassurance they want to hear repeatedly, assumes that the Palestinians (and other Arab nations, and Islamic states) are the source of Israeli insecurity. This is a false assumption, one that does not go deep enough into the trauma that needs to be acknowledged and worked through if peace is to be first imagined, and then made real. The clue is on another page of the same issue of the New York Times, a chilling report on recent research about the Holocaust that dramatically increases the known number of Nazi ghettos, and concentration, slave labour, prisoner-of-war, euthanasia, abortion and brothel camps. Well-meaning, instrumentalist, technocratic, pragmatic ‘confidence-building’ measures cannot be the remedy for a conflict in which a traumatized people has brought trauma to another. The headline of Ross’s piece is ‘To Achieve Mideast Peace, Suspend Disbelief’. The last phrase should be ‘Stop Repeating the Trauma’.

Warsaw Ghetto 1943

To Be at Peace with Oneself: Reconciliation through Israeli Testimony of the Nakba

Catalogue cover for Towards a Common Archive exhibition

Catalogue cover for Towards a Common Archive exhibition


Last week a demanding and harrowing exhibition closed. The exhibition was called Towards a Common Archive: Video Testimonies of Zionist Fighters in 1948, consisting of more than 30 testimonies of Jewish fighters filmed especially for this project, one video of clips from documentaries by Israeli filmmakers with fighters’ testimonies, another video compilation of representations of the Nakba in Israeli feature films, and a video of testimonies by second- and third-generation Israelis who have heard first-hand reports of the Nakba. I attended the opening in October while on sabbatical in Tel Aviv.The exhibition was a collaboration between Zochrot, an organization that seeks to raise public awareness among Jews in Israel of the Palestinian Nakba, Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, who now works at the University of East London and Israeli historian Prof. Ilan Pappé, now at the University of Exeter.

The ambition of the Common Archive project is both historical – to cross-reference testimonies by both Palestinian refugees and soldiers and commanders involved in the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1947-49 – and an exercise in peace-making. It may seem odd to consider the screening of testimonies about the Nakba to have anything to do with peace. Nothing is more likely to make Jewish Israelis and Zionists in general more defensive and less open to the needs of the Palestinians than confronting them with Israel’s ‘original sin’ – the uprooting of so many Palestinians to ensure that the nascent state would have a clear Jewish majority. Yet, the exhibition organizers take a different, more difficult path to peace through reconciliation, in which Israeli acknowledgment and accountability for the Nakba paves the way to tackling the most intractable issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the right of Palestinians to return.

I did not watch all of the hours of video testimony (which is viewable on both the Common Archive project’s and Zochrot’s YouTube channels) either at the crowded opening in the small gallery in an industrial building, nor on my return visit to the exhibition, or even on the DVD that came with the exhibition catalogue. It is more of an education than an exhibition, too much to bear in one sitting. It is an education not in the sense that unknown events are revealed, other perhaps than a detail here and there, but in that for the first time the perpetrators are the witnesses. It is not a question of Israelis being accused of crimes by Palestinian victims. Veteran Israeli fighters of the founders’ generation, often members of its elite commando unit, the Palmach, are the ones telling the stories of expulsions, killings, mutilations and massacre. We have known collectively all along, but preferred to repress, actively to forget these stories.

The testimonies I have seen tell of painful personal memories that merit repression yet need to be spoken and watched. None of the perpetrators have a problem characterizing what they did in the war of 1948 as “expulsion” of the Palestinians. The interviewers, Eyal Sivan and Ronit Chacham, ask the witnesses to specify what was involved in “cleaning” villages, the answers ranging from mostly shooting at the homes with small or heavy arms, sometimes shooting at those who fled, though mostly we are told they fled under cover of darkness, and sometimes entering the villages to throw grenades into houses. Some of the testimony tries to disconnect the violence perpetrated from the flight of the Palestinians: Yitzchak Tischler insists on saying that places “became empty” after being hit by fire; Esther Boss tells how shocked she was on entering the town of a-Lydd (Lod) to see so many corpses of Palestinian civilians on the streets, but is sure that Israeli loudspeakers calling on the remaining inhabitants in Arabic not to flee. Some witnesses like to distinguish between themselves who “conquered” Palestinian villages and those who came in afterwards to “clean” them. Some say that there was no order to blow up the homes, or that it came only later when Palestinians tried to return to them; others that they blew up homes, burnt crops, and killed camels so that there would be nothing to return to.

Some witnesses find it difficult to speak about certain incidents: Benyamin Eshet is reluctant to say more about what happened to those Palestinians who buried the 120 victims of the Dahamsh mosque massacre in Lydda on 12 July 1948. 10 years earlier he’d been called into the General Security Services offices after talking to a journalist about it. (The report by Guy Erlich was printed in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’ir on 6 May 1992).But through his hesitant and indirect testimony he reports that the buriers were shot. Lyddah was traumatic for Eshet. In contrast, the perpetrator of the massacre, Yerachmiel Kahanovich, seems unabashed when he tells how he shot a Piat anti-tank missile into the mosque’s hall. Only when he recounts his single glance into the building, in which he saw the bodies of all those who had taken shelter in it smeared on the walls, does the camera catch a glimpse of some deeper, troubled emotion in struggling within him to find expression.

For the most part, the perpetrators explain, if not justify, what happened as occurring in the context of a war in which there was no alternative, to clear terrain in case the armies of other Arab states attacked, to ensure a majority in the nascent Jewish State. But there are varying degrees of acknowledgements of ethical questions. Everyone regrets ‘unnecessary’ atrocities. Kahanovich is not proud of all the acts he perpetrated under such conditions. Esther Boss feels responsible for some acts, such as the wanton shooting of a Palestinian kiosk owner, but had no notion of ‘immoral orders’ at the time. Benyamin Eshet says there was no time to talk about what happened at the time, but others such as Yitzhak Tischler remember organised discussions about whether the revenge killings at Balad a-Sheikh on 31 December 1947 were justified. Much of the witnesses’ ethical reflection on the ‘purity of arms’ is displaced onto the issue of looting, of whether refugees were looted in their homes, or as they fled, or if only their abandoned homes were pillaged. In the Biblical tale of the conquest of Ai by Joshua, the first attempt failed because of divine punishment for a single act of pillage when Jericho fell. The conquerors of Palestine in 1948 are similarly clearer about the immorality of looting than of killing and expulsion.

The most telling testimony is the witnesses’ own comparisons of the columns of fleeing Palestinian refugees with Jewish refugees and victims in Europe during the Holocaust. Benyamin Eshet, himself a Holocaust survivor who had only been in Palestine for 1½ years before the war, is particularly haunted by the parallels, but it surfaces in the testimony of Yitzhak Tischler too. Micha Lin says at one point that he is not at peace with himself for the destruction of villages (the children of which he’d played with as a child), even though he’s not sure it could have been otherwise at a time of war. In Hebrew, to be at peace with yourself is to be shalem, to be whole, highlighting the connection between the Hebrew concept of peace, shalom, and wholeness. The Common Archive project, and Zochrot, build towards peace by demanding that Jewish Israelis become at peace with ourselves, to hold together our past and our present, to attempt to make ourselves whole. The exhibition demands not only that we acknowledge and take responsibility for the acts of expulsion and death perpetrated by Israel’s founding generation. It also demands that we reconcile our own traumatic history with the trauma we inflicted on the Palestinians. It is the most painful of reconciliations, to relinquish the role of victim and to accept that of perpetrator, but this is what the exhibition demands; and this is what a just peace demands.

Fostering Peace through Communication and Culture

Now back in Bloomington, Indiana, I’m teaching a class to undergraduate college students about “Images of War and Peace in Israeli Public Culture.” As part of their learning about the history of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism, I devised a simple role play to try to convey a little about how it all stated. Half the class was told on green cards that they belonged to a group of people who were being persecuted in their current homes and felt the need to flee, and believed they had a former home elsewhere. The other group, located in a square of tables, were told on their orange cards that this was their home, and that some other people might want to come too. Each group had to decide what to do, but not necessarily as a single body.

 

It turned out that the Greens were all Zionists – they all wanted to go back to their old home, rather than stay in Russia, or find their America. But these were Zionists with a very different approach. First, they selected several delegates to meet and negotiate with the leaders of the Oranges. They brought coffee, expressed their fondness for the Oranges, their desire to learn the Oranges’ cultural customs, and asked if they had room to take in the persecuted Greens. The Oranges first of all denied they had leaders, asking the Green delegation to address the whole group. They were unsure of the Greens, wanting to know how many of them there were, expressing unease about letting others into their home. But they suggested they could take some of them, following some sort of application process. Between themselves, they’d wondered why the Greens were disliked by other people in their current home, and if they’d bring trouble and danger with them. Once the Green delegation had gone back home, some of the Oranges were suspicious that the visitors had been too nice and friendly. But the majority thought that in any case they needed to get to know the Greens better before they decided what to do. Being American college students, speed-dating seemed like the best way to go about that. When the Greens came back over, their leader was careful to ask the Oranges to run the process. After a couple of rounds of getting to know each other, the Oranges opened the gates, admitting all the Greens without delay or conditions. And once they all got in the space, it seemed cozy rather than crowded.

 

The role play, of course, does not simulate the complexities and messiness of the historical events. There was nobody representing the Ottoman or British empires, no external power controlling the space of the Oranges, or serving as an address for the Greens to turn to. Instead, the Greens and Oranges were positioned as equals, each in control of their destiny. The situation didn’t begin with a few Greens already living in the Orange space, then being joined by a few more, and then by many more – instead, they all came at once. Beyond the dictates of the game, there was no urgency or deep emotion to the process, no sentiments of nationalism, no scars of persecution and domination. So, this role play was a long way from the actuality of the Zionist movement to settle in Palestine.

 

Yet, a direct match with reality matters less than the principles which these students brought to bear on the situation. They may not know that much about world affairs, but they have been educated to approach other people through a prism of cultural respect. They recognize that when meeting new people, it takes time to learn about them, and it helps to be friendly. They understand the importance of communication, both as a group that can build consensus about how to act, and as a group that needs to build a bridge to another group. And if speed-dating works for them, why not try that? After all, it’s an approach that’s close to the straightforward sentiment of the Israel loves Palestine and Palestine loves Israel Facebook communities. Communication and culture, working in tandem to bring people together.

 

How different would the tragic history and present of these two people be if communication and culture had been their guiding principles? Imagine a Zionist movement that sent delegates to the towns and villages of Palestine with a request to come and settle instead of seeking favour with colonial powers or distant Arab autocrats. Imagine a Zionist movement that sent envoys back to the old homeland to find out about its current inhabitants, learning their language, their recipes, their way of life. Imagine a Palestinian people in charge of its land and borders, hearing of the plight of strangers, opening its doors to them and welcoming them into their homes. Imagine the two peoples communicating with each other, and sharing each other’s cultures as equals. That would be to imagine peace.

Opinion Polls and Imaginary Peace

On December 30th 2012 the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published a report by Barak Ravid on some seemingly surprising opinion poll results (followed the next day by an English version of the report). Two parallel polls in December asked the same question about voting intentions in an imagined referendum on a peace agreement along the lines of a two-state solution. What made the poll results newsworthy was that they showed that “most Likud-Beiteinu and the further-right Habayit Hayehudi voters would support a peace agreement establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs and a division of Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, support among the general Israeli public was higher, being significantly higher among voters for the centre-left parties.

As Israeli peace activist Adam Keller writes in his Crazy Country blog, these poll results present a puzzle: “Half of the voters for both these parties are willing in principle to support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but in practice they are about to fill Knesset seats with dozens of extreme right Members as well as those from the even more extreme right, who are completely opposed to even the most petty and cosmetic of concessions.” What are we to make of these people who in an opinion poll say they want one thing (peace) but at the same time declare their intention to intensify occupation? Are they subject to some sort of cognitive dissonance, or suffering from sort of neurotic ailment whereby they deny their own desires by fulfilling the demands of a nationalist super-ego?

Adam Keller’s answer is that “they believe what they had been repeatedly told over the past twelve years: there is no partner, the Palestinians do not want peace, there is no chance for peace, and all talk of peace is a pipe dream.” So, the poll asks the polled to engage in a game of “fantasy peace-making”. It’s not a problem to say you’d agree to a peace agreement when you’re asked to imagine a series of qualifying conditions, as in this case, where support was given to an agreement “whose implementation would take place only after the Palestinians would fulfil all their commitments with an emphasis on fighting terror, and the implementation would be monitored and verified by the United States”. The poll was also conducted in a way that sweetened the deal even further by offering “a number of additional favorable (from an Israeli viewpoint) elements” such as building a strong security fence along the border, disarming Hamas, and a US security guarantee, which increased support for the imagined agreement by about 8%. The basic principles of the agreement without these additional enticements already excluded any Palestinian right of return to Israel (only to the future Palestinian state), as well as consideration of Israel’s security needs in any territory exchanges based on the 1967 lines. (The full details of the polls can be found here).

As reflected in the Ha’aretz headline – “Most rightist Israelis would support Palestinian state, dividing Jerusalem” – the polls were conducted as part of a well-meaning effort to convey a message that most Israelis really do want peace, and so there is still hope for a two-state solution to the conflict, so long as Israelis’ security concerns are addressed. The polls were commissioned by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which “works with leaders and policymakers in the United States and the Middle East to help reach a just and comprehensive peace that will bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” It’s not a grass-roots peace organisation bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to understand and trust each other. The opinion polls are produced for the benefit of the policymakers.

So, what can the policymakers learn from such polls? Not that most Israelis have a deep desire for peace, but that they are happy to play fantasy peace negotiation, in which they deal with themselves about what the right conditions would be to vote “yes” in an imagined referendum. As the Dachaf poll organisation states in its report, among the polled public there is significant “disbelief that the Palestinians will uphold the conditions of peace and especially those elements dealing with security.” The solution then is to present those polled “with a peace plan that fortifies security elements.” The poll doesn’t actually show that most Israelis want peace: it shows that they want “security”.

It is this pursuit of security that is the real fantasy. It is a pursuit of security that seeks solutions in technical, instrumental notions of security: fences, counter-missile missiles, demilitarized zones. It’s the pursuit of security without building peaceful relations with one’s enemy. It’s security that does not secure, because it addresses the needs of only one side. Somehow the Palestinians, most of whom have known Israelis only as military conquerors and occupiers, are supposed to feel secure without the means to defend themselves. It’s a pursuit of security that will bring no peace, because it imagines the enemy will always be an enemy, always need to be held at bay, in check, in a vice. It’s a pursuit of security that will bring no peace to Israel, because it does not bring Israel to be at peace with itself, with its past, with the deep trauma that underlies its insecurity. So, yes, in the meantime it’s fine to be distracted by polls about imaginary peace agreements, so long as nobody asks too closely about what would really make Israelis feel secure, or about what peace really means.

Thankful for the living, not mourning for the dead

Far from the daily tensions and confrontations of Israel, Palestine and occupation, I am spending the Christmas holiday with my niece’s family in rural Leicestershire, England, staying at a bed and breakfast in the hamlet of Teigh. On a morning stroll we did hear some shooting – but this is hunting and farming country. The owner of the bed and breakfast gave us a large, iron key so we could let ourselves into the local church, after telling us a little about the history of the Old Rectory where we are sleeping, as well as of the church and the pattern of landownership and farm tenancy of the estate on which Teigh is built. Patterns of land use and ownership go back centuries, Teigh being mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1085 following the Norman conquest, the Rectorship in the hamlet being continuous since 1238. Holding the heavy key in my hand, I thought of the similar ones held by Palestinian refugees as material symbols of their lost homes, and of their claims to ownership and usage of land that are denied by the Israeli laws since 1948.

 

Teigh church interior

Teigh church interior

 

The small church was unused this Sunday, cold and yet intimate. At the end of the south wall is a brass plaque that says:

THIS TABLET IS ERECTED

TO THE GLORY OF GOD

AND IN THE HUMBLE ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF

HIS MERCIES IN PRESERVING THE LIVES

OF THE ELEVEN MEN AND TWO WOMEN

RESIDENTS OF TEIGH WHO SERVED IN

THE GREAT WAR OF 1914-19I8

Let everything that have breath praise the Lord

Teigh is thus known as a ‘Thankful Village’, for having escaped casualties in that horrendous, murderous war.

 

Plaque in Teigh Church

Plaque in Teigh Church

 

Memorializing those who died in wars is a way to legitimize and sanctify wars, to turn them into acts of collective sacrifice that bind a nation together in conflict with Others. With the passage of time and under conditions of peace, the antagonistic force of such commemoration can be blunted as old enmities give way to new alliances, as between Britain and Germany. But in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, memorialization of the victims of violence for the most part reinvests the emotions and practices of mourning in confrontation between the two peoples. A notable exception is the ‘Alternative Memorial Day’ held by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace in which casualties on both sides are remembered.

But what if instead of investing our energies in commemorating the dead of war and violence, we focused on the living, as in thankful Teigh? What if we chose life rather than death? What if we spent less time sanctifying the fallen, and more time caring for those with whom we share life in the present? If we became less reconciled to the repetition of hostility and more hopeful that routine life will go on, would it become easier to imagine peace rather than expect war? The serenity of the winter countryside is seductive, the warmth of a family holiday immunizing against thoughts of national hostility. It’s easy to overlook the history of conquest in this landscape, never quite forgotten in the inequalities of lands seized and ancient rights erased. Yet, being thankful for the living must, I believe, be a more peaceful practice than memorializing the fallen.

Putting Peace in the Elections Picture?

Hatnu'a election poster: Bibi & Lieberman - disaster; Tzipi Livni - peace.

Hatnu’a election poster: Bibi & Lieberman – disaster; Tzipi Livni – peace.

Israeli electoral politics shift quicker than sand dunes in a storm. At almost the last minute, before the lists of candidates for Israel’s general election for the 19th Knesset on January 22nd 2013, a new electoral slate was established. Tzipi Livni, former, deposed chair of the centrist Kadima party, announced her latest centrist political vehicle, minimally called Hatnua (the movement) on November 27th. Her move made Israel’s political centre even more crowded, competing with not only the sorry remnants of Kadima (most of its remaining members of Knesset switched to join Livini), but also the Labour Party, and Yesh Atid (There is a Future), headed by former media personality Yair Lapid. Yet, Livni’s campaign planning was clearly not last minute, as soon enough billboards, bus stops and buses were bearing Hatnua’s election posters. The basis of the campaign, visually and conceptually, is to focus negatively on the dangers posed by the likely winners, Likud Beitenu, while presenting Livni as a sensible, saner alternative to another term of premiership by Benjamin Netanyahu, as Walla! News has noted.

The most recent of Hatnua’s posters continues the contrasting colour scheme, using alarming black, red and yellow lettering for Likud Beitenu and a gentler font, along with the calmer blue and white national colours, for the text referring to Livni. But it goes one step further, contrasting Netanyahu and Lieberman as a disaster (ason) and associating Livni with peace (shalom). Does this mean that the next Israeli elections will come to focus on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, on ending the occupation? Should we have a little hope that the Israeli electorate will focus for a while on peace, that the growing desperation of Palestinians in the occupied territories will be addressed, that a third intifada will be averted?

For sure, Hatnua’s campaign is designed to distinguish it clearly from the Labour Party, whose leader Shelly Yachimovich is convinced (following the advice of American campaign strategist Stanley Greenberg) that her party’s best chances depend on emphasizing social justice issues in the light of the massive social protests of the summer of 2011, while downplaying diplomatic and security issues. This  strategy is causing consternation in the Labour ranks, according to Ha’aretz, as it doesn’t seem to be working, and also was a significant factor in the defection of a former Labour leader, Amir Peretz, to Livni’s list days after it was set up. Yossi Beilin, a former Deputy Foreign Minister closely associated with the Oslo accords, delivered a scathing, humorous analysis of Yachimovich’s doomed adherence to the campaign strategy, pointing out that each time Labour had won in 1984, 1992 and 1999 it had been on a promise of peace. His address to an audience at an event of the Geneva Initiative was well-received, but the chair of the subsequent election panel about the parties’ political positions on peace and security issues found it hard to pin them down to anything specific.

Hatnua’s election poster doesn’t indicate an opening of political space for peace and the ending of Israeli occupation. Livni is an heir to Kadima’s founder, Ariel Sharon, who established it as a vehicle to drive forward his plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, with the aid of high-level defectors from the Labour Party and much of the business, military and media elite, and as a way of avoiding negotiating further with the Palestinian Authority following the death of Arafat. As Israeli sociologist Lev Grinberg notes in his book Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine, the Gaza “disengagement” signaled the reappearance in Israel of an  ‘imagined peace’, a peace figured as Israel’s separation from Palestine, it’s maintenance of a ‘Jewish democracy’ within (more or less) the 1967 borders. The peace promised on the side of a bus in Tel Aviv is also imaginary, but in a different way that figures peace as diplomatic process, without explaining why renewed talks would succeed this time when they failed previously. The ‘peace’ on the side of the bus remains an empty word, a hope for something better, but not a willingness to engage in the painful, frustrating yet necessary process of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The bus pulled away from the stop just as I photographed it, becoming a dim shape in the Tel Aviv twilight.