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125 Attend “Crisis in Gaza” Public Meeting

Tonight we hosted the Crisis in Gaza event I’ve been promoting here over the past week.  It went extremely well.  There were 125 guests and we raised $800 from attendees and readers of this blog who contributed, which will go toward Gaza charities (after expenses are covered).  Two videographers filmed the event and their work will be uploaded here when it’s edited.

Only a week ago, after consulting local leaders of the Mideast peace activist community, I decided to organize this event.  Through their mailing lists, word of mouth, and social media we whipped the event into shape in an amazingly short period of time.  All I can say is that the magic of e-mail, Facebook, and internet activism made this happen.

I want to thank Rich Lang of University Temple, who graciously offered his church.  Some of those community activists who took the lead in making the event successful were Gerri Haynes of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility,  who will be on her way to Gaza in a few hours; J. Glenn Evans of Poets West; Dick Blakney, Jeff Siddiqui, Randy Urmstrom of St. Mark’s Cathedral, and Judith Kolokoff.

One fascinating aspect of the discussion during Q&A was a debate between Assaf Oron and Naseem Tuffaha about the obstacles that prevent Israelis from accepting a just solution to the conflict.  Oron, who was an IDF refuser and is an anti-Occupation activist, brought up the fear that so many Israelis feel about losing so many of the things they hold dear including a Jewish state in which they hold sovereignty.  He asked Palestinian activists to try to understand and address these fears.  Tuffaha bristled (in a very polite way) at being put into the uncomfortable position of being asked to empathize with the psychological trauma that allows Israelis to continue the Occupation and oppression of his people.

While the debate between two supporters of a progressive approach to the conflict who disagreed on this one issue was difficult, even awkward, I relished seeing ideas playing out in a public setting which I often address here.  While I understood the motivation behind Assaf’s plea, I completely understood how awkward and perhaps unfair was the position into which it put Naseem.

When the video of the meeting is edited, I will post it here so you can see colloquy I’ve summarized.

Assaf also credited Pres. Obama with almost single-handedly preventing an Israeli invasion by pressuring Israel to accept a ceasefire. That thought hadn’t occurred to me. It is possible that behind the scenes the president was working to avert this bloodbath. Given my skepticism of almost everything he does related to the Middle East, it’s hard to credit him with this level of foresight and principle. But it’s distinctly possible that Assaf is right.

The following is the talk I prepared for the meeting in which I focused on the failure of U.S. policy in Gaza and how Gaza might relate to the nuclear impasse with Iran:

Crisis in Gaza: the Failure of U.S. Policy

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex story with many elements, many actors, many roles.  But essentially it is a three-legged stool consisting of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans.  In my own person, I reflect two of those three legs.  Unlike Assaf, my friend who’s speaking here tonight, I am not Israeli.  I am an American Jew.  But by virtue of my upbringing and identity as a Jew, Israel plays a critical role in my life.  Hence, its policies, its security, its well-being are important to me.  It’s why I’ve written my blog, Tikun Olam, daily for the past nine years.

Since I was teenager during the 1967 War, I’ve devoted a major part of my life to envisioning an Israel that was peaceful, democratic and tolerant.  At one time, most American Jews and Israelis shared such a vision.  But gradually what one might call the liberal Zionist dream has been trashed and discarded by far more radical elements within the Zionist camp like the ultra-nationalists who control the Israeli state.

Unlike Israel’s current leaders, I believe the fates of Israeli Jews and Palestinians are inextricably intertwined.  What harms one harms both.  There is no way one can succeed or triumph unless the other does.  If one fails, so will the other.  In short, they will live together or die together.

There are many reasons why I do what I do and write what I write.  Among them, I want the American people and their leaders to know that there are American Jews who are not apologists for the worst excesses of the current Israeli government.  I also want American Jews to know that if their leadership or organizations want to become reflexive defenders of the Netanyahu government, there are those in the community who will not allow them to have a political monopoly.  Finally, I want Israelis to know that there are American Jews who care about Israel deeply, but who will not stand idly by while this country sells its birthright for a mess of porridge; while it tramples on democratic values and massacres Palestinians and their supporters, whether Arab or American.

I’m here to tell you something you already know: American and Israeli policy in Gaza is an utter failure.  Every argument offered by Pres. Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu to justify the siege and recurring series of wars and assaults is wrong on its face.  Some of you may’ve seen Yousef Munayyer’s op-ed in the N.Y. Times yesterday, in which he offered the same argument.  I was thankful to read such a view in the pages of that august establishment paper which generally follows a liberal Zionist line in its reporting on the conflict.

The Gaza siege is not only a violation of international law, which prohibits collective punishment of a civilian population, it doesn’t even serve a purely pragmatic purpose in Israeli terms.  There are two arguments offered in its favor: that it stops terror attacks against Israel; and that its counters the popularity of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.

The recent assault, called by the euphemistic Biblical term Pillar of Cloud or Pillar of Defense, proved that Hamas has been able to arm itself despite the siege.  It also proved that the siege, if anything, has strengthened Hamas’ hand in Gaza politically, not weakened it.  By almost every account, the latest crisis has rendered Fatah and the PA irrelevant to the Palestinians.  Which suits Israel just fine, since it wants no viable representative of the Palestinian people with whom it might have to compromise or negotiate.

Since 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections, Israel and the U.S. have boycotted it, refusing to speak to it or recognize it.  This meant that despite weighty matters in which both sides have an interest–like the Shalit prisoner exchange, or negotiating ceasefires during Operation Cast Lead and last week, neither Israel nor the U.S. would speak to one of the key interlocutors.  Instead, Egypt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, became the go-to party negotiating such deals.  This had the effect of amplifying the prestige of a government neither the U.S. nor Israel feel terribly fond of.  All because we won’t talk to Hamas.

The announced terms of the ceasefire this week showed possible cracks in the facade Israel and the U.S. erected regarding Hamas.  Not only did Israel agree to unrestrained movement in the border zone, it agreed to relaxing restrictions on Gaza fishermen and to end the siege.  In truth, it offered to change these procedures through a process of negotiation led by Egypt which, just now, is a bit distracted with a domestic drama of its own.

Hamas has announced that meetings have already occurred to expedite these changes, though Israel refuses to concede any changes are imminent.  Yesterday’s N.Y. Times notes that fisherman today violated the three-mile zone imposed upon them by the Israeli navy and no one stopped them.

2,000 Gazans celebrated their newly won freedom to move within the Israeli imposed no-go zone on the border.  The IDF promptly rewarded them with rounds of bullets which killed a 20-year-old farmer and wounded ten others.  Israel has paid a heavy price in the court of public opinion for murdering unarmed civilians.

We don’t know exactly what was agreed to by the parties negotiating this ceasefire, which included Israel, Hamas, Egypt and the U.S.  There may’ve been secret side deals which guarantee changes in, or the lifting of the siege.

If so, it can’t happen a moment too soon.  As Israeli Gen. Giora Eiland said in the pages of Haaretz at the height of the mayhem, the only productive policy for Israel is to recognize Hamas as rulers of Gaza; to end the siege; and to demand accountability from Hamas for policing its territory and stopping rockets.

This is precisely the sort of pragmatism scorned in policymaking circles both in Israel and the U.S., which is dominated instead by fantasists and ideologues.  Among them, I’m sorry to say is Pres. Obama.  Ever since he failed to compel Israel to freeze West Bank settlements, he’s withdrawn from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In truth, he wouldn’t have even made the effort he did to secure a ceasefire if he hadn’t been forced to do so by the prospect of an Israeli invasion that might drag the entire region further into chaos.

bibi gaza iran

Mana Neyestani

A possible invasion threatened even more important U.S. foreign policy initiatives like resolving the nuclear impasse with Iran.  I’ve made the argument in my blog, first offered to me by my friend, Dick Blakney, who is here tonight, that Obama was as supportive as he was toward Israel, defending its right to attack Gaza, because he wanted to build up credits with Israelis and the Israel lobby in this country, when he took a more conciliatory approach toward Iran.It’s probably a losing proposition to bet on Barack Obama, who I call the Democratic Kissinger, putting forward a principled, far-sighted proposal to resolve outstanding differences between the two nations.  But we might expect him to adopt some less-sweeping ideas that might lessen tension and the chance that western nations might go to war over Iran’s nuclear program.

Even a scaled down U.S. agenda anything less than draconian will anger the Likud government and its Congressional allies.  That may be one good reason Obama kept his powder dry throughout the Gaza hostilities, appearing to back the IDF to the hilt, to the consternation of us all.

There are those who argue both in Israel and elsewhere that the Gaza assault was a test run for an Israeli attack on Iran.  An article in the N.Y. Times somewhat ominously compared the massacre in Gaza to Nazi Germany’s military support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, which became a dress rehearsal for World War II.

The Iranian graphic artist, Mana Neyestani drew a cartoon featuring a phantom image of Bibi during his General Assembly speech, holding up that ridiculous drawing of an exploding cannon ball that was supposed to be Iran’s nuclear weapon.  The image of Bibi dissolves into warheads dropping onto Gaza as if the two conflicts merge into each other visually.

I’m afraid, my friends, we have to wage this war for peace on two fronts: one in Gaza and the other Iran.  It makes it very hard for us because no sooner do we stop one bit of mayhem than we have to face the prospect of another.

But I am confident that in the long run, history bends an arc toward the just and not the powerful.  We have only faced the Gaza siege for six years, the Israeli Occupation for 45 years, and the Nakba for 64.  No one thought the Berlin Wall would fall, nor that the Soviet Union would implode.  No one thought peace could come to Northern Ireland, nor that Kosovo would become independent or that the siege of Sarajevo would ever end.  In 1954, would any African-American have dreamed they could vote, run for office, or become President by 2008?  Could any white Southern segregationist of that era have imagined the changes that have transpired since in that region?  Who would’ve thought a year ago that Aung San Suu Kyi would be free and Pres. Obama would be visiting Burma, the first U.S. president to do so?

We have to be optimists despite the immense suffering Gaza has endured.  Such injustice cannot continue forever.  There is a scientific principle that given a choice between a simple and complicated proof of a problem, the simpler answer is always right.  This is also true in politics.  A status quo that is contorted into moral knots cannot long survive.  Eventually it will collapse under the weight of its own lies and inconsistencies.  Simple basic truths and realities will triumph.

Eventually there will be justice.  There will be Palestine.  Hamas will be recognized.  The siege will end.  Not because Israel will want it, but because common sense and pragmatism will force the world to understand that it must be this way.  The alternative is endless war, bodies stacked like cord wood, and a barren, desolate Middle East that drags the rest of the world into the maelström. That’s something no one wants.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • mary November 26, 2012, 5:17 AM
    • Assaf November 26, 2012, 7:50 AM

      Mary,

      It is unsurprising that the news outlet of the Islamic Council of Britain (which is the link you provide) gives Morsi most of the credit. Morsi certainly played a role, and Egypt was the official host of negotiations.

      But to explain the stopping of this operation far earlier than Israel had intended, and especially the quickness with which ceasefire was achieved – you need a much greater power, one that has substantial leverage on Israel. We have just witnessed a rare event: the last time an Israeli military adventure has been diplomatically stopped before Israel felt comfortable with stopping it, was 1957 when Eisenhower demanded Israeli troops leave Sinai and Gaza.

      Moreover, Bibi’s government has been derisive and even hostile to the Arab Spring in general, and to the Egyptian version with its Muslim Brotherhood electoral victories in particular. Getting some heated rhetoric and even threats from Egypt, fitted perfectly into Bibi’s plan to milk this operation for political gain. When you add the fact the Morsi is a political rookie who obviously still has no grasp the meaning of his role even in Egypt’s domestic realm, as we are witnessing right now, and the fact that all other major players – the leaderships of the US, Israel and Hamas – are savvy political foxes, explaining the ceasefire as a predominantly Egyptian feat becomes nothing short than fantastical.

      Meanwhile, Obama even as he embraced much of Israel’s rhetoric on the operation, was clear from the start that he is against a ground invasion and is helping work on a ceasefire. He also sent Secretary Clinton (whose rhetoric was even worse, btw), apparently asking her to keep hopping from Jerusalem to Cairo until a deal is reached. Like in the domestic realm, it is Obama’s signature move to grant his adversaries rhetorical points (and Bibi is no friend of his, to put it mildly), then use the leverage to score policy victories.

      As Richard later pointed out during the discussion, Obama has American interests in view, rather than those of the anti-war community, and certainly not those of Palestinians. It would be naive to expect that Obama will now become the driving force for, say, ending the Occupation. However, I will take a rare early ceasefire that has saved hundreds, possibly thousands of lives, and will be grateful for it. It is also an indication that the US-Israel-Palestine dynamics during Obama’s second term might be far more favorable than the first-term dynamics, a realistic assumption to begin with.

      As a bonus, we now have war criminal Ehud Barak out of political life – at least until further notice.

      • mary November 26, 2012, 8:19 AM

        Thank you, Assaf, for taking the time to write such a clear and well explained response. I think that those of us living in the region (I live in Cairo) are hoping that there will be a stronger Arab voice in ending the occupation, and we were very encouraged by Morsi’s efforts, not to mention his many gestures of solidarity with Palestine. I have no doubt that Morsi told Obama that if no ceasefire was reached, the US would “lose Egypt forever.” And this would certainly have been true, but not only would the US lose Egypt, but Morsi would lose the Egyptian people.

        Now, believing he had the people fully supporting him, he has caused another political crisis in Egypt, provoking worldwide criticism which could cost Egypt billions of dollars in loans and business. Here in Egypt, it’s one step forward, two steps back. But Morsi also has brought a focus on Palestine that wasn’t there before; he called in his cronies in Tunisia, Turkey and Qatar and helped pull Hamas out of the political shadows.

  • pabelmont November 26, 2012, 5:51 AM

    I would like to think that Obama (and Clinton and Rice. yes, all those whose job-description is to do the President’s bidding) had a hand in restraining Israel. But I cannot know, nor can the rest of us. Yet. Obama is still dodging AIPAC’s bullets, and AIPAC and its mind-set still controls Congress.

    Therefore, Richard, before you distribute the money you raised to Gaza charities, take due note of the Muslim folks who gave to Gazan charities and are now in USA’s jails for aiding terrorists. The USA (and its seemingly AIPAC-controlled prosecution service within DoJ) is a force to be reckoned with. I recommend giving the money to a USA charity such as ANERA which seems to know how to dodge the AIPAC-determined bullets.

    And let’s all work to get Hamas taken off the USA’s various lists of terrorist organizations (like the Iran-regime-opposing MEK which was or is being taken off those lists).

  • Assaf November 26, 2012, 8:11 AM

    Richard,

    Thank you for putting together so quickly, such a well-attended meeting. And thank you for inviting me. Being cast into the role of “a spokesman for Zionism” was a bit disorienting (for the record: I did not try to be one), but also amusing.

    I also thank the moderator Jafar ”Jeff” Siddiqui, who led the discussion with a calm and able hand, and helped clarify that the three speakers on the podium agree about all the core principles and issues with respect to Israel-Palestine. At some moments one might have gotten a different impression, and that is a bit worrisome.

    For a while I have been worried about purism and purity purges in the anti-war, anti-Occupation Israel-Palestine community. Our community has experienced very few victories over the years. But whenever a modest victory is scored, the purists – who, at any given point in time, are a minority even within this small community – raise their heads and demand 100% adherence from everyone else.

    A classic case in point are the failed or semi-failed attempts for Israel boycotts at various food co-ops in Western Washington. From a purist perspective, a strong case can be made that only a total boycott of Israeli products is perfectly self-consistent. I will not dispute the case here, it is a waste of space. Rather, I will just point out that a *far* broader and more solid public coalition can be forged around boycotts of settlement products only. Moreover, even the official US position opposes the settlements, and it is far harder for the Jewish Establishment to malign such a boycott. The political effect of a settlement-only boycott is almost identical to that of a blanket boycott. Finally, this is taking place in the US, where the current situation is of a general public basically sympathetic to Israel, and a political system that backs anything Israel does.

    And yet, in each of the 3 cases of which I’m aware of, boycott organizers have been fooled by the purity police (or by their own wish for purity), and attempted a blanket boycott of all Israeli products.

    To put this in plain terms: purism, at least in the way it has played out in Israel-Palestine activism, will get us nowhere. And you are hearing that from someone whom mainstream Israelis and the Diaspora-Jewish establishment has long ago branded as a hopelessly purist leftist who “sides with our enemies” etc. etc.

    Richard, thanks again :)

    Assaf

  • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy November 26, 2012, 10:45 AM

    I was one of those in attendance and also asked a couple of questions I posetd here before the event. Richard talked about one but not the other. You might find this talk by Henry Herskovitz interesting:
    If the link does not work, please google “The Role of Jews in the Palestine Solidarity Movement” by Henry Herskovitz
    http://archive.org/details/scm-24282-roleofjewsinthepalestiniansoli

    Role of Jews in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement : moralpolitics …

    ►► archive.org/…/scm-24282-roleofjewsinthepalestinianso…
    May 9, 2012
    Henry Herskovitz addressed elusive “Jewish Community Accountability.” He spoke at a Palestine Peace

  • Addison Bross November 26, 2012, 1:28 PM

    “So many Israelis feel [fear] about losing so many of the things they hold dear including a Jewish state in which they hold sovereignty. [Assaf Oron] asked Palestinian activists to try to understand and address these fears.”

    I can understand why a Palestinian activist might “bristle” on hearing this plea for “understanding.” So one faction of a population, then, has grown accustomed to possessing a form of “sovereignty” (i.e., domination) that severely limits the lives of another faction, ultimately depriving them of many of the needs of life and subjecting them to an apartheid system. This sovereignty, it seems, includes even the right to identify a multicultural, multi-ethnic group of people as strictly a Jewish state. And when this dominant faction feels fear at the prospect of giving up this blatantly unjust position . . . then the subjected faction must try to understand this fear and to “address” it? The victim, then, must take on the task of placating its overlord?

    Isn’t it rather the duty of the dominant faction to discover the injustice on which this threatened “sovereignty” has long been based and to reject it? Isn’t the present moment rather one in which the Israelis should see their opportunity to correct 60+ years of brutal injustice, to renounce such an evil structure that is morally diminishing Israelis themselves, and to embrace a program of restitution and reconciliation?

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy November 26, 2012, 4:36 PM

      Thanks very much, Addison for your question. You are making a big assumption that some have moral clarity based on JUSTICE! See how far Jews go after the still-living Natzis to make them pay back for their crimes versus how SOME of those very people ask the Palestinians to address the FEAR of the criminals who did and still do all of that to them!! If this is not an indication of a sick mentality, I do not know what is.

      • Addison Bross November 27, 2012, 5:12 PM

        Actually, Ibrahim, my assumption was only rhetorical. By putting it out there I didn’t mean to imply that the Zionists had any level of moral clarity or have been willing to entertain the question of justice, to consider the rights of the Palestinian people, or to care at all about world opinion. This rhetorical ploy was meant only to bring out the point you have in fact made by answering my question. Thanks for your response.

        And many thanks to Richard for making the video of this truly valuable, informative event available to us.

  • dickerson3870 November 26, 2012, 7:24 PM

    RE: “Assaf also credited Pres. Obama with almost single-handedly preventing an Israeli invasion by pressuring Israel to accept a ceasefire.” ~ R.S.

    FROM ‘THE GUARDIAN’, 11/21/12:

    [EXCERPT] Barack Obama heaped praise on Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire plan and offered increased US funding to beef up Israel’s air defence batteries.
    The White House, in an unusual twist, highlighted that Netanyahu had followed Obama’s advice, which was to accept the ceasefire deal. . .

    SOURCE – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/21/obama-netanyahu-egyptian-ceasefire-plan

    • Bob Mann November 26, 2012, 7:44 PM

      It’s not such an unusual twist. The US basically controls Israeli foreign policy.

      • Richard Silverstein November 27, 2012, 2:05 AM

        Really? Is that why Obama is scared shitless he’s gonna wake up some morning & see video of Israeli F-16s bombing Natanz?

        • mary November 27, 2012, 8:38 AM

          US foreign policy is directed by the AIPAC-controlled Congress, Bob. Of course you know that. As for Israel, it’s a loose cannon. It has only one foreign policy, and that is to attack and destroy all enemies, real and imagined.

  • Linda November 29, 2012, 12:09 PM

    While I am as deeply disappointed in Obama as you, Richard, and others express to be, I remember Obama’s efforts to compel Israel to freeze West Bank settlements as being undone by his own democrat-majority Congress. My guess is that “the Dems” told him to back off.
    First came the Bayh-Risch letter from the Senate http://blogs.jta.org/politics/article/2009/08/10/1007157/bayh-risch-letter-tops-70-but-more-than-half-of-jewish-senators-dont-sign, followed by a House version. Those letters stated that THE cause of impasse in the conflict was due to the refusal of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. There was virtually NO mention of the role of settlements and especially the increase in settlement activity underway as a factor (whereas several previous US gov’t comments about settlements even called them THE biggest obstacle to peace …I think that was James Baker who called settlements THE major issue). FYI and in case anyone finds this useful (e.g. to remind their Congressional “representatives” about traditional US view on settlemets), here’s a link to FMEP’s Statements on American Policy toward Settlements by U.S. Government Officials – 1968-2009
    http://www.fmep.org/analysis/analysis/israeli-settlements-in-the-occupied-territories