E. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen from Europe
E1. Are there any organisations in Europe which fight for Palestinian rights in the same way that JCall defends the rights of Israelis?
Unfortunately in Europe those self-proclaimed ‘pro-Palestinian’ organisations do not share the same approach as JCall, regarding the simultaneous recognition of both the legitimate rights of Israeli Jews and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian Arab people. The principle of equal rights is asserted by the Palestinian organisations that belong to the Forum of NGOs for Peace, and is supported by the United States by the American Task Force on Palestine. The principle of ‘two states for two peoples’ is not only an answer to what is best for Israelis, but also – and just as importantly – to what is best for Palestinians. We believe that those amongst the European pro-Palestinian activists who persist in denying national rights to Israelis endanger the interests of both sides and the cause of peace.
We are categorically opposed to all calls to boycott Israel. Firstly, such calls are counter-productive: since they have no real impact on the commercial economy of Israel, they have no effect in terms of persuading the Israeli government to change policy – but nonetheless they risk persuading Israeli citizens that any change of policy is pointless because ‘the whole world is against us.’ These calls to boycott have a perverse effect: when they take aim at cultural and intellectual production, as is increasingly the case, they weaken those very artists and intellectuals who are often the greatest defenders of the rights of Palestinians. And finally, these boycott calls reflect an unhealthy obsession with Israel, which is the only country targeted in this way, even though there are other countries that are just as blameworthy which are strangely ignored by these boycotters.
It can happen that a criticism directed at the state of Israel can be unjustly considered anti-Semitic – both because those who unconditionally support the Israeli government wish to undermine all criticism of Israel by any means available, and also because Jews often feel so threatened by such criticism that they truly experience it as anti-Semitism. Whatever the case, such an accusation is unacceptable if it is not based on facts. However, we cannot ignore the fact that anti-Semites often use anti-Israel speech as a pretext for spreading hate against Jews. Greater vigilance in this respect, on the part of those critics of Israel who are genuinely acting out of antiracist concerns, would help to create a more healthy public debate.
Zionism, as a Jewish national movement, is no less legitimate than the Palestinian national movement. To the extent that we wish to distance ourselves from certain Israeli political movements that claim to be Zionist, we have to debate its meaning. But it is essential to remember that any generalisation about ‘Zionism’ is meaningless, given that it is a movement that has been active for more than a century and embraces dozens of movements that conflict and disagree. Yitzhak Rabin was as much a Zionist – we believe more so – as those extremists who opposed him. The activists of the Israeli movement Peace Now, which fights the pernicious effects of settlements in the West Bank, are also acting in the name of Zionism.
Although it is legitimate to criticise Zionism, the anti-Zionist vocabulary is often suspect and reveals genuine anti-Semitic tendencies: the word ‘Zionist’ serves to conceal the word ‘Jew,’ and ‘Zionism’ is another way of saying ‘international Jewish conspiracy.’ It is undeniable that deeply anti-Semitic opinions go completely unchallenged in certain milieus, for the simple reason that they are disguised as anti-Zionism. Such opinions must be denounced, independent of any position with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anyone who wishes in good faith to criticise Israeli politics should be able to do so without needing to resort to anti-Zionism. All they need to say, clearly and concretely, is that they are criticising the Israeli government and its leaders.
To deny the existence of the Jewish people indicates both ignorance of the facts and a desire to deny the right of the state of Israel to exist. Jewish identity, like that of all the peoples of the world, is a complex reality based on shared history and culture, and a common fate. Whatever the conditions in which the Jewish people came to be, it is both just and necessary to recognise their fundamental rights. Just as the Palestinian people deserve this recognition, it would be strange to deny it to the Jewish people.
E7. Do you think that the international community should impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Peace will come about between both sides in the presence of their governments. The role of the international community is to facilitate dialogue between the two sides, to propose solutions to both sets of leaders, to urge them to make the necessary compromises. The international community must also create the conditions which will ensure the opening of negotiations which will lead to a lasting peace: any treaty will almost certainly include a clause which will call for the temporary deployment of an international peace-keeping force or international observers, as well as economic assistance, in order to deal with issues arising for the descendants of refugees.
E8. Do the European Union and its member states have a specific role to play in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian accord?
Because of both geographical proximity and historical relationships, the countries of Europe are well placed to serve as intermediaries between Israelis and Palestinians, and to establish an international programme to build a stable and peaceful Middle East. In addition, a healthy relationship between Israel, the future state of Palestine and the European Union will open up new possibilities of development in the entire region. However, for such a project to come to fruition, it is essential that Europe and its member states avoid trying to give lessons, for it will not be possible to contribute to negotiations without having the trust of both parties. The peoples of the Middle East do not want moralising lessons or critical speeches, but positive perspectives on a shared future. That is the task of European diplomacy.
D. Ensure peace, promote coexistence
We in no way underestimate the dangers that Israel faces from enemies beyond its borders. But the dangers within, resulting from the occupation and the uninterrupted expansion of the settlements in the West Bank, are no less worrying. Soon Israel will face a disastrous choice: either become a state where Jews are a minority in their own country, or put in place a discriminatory regime which dishonours Israel and will transform it into an arena of civil war. Contrary to what some believe, time is not in Israel’s favour. The two-state solution is the condition for the survival of Israel, and we must not let it slip through our fingers. It is not a question of whether or not to make concessions, but of ensuring Israel’s future.
A peace treaty will include precise details and arrangements concerning Israel’s security. Any withdrawal from the Palestinian territories must be accompanied by strict measures that will ensure the genuine demilitarisation of the Palestinian state and will prevent terrorist organisations from threatening Israel’s security. Of course, nothing can guarantee that the signing of a treaty will put an end to all such risks, and the best guarantee of the security of Israelis remains its military strength. But the same could be said for any country in the world.
D3. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. A short time later, Hamas took power in Gaza and turned it into a hotbed for terrorism. Isn’t that proof that the withdrawal from the occupied territories puts Israel’s security at risk?
It is certainly true that the current government of Israel has not brought about peace, and that in the absence of a peaceful solution acts of violence will not cease. The occupation has never prevented terrorism. In addition, the fact that the withdrawal from Gaza was undertaken unilaterally, rather than in negotiation with the Palestinian Authority, reinforced the strength of Hamas, who convinced the Palestinians that they had forced Israel to withdraw. It is a lesson worth learning from.
There is no miracle solution, and peace (for which the absence of terrorist attacks is a crucial element) will only be achieved in the long term, following an agreement between the representatives of both sides. That being said, the Palestinian Authority has largely respected the security agreement signed with Israel, and has managed to prevent terrorist attacks from taking place on the land under its control. This is the result of a principle of reciprocity in the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, even though it is both partial and fragile. It is also a result of the fact that it is the Palestinian interest to be governed by a regime that can ensure order and stability. The same logic could be applied in the future, and in a stronger manner, once Israelis and Palestinians have reached a peace agreement that leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
D5. Do the divisions between various Palestinian factions make a peace agreement with the Israelis impossible?
The Palestinian Authority has certainly been weakened by the internecine violence stoked by Hamas gaining power in Gaza in 2007. It is legitimate to ask today who can claim to speak for the Palestinian people. However, the worst possible alternative is to leave things as they currently stand. Today we must fight for change and put in place the conditions for a future agreement.
D6. Is it conceivable that Israel will negotiate with a Palestinian delegation that includes representatives of Hamas?
The Islamist ideology of Hamas, its permanent incitements to anti-Jewish hatred and its aggression towards Israel are unacceptable. However, Israel has already negotiated indirectly with Hamas – for example there have been various ceasefires in Gaza as well as the release of Gilad Shalit. A Palestinian delegation that recognises the right of Israel to exist, renounces terrorism and agrees to honour past accords is the Israeli precondition for any negotiation to end the conflict.
D7. Does the existence of settlements in the West Bank inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Israelis make the idea of Israeli withdrawal from these territories impossible?
Israel has in the past evacuated settlements in Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the northern part of the West Bank. Certainly as things stand the populations concerned are much larger and their displacement will have a human cost that cannot be ignored. However the exchange of land on a like for like basis, in the context of a peace agreement, means that a majority of those Israelis who live today beyond the Green Line (the border up until 1967), in the main settlement blocs, will not be concerned by a withdrawal because they will live on land that will become part of Israel. Amongst those who will have to be rehoused, we believe that most of them will leave of their own volition, in exchange for adequate compensation, or will make a symbolic protest. Die-hard opponents will have to give into the democratic rule of law and will not be allowed to dictate the decisions made by Israel concerning its future.
The international agreement demands that the countries recognise each other’s existence, but not their respective ‘identities.’ Israel’s demand for an a priori recognition as a Jewish state is recent in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation – Israel signed treaties with both Egypt and Jordan without demanding such recognition. From the point of view of the Palestinians, the demand that they recognise Israel as a Jewish state returns to the disagreement at the heart of the conflict; such a recognition will be agreed to at the very end of negotiations, and an a priori recognition would block the entire process. A two state solution implies that the Palestinians recognise the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders, within which Israel will continue to define itself as the majority of its citizens wish.
During the fighting that pitted Arab forces against Jewish forces, in the 1948 war, some Palestinians fled their homes and others were chased from theirs. It was a tragedy, analogous to those vast forced displacements of populations which marked the wars of the 20th century. The only possible response is to establish an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, widen it to an Israeli-Arab peace agreement, supported by the international community. This would not comprise a mass return to Israel: such demands envisage piling injustice upon injustice, and maintaining a permanent conflict which some hope will lead to the eventual destruction of the state of Israel but which is more likely to lead to widespread massacre. All the genuine projects of resolution, such as the Geneva Initiative, envisage that the Palestinians will receive indemnities and will be able to choose to live permanently in the state of Palestine; if they wish to live in another country, Israel included, it will be up to that country to agree.
They are Israelis (excluding the special case of the Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem who, in the context of a peace agreement, will be accorded the status of Palestinian citizens) with exactly the same status as their Jewish fellow-citizens, bearing in mind that the reality of that legal equality is sometimes breached and demands permanent vigilance in order that human rights be protected and social justice maintained. The creation of a Palestinian state bordering the state of Israel, in peaceful co-existence with Israel, will lead to the gradual reduction of tensions that have become more acute during the last decades between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.
C. Peace is both urgent and possible
Just as it is essential to defend the fundamental rights of both individuals and of an entire people, it is equally important to accept that a ‘property right’ over a land must be considered with circumspection. The claims made by both Jews and Arabs are understandable on a human level: the latter claim exclusive rights over both Ramallah and Jaffa, and the former claim exclusive rights over both Tel Aviv and Hebron. Each side insists that their rights are superior, or the only ones. But such a comparison of rights is pointless and becomes an obstacle to the search for a solution. The way forward depends on replacing this competition with the reciprocal recognition of the right of the other to live in independence, peace and security. This is the logic of the idea of ‘two states for two peoples’ which is at the heart of JCall’s activity.
A single state would be an artificial entity, which would not be lasting and would end in a bloodbath. Everything, or almost everything, separates these two peoples: history, religion, culture and language. Each of these peoples aspires to self-determination. After long decades of fighting, it is impossible to imagine that either side would accept a single state, when other national entities, who have infinitely more in common – Czechs and Slovaks, or Serbs and Croats – have rejected such a solution. Furthermore, socio-economic disparities between the two populations are so significant that a one state solution would see the Arab population permanently relegated to an inferior status, creating an explosive situation. A one state solution is an illusion that would probably lead to a confrontation that would never end.
C3. Does the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ signify a position of principle or a detailed project?
The details of a political agreement based on the principle of ‘two states for two peoples’ were elaborated over a decade ago with the 2001 ‘Clinton Parameters’ and the Taba Summit. These details were subsequently formalised, after two years of negotiations, by a working group known as the Geneva Initiative, made up of high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials. The members of this working group wanted, without intending to stand in for Israeli or Palestinian leaderships, to show that Israeli and Palestinian patriots were able to agree on a reasonable compromise position that would assure the future of both peoples. In fact, during various negotiations between Israel (under successive governments) and the Palestinian Authority, negotiators consistently used methods similar to those outlined by the Geneva Initiative. If Israeli and Palestinian leaders have failed to come to an agreement, it is not due to any lack of legal formulations or detailed maps, but to an absence of political will.
The document which was made public on 1st December 2003 by the Geneva Initiative is based on the principle of the coexistence of two independent states, the state of Israel and the state of Palestine, with full diplomatic relations, each recognising the sovereignty and territorial independence of its neighbour, with specific clauses ensuring the security of the state of Israel. The borders are based on the 1967 ‘Green Line’, with minor adjustments to be made by an exchange of territories with equivalent surface, meaning that the large majority of Israelis who today live beyond the ‘Green Line’ would not have to move, since the land where they live today would become part of Israel as part of a territorial exchange. The city of Jerusalem would be the subject of its own agreement, whose terms would agree that each state would have it as its own capital – the state of Israel in Jewish Jerusalem, the state of Palestine in Arab Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees could choose to live in the future state of Palestine, and they would receive indemnities; if they wish to live in a different country, including Israel, that country would decide. The final agreement would bring a definitive end to all claims, territorial or other, between the two sides.
The Oslo Accords, signed on 13th September 1993, were not a definitive peace agreement between the state of Israel and the Palestinians but an intermediary agreement. Based on the principle of mutual recognition, the Accords were part of a process of reconciliation that was intended to end in a definitive end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict five years later. The basic error was to focus on questions of procedure, leaving the most difficult questions till the end. Each partner blamed the other side for delays, blockages and violations in the process: acts of terrorism on the one hand, resumption of settlement building on the other. The impasse was neither inevitable nor irreversible.
The great hope inspired by the Oslo Accords was replaced by disillusion, and the two sides stopped believing that they had a trustworthy partner with whom they could negotiate. Since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, no negotiation towards a definitive peace agreement has been completed. However, whatever one thinks of the Oslo Accords, they have left one precious legacy: the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which remains committed to a two-state solution. The Israeli government must negotiate with the PA to find a solution, as long as it remains possible.
It is certainly true that the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the continuation of the occupation of the West Bank by Israel and the increase of settlements in the Occupied Territories, and the activism of Palestinian organisations advocating terrorism and the destruction of the state of Israel, have promoted discouraging attitudes. However, amongst both Israelis and Palestinians, the formula ‘two states for two peoples’ is still supported by a clear majority. But time is running out. The need for a solution is more urgent than ever.
B. JCall, Jews and Israel
Instead of them, no; alongside them, yes. Though the decision ultimately lies with the people of Israel, diaspora Jews must show their solidarity by actively supporting them in making the right decision. When Israelis are unsure of the way forward, Jews and friends of Israel must help guide them.
Without in any way contesting the legitimacy of Jewish institutions, we distance ourselves from those organisations that align themselves systematically with the Israeli government. We insist on the right and the duty of European Jews to express an independent point of view when Israeli politics are damaging to the interests of the Jewish state. With this in mind, our intention is to participate in open dialogue with European Jewish institutions.
JCall wants to participate within the context of the broader Jewish community in order to encourage reason to prevail over passion. Jewish communities are not monolithic. There have been differences of opinion regarding Israel since the state of Israel was founded, indeed since the birth of Zionism. Debating these differences is entirely in keeping with our tradition and ultimately reinforces the cohesion of the Jewish people.
There is plenty of evidence that our fundamental position is shared with a great number of European Jews. There are those who believe that any criticism of the Israeli government plays into the hands of those who deny the right of the state of Israel to exist. But by broadening the debate, we show that it is possible to defend the vital interests of the state of Israel without falling into the trap of blindly accepting the actions of its government.
J Street defines itself as the ‘political home of Americans who are pro-Israel and pro-peace.’ Our activities are similar, and we have the following relationship: we are represented at their meetings, and they are represented at ours. However our context is different, and there is no official link between the two organisations.
In Britain a separate organisation called Yahad has been set up, which similarly defines itself as ‘pro-Israel, and pro-peace.’ In continental Europe, JCall is a federal organisation, whose remit is to represent every citizen who supports our position.
JCall distances itself from partisan politics. We wish to engage in dialogue with European governments and institutions and to promote diplomatic initiatives with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, in order to work towards a resolution to the conflict that will find favour with both sides.
Some of us, though not all, call ourselves Zionists, but we all share the belief that Zionism is a movement of national emancipation, and that with the creation of the state of Israel the Jewish people gained the right to self-determination. We believe in the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to the same recognition and the same right to self-determination, without bringing into question the rights of Israelis to live in safety within their borders.
If the state of Israel exists, it is primarily because Jews from all over the world, identifying with the Zionist movement, established a new society in the country. We can discuss ad infinitum the conditions in which the Jewish presence was established and the impact on the Arab population of the country. But it is a fact that today two people live in this land, each with a history, a culture and a collective will. The legitimacy of the Israeli state, like the legitimacy of the future Palestinian state, is based on the right of both peoples to decide their own destiny.