How the settlers win, how the peace camp loses: Lessons from Amona

Settlers vs. Israeli security forces, Amona 2006.
Female settler goes up against Israeli security forces in West Bank settlement outpost of Amona, February 1, 2006. Photo: AP/Oded Balilty

That mob of teenage settlers in Amona throwing rocks and bleach at the police on Wednesday was another illustration, another reminder of why tyranny has triumphed in Israel and liberalism is powerless: because the tyrants – the settlers and their supporters – are willing to fight, and we liberals aren’t.

That’s the story of the settler movement from the beginning – they gather their forces to break the law, to raise hell, to scream and cry and curse, to physically assault Israeli police and soldiers, to make their removal so arduous and to use their “agony” as emotional blackmail against Israeli Jews and their leaders, until they get their way. Amona, built illegally on private Palestinian-owned land according to one Israeli High Court of Justice ruling after another, took a decade to evacuate. And in return for their so-called pain and sacrifices, the settlers will get reimbursed by the Netanyahu government many, many, many times over.

They make me sick, these brainwashed fascists who’ve taken over the country – but I can’t help but envy them. If the peace camp had shown a fraction of their daring, of their commitment, maybe we could have given the occupation a fight. If we had mobilized crowds to physically block settlement construction, if we’d been willing to go to jail, to fight the cops and soldiers, to fight the settlers, maybe the Right wouldn’t have rolled over this country like it has. Even if we would have lost – and who knows if we would have? – at least we would have put up a struggle.

But we haven’t. With no more than a handful of exceptions, the Jewish Left in Israel doesn’t fight, doesn’t go to jail, doesn’t break the law, doesn’t disturb the peace in any way. Even if we could get hundreds of thousands of people into the street today (which is a joke), it wouldn’t make any impression on Netanyahu and the Right – we’ll go home peacefully and orderly, and the occupation regime will go on with its work without missing a beat. They face no resistance.

I don’t mean to preach – I’m no braver than anyone else. I’ve never been to jail, never gotten dragged away by cops, never been in a scuffle with soldiers or settlers, and the thought of doing it doesn’t thrill me at all. But I don’t believe that we of the peace camp are going to be able to overthrow this 50-year-long tyranny with opeds in Haaretz alone, or even in the New York Times as well, or even opeds plus petitions and peace rallies. The occupation is a vast, powerful, violent, poisonous force, and for us in the opposition to think we can bring it down without making any personal sacrifice, without paying any personal price, is a lie we tell ourselves to ease our consciences, so we don’t have to face the truth that as dissident movements in history go, the Israeli Jewish Left has been notable for its gentility and timidity.

As long as that doesn’t change, Israel isn’t going to, either.

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Further reading: 

Amona evacuation (Haaretz)

 

Why Israel’s peace camp must hit the streets against Trump  

Post-election anti-Trump rally, NYC.
Post-election rally against Trump, New York City, November 12, 2016. Photo: mathiaswasik

The high politics of America is the whole world’s business. When a racist, conspiracy-theorizing sociopath like Donald Trump gets elected U.S. president, that’s the whole world’s urgent business – including Israel’s. And when this strange, menacing figure also says he wants settlements to “keep moving forward,” and that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” when he’s glorified by the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis and inspires an upsurge in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims,  among others, then his rise to power should be urgent enough business to send the Israeli peace camp into the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The world thinks Israel is delighted with Trump’s victory. Bibi Netanyahu is delighted, Sheldon Adelson is delighted, Israel Hayom is delighted, Naftali Bennett is beside himself; even Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid of the “opposition” sound pleased. Among Israeli political leaders, Meretz’s Zehava Galon, who said after Trump’s election that he’d won on “fear and hatred” and given “legitimacy” to “hate groups,” has been a voice in the wilderness.

But obviously she’s not alone; millions of Israelis, Jews and Arabs, are sickened, horrified and now enraged by Trump’s election. Why don’t we show it in the streets, and in public statements signed by masses of people? Where are Meretz, Peace Now, the Joint List, the progressive wing of Labor, the NGOs, the liberal youth movements, the culture heroes?

Across the United States, as the New York Times put it, “a national resistance among liberal activists is rising in response to the election of Trump in a way not seen in modern presidential history.” Yet there have also been anti-Trump protests in London, Manila, Berlin and Mexico City. Based on what he’s said about Israel and the Middle East, on the politics of the Republican Party, on his debt to Adelson, on his Islamophobia and on his natural affinity for white bullies like Netanyahu, Trump’s entry to the White House stands to affect Israel more than it will most other countries outside the United States.

So this is the Israeli peace camp’s fight, too.

The protests, which in the U.S. are building up to a show of strength on Inauguration Day, January 20, are of course not going to keep Trump out of the White House. Despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a growing margin expected to reach upwards of 2 million votes, he won the electoral vote and has the legal right to assume the presidency.

Instead, the protests are first a simple outpouring of emotion, a natural cry of “no” to everything Trump is and stands for, and second a gearing up of the opposition for the political efforts ahead to stop a President Trump from trying to realize any of his monstrous visions.

For the Israeli peace camp, joining the anti-Trump movement would have two additional, specifically Israeli purposes. One, since Netanyahu, the Israeli right and the right-lite of Herzog and Lapid have applauded the U.S. president-elect, it would be a mass statement of “not in my name.”

Two, it would send an important message of solidarity to the Democrats who want the United States to stop enabling the occupation and start using its  power to end it. As Mitchell Plitnick wrote in Haaretz the day after the election, “This will be one of the issues party activists will try to advance to bring the Democratic party into line with its stated ideals, and, thereby, make it a party that can promise and deliver real change.” The Democratic party is almost certainly moving left; the Israeli peace camp is a natural ally of that process, and should show it.

Millions of Jews and Arabs in Israel feel themselves, their families, their country, their world and its future to be in danger ever since the night of November 8. We’re not leaving this place; even those who were thinking about it can see there’s nowhere left to go. All we can do anymore is fight. And we will not be alone.

Originally published as “Israel’s squalid embrace of Trump: Not in my name” on Haaretz.com, November 14, 2016.

Shimon Peres’ forgotten role in stopping Israel from bombing Iran

Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009.
Peres at Davos, Jan. 29, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Derungs

I don’t want to offer up another take on Shimon Peres’ mixed legacy because the media is flooded with them. But I do want to point out one historic act he performed that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere, which is odd because it was his last one: Playing an absolutely crucial role, as president, in stopping Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak from fulfilling their dream of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Ari Shavit has written, with grudging respect, that Peres “spearheaded the opposition,” working “both at home and abroad to prevent an attack on Iran – and he succeeded.”

Peres first came out publicly against bombing Iran in February 2012, when war fever was raging in Netanyahu and Barak’s offices. He told Channel 2:

“It’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can only delay [Iran’s progress]. Thus it’s clear to us that we need to go together with America. There are questions of cooperation and of timetables, but as severe as the danger is, at least this time we’re not alone.”

Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer wrote that a Peres aide had told him in early 2010, “Shimon is doing everything to block Bibi and Barak’s crazy plan to attack Iran.” Pfeffer added that he confirmed that account with one of Peres’ “oldest confidantes,” who told him, “It’s true, [military chief Gabi] Ashkenazi and the other security chiefs are all looking to Shimon to lead the opposition to a strike on Iran.”

Haaretz has reported that Peres began working with military and intelligence leaders to block Netanyahu and Barak in 2008, a year after he became president. The public campaign against the bombing of Iran didn’t start until January 2011, when Meir Dagan, immediately after retiring from the Mossad, began speaking out against it.

But privately, in the high-level plotting against those crazy plans, Peres was there at the inception – as president and simply as Shimon Peres, whose private words carried a lot of weight in Washington, and whose later, public words would carry a lot of weight in Israel, and whose commitment to and likely leadership of the rebellion at the beginning no doubt bucked up Dagan, Ashkenazi and the others.

I’ve always thought Dagan was the movement’s hero because he was the first one who stuck his neck out, and in so doing threw away an unlimited future in politics to speak his conscience, for which he caught the expected accusations of treason from the right-wing powers-that-were-and-still-are.

But it may well be that Peres, as Shavit wrote, was the spearhead of the whole thing.

Catching it from Netanyahu, Barak

And he caught plenty of flak himself when he started expressing his opposition in public. (The only other major Israeli politician speaking on-the-record against bombing Iran was Tzipi Livni.) After that Channel 2 interview in February 2012, Netanyahu and Barak sought to undermine his credibility, slamming him publicly for overstepping his bounds as president, and recalling his opposition to Menachem Begin’s 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, which is considered in Israel and much of the world to have been a masterstroke. (The consensus of informed opinion, however, is that “Operation Opera” didn’t end Saddam’s nuclear ambitions, but rather supercharged them.) Netanyahu threw in Peres’ signature Oslo Accords and support for Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza as other reasons why Israelis shouldn’t trust his judgment. (I must say, my opinion of Peres’ mixed legacy is going up by the paragraph.)

From the time I came to Israel in January 1985, when he was prime minister, until the end of the Oslo peace process in late 2000, I adored Peres. He was the leader of the peace camp, without any question. But when the peace camp had its legs knocked out from under by the second intifada, and Israel began shifting inexorably to the right, Peres, instead of leading the opposition like he should have, found his place in 21st century Israel: as its liberal fig leaf. When Israel bludgeoned Gaza, Peres was there to defend it to the West. For me, he became a terrific disappointment.

But not in the fight over what to do or not to do about Iran, one of the most fateful dilemmas Israel ever faced, and if Netanyahu and Barak had been left to their own devices, most people outside Israel and the Republican Party think it would have been a catastrophe. If not for Peres, that might indeed have been how the story turned out. Toward the end, when it counted most, he became the highest example of a liberal opposition leader, regained his role as leader of the peace camp, and this time led it to victory.

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Further reading:

“How Shimon Peres stopped Israel from bombing Iran,” Ari Shavit, Haaretz, Oct. 31, 2013.

“Actually, Shimon Peres has opposed war with Iran for years,” Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz, Aug. 18, 2012.

“Bibi vs. Peres – Netanyahu aides: In opposing Israel attack on Iran, Peres forgot his place,” Barak Ravid, Haaretz, Aug. 16, 2012.

“Barak slams Peres for his objection to possible Israeli attack on Iran,” Barak Ravid, Haaretz, Feb. 24, 2012.

“The miraculous antiwar uprising of the Israeli establishment,” Larry Derfner, +972 Magazine, Aug. 10, 2012.

“The myth of the Osirak bombing and the march to Iran,” Larry Derfner, +972 Magazine, March 2, 2012.

“Barak: Netanyahu wanted to strike Iran in 2010 and 2011, but colleagues blocked him,” Times of Israel staff, Aug. 21, 2015.