Greenstein: “the state of Israel was Hitler’s final victory”
Tony Greenstein, who is suspended from Labour for alleged anti-Semitism, was the only speaker at a meeting entitled ‘Is criticising Israel anti-Semitic?’, hosted by Bristol Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). The room was packed, with around 200 attendees, many of those were Momentum members. The PSC’s choice of speaker, presentation of the event, and recent organised hostility towards towards committed Palestine solidarity activists advocating a two state programme forewarned me of a one-sided and hostile discussion.
Greenstein started by claiming that anti-Semitism is insignificant in the UK today both on the left and more widely, and counselled us to remember that it is just a claim used to attack left-wingers and defend Israel. He gave a history of Zionism as simply and intrinsically colonial, a disease that does not come in better and worse varieties. Zionism, he repeatedly stressed, is anti-Semitic, due in part to support for it by some anti-Semites, in part to statements by some historical right-wing Zionists. Throughout the talk he failed to distinguish between the worst historical examples of Zionist thought and contemporary support for the existence of a state of Israel. Many of his claims were based on a selective reading of history: to Greenstein, “the state of Israel was Hitler’s final victory” and Zionism supported Nazi Germany, while in turn Nazi Germany was decisive in the establishment of Israel.
Clearly, criticism of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic. We should criticize Israel’s actions and stand in solidarity with Palestinians for many reasons, and furthermore there has been some weaponisation of anti-Semitism by the right. And yet, the issue of anti-Semitism on the left when criticizing Israel, irrespective of the intentions of those doing the criticism, is still significant.
Some criticism evokes anti-Semitic tropes and some analysis and proposed solutions to the conflict have anti-Semitic historical origins or conclusions. A key historical anti-Semitic trope is that of all-powerful, shadowy Jews controlling society, and unfounded Zionist conspiracy theories play on this. The prevalence of these could be seen throughout discussion from what Greenstein and many in the audience said, but crucially what many conspicuously didn’t say, deliberately leaving us all to imagine the worst whilst making it difficult to challenge their vague implications. The idea of Israel as a uniquely illegitimate state has historical anti-Semitic origins and is also ultimately detrimental to Palestinian solidarity. Greenstein later responded that Israel is a uniquely evil and illegitimate state. As he demonstrated throughout the discussion, the equation of Israel with Nazi Germany is far too common in the left, and can be anti-Semitic. It looked like many people were listening and genuinely receptive to hearing this different and more nuanced perspective, although ultimately most disagreed.
Many people left during the meeting as they felt it got too heated, which surprised me. Unfortunately, the tense atmosphere somewhat discouraged people from being critical of Greenstein’s points – some people felt too nervous to speak, only three challenged him. It is partly for want of a more prevalent culture of polemic and debate on the left that people found the meeting difficult, but heckling, booing and dismissing as Zionists the minority in the room who dissented from the only speaker’s perspective was harmful. This too happened partly because of the lack of a culture of healthily dealing with disagreements through debate.
There was heckling in response to the argument for a good two states programme as the most viable resolution of the conflict in the short- to medium-term, and that the main victims of the conflict’s prolongation being the Palestinian people. Whilst people highlighted the lack of an appetite for such a programme by many in the Knesset they failed to explain how this made a one state programme more viable. The majority of both Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution, overwhelmingly so on the left of both nations. There is little desire in Israel for a one state programme as people in the room would have advocated; most Israeli politicians that reject a two-state programme instead support expanded settlements and annexation of Palestinian territory, not a programme that would improve the situation of Palestinians let alone dismantle the Israeli nation state. The Palestine Liberation Organisation also supports two states.
Whilst a good two states settlement will be difficult, a one state programme in the short-to-medium-term could almost certainly only be achieved by force. Since Israel should not and will not in reality be forced into this, to advocate a one-state solution and oppose a two-state solution is to advocate no realistic solution and to oppose the only possible, but difficult, solution. Such incomplete arguments, simplistic apartheid analogies and failure to distinguish between ethnicity and religion throughout the meeting are a few of the things that highlighted the importance of more debate on this issue.
My general sense from the room was that most people were close to Greenstein’s perspective, although perhaps not so extreme. Similar perspectives certainly constitute the “common sense” assumptions of much of Momentum and the Palestine Solidarity movement in Bristol, but overwhelmingly people had simply not previously come across more nuanced perspectives; perspectives which are very critical of Israel and stand in solidarity with Palestinians whilst also being critical of left anti-Semitism and defending Israel’s right to exist. The Palestine Solidarity movement, Momentum, the Labour Party and the left need to have more debates and discussions on these issues, but with more balance and less heckling, and hopefully this will lead to less oversimplifications being used to caricature and dismiss serious attempts to tackle left anti-Semitism.
Above: debate on antisemitism between Cathy Nugent of the AWL and Richard Angell of Progress
The following resolution was adopted at the recent conference of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty:
Antisemitism exists on the left.
This is not merely a question of the bigotries, chauvinisms, and prejudices which exist in society generally expressing themselves within the left, but essentially as aberrations within an otherwise progressive worldview. Rather, a number of ideas, positions, and analyses which have an antisemitic logic have become incorporated over a number of years into the “common sense” which predominates in some sections of the far left.
Contemporary left antisemitism combines older tropes of Jewish power (the politics August Bebel denounced in the 1890s as “the socialism of fools”) with a Stalinist-inspired “anti-Zionism”.
Some traditional antisemitic tropes and themes have become incorporated into certain ways of viewing Zionism and Israel.
Anti-Zionism and hostility to Israeli policies are not necessarily antisemitic. But most contemporary antisemitism expresses itself in the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism, rather than as ‘traditional’ antisemitic racism.
Contemporary left antisemitism historically deracinates Zionism, blowing it out of all proportion. Zionism was a nationalist-separatist, and often romantic-utopian, movement that emerged in response to a real oppression and was given a mass character by the attempted genocide experienced by Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. It was always politically variegated. The revolutionary socialist tradition with which Workers’ Liberty identifies was always anti-Zionist, but it was an anti-Zionism conditioned, and in some ways tempered, by an understanding of the material roots of that nationalist impulse. It was an anti-Zionism which found it good to have Zionist units in the Red Army, a Histadrut presence at international communist congresses, and steps by the Bolshevik workers’ state to create an autonomous Jewish “homeland” within the territory of the USSR, and which saw the Zionists who then mostly described themselves as left-wing as indeed a mistaken tendency within the left, rather than as a phalanx of the imperialist enemy.
The Stalinist propaganda campaigns of the 1950s onwards, in which “Zionism” was interchangeable with “imperialism”, “racism”, and even “fascism”, cast long shadows in sections of the contemporary far left, including some groups which consider themselves anti-Stalinist.
Those shadows lead to Jews with an instinctive though maybe critical identification with Israel being demonised as “Zionists” (with the word having the same connotations as “racists” or “fascists”); to complaints of antisemitism (short of gross neo-Nazi-type acts) being automatically dismissed as contrived gambits to deflect criticism of Israel; and to Israel being seen as an illegitimate ultra-imperialist state, which must be wiped off the map and whose population, therefore, in the immediate term, it is right to boycott and despise.
[For more on the historical background and context, see: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/26603]
While recognising left antisemitism as a real political phenomenon, we also recognise that allegations of antisemitism may sometimes be exaggerated, instrumentalised, or even fabricated for factional ends. This is true of any allegation of any bigotry or prejudice. That does not mean that the bigotry or prejudice is not real, or that the default response to any such allegation should be to question the motives of the plaintiff.
Moreover, there may be a distinctly antisemitic component in play when allegations of antisemitic speech or conduct are challenged as having been raised in bad faith and for an ulterior political motive. This was particularly visible in the controversies triggered by Livingstone and Walker.
Did the right wing ‘weaponise’ antisemitism in the Livingstone and Walker controversies? In one sense, no (in that some of them had a long record of raising the issue of antisemitism). In one sense, yes (in that they had an open goal and would have been fools not to have taken the opportunity). But such considerations have nothing in common with the way in which supporters of Walker (and Livingstone) raised the allegation of ‘weaponisation’, i.e. as a means to delegitimise all criticism of Walker (and, in some cases, of Livingstone as well).
We are for allegations of antisemitism, as with allegations of sexism, racism, etc., being investigated thoroughly, in a way that is sympathetic to the plaintiff and which affords all parties due process.
Our response is based on political education, debate, and discussion. We cannot challenge a prevailing common sense, and replace it with a better one, by means of bans and expulsions. That discussion must be conducted in an atmosphere of free speech, where activists in the movement are able to speak freely on sensitive issues such as Israel/Palestine, and those raising concerns around antisemitism are not accused of being Zionist provocateurs.
In the Labour Party, we argue for the implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Report.
Some of the recommendations contained in the Chakrabati Report are vague, and the political rationale which underpins them is not always clear. A lot of the recommendations focus heavily on procedural matters. It would be surprising if the Report did not suffer from such limitations.
But the Report does begin to raise the political issues which we want to see discussed and provides a certain official ‘stamp of approval’ to opening up such discussions. In both the Labour Party and trade unions (especially Unite and the UCU, even though the latter is not an LP affiliate) we should therefore encourage the use of the Report as a starting point for promoting discussion about antisemitism and arguing for a new political common sense about antisemitism based on the following ideas:
A historical understanding of the roots of nationalist ideas within Jewish communities, and the impact of the history of the 20th century in shaping Jewish people’s consciousness.
Zionism should neither be placed beyond criticism nor demonised.
As we challenge the confusion on the left and in the broader labour movement about Zionism and Israel, and the antisemitic content of some critiques of Zionism and Israel, we will advance our own politics on the Israel/Palestine conflict, i.e.
Solidarity with the Palestinians against Israeli occupation; a two-state settlement in Israel/ Palestine; workers’ unity across the borders; solidarity not boycotts.
Amendment not voted on (i.e. it goes forward for further discussion)
Contemporary left anti-Semitism involves a process of signification that defines the Other somatically – i.e. it marks out a group of people in relation to Israeli Jewishness and/or Zionist Jewishness – and assigns this categorised group of bodies with negative characteristics and as giving rise to negative consequences. This Jewish Other is conflated with a particular and singular understanding of Israel and Zionism and a notion therein that the Jewish collective has uniquely world domineering and despotic power. Unlike traditional and historical anti-Semitism, contemporary left anti-Semitism considers it possible and necessary for individual Jews to break away from the negative characteristics and consequences of Israeli Jews and Zionist Jews by denouncing any affiliation to them and to Israel and Zionism.
With racism in general, both real and imagined physical and/or cultural characteristics have historically been, and continue to be, signified as an innate mark of nature and ‘race’. Similar to all other manifestations of racism, with contemporary left anti-Semitism it is not difference per se that matters but the identification of this difference as significant. In this sense, whether consciously or not, those engaged in contemporary left anti-Semitic discourse and practices are engaged in racist discourse and practices. The demand (often in disguise) that the Israeli Jewish nation-state must be undone because it is uniquely despotic (comparable only to fascist Germany and/or apartheid South Africa) – a judgement and a demand not made of any other nation-state – is racist. It is racist because real and imagined cultural characteristics have been and are signified as an innate mark of the nature of Israel and Zionism (and of the cultural ‘race’ of Jews associated with Israel and Zionism), which are deemed especially deplorable and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Much academic theorising about ‘race’, racism and capitalism since the 1960s in Britain and North America sources racism solely to colonialism, rather than also recognising racism’s co-constructed relationship with the rise of nationalism and the nation-state, and some of its pre-capitalist origins. The consequences of this colonial model of racism are: one, limited to no recognition of racism beyond what “white people” have done and do to “black people”; two, intellectually crediting the controversial notion that Zionism is an instance of racism (as “bad, white and rich Jews” oppress “good, poor and brown Arabs and Muslims”); and three, downplaying anti-Semitism.
And add at end:
The two states settlement on pre-1967 borders is the only consistently democratic and realistic resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The overwhelming majority of both the activist and academic Left have adopted various forms of one state / one shared space solutions on the basis that the ultimate question is one of Palestinian redress and justice and/or “facts on the ground” have made a meaningful two states settlement impossible. For many in this majority camp, their politics is well-meaning and borne from despair. We need to patiently and sharply reason and debate against the varied proposals for one state / one shared space – exposing and condemning the implicit logic to undo the Israeli Jewish nation-state – while nuancing our argument as not altogether diametrically opposed: since we are for two states so that one day we might see one shared cooperative space between Jewish and Arab workers democratically emerge.
From the New Statesman:
On 4 November 1956 Aneurin “Nye” Bevan delivered an impassioned speech at a Labour-organised rally in Trafalgar Square condemning the Tory government’s decision to take military action against Egypt during the Suez crisis.
Bevan was famously a versatile, charismatic and rousing public speaker, traits that were on display at this rally, and in a similar speech to the House of Commons a month later. John Selwyn-Lloyd, foreign secretary at the time, described the latter as the greatest ever Commons performance, even though “it was at my expense”.
The rally was attended by 30,000 or more people, in the biggest national demonstration since before the Second World War. Eyewitnesses recall chants of “One, two, three, four! We won’t fight in Eden’s war!” The protest tapped into popular discontent with the war, but in its sheer scale, it has been credited with waking thousands from apathy over the invasion.
Bevan challenged government aggression, accusing the Tories of “a policy of of bankruptcy and despair” that would “lead back to chaos, back to anarchy and back to universal destruction”. His criticism of the reasoning behind the war is reminiscent of events surrounding the Iraq war nearly five decades later.
We are stronger than Egypt but there are other countries stronger than us. Are we prepared to accept for ourselves the logic we are applying to Egypt? If nations more powerful than ourselves accept the absence of principle, the anarchistic attitude of Eden and launch bombs on London, what answer have we got, what complaint have we got? If we are going to appeal to force, if force is to be the arbiter to which we appeal, it would at least make common sense to try to make sure beforehand that we have got it, even if you accept that abysmal logic, that decadent point of view.
We are in fact in the position today of having appealed to force in the case of a small nation, where if it is appealed to against us it will result in the destruction of Great Britain, not only as a nation, but as an island containing living men and women. Therefore I say to Anthony, I say to the British government, there is no count at all upon which they can be defended.
They have besmirched the name of Britain. They have made us ashamed of the things of which formerly we were proud. They have offended against every principle of decency and there is only way in which they can even begin to restore their tarnished reputation and that is to get out! Get out! Get out!
From The New Arab:
Above: a Stop The War Coalition protest outside Downing Street, 12 Dec 2015 [Getty}
Statement introduced by Alex Rowell, October 12, 2016
A statement signed by over 120 Palestinians condemns “whitewashing” of Syrian regime by “activists whom we once respected”
Chris Nineham: wretched Putin-appeaser
These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads — they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late – George Orwell, Looking Back At the Spanish War, 1943.
In a car crash of an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Chris Nineham, deputy chair of the Stop The War Coalition, was questioned about Boris Johnson’s call for people to protest Russia’s involvement in the war by demonstrating outside the country’s embassy in London. Nineham concluded by stating that the STWC’s guiding principle is to “oppose the West.”
The Foreign Secretary’s comments came after Labour’s Ann Clwyd urged those who care about the plight of Syrian civilians to gather outside Russian embassies across the globe until the country stops its bombing campaign.
Johnson also called for a war crimes investigation into the bombing of an aid convoy last month in which at least 21 people died.
Today host, Sarah Montague, began the segment on Wednesday morning by asking what the Stop the War Coalition was doing to oppose the conflict.
“But we were set up as a coalition as a response to 9/11 and in response to the Western, British-supported drive to war back in 2001 and that is our focus.
“There’s a good reason for that…”
Montague interrupted, pointing out “we are in 2016 now” with a conflict raging in which “Aleppo is being destroyed”.
She added: “You have a Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, saying ‘where’s the rage, we should have two million, three million, four million people outside the Russian embassy…’
“Should people demonstrate outside the Russian embassy?”
Nineham replied: “This is not a serious argument being put [forward] by Boris Johnson, he’s characteristically trivialising the situation. If they want to protest outside the Russian embassy, they know where it is.”
“As I was saying, there’s a very good reason for this because we can make a difference to what Britain does, we can make a difference to what our allies do to a certain extent and we have done.
“But if we have a protest outside the Russian embassy it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to what Putin does because we are in the West and we are in Britain.
Montague said: “So you would urge people not to demonstrate against Russia?”
Nineham replied: “We’re not worried about it but what we’re saying is that there’s a hysteria that’s being organised by politicians and by the media against Russia to see Russia as the only problem in Syria.
“Syria is a multi-faceted war that involves Saudi Arabia, it involves the US and Britain who have been bombing the country as well.
“The real problem here is you have people who regard themselves as responsible politicians like Andrew Mitchell and John Woodcock and Boris Johnson to a lesser extent who are seriously saying that what Syria needs is more Western bombs, more Western munitions.
“And Andrew Mitchell actually came on this programme yesterday and seriously said it wouldn’t be a problem if RAF fighter pilots attacked Russian planes.”
“And anyone who has a responsibility for peace or the future of the planet quite frankly needs to mobilise against that…”
At this point Montague cut off the interview but Nineham managed to get in a last few words.
“… and that means opposing the West.”
The Stop The War Coalition has now confirmed what many of us have been saying for a long while: the remnant of the group which ten years ago organised big marches against the invasion of Iraq, is now merely a “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” lash-up with Putin, Assad and any reactionary force or regime that happens to find itself in conflict with the West.
The STWC has made a conscious decision not to criticise Assad’s filthy regime. Why? Because in this war Counterfire and Socialist Action (the main political forces within the STWC) are effectively siding with the regime.
Stop the War’s organisers are seriously politically disorientated. And that leaves them sharing platforms with a ridiculous Stalinist, Kamal Majid, and a Syrian academic, Issa Chaer, who when interviewed by the Iranian state’s propaganda outlet, Press TV, said, “I see President Assad as the person who is now uniting the country from all its backgrounds, all factions and all political backgrounds… anybody who calls for President Assad to step down at this stage; would be causing Syria an irreversible destruction.”
In theory, the STWC opposes Russian bombing. But, in reality they don’t: after all, Stop The War’s Chair supports the Assad regime and Russian imperialism in Syria.
It’s time for the serious left – including Jeremy Corbyn and Unite – to withdraw support from this nasty, reactionary bunch of apologists and appeasers.
NB: the quotes used in this piece come from the Huffington Post
Adam Keller writes:
A man of peace? Not exactly. But still…
The first demonstration I ever attended was at the end of 1967. On one school day, the principal went through all parts of the school, announcing: “The last two classes are canceled, everybody is going to demonstrate at the French Embassy!”. We broke into a great cheer and went through the school gates. En route to the embassy we encountered the pupils from other schools, all joining in the great organized spontaneous demonstration. Someone started chanting “De Gaulle / Has a big nose!” (it rhymes in Hebrew) and everybody joined in.
In the Israel of late 1967 it was very fashionable to hate France, and in particular to hate French President Charles de Gaulle. As we read in newspapers and heard from our teachers, France had betrayed Israel and violated the alliance with us at the crucial moment and imposed an arms embargo on Israel. (Israel won the war anyway, but that’s another issue.) And to add insult to injury, we were told that de Gaulle had said anti-Semitic things, though we did not know exactly what. Therefore, we were very happy to demonstrate at the French Embassy instead of studying. Some of us also wanted to throw stones and break the embassy windows, but the police prevented that.
As it happened, a few weeks later I was browsing at a dusty back shelf in my favorite lending library. There a book with an intriguing title: “A Bridge Over The Mediterranean”. On the front page appeared a large photo of the Israeli Minister Shimon Peres shaking hands with French President Charles de Gaulle, both smiling broadly, over the background of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris skyline. I read the first chapter in which Shimon Peres spoke at very great length about the strategic alliance between Israel and France. As described in the book, it was a strong and enduring alliance, serving the best interests of both countries. (As far as I can remember, the one thing Peres did not mention was the French aid in building the Dimona Nuclear Pile…).
Actually, it was not such an old book. It had been published just three years earlier, in 1964, but it seems somebody at the library decided to exile it to the back shelf. It was then, at the age of 12, that I was first introduced to Simon Peres “the man of great visions and designs” (not always the same visions and designs…).
In 1976, during a brief leave from the army, I participated with several dozen youths at a Tel Aviv protest against the new settler movement, “Gush Emunim” (Block of the Faithful), whose members were determined to establish themselves at the heart of the Biblically-hallowed “Judea and Samaria”. After the demonstration, we sat in a cramped office and listened to the news on a tiny, black and white TV set. “Again, Gush Emunim activists managed to evade the military checkpoints, reach the old railway station in Sebastia and barricade themselves in.” said the announcer “Evicting them is expected to result in violent clashes with soldiers”.
“What is this nonsense about their evading the checkpoints?” cried one of the organizers. “Defense Minister Shimon Peres is the settlers’ best friend. What more do you want to know? It’s a con game, pure and simple”. In that small office, we all felt a very visceral hatred of Shimon Peres.
The next morning, in the bus on the way back to base, I read of “compromise agreement” reached late at night with the blessing of Defense Minister Peres. The Gush Emunim settlers were allowed to remain “temporarily” at a nearby military base. Later, temporary became permanent, the settlers stayed and the it was soldiers who eventually left, and the military base became the settlement of Kedumim.
Shimon Peres definitely had a major share in this outcome.
May 1981 – a crowded meeting at the Tzavta Hall in Tel Aviv, to celebrate the election of Francois Mitterrand as President of France. The keynote speaker was Shimon Peres – Leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Leader of the Parliamentary opposition and Vice President of the Socialist International. “Europe is becoming a Socialist Continent!” cried Peres. “This is the wave of the future, and we in Israel should become part of it!” It was the first time I heard Shimon Peres praising Socialism, and it did not last long. (In truth, Mitterrand himself, as well as the other members of the Socialist International, have not shown a real commitment to the principles of Socialism…)
September 1982: the First Lebanon War had been raging for three months, culminating with the terrible massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A wave of demonstrations and protests throughout the country, I have spent the previous night at the Abu Kabir Detention Center in south Tel Aviv. A crucial meeting between major activists of the “Committee Against the Lebanon War” on one hand and the leadership of “Peace Now” on the other.
– “Peace Now wants to have on Saturday night a very big rally, a huge one, on the Kings of Israel Square. It should really be a mass event, bigger than anything anyone of us ever did before. But you of the Committee got first to the police, you have the permit for using the square on that night. If you don’t pass it on to us, Peace Now will not be able to do it. And you, too, know that if you mobilize only your own supporters, the rally would be much smaller.” – “OK, we are ready to give you the license.” – “But there is a problem. The Labor Party is ready to join, to change their position. They are going to stop supporting the war in Lebanon start speaking out against the war. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin are willing – they very much want – to mount the podium and speak very sharply against Begin and Sharon. But I hate to say this, Peres and Rabin are not willing to share the podium with anyone from the Extreme Left. ”
All eyes in the room turned to the radical poet Yitzhak Laor, who was going to be the keynote speaker for the Committee Against The War. After a moment of silence he muttered a pungent oath and said: “The hell with it! No one will be able to say that I spoiled a big rally against the war crimes. Let Rabin and Peres have the podium to themselves and welcome!”. So was born the memorable “Demonstration of the Four Hundred Thousand”, the biggest public event in Israel’s history until then.
Some two or three years later – again a small demonstration of several dozens, and again sitting afterwards to see the TV evening news at a dusty office (color TV this time). In this demonstration, as in many protests and events held at the time, we chanted “Talk peace / With the PLO / Now, now, now!”/ . We distributed to the indifferent Tel Avivian passers by leaflets about the meetings which activists of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace held with PLO officials, and about the positive messages which they got from the Palestinians.
On that evening TV interviewed Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s cabinet. Peres rejected out of hand the option of negotiating with the PLO – “It is a terrorist organization, they are opposed to peace, they have nothing positive to contribute – absolutely nothing.” Conversely, he greatly praised King Hussein of Jordan – “The King is a serious, reliable partner. The real option for peace is the Jordanian Option!”
“What an idiot!” said one of the people sitting next to me. “He wants to give the Territories to Jordan. And then the Palestinians will say that the agreement does not bind them, and will continue fighting Israel. What a clever deal – pay the full prize and get nothing in return! How can such a stupid person get so high?”
As we learned later, at that time Peres had held a secret meeting with King Hussein in London and reached a draft agreement, but Prime Minister Shamir vetoed it and the initiative failed. We did not share Peres’ outrage and protest at “The loss of a historic opportunity”.
April 1990 – the government coalition crisis which came to be known in Israeli history as “The Dirty Trick”. With the outbreak of the First Intifada the Jordanian Option was definitely off the agenda. The Americans suggested that Israel negotiate with a Palestinian delegation not officially representing the PLO but including representatives from East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Shamir rejected the proposal out of hand and accused Foreign Minister Peres of discreetly encouraging the Americans. Peres and the other Laborites resigned and brought down the Shamir Government in a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Thereupon, Shimon Peres announced that he had managed to form a new government headed by himself, and that it would be presented to the Knesset on the morning of April 12. But on that morning, as we waited, the hours passed and there was no sign of the new cabinet. There were increasing rumors the ultra-Orthodox have abandoned Peres at the last minute and deprived him of the expected parliamentary majority. This turned out to be true. By noon, Peres appeared on the screen, tense and pale, and announced “a delay in presenting the new cabinet”. “Damn!” said one of my friends. “This means that we remain stuck with Shamir, and he will continue to block everything. God damn the ultra-Orthodox to Hell! ”
1994 – After the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced the award of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres for their part in the Oslo Agreements, Yedioth Ahronoth published a nasty commentary. The writer attacked Peres harshly, accusing him of being “a publicity stunt man” who had “pushed through the signing of the horrible Oslo Accord” for the sole purpose of getting the Nobel Prize.
So I immediately sat down and wrote a Letter to the Editor. I don’t have the exact text (at that time, such things were not yet preserved on the computer), but I remember quite clearly that I expressed unreserved support for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. I wrote that he was a statesman of the first order, of whom any country could be proud. I wrote in that letter (as I wrote and said very often, at the time) that Shimon Peres deserved praise and the Nobel Prize for understanding that Israel must end the occupation and achieve peace with the Palestinians – not only for the sake of the Palestinians but also for its own future.
I praised Peres for understanding that in order to talk to the Palestinians one needs to talk with those that the Palestinians themselves regard as their representative – namely, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Head, Yasser Arafat. I also wrote that Peres deserved to be praised for having managed to overcome his bitter rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin, work closely with Rabin and convince the Prime Minister to shake hands with Yasser Arafat.
For all these reasons, I concluded, Shimon Peres fully and rightly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – more so than many others who got it before him. “Yediot Ahronot” shortened my letter, but the essential parts did get published on the next day.
November 1995 – The bitter night of the Rabin Assassination. A very successful peace rally on the square, the big crowds who came to express confidence in the Peace Process that began in Oslo, Rabin and Peres on the podium singing the Peace Song. The rally over, hundreds of young people dancing merrily to the tune of Brazilian Samba music from the loudspeakers. Suddenly the honking of a long column of police cars, wild rumors of a terrorist attack, the news that Prime Minister Rabin was hit by an assassin’s bullets, hundreds of people running all the way to the gate of the Ichilov hospital, Cabinet Spokesperson Eitan Haber appearing and reading out the communiquי: “The Government of Israel announces with shock …”.
Returning to the square. Sitting in mourning circles around the lighted candles. The radio reported that the cabinet convened in the middle of the night for an emergency session and elected Shimon Peres as Prime Minister Pro Tem, pending Knesset approval. Several youths walk to the wall of the nearby Tel Aviv Town Hall and spray paint a huge graffiti: “You will never walk alone, Shimon Peres!”.
Already that night, we started talking about what Peres should do. Immediately dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, so as to win a large majority? Act firmly and strongly against the settlers, now that their public standing is at a low ebb?
Alas, Shimon Peres did not follow any of our “advices”. Instead, he soon got entangled in a completely unnecessary, bloody military operation in Lebanon – “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. In April 1995, after 106 Lebanese civilians were killed by a stray Israeli artillery shell at the village of Qana, I was at a protest outside the home of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Ramat Aviv. It was a militant demonstration, with very sharp slogans chanted against The Prime Minister, including such terms as “murderer”, “assassin” and “war criminal”. We collided with the police cordon which barred our way, and came very close to spending the night in custody. Yet, during the dispersal I told my fellow demonstrators: “There is no choice. Despite everything, in the elections we will have to vote for him.” – “What? For this bastard?” – “What else? Do you want Netanyahu as Prime Minister?”.
At that moment, the expression “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu” still seemed a kind of science fiction, a remote and highly unlikely eventuality. But a bare month and a half later, it became a reality that accompanies the state of Israel up to the present. On elections night we sat awake, with the predictions showing a victory for Netanyahu – a victory by a narrow but clear margin. Hour after hour we sat in front of the screen, hoping against hope for a change – until with the morning light, predictions became certainty and Shimon Peres lost irrevocably his last chance at holding Israel’s helm of state.
I could continue this article on and on and specify more moments in the life of Shimon Peres – lights and shadows, contrary landmarks, times when we were very angry with him for agreeing to serve Netanyahu and represent him on the international arena and other times when Peres tries at least to some degree to face up to the leader of the Likud and take all sorts of initiatives to promote peace. There was the failed attempt to be elected as the (purely titular) President of Israel and a second attempt which succeeded. And the last years, when he was very popular with the general Israeli public and increasingly pushed aside the vision of peace and of The New Middle East and chose to focus on a new, non-political dream and vision – i.e. the intensive promotion of nanotechnology and of the enormous blessings nanotechnology could give to mankind.
Still, now that Shimon Peres’ long career definitely ended in a huge state funeral in the presence of Heads of State and assorted VIP’s from all over the world, I’d rather finish my personal review with that decisive moment of failure in the 1996 elections.
Was Shimon Peres a Man of Peace? Many of my political friends are skeptical about that, to say the least. It is not difficult to gather damning evidence and point to black spots all along Peres’ career.
As for me – I would have been very happy indeed if it were possible to turn the wheel backwards, go back to May 1996 and give Shimon Peres the extra thirty thousand votes which would have made him a Prime Minister for an extra four years and reduced Netanyahu to a forgotten footnote in Israel’s history.
The Shimon Peres of 1996 was completely committed, politically and personally, to the Oslo Accords. There is good reason to believe that, with a solid mandate for four more years, Peres would have embarked with his typical energy and determination on the Permanent Status negotiations with the Palestinians. That he would have seriously tried to reach an agreement by the May 1999 deadline agreed upon. And that with an agreement reached, he would have worked very hard to implement it on the ground.
Would he have succeeded? Would we now be living in a completely different situation, in a real New Middle East? Or would Peres have wasted this chance, too, and ended in a dismal failure? We will never know.
In reality it is impossible to go back in time and change history. Hopefully, we will still succeed to change the future.
This strikes me as a fair assessment:
Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel, has died at the age of 93 after suffering a stroke. A titan of Israeli political life, Peres remained an active player in his country and the region until his death, working hard to promote closer ties between Israelis and Palestinians.
He will be remembered above all else for his role in negotiating the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with then-Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, who was at the time chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). A peace treaty with Jordan also followed, which established mutual recognition between that country and Israel.
Peres always believed that the Israelis needed to be a proactive partner in the peace process. As he put it in 2013: “We can and should bring an end to the conflict – and we have to be the initiators. Playing hard-to-get may be a romantic proposition, but it’s not a good political plan.”
His dedication to the peace process was established even before Oslo. In the late 1980s, Peres was involved in a secret agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein. Signed in April 1987, the so-called London Agreement outlined a framework for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would focus on education and the development of the two countries’ respective economies. Unfortunately the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzak Shamir, disagreed, and refused to approve the agreement.
Peres was involved in the peace process again by the early 1990s, while serving as foreign minister under Rabin. But before Oslo even took place there were internal battles about who to negotiate with – the PLO in Israel-Palestine, which was supposedly composed of moderates, or the PLO based in Tunis and led by Arafat. Ultimately, it was Arafat who came to the negotiating table.
To make this happen, both Peres and Rabin had to change their mind about dealing with the PLO abroad. Peres felt that it was futile to keep Arafat in exile in Tunisia since it made co-operation between the two sides more difficult.
Though the secret accords have been highly controversial ever since they were struck, they nevertheless included several noteworthy steps. The first was mutual recognition: for the first time, the PLO would recognise the state of Israel, and vice versa.
The accords also created an interim government for the Palestinians, the Palestinian National Authority, which would take over responsibilities in education, social welfare, health care, direct taxation and tourism. Within nine months, elections were to be held.
The accords allowed for Arafat to return to Gaza after years in exile; Israel was also supposed to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho within four months. In return, the PLO would also remove chapters in its charter referring to the destruction of Israel, which would be given guarantees that its people had the right to live in peace and security.
The stalled process
Proponents of Oslo at the time claimed that the accords helped encourage a peaceful approach to the conflict, and constituted the first step to getting the peace process started in earnest. But as is all too evident today, and despite Peres’s lifelong optimism, the peace the accords planned for was never achieved.
Oslo failed to address the key issues of the conflict: the status of Jerusalem, right of return for the 1948 Palestinian refugees, the status of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the borders of the Palestinian territory. There was also no promise of an independent Palestinian state. It was assumed that these issues would be negotiated at the end of the five-year transition period the accords provided for. For many critics, the Oslo was just a litany of empty promises.
Part of the problem was that the accords were not actually a peace treaty, but only a first step to peace and a framework for facilitating negotiations for a final treaty intended to be negotiated in 1998.
When the accords were signed in September 1993, the criticism was sharp and immediate. Palestinian scholar Edward Said decried them as a “Palestinian surrender”, and claimed that the plan would throw the Palestinian leadership into complete disarray.
There was also anger on the Israeli side. Peres’s fellow negotiator Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist in November 1995, an event which in turn led to the election of the right-wing Likud Party in 1996. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who today serves as Israel’s prime minister again, the new government was openly antagonistic towards Oslo.
So why did Oslo fail? As ever, it depends which voices on which side you listen to.
Many Israelis blame Palestinian violence for wrecking the peace process. After the Camp David Accords collapsed in July 2000, the Second Intifada broke out and ran until 2005. The militant Islamist group Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, further deepening a rift among Palestinians and making the Palestinian Authority more irrelevant than ever.
In contrast, many Palestinians claim that it was the Israelis who have reneged on their side of the deal. Highly contentious is the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories: in 1993, there were 115,700 Israeli settlers living there, whereas today there are more than 350,000 in the West Bank and another 300,000 living within East Jerusalem’s pre-1967 borders. No settlement freezes have taken place, and this constant encroachment has made the two-state solution more difficult.
A 2013 poll examining the effects of Oslo on public opinion 20 years later found both sides have been dissatisfied. Palestinians maintained that the Israelis were the big winners, with 49% claiming that the accords damaged their interests. On the Israeli side, 68% of Israelis felt that the main beneficiaries were the Palestinians, and 64% felt that they themselves had been harmed by the accords.
And yet a 2015 poll revealed that while 90% of Palestinians don’t think Israel has abided by the Oslo Agreement, 68% still want to support the agreement. So for all that the Oslo framework is resented criticised, any new peace process for peace in the region will almost certainly have to stick to it in some form.
Although the two sides are far apart, Peres died an optimist, still hopeful that the day would come when the Israeli Defence Forces’s soldiers would serve purely for peace. As he famously put it: “Impossibility is only a product of our prejudice.”
Natasha Ezrow does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.