So where to start? I’ll begin with the only part that inspired hope – the thought-provoking, often intense discussions we had amongst our group in between and following sessions and speakers. In a group of 38, we have many differing opinions and points of view, but what’s so important is that we had these tough discussions. It forces us to put our thoughts and opinions in context regarding how we feel as Jews, and hopefully among the next generation of Jewish leaders, making Jewish decisions. As one of my favorite authors, Daniel Gordis, notes in his most recent book, Saving Israel, it’s discussions precisely like the ones we had and will continue to have that give purpose and meaning for a Jewish state as a place where Jews have self-determination and the ability to decide their own future.
Regardless of our individual politics, it was important to see the places and things we’ve seen and speak with the people we’ve met because it helps us form our own opinions and beliefs knowing we’ve seen the facts on the ground. Some people in our group had never been to a Jewish settlement over the Green Line, or seen Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and it was great seeing my friends process these new sights. We did things and visited places people wouldn’t have even thought to do on their own, such as visiting the southern Hevron Hills and the village of Sussia, a hot spot for violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. The incredible amount of information we’ve received over the past few days has given all of us new things to think about and even more important, topics and issues to learn about.
One of the highlights of the seminar was a role-play session, a mock “Camp David 2010”, with each of us having a role in the negotiations. We were divided into three sides: Israelis, Palestinians, and a contingent of American mediators, and each group had a specific issue to negotiate: settlements, Jerusalem, final borders, and refugees. We first sat with our own delegation to formulate our position on our issue to decide what we were willing and unwilling to compromise on. I was part of the Israeli delegation discussing settlements, so we received a background brief on the history of the settlements, along with facts and figures, and a list of questions to consider. We also had a map of Judea and Samaria, with all the settlements marked on it and had to decide which settlements, or blocs of settlements, were untouchable and which we were willing to give up in a peace deal. What seemed relatively easy on the surface became very difficult in actuality.
I joined one of my Israeli delegation representatives at the negotiating table to meet with our two Palestinian counterparts and two American mediators. And believe it or not, we agreed on a deal, where the central component was that Israel would retain the major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim and Giv’at Zeev and would trade some land within pre-1967 Israel a la Ehud Olmert’s proposal from September 2008. We agreed to dismantle all outposts and give the Jewish residents of the other settlements the option to remain in their houses and become citizens of a Palestinian state, or receive compensation to move to Israel proper. The Americans proposed a $5 billion fund to provide housing to Jews moving out of the new Palestinian state, and for the Palestinians to buy land, build housing, and for both to build infrastructure. Afterwards, Ari, aka our American mediator, asked me if those were the real terms of an agreement, is that something I’d be happy with. And I told him, if it meant a real and true peace, then yes, in a heartbeat. If it meant that Jews can live without fearing for their lives in a future Palestinian state the way Israeli Arabs can be Israeli citizens, it’s a deal I’d be willing to make 100% of the time.
Now comes the conflict. We are years upon years away from an actual deal and a real peace agreement. While I’ll be the first to admit Israel has done plenty wrong in this conflict, Israel can only do so much to push the peace process forward if there’s no real partner, someone on the Palestinian side who is willing and strong enough to make the tough concessions the Israelis have shown they’re willing to make time and time again. Any future peace agreement will be a land-for-peace deal, but look what happened when we gave up land the last time. We evacuated over 8,000 Jews from Gaza and what do we get in return? A state run by Hamas and hundreds of rockets reigning down on southern Israel.
And the sick part is that if the Palestinian Authority does hold elections any time in the future in the West Bank, it’s likely that Hamas would win there too because Fatah has almost no credibility on the street. And it’s the same reasons Hamas won in Gaza, that Fatah officials, including PA Preseident Mahmoud Abbas, continue to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money meant for the Palestinian people, for their education, economy and health care. For anyone who thinks the PA has reformed itself since the days of Yasser Arafat giving his wife a monthly allowance directly from PA funds, check out Friday’s front page story from the Jerusalem Post. (http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=167194)
As if that picture wasn’t sad enough, we heard from Bassam Eid, the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. He said many ordinary Palestinians are too scared to speak out against their government, and that’s why their officials can get away with what they do. He reiterated that Palestinian society needs to change from the bottom up, that’s how revolutions happen. The solution can’t be imposed from the top down.
The most infuriating session for me was visiting Neve Shalom, a “coexistence” village near Mod’in and Latrun, where Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians live together (Israeli Palestinians are also called Israeli Arabs. They are Arabs with full Israeli citizenship and live inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel). On the surface, it seems like a great idea and as someone who is volunteering with a real Arab/Jewish coexistence group in Haifa, I was excited to hear about their community. The problem is they bill themselves as an Israeli/Palestinian co-existence group, when they’re really not because they only work with Israeli citizens and also don’t deal with Jews or Palestinians living in the West Bank (and yes, there are at least two co-existence dialogue groups between those often-volatile communities).
Our speaker, an Israeli Jew, described people in nearby pubic schools, who she admitted were on the left of the political spectrum, as too “nationalistic, militaristic and too focused on the existence of Israel as a Jewish state”. She even took issue with the fact that the army visited high schools in the area a couple of years before students would be drafted, as if it’s unreasonable to prepare them for the fact that all Israeli citizens are obligated to serve in the army. It’s the quintessential “blame Israel for all of the world’s evils” – again, there is plenty of blame to go around here, but to pretend that the Palestinians are completely innocent and that every part of the conflict is Israel’s fault is unreasonable and completely illogical.
One thing that was totally crystallized for me over the course of the seminar is the inability for many on the left, and certainly vocal advocates for a Palestinian state, to acknowledge the right for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. If a Jew can say, “I believe the Palestinians deserve a state of their own,” why can’t Arabs say, “I believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state”? How is that not a double standard?
This all, of course, was before she said she didn’t think Israel should be a Jewish state, and instead there should be a bi-national state, which is code for an Arab majority erasing the Jewish quality of the state. But the clincher was when she admitted that there’s really not much difference between Hamas and the “supposedly moderate” Fatah. Not much difference between a terrorist organization whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, and the political government the world is convinced is a true partner for peace?
One of my favorite sessions featured back-to-back speakers discussing how Israel is viewed around the world, via both the media and the government’s own initiatives and work. We heard from Gwen Ackerman, who covers Israel for Bloomberg News, and David Segal, who is the Chief Policy Advisor to Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister. I obviously love hearing from journalists their thoughts and feelings about their work, especially covering a conflict as intense and closely followed as this one. But as much as I enjoyed Gwen’s stories, the speaker I learned the most from was David Segal. Talk about a wealth of information. Whether it was in his opening statement or answering questions, he added the most to my list of new things to research, in terms of Israel’s economic partnerships with countries and organizations around the world, and even with the UN.