Forum — From the September 2014 issue

Israel and Palestine

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In June, days before Harper’s contributor Bernard Avishai brought together a panel of experts for a conversation about the prospects of a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the abduction. While these events were much on the minds of our panelists, we encouraged them to remain focused on larger trends rather than more immediate concerns. Shortly after the discussion took place, the bodies of the three teenagers were found by an Israeli search team, and a Palestinian teenager was murdered in East Jerusalem in an apparent revenge killing. Hamas began launching rockets into Israel, and Israel bombed targets in Gaza. As this issue went to press, Hamas turned down a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, and Israel sent ground troops into Gaza. Our participants knew none of this at the time, but they are all longtime residents and students of the region, in which such outbreaks of violence are sadly familiar. They offer invaluable insight into how the conflict arrived at this point and where it might be headed.

A photograph of the Palestinian suburb Al Eizariya, now divided from East Jerusalem by a security wall, from the multi-photographer project This Place, which explores the current state of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. A selection of images from the project will be on view next month at DOX, in Prague.

A photograph of the Palestinian suburb Al Eizariya, now divided from East Jerusalem by a security wall, from the multi-photographer project This Place, which explores the current state of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. A selection of images from the project will be on view next month at DOX, in Prague.

The following forum is based on a conversation that took place at the Jerusalem YMCA on June 15.


is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism and The Hebrew Republic. He teaches at the Hebrew University and Dartmouth College.

was the chairman of the YESHA Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria from 2007 until 2013. He now serves as its chief foreign envoy.

is the CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA.

is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University and the president of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

is a pharmacist and industrial entrepreneur who has served as president of the Palestinian Federation of Industries and as economic minister for the Palestinian Authority.

is a venture capitalist and a member of Knesset from the Labor Party.

is a journalist who has covered Palestinian issues for more than forty years. He teaches at Ben Gurion University.

is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.


BERNARD AVISHAI: First of all, thank you all for coming. It’s an honor to be in a room with so much talent and so much experience. I’m going to do something very un-Israeli: Everybody gets to finish their sentences. We want to focus on the future, including long-term demographic trends — not just births and deaths, but also growth, education, and urbanization. It is also important to have a bit of historical perspective, and I’d like to start by asking Danny Rubinstein, who has been covering these issues for a long time, to provide some of that. Danny?

DANNY RUBINSTEIN: I’m a newspaper man. I’ve covered the Palestinian territories since 1967, right after the war, first with Davar newspaper for more than twenty years and then with Haaretz, for almost twenty years. Bernie said that we’ve gathered here talent and experience. I belong to the experience department.

What’s the major difference compared with, let’s say, the first twenty-five years I covered the area? Until 1992 or ’93 there was not one checkpoint between Rafah on the Egyptian border and the Golan Heights. Not one checkpoint. There was freedom of movement for everybody. When I worked for Davar, I used to accompany two or three Israeli cabinet members every week who were visiting Arab cities. Moshe Dayan went once or twice a week to Nablus. Cabinet members from all parties came to every city, every village in the West Bank. I was with them. There was a sort of competition — who could make more visits and who would have more friends among the Palestinians.

* Editor’s note: The week before this discussion took place, the New York Times published an op-ed by Dayan in which he argued that a “negotiated political agreement is impossible at the moment” and called instead for a “peaceful nonreconciliation” that would provide various improvements to the day-to-day lives of Palestinians, including dismantling the security wall and allowing for complete freedom of movement.

So this is the major difference for me. Of course, there’s bitterness, hatred, frustration, on both sides. But it’s very important to say that without freedom of movement you cannot run anything in this country. And I was glad, when I read Dani Dayan’s article,* that he said: Let’s begin with freedom of movement. When there was freedom of movement, there were about 200,000 Palestinian laborers working in Israel. I’m hesitant to say they made good money, but the standard of living went up dramatically in those years. Now we have 300,000 or more foreign laborers — from Africa, from Asia, from all over the world — and we don’t give those job opportunities to our neighbors. This is the major change that I’ve seen since 1967 — really, since ’91 or ’92.

BASSIM KHOURY: One result of what you’re talking about is the complete schism between the two sides; we live so close to each other, yet we know so little about each other. You used to know us as laborers, doing the labor that Israelis didn’t want to do, and now you know us as homicide bombers. And we only know you as colonists and occupiers. What’s amazing but often ignored is that it’s been almost fifty years. In Dani’s article that he’s so proud of, which was published in the New York Times, he mentions a fifty-year-old Palestinian man being humiliated while having to deal with an Israeli soldier half his age, just to carry out mundane daily chores.

DANI DAYAN: I criticized that.

Map by Mike Reagan

Map by Mike Reagan

KHOURY: Yes, yes, you criticized that. But you failed to mention that this fifty-year-old man has lived almost all his life under occupation and has been continuously humiliated for almost half a century! So you have lived all your life in a certain situation, yet you know so little about the person in front of you. When we were allowed to travel, when there was no wall separating us, I used to take my employees to the Sea of Galilee on day trips to swim. And I would ask: “How many of you have ever crossed into Israel?” We are speaking before the First Intifada, when you could just get into your car and in two hours be in Haifa or in Tiberius. The number was never more than 10 percent.

Simply put, for almost half a century we Palestinians have been living in a big prison. We all feel imprisoned. A majority of Gaza residents have never left Gaza. Almost no young people — and they are more than half of the population — almost none have ever left Gaza. You’re speaking of a territory smaller than Greater Tel Aviv. One and a half million people locked in an area of 365 square kilometers. They believe Gaza is the center of the world. The situation is very much the same for young people in the West Bank. Even at this time of the global village, people are becoming less and not more open to what’s happening around them.

The major effect of the current situation, which people like me have been warning about for years, is that the moderate core of societies, the people who do know better, are voting with their feet. They are leaving. And as a result, who’s staying? The extremists.

DAYAN: I relate completely to many of the things that Bassim has said. Without asking him, I think that the main difference of opinion is who is to blame for it. Bassim, I suppose, will say the occupation, the so-called occupation. And I will say the political and moral choices that Palestinians made during the past decades. Let’s take, for instance, Gaza. I haven’t been in Gaza since the disengagement, obviously. But I assume that the human conditions in Gaza are quite harsh. I agree with Bassim there. But the truth is that the Palestinian residents of Gaza were given a historic choice seldom given so clearly to a group of persons. They had the ability to decide whether they wanted Gaza to be a Middle Eastern Singapore or a Middle Eastern Somalia. If they had decided that they wanted Gaza to be a Middle Eastern Singapore, I don’t have the smallest doubt that Israel would have contributed all it could to that effort.

But they made a cold-blooded decision that they prefer Gaza to be a Middle Eastern Somalia, that they want Gaza to be a launching pad for aggression against Israel, that they want almost every single penny, every single euro, every single yen, every single pound that was generously contributed to Gaza by the international community not to improve infrastructure, not to build hospitals, not to build schools, but to amass armaments against Israel.

AVISHAI: We are trying to talk about long-term issues more than who is to blame for what. I’m a little concerned about degenerating into a back and forth over —

DAYAN: Okay, but you have to understand the background in order to do that.

AVISHAI: We will, I’m sure, get into the question of who is to blame. I would like you to talk about the future a little bit.

DAYAN: I have described a plan for what I call peaceful nonreconciliation, because reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians — or between Zionism and the Palestinian national movement — is not reachable right now. Incidentally, I think this is the most accurate definition of the conflict. It’s a conflict between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian national movement. A national-liberation movement, the Zionist movement, which sees itself as reclaiming its homeland, and a national movement like the Palestinian movement, which sees Zionism as a colonialist project, don’t have a reconciliation point.

A still from Infiltrators, a video by Khaled Jarrar, which documents the experience of Palestinians attempting to cross into Jerusalem from the West Bank. It is on view now as part of Here and Elsewhere, an exhibition of con-temporary Arab art at the New Museum, in New York City. In July, Israeli officials denied Jarrar exit from Palestine to attend the exhibition’s opening © The artist. Courtesy Galerie Polaris, Paris, and New Museum, N.Y.C.

A still from Infiltrators, a video by Khaled Jarrar, which documents the experience of Palestinians attempting to cross into Jerusalem from the West Bank. It is on view now as part of Here and Elsewhere, an exhibition of con-temporary Arab art at the New Museum, in New York City. In July, Israeli officials denied Jarrar exit from Palestine to attend the exhibition’s opening © The artist. Courtesy Galerie Polaris, Paris, and New Museum, N.Y.C.

Therefore, what we have to do is invest our energy in the question: How do you handle life as normally as possible under the abnormal circumstances of the lack of reconciliation? Ten years after the Second Intifada, Israel has to start to heal and take calculated risks. And I’m very much in favor of this. If I can offer three main points, the first one is, as Danny said, freedom of movement, complete freedom of movement. I want to go back to those days that you just mentioned, when my neighbor in the Palestinian village of Azzoun could wake up in the morning and tell his children, “It’s a very nice day today. Let’s go to the beach in Tel Aviv.” No permit needed.

The second one is employment. I want to see high-tech professionals from Ramallah in the startups of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — not only blue-collar labor, as Bassim mentioned. I want to see joint industrial parks. The third one I think is the most problematic but maybe the most important: the complete rehabilitation of the refugee camps. The fact that sixty-five years after the creation of the refugee problem the fifth generation still lives in squalid conditions maintained by a corrupt U.N. agency whose task is to perpetuate the refugee status — I think it’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace for the Palestinians and it’s a disgrace for us.

If all of that is done, it’s not a solution to the problem. The conflict will be as unresolvable as it is today. But it will make a dramatic change in the lives of real people. This is the option we pose now. Do we want to do nothing but engage in escalating diplomatic warfare with outbursts of violence, or come to grips with the conclusion that the conflict does not have a solution right now and make out of it the best things we can?

EREL MARGALIT: I don’t buy that premise. You know, I come from the start-up-nation generation. I have been an entrepreneur for about twenty years and started many companies here in Jerusalem. My generation in Israel is moving into political life, and we do not accept some of the premises that the previous leadership brought to the table. One premise is that the situation is not solvable or that we can focus on economic advances and give up on political agreements. Granted, we have a very tough situation here. But no victory can be achieved if you don’t maintain optimism. I am convinced that with this attitude we will have a two-state solution within five or ten years.

Sometimes I think it’s healthy for my fellow Israelis to look at the Middle East and remove ourselves from the picture for a moment, just for perspective. And when you look at what’s going on around us, you see a lot of challenging situations — in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq — but you also see a few rays of light that are interesting and worth exploring. This is especially true with entrepreneurs, who view one another through a different prism, across different cultures. You see a very entrepreneurial community in Jordan of people who were not connected to the administration. You’re seeing in Egypt that the Arab Spring is not just a democratic process; it’s also an economic process. And you see pockets of innovation, especially among women, around Cairo. You see places like Tunisia, where the Arab Spring has brought not only frightening events but also the first real democracy.

Although politicians are having a hard time finding models of cooperation, in the business community we have a few of these models. If you want to talk about bleak situations — in 2002 you had about two dozen suicide bombers coming just from the city of Jenin alone. I was in the Golani Brigade, and we worried about it all the time. Today, in the governorate of Jenin there is a big discussion with the Israeli region of Gilboa, which is right next door, about creating an industrial zone that would span both. And just recently I saw that they are marketing a tourist package in Germany: three days Jenin, three days Gilboa.

If you drive half an hour north from where we are and you stand in the middle of Ramallah, you see thirty-five cranes. You see another society that’s trying to build a country. To me, it’s not a question of whether this is going to happen. I am sure it is going to happen. I’m just looking for the right people to lead it and want to be involved as part of it.

EVA ILLOUZ: Erel, it seems to me that your view that there is great possibility for change has much to do with being involved in the process. I wonder if such involvement does not create the illusion of movement. There is a kind of asymmetry between those who are involved in what is happening on the ground and those who are spectators — or victims — of it. I view myself as belonging to the second group. Like most Israelis, I am a bystander, and I do not see the things you see. Those actively involved in the two populations fall prey to an illusion that many changes are possible because they confuse movement and change, whereas people like me fall prey to the opposite illusion: that things are more static and bleaker than they actually are, only because most of the changes abundantly covered by the media are not palpable.

AVISHAI: So you see negative trends?

ILLOUZ: I see conflicting trends. I define myself as being at the juncture between diasporic Jews and Israeli Jews. I was born in Morocco, but I grew up largely in France and spent many years as an academic in the United States. I arrived in Israel after the age of thirty and have never really been able to become a full-fledged sabra. As someone who still identifies with the Diaspora, I often feel like a stranger to myself as an Israeli. This, it seems to me, is a breach in Israeli identity that is going to grow increasingly and reshape the relationships between Jews and Israel. Remember that originally the vocation of the country was not only national but transnational as well. Israel was to represent the unity of the entire Jewish people. That was very much Theodor Herzl’s objective, the initial objective of much of Zionist thought: not only to build a state but to unite the entire Jewish people. For a long time Israel’s relationship with the Jews outside Israel rested on that assumption.

We are starting to see this change dramatically. One example: A group of intellectual Israelis have emigrated to Berlin and claimed they were returning to their real roots in Europe. For those of us who wanted to be Jewish and yet did not relish separating ourselves from non-Jews, Israel was a universalist solution to our dilemma. Israel was the solution to the contradiction between particularity and universality. We are witnessing a complete reversal of this dynamic: a significant faction of the Jewish people, inside and outside Israel, who view themselves as the bearers of universalist values, think that such universalism can only be achieved outside Israel. In the past few years it has become painfully clear that Israel has in fact become a particularistic, ethno-religious project. In the first Knesset, there were sixteen members from the only distinguished religious party, the United Religious Front. Today, religious parties constitute a quarter of the Knesset — thirty out of 120 Knesset members. That’s without counting religious members of the Likud party, such as Tzipi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin. Over the past decade, the number of students in ultra-Orthodox elementary schools has grown by almost 60 percent, while the number of students in secular elementary schools has remained basically unchanged. The forecast is that by 2025, 35 percent of all children entering elementary schools in the Hebrew education system will be ultra-Orthodox.

These changes are reflected in the public rhetoric, which has become far more religious, as was obvious when Netanyahu demanded that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state. Such a demand had never been made before. Politically, Israel is a different entity. Many Jews have stopped identifying with Israel, not because they are assimilating, not out of apathy, but through a conscious, deliberate belief that Israel jeopardizes the moral core of their identity. The new trend is toward the isolation of Israel not only from the world but from an increasingly large faction of the Jewish people. This is not only because of the way in which Israel relates to the Palestinians and the Palestinian issue but also because of the ways in which Israel has treated Jews themselves. The state has missed a very important opportunity to be a platform in which all the plurality of forms of Judaism could meet and flourish. In fact, Judaism has been less able to flourish in Israel than in Christian countries after World War II because of the control of Orthodox Judaism in all major state institutions and its legal framework.

And this is not disconnected to the issue we are discussing. Israel is unable to solve the conflict with Palestinians for the same reasons it is unable to provide a platform uniting Jews: the country is premised on a primordial, religious, ethnic vision of itself which prevents it from articulating a universal language of rights. Ultra-Orthodox, various religious factions, and settlers have in fact reshaped public rhetoric, schools, and key state institutions, thus making it increasingly difficult to hold on to a liberal, universalist vision of humanity from which grand projects like peace and pluralism can emerge.

Graffiti painted on Jerusalem’s security walls during the Second Intifada, 2000 © Gary Knight/VII

Graffiti painted on Jerusalem’s security walls during the Second Intifada, 2000 © Gary Knight/VII

If left to its own devices, the trend I see for Israel on the horizon is its increasing mental and economic isolation. Here I am simply echoing a general sense that everyone has. Certainly at the university it is palpable. It’s much more problematic to collaborate with foreign universities than it used to be. I suspect this is only the beginning of what will be an irresistible process. There is a deep crisis of trust in Israeli institutions. Many secular people, members of the traditional elite, have no faith whatsoever in their political leadership and institutions and are leaving Israel.

KHOURY: It’s the same in Palestine.

ILLOUZ: Of course. And I think what you said is absolutely relevant.

MARGALIT: I mean, some are leaving. But it’s not a big trend, is it? I don’t see it.

ILLOUZ: I think it is a significant trend. The university feels it very much. We have great difficulties bringing back the outstanding students who went to do their Ph.D.’s outside the country.

MARGALIT: I deal with these centers of excellence and . . .

DAYAN: I will say that in insignificant circles it’s a significant trend.

ILLOUZ: In insignificant circles? I am not surprised that Dani Dayan thinks Israeli academia to be an insignificant circle. It takes time until we can properly measure the percentage of migration and the characteristics of immigrants in the last years. But just so we understand the current atmosphere, a comprehensive survey published in Haaretz revealed that nearly 40 percent of Israelis think about emigration. This is a striking number.

AVISHAI: Let’s table that for a second. We should come back to the question of whether the kinds of political changes you anticipate, Erel, are conceivable without the threat of global isolation that Eva is referring to. But I want to give — do you want to say one last sentence?

ILLOUZ: I just wanted to add another observation, about the trends I see on the horizon. I see at work a process of what I would call the dis-enclavation of Israeli Arabs. Arab towns are exploding because they have no land or building permits, and there is no way for the tiny physical space left by Israeli authorities to fit the demographic growth. This will lead to two trends: spillover of Arabs into Jewish towns and urban centers, and greater racism. Israeli society was relatively free of noxious racism for as long as Arabs were kept in faraway enclaves. But those enclaves will not work anymore. We are going to see greater integration, not by ideology and not by principle, just by the force of demography, and this will in turn create racist backlashes inside Israeli society.

AVISHAI: Since Eva mentioned the trends among Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, I want to give Forsan a chance to jump in here.

FORSAN HUSSEIN: I want to go back to Bassim’s first point, which is that we don’t know each other. This is the heart of the issue. I come from a small village up north, Sha’ab. It was a major village before 1948. Today, Sha’ab is a place of internal refugees. As an Israeli Arab, a Palestinian Israeli — whatever you want to call me — I grew up on the most extreme Palestinian narrative, was fed every type of stereotype you can get. When I was nine and ten years old, it was the height of the First Intifada. And as an Arab who does not speak Hebrew, from that early age it was easier for us to watch Syrian and Jordanian TV. And, of course, the Arab media at the time portrayed the worst images of Israel. Realistically speaking, these were ugly images — of the Intifada, of the soldiers. It was only by chance that when I was ten years old I met a Jewish person. I tended my family’s goats, and one of them wandered into the neighboring village, a Jewish village. It was such a shock that it dismantled all the stereotypes that I had. I helped create the first organization in Israel that brings Arabs and Jews together.

I’m thirty-six years old today. Twenty-six years have passed. That’s an entire generation. Today, if you look at the polls, 58 percent of young Jewish Israeli high school students believe that Israeli Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate. So I’m not that optimistic about greater integration. I was blessed to have left my village and gone to the States. I spent thirteen years of my life there. And I learned one very important thing about the American model, which is: strength comes from diversity. But in Israel diversity is a source of major suspicion. We’re not comfortable with diversity.

AVISHAI: Khalil, you’re the numbers man. Are we in fact pulling ourselves further apart?

KHALIL SHIKAKI: That’s a good question. There is no doubt that on the issue of what Palestinians believe — and I will talk about Palestinians; there are enough Israelis here to talk about what Israelis believe — in terms of ideas and in terms of loyalties, things have been in a little turmoil. I lived in this city in the 1960s and early ’70s, right after ’67. Because of that openness that Danny describes, I was able to leave Rafah, where I was born, to live in Jerusalem and go to school here. In those days, traditional values were much more important than national identity. Loyalty to Jordan and continued belief in links to Jordan were still very strong. The idea of a two-state solution was universally rejected by Palestinians. The idea was basically considered treason. You’re abandoning the goal of liberating all of Palestine.

After the ’73 war, however, the Palestinians felt that the Arabs were abandoning them. That’s when the idea of a two-state solution gained significant momentum. There were no Islamists during that period. By the mid-1970s, the pro-Jordanian elements were being gradually kicked out of the West Bank, politically, in part because Israel opened its labor market. Going to work in Israel made a lot of Palestinians develop different perceptions — about Israel, about Jordan, but most importantly about their own identity. They no longer viewed themselves as connected to Jordan. The Palestinian national movement became essentially the master of both the West Bank and Gaza by the second half of the 1970s.

Another development started to take place at that time, which was that West Bankers and Gazans were developing their own political views that were not necessarily compatible with those of the PLO. And the eruption of the First Intifada was when things inside the West Bank and Gaza started to take the lead in Palestinian affairs, which accelerated the idea that a two-state solution was the way to go. But it also introduced the Islamists. So the First Intifada essentially introduced the two conflicting ideas that have fought for Palestinian loyalty since then — a two-state solution emerging among the nationalists, and Islamists rising to threaten that.

While the Islamists were beginning to gather their strength, the nationalists were conspiring to sign the Oslo Accords. The signing of Oslo essentially preempted the Islamists, and for almost a decade the nationalists reigned supreme among Palestinians. The peace process and the two-state solution were the dominant ideas among Palestinians. Although there was some violence at that time, Palestinians who supported the two-state solution and the peace process rejected violence completely and believed in diplomacy. In terms of Palestinian public opinion, and for the Palestinian national movement, this was the golden age. This was the heyday for nationalists, for the two-state solution, and for diplomacy.

The Second Intifada changed all of that. What the Islamists could not do in the First Intifada they did in the Second Intifada. They became number one in terms of public support. They won the 2006 elections. This did not necessarily mean the end of the two-state solution. There’s no doubt that we see less support for the two-state solution, but most Palestinians continue to support it. The nationalists continue to be the largest political force, though not as big as they were before the Second Intifada. Islamists have the support of about one third of the Palestinians. Of this one third, the overwhelming majority are people who share Hamas’s values, which is to say this support is solid and not a temporary kind of support. The rest support it because of other reasons. One reason is the belief that the nationalists have failed in their most vital goal, which is to end the occupation and build a Palestinian state through diplomacy.

Assuming that diplomacy will not bring about a two-state solution, the trend will most likely take two forms. Either the Islamists will win the day, or a new development among the nationalists will emerge. The new development I’m talking about is something we observe among the younger half of the adult population — people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four — and that is the solid support they have for a one-state solution.

If the generation currently in favor of a one-state solution continues to grow — that is to say they do not abandon the one-state solution as they get older — then in ten to twenty years, they will be the overwhelming majority of the population. We’re moving away from national identity; we’re moving away from a two-state solution; we’re embracing more universal values or else Islamist values. That is where the competition is likely to be in the future.

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