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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


Town Hall Conference Call with Marcia Freedman

A Report on the Political Situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories

On Monday, June 4, 2007, Marcia Freedman, President of Brit Tzedek vShalom, discussed her recent trip to Israel and the occupied territories where she met with various political and grassroots leaders including Mustafa Barghouti (Independent Palestine), Minister of Information for the Palestinian Authority and Akiva Eldar, senior columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Hello everybody. It’s always very good to speak with all of you and very strange to be speaking without being able to hear or see but I trust you’re out there and I know I’m here. I want to talk to you first of all about the mood in the country. I think some of you who pay close attention to the news out of Israel have seen that recent polls show that Israelis are losing their confidence that peace is possible, that a negotiated settlement is possible, that there’s a partner for peace on the other side. Of course that is a fairly typical kind of thing that happens when there’s a flair-up in violence as there has been over the past month or so on the southern front and in Sderot, so whether or not that will hold over time I am not sure.

But what clearly is the case is that people are not talking about politics and are not paying too much attention to what is going on whether militarily, politically or diplomatically. Many of the people I met with hardly read the newspapers anymore or perhaps only on the weekend. They don’t listen to the news, not on the radio, not on television. There’s a tendency for families to close themselves off. Many of them are very prosperous and closed off to what is happening not more than fifteen or twenty minutes away in the occupied territories and what may be growing to become the future of the country. So it’s a frightening and depressed feeling in the country at this moment. I think since the Lebanese war there is a new fear and sense of insecurity in the country, a lot of doubt in the government for sure and like I said there is a growing sense that peace isn’t possible and that this was a dream that could never happen.

I think Israeli public opinion will change if there is a real peace initiative but I think it is important to note that there is a growing apathy toward all the issues that are of concern to us among the Jewish citizens of Israel, who are eighty-percent of the country. Among Israeli Arabs who are twenty percent at this time they are noticeably concerned about the Azmi Bishara affair. Azmi Bishara is a former member of Knesset who was elected on the Balad party, which is a nationalist party which attempts to restore national pride to Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel and has been very successful in doing that and has called for Israel to be a state for all of its citizens which is understood to mean one law for all people. At any rate Bishara has been accused of treason. Nobody knows whether the charges are trumped up or not. He is out of the country and there is a great fear that if he comes back he could never get a fair trial because of security issues.

There are enormous amounts of fear making its way through the Palestinian Arab community for the first time that I’ve ever noticed and people are beginning to wonder whether or not they too will be brought up on security charges of one sort or another. And I have to say there was a recent Shin Bet directive, from the secret service, that was approved by the attorney general in Israel that would authorize wire-tapping of telephones in cases where the Shin Bet thought there was some compromise to the definition of the interests of Israel as a Jewish state. So there’s a lot of tension around those issues in the country right now.

Of course there’s the plight of the people in Sderot particularly and other small towns in the Negev. They are development towns; they are not normally highly prosperous, though they are not as poor as they once were. But these are people who are undergoing attacks while I was there from Qassam rockets, sometimes thirty or forty a day and it’s now down to five to ten a day but there have been two deaths for the first time and people are feeling very abandoned by their government. They feel abandoned not only because they’ve been left there to deal with this but because they don’t even have what the people of the north have which is safe rooms to protect themselves and sufficient number of bomb shelters and that sort of a thing…These images are being broadcast to Israelis in general and so that effects the mood of the country as well.

And finally I’d like to say that one of the most interesting things that was going on is the student strike. The student strike was the first time a strike was not only in their own interest but in the interest of those who would come after them. They were trying to make sure that tuition remained subsidized by the government and low enough to make it affordable for all Israelis to go to the university rather than move to a system of higher tuition and student loans where students come out of college and university where students come out of their studies with enormous debt that they have to pay off. This is the American system and the Israeli students are trying to prevent that. I mention it because it is part of the phenomenon that I and others have noticed in general – there seems to be a revived activism and interest in social justice issues and peace issues and all kinds of issues among the younger generation and I’m talking now about those in their twenties and early thirties. I encountered found this in the women’s movement; I found this in the peace movement; it’s something that people are actually talking about in the country. So there is that very positive piece of social development in Israel today.

In the occupied territories I have spent some time traveling and I have to say it’s been two and a half years since I’ve been through the territories and the amount of settlement growth that I witnessed is just enormous and very startling. There are places where what we call a settlement looks to me like a small city. Kiryat Arba where I had once been probably about five years ago had a ring road around it and a number of houses still being built. But today Kiryat Arba - I don’t know how many people are in the population - but it’s neighborhood upon neighborhood upon neighborhood. Hebron on the other hand is a Palestinian city where a good portion of the city, perhaps twenty five percent, looks like a ghost town. There are 500 very fanatic orthodox messianic Jews who have moved into that area of Hebron. They are around the machpela and Beit Hadassah and the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, which has become a religious site it seems. About 1500 families have been displaced by these 500 people.

I went around the eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem seeing where the wall cuts certain sections off from Jerusalem proper and where the wall cuts Palestinians off from Palestinians in these neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where even though they have different names they are pretty continuous one with the other. From the usual road in Jerusalem to Bethlehem it is shocking because there is an enormous structure that looks like a prison that one has to go through. Apparently there are three different processes that one has to go through to get into Bethlehem from Jerusalem from that road. I am told it is pretty much closed on the other side as well. So Bethlehem is really cut off in many ways, from Jerusalem for sure.

There are so many walls it is hard to tell which is the wall because walls are used in many different ways. The roads north/south and east/west are a six lane highway that cut through the West Bank for instance; they are walled on either side, I’m quite serious. There are high walls to prevent anybody from crossing from one side to the other. The medians are on one side of the road and the farmlands are on the other and they can’t get there. They are beginning to build tunnels underneath the roads so that people can get to their farmland. When you look physically at the maps that I have seen and the slides and power-point presentations, and at the physical terrain, it looks like the two state solution is slipping away. The amount of space available for a Palestinian state that would be contiguous and undisturbed either by one of these roads or by an Israeli settlement is becoming smaller and smaller as time goes on. The amount of clearing and construction that would have to be accomplished to achieve a two state solution based on the Geneva model grows greater from one year to the next and we need to keep that in mind as well.

On the Palestinian political scene I am going to report to you based on meetings I had in Ramallah with two different individuals – one with Khadura Falas. He is today the head of an NGO that promotes secular democracy among Palestinian youth. He is one of the Palestinians who participated in the Geneva negotiations.  He was one of the leaders of the first intifada along with Marwan Barghouti. He is in constant communication with Marwan Barghouti and considers himself a close ally of his. According to Khadra Falas, who was a Fatah person, there are those in Fatah, including Mahmoud Dahlan in Gaza, and others who believe that Hamas must be destroyed. That is their mission and that is their intention. Falas doesn’t agree. Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t agree. There are also those in Fatah who think it is much better to encourage pragmatic moderation and moderates within Hamas to take part in the political process. Both of those sentiments are playing themselves out right now. According to Khadura Falas what is happening in Gaza right now is a direct response to that. Hamas is feeling threatened by Fatah and has therefore preempted the battle in Gaza where they are the strongest rather than have it play out in the West Bank where they are much weaker than Fatah. Khadura Falas see U.S. military support for Fatah as part of this pattern and he is not in favor of that even though he is a Fatah person. He also believes Israel is turning a blind eye on smuggling to Fatah from the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza. He is very worried about the fate of Fatah in Gaza and doesn’t think they can be destroyed militarily but is afraid their morale could be broken and that would be very politically damaging for Fatah in general. He himself thinks it is very important that Fatah retains leadership, representing Palestinians internationally because otherwise he fears the Israel-Palestinian conflict will become a Hamas dominated conflict which would devolve into a religious conflict between Islam and Judaism or between Islam and the west. And finally he is working for and working towards new elections, both legislative elections and presidential elections. For the presidential elections his formula is that Marwan Barghouti would run for president from Israeli jail and that he would according to the polls win a handsome majority over Ismail Haniya.

The second meeting I had in Ramallah was with Mustafa Barghouti, no relative to Marwan Barghouti. He is neither Fatah nor Hamas. He is the leader of an independent third way political party that calls for non-violent resistance and democratic institutions and he is currently the minister of information for the Palestinian Authority. He too sees the situation in Gaza as encouraged by the Israeli and U.S. governments by attempting to arm Fatah in an attempt to bring Hamas down. He too, like Khadura Falas, though for different reasons, believes that is not in the best interest of the Palestinian people nor in the best interest of the peace process. He does not think the Palestinian Authority will collapse. No one would want to deal with the chaos that would result and therefore Fatah and Hamas are going to have to learn to govern together and that is going to be their challenge over the next period of time.

Getting to the Israeli political scene, if you’ve read the paper today you saw that Amir Peretz who was head of the Labor party who has lost the elections has thrown his strength of 21% of the vote behind Ami Ayalon. Ami Ayalon was being projected to win the Labor party election from the beginning anyway, and it looks pretty well that when the run-off takes place with Ami Ayalon against Ehud Barak that Ami Ayalon may well be the next head of the Labor party which will be quite interesting from many points of view. First of all he is the former head of the Shin Bet but he is also someone who during the second intifada was a very lone voice calling for a moderate response to the intifada and against a strong military response of the Israeli government toward the intifada. He is the author along with Sari Nusseibeh of the People’s Voice which is a petition calling for a two state solution among Israeli and Palestinian citizens. So Ami Ayalon is someone who supports what we care about and very likely it looks like at this point to become head of the Labor party.          

I was speaking with Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist for Haaretz, and he indicated to me that Ayalon has put forth an ultimatum to Olmert saying he must resign in favor of another Kadima prime minister or that Labor will leave the coalition. Eldar doesn’t think there is much support for this within the Labor party because that would bring the government down and everybody is very fearful about bringing the government down. So the choices for this government are either that Olmert resign in favor of another Kadima leader and the current government moves forth in a different constellation, or go into new elections. The fear on the part of everybody I talked to anywhere from center-left in the country and particularly among the politicians who can be expected to know best, the real fear here is that new elections called at this period of time would result with Netanyahu winning. He can be seen on his side with a Russian oligarch, a Russian billionaire, Arkady Gaydamak, who is quite a demagogue and I think between Gaydamak’s demagoguery and money and Netanyahu’s demagoguery and opportunism this could be a really dangerous situation for Israel. So everybody from center-left is focused on trying to prevent that from happening at the moment, which would mean that Olmert will have to resign or if that is not the case then Olmert is going to need to have something to keep him standing and give him a foothold in his party and in his government so that he doesn’t have to resign even though it’s expected that the second installment of the Winograd report which will be the final report and also including on the final two days of the war when there were so many casualties that the only way Olmert can possibly maintain any standing in that situation will be more political will in the government and to actually move forward in negotiations with the Palestinians, and/or a positive response to the Arab League initiative and/or a positive response to the Syrian initiative all of which are now on the table.

According to today’s Haaretz President Bush is expected to make another major address, that is another major one following his last one in 2000 I think, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that his upcoming meeting on June 19 with Ehud Olmert at the White House the discussion will be about the contents of that speech and what it should be saying. So there’s a real possibility here from a number of different forces, some of them somewhat ironic, that there might be some interest in peace negotiations dependent on a lot of people’s very weak political standing.

Q & A followed this address and is available for listening on our website.

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