Interview with Shalom Achshav (Peace Now)


Today’s posts will be broken into two, both because of the wealth of information I was given yesterday and because of the general unrelatedness of the two organizations with whom I spoke: Shalom Achshav and the Temple Institute.

First thing in the morning, I walked over to HaMoshav HaGermanit (the German Colony) to the Jerusalem Offices of Shalom Achshav to meet with the director of its “Settlement Watch” program, Hagit Ofran. Shalom Achshav, or Peace Now, is a non-governmental organization and activist group in Israel with the agenda of promoting negotiated peace settlements with Israel’s neighboring Arab states and with the Palestinians, generally on the basis of “land for peace.”

The organization was formed on the heels of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel and his famous speech to the Knesset offering peace in 1978. Since then, it has been known for its support of peace negotiations, its opposition to the 1982 Israeli campaign in Lebanon, and a as firm opponent of Jewish settlement in territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Arguably the early 1990s represented the height of the organization’s popularity with its rallying of massive public support for the 1993 Oslo Accords and its successor agreements. Since the failure of the Camp David Accords and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israeli public opinion has become increasingly cynical about the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and public support for Shalom Achshav has diminished.

Regardless, the organization is still active in three primary areas: media work raising awareness both about the organization’s activities and its positions on government policy; direct engagement in the form of pamphleteering, protests, and lobbying work; and the Settlement Watch project which tracks the development, growth, and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Each of these three “legs” are connected, each activity tied to and feeding the work of the others.

Our discussion, rather than centering on the practical aspects of protest and government lobbying, focused on the organization’s policy positions with regard to the major contentious territories under Israel’s control: Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and a united Jerusalem. For the Gaza Strip, my host insisted that the issue of this territory could not be separated from Israeli policy in the West Bank and any approach should be part of a general policy to all territories inhabited by Palestinians. She believes that if there will be a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it will include Gaza at least on paper, even if people there are not yet ready to accept it. Once implemented, a two state solution may change the equation of power in the territory, turning the tide against Hamas.

As for the blockade on the Strip, the organization is against it. This is not to say that they do not believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, but that a blockade against the whole of the population is counterproductive to the security of Israel. This is not an issue with which they are currently actively engaged as they see more urgency in moving the political process with the Palestinians along. But when events merit their engagement, as with the recent flotilla and the constant rocket attacks, Shalom Achshav has made its voice heard.

As for the Disengagement itself, voices within the organization were both for and against it for a variety of reasons. Once implemented, however, Shalom Achshav supported the decision. While it did not mean a formal end to occupation of the Strip, they saw it as a step along the process. That said, my host related her belief that withdrawing from Gaza in the context of a political agreement with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, would have resulted in a less destructive outcome.

Rather than bolstering the power of Hamas which used the disengagement as evidence to the population that violence had been successful, a negotiated agreement might have given Abbas and Fatah greater legitimacy in demonstrating that talking with Israel could achieve concrete results. After the withdrawal, she believes Israel treated the Strip as a no longer its problem which contributed to the cycle of violence-siege which predominates today. She does not believe that this removes Palestinians from responsibility for their own actions but that Israel could have done much better.

When I asked her why it was important that Israel withdrew from Gaza, we really plunged into the heart of the discussion and the core beliefs which seem to drive Shalom Achshav forward. She asserted that Israel has a deep connection to these lands, not just the Strip but the West Bank and Jerusalem with Jewish history found in Hebron, Nablus, and even Gaza. That said, these were not territories that were annexed to the state upon their capture. Why? Because although Israelis wanted the land, they did not want the people.

This is the central predicament as the left especially sees it today: Israel can choose to keep the land but not extend democratic rights to its Arab residents and thus cease to be a democracy. Or Israel can choose to keep the land and extend democratic rights to its Arab residences and thus be outnumbered and cease to be a Jewish state. If Israel wants to remain both Jewish and Democratic, it is the position of Shalom Achshav that Israel must allow for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Moving forward, I asked her about Shalom Achshav’s position on the Golan Heights. They believe that it is in Israel’s foremost interest to have peace with its neighbors, and to achieve peace with Syria requires that Israel withdraw from the Heights. In particular, she highlighted that not only is Syria a key player in the Arab world, but that it, to a great extent, controls Hezbollah. Going further, she asserted that the Iranian threat is very real for Israel, particularly in its support for Hezbollah, and that is almost totally in the hands of the Syrians to stop them. Therefore, a peace agreement with Syria is very much in the strategic interests of Israel and, she argued, in terms of leading to Israel’s “acceptance” in the region.

She does not expect that peace will mean that Israelis will be able to eat hummus in Damascus nor that the Arabs will love Israel, but she is hopefully that peace will allow the states in the region to at least cooperate with one another. Pointing to the Arab League (Saudi) Peace Initiative, she believes Arab states are more willing than ever to accept Israel in the region, even if only for their own reasons, but this is an opportunity Israel must seize. The Golan, she argued, has always been held by Israel as a bargaining chip with Syria. Why not use it?

Next we turned to Shalom Achshav’s position on the West Bank. She believes that an agreement is needed with the Palestinians whereby the border between Israel and the West Bank is clearly defined with land swaps where needed, and that Israel withdraw to these borders. While Shalom Achshav does not present its own map, it generally points to the Geneva Initiative as a model. This was a “peace plan” drafted in December 2003 in discussions between Israeli leftist politicians and Palestinian moderates, namely Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abd Rabbo, as a final status agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As it had the support of neither government, it remains for its supporters an aspirational agreement at best.

In terms of territory, the agreement suggests that Israel will retain control of major settlement blocs near the Green Line like Gush Etzion in exchange for land of equal quality inside Israel proper and that Israel will be responsible for removing the Jewish population from those settlements deeper inside the West Bank. It also envisions some form of shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Their proposed map can be seen here on the Geneva Initiative website. That said, it is Shalom Achshav’s position that the best agreement is one to which both Israelis and Palestinians will mutually agree. Asking why it was important for Israel to withdraw from these territories, my host reasserted the Jewish state versus Democratic state tradeoff previously discussed. If Israel wants both, Shalom Achshav believes withdrawal is necessary.

Turning to the topic of Jerusalem and final status talks, my host asserted that there has been a long process of changing mindsets among the Israeli public beginning with the Oslo agreements in 1993 stretching to the failed Camp David talks of 2000. In this time, there was increasing acceptance in Israeli society of the notion of territorial withdrawal but also a hardening of positions as negotiations crept toward core issues, namely holy places, Jerusalem, and refugees. The talks at Camp David, she believes, really broke taboos about discussion the division of Jerusalem, and for the first time led to a serious discussion about what the capital might look like in the future.

But why have Israelis been so reticent to divide the capital? She believes Jerusalem is most potent as a symbol and a myth in Jewish history and Israeli national identity. In the 100s of tours she has given to Israelis around the city, she says she has asked them what Jerusalem looks like to them. Usually they mention the Kotel (Western Wall), the Old City, and other holy places. These are spaces, she says, that Israelis “don’t want to give up, for sure.”

Their tours then take Israelis to those predominantly Arab neighborhoods where some 250,000 Arabs live which, she believes, most Israelis never see or experience. The general reaction is that “this is not the Jerusalem we are fighting for.” She pointed out that public support for the division of Jerusalem is really conditioned upon the terms of reference. When Israelis have been asked if they would be willing to give up on a united Jerusalem, they say no, but when they are asked if they would give up Palestinian neighborhoods, they agree. While she is no supporter of current Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, she noted that his position, that these Arab majority neighborhoods are not part of the Jerusalem that Israel wants, accord with the position of her organization and Israelis at large.

Turning back to the peace process, she asserted that in Israel there has been a growing readiness to make concessions for peace, but that there is now less of a readiness to engage in such talks. She attributes this to a crisis among Israelis that they lack the confidence, owing the the last twenty years of failed peacemaking, that the Palestinians will not agree to any compromise. Alternatively, if they do agree, there is very little confidence that they would not continue to fight on despite an agreement.

While most Israelis, she believes, are ready for a two-state solution, they are pessimistic that it will become a reality soon. That said, she believes this position is largely the Israeli consensus to which even former opponents of partition, such as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have even begun to openly support. She added that it is not likely, but it is possible that PM Benyanim Netanyahu will also soon be able to talk to Mahmoud Abbas to hammer out an agreement which will include a future vision for Jerusalem.

Pushing the discussion just a bit further, I asked what Shalom Achshav’s position is now on the so-called Arab Triangle in Northern Israel. This is an area primarily populated by Arabs stretching between Yam Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Haifa, and the northern tip of the West Bank which is not internationally contested, but has become a growing area of Arab-Palestinian nationalism. FM Lieberman has suggested that this area, or some portion of it, should be included in a future Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish populated areas in the West Bank. This plan is largely opposed by Israeli Arabs.

While Shalom Achshav is not invested in this issue, my host stated that she believes such a plan is anti-democratic. Why? Because even if Israel were to transfer these areas to Palestinian control, it would neither significantly impact the demographic balance of the Israeli state, the problem to which they are apparently most attuned with respect to the West Bank, and it would leave the remaining Arabs in the country feeling even more like second-class citizens.

Some final observations from my end as I wrap up this post. While it seems that demography and democracy are of primary concern for Shalom Achshav, it is interesting to note how these issues are applied to each of the specific territories mentioned. With regard to Gaza, much of the language used focused on the security of the state; that controlling the territory was a strategic burden and that coordination and negotiation with the PA would have resulted in a more stable outcome in terms of the state’s security. Similarly, in our discussion of the Golan, the onus was entirely upon security. Just as on the right from my research so far it seems that the primary argument for keeping the territory is to bolster state security, on the left it is believed that relinquishing this territory would bolster state security.

Over all of these spaces, history and identity play a prominent role. Even Gaza with its marginal ancient Jewish history is noted as a place of historical habitation, while both the West Bank and Jerusalem are taken as the ancient homeland to which Israelis necessarily feel connected. In these cases, the necessity of withdrawal was only marginally connected to a discussion of state security, and much more so to questions of Jewish identity rooted in history and culture in the context of preserving a democratic state. I imagine that it will be this debate between demography and historical homeland which will continue to reappear in my interviews and archival research.

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