My meeting today was with Mossi Raz, an active figure of the Israeli activist left and a former member of Knesset in the Meretz party. The party describes itself as left-wing, Zionist, and social democratic with an emphasis on peace with the Palestinians in the framework of a two-state solution, human rights, religious freedom, and environmentalism. Originally formed in 1992 from the merger of three leftist parties, Meretz has gone through several permutations, names, and changes of fortune at the polls.
In the 2009 elections, Mossi Raz was in the fifth position on the party list joined with HaTnuah HaChadashah (The New Movement) which together received three seats. Now he serves as a national party chair as well as sitting on the board of directors of Shalom Achshav, where he was previously executive director. He also works for All For Peace Radio, a joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station broadcasting in Hebrew, Arabic, and English providing “a message of peace, cooperation, mutual understanding, coexistence and hope.” He is also involved in the Madrid Coalition, a collection of Israeli, Palestinian, and European civil society organizations in support of a multilateral peace agreement along the lines of the Saudi/Arab League Peace Plan.
We began our discussion first with Meretz’s position on the Gaza Strip and the Disengagement. Like others I have spoken to on the left, Meretz’s position is that it supported the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces and the eviction of Jewish residents, but would have preferred that it be done through negotiations. While my host was not pleased with the violence that erupted from Gaza following the withdrawal, it is his belief that Israel is more secure as a result. He contends that the Disengagement saved the lives of many soldiers and settlers who would have died had Israel remained.
As to why the withdrawal was important for Israel, Meretz contends that settlements are the largest obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Their removal from Gaza represents a large step forward in changing this reality. It is not easy to remove settlers, he argued, and it is incredibly costly, in no small part due to what he feels was unreasonably high and unjust compensation given to Gaza settlers to encourage them to leave voluntarily. Now Gaza is largely quiet and stable, thanks to the ceasefire, although Meretz recognizes that this is a temporary state of affairs. They further recognize that there are extreme parties like Hamas which reject the very existence of Israel and that withdrawal from Gaza alone has not muted the aspirations and demands of these players.
As for the Golan Heights, Meretz takes the standpoint that this too is illegally occupied territory and must be returned to Syria in a peace deal. My host further argued that Israel is less secure in the north than it was prior to taking the Golan as evidenced by not only the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but by the contemporary security situation in Lebanon. Syria recognizes that it does not have the power to declare an open war with Israel. As such, it has used the Lebanese track to continue war by other means, supporting various insurgent groups there, most notably Hezbollah.
I asked from here why it was that Israelis almost universally oppose withdrawing from this territory, particularly if it is such a burden to state security. In part, he asserted because there are few internal pressures for Israel to leave. Unlike Gaza or the West Bank, there is a fairly insignificant non-Israeli population demanding independence. As for the positive reasons for maintaining control, he quoted a recent statement by Uzi Arad, national security advisor to Benyamin Netanyahu.
Asked by a Haaretz reporter why Israel needed to retain control over the Golan, he responded, “For strategic, military and land-settlement reasons. Needs of water, wine and view.” The security argument, my host clearly believed, is faulty to the core, while he asserted that water is something you buy, not go to war over. As for wine, he argues that Israelis see the Golan as a vacation spot, a place to escape reality, enjoy nature, and drink good wine. This may be what Israelis want but peace is more important.
Turning to the West Bank, my host asserted that the Meretz position is quite similar: Israel must develop an agreement with the Palestinians to withdraw from the West Bank following the model of the Geneva Accords, the Arab League initiative, or the like. The continued occupation of the West Bank, he continued, is making a question mark for the whole existence of Israel.
Why? Because the occupation is immoral, it encourages violent resistance and war crimes (he included suicide bombings and rocket attacks in this category), and because continued occupation does not fit the interests of Israel, namely to live peacefully with its neighbors. While there are perhaps 7 million Jews in Israel, there are some 1 billion Muslims and 100 million Arabs in the region alone. If Israel does not find a way to live with them, Israel will not be able to live at all.
Inquiring about the nature of this withdrawal, he again asserted the example of previous initiatives and halted agreements: the Clinton Parameters from Camp David, the Geneva Initiative, the Arab League Plan. Moreover, he maintained that such a withdrawal must include swaps of territory which include places like Gush Etzion and large neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, as well as Givat Ze’ev and Maale Adumim. These places he mentioned, if nothing else, because Israel does not want to have to move more settlers than it absolutely must. Again recall the expense and national tension he cited with regard to the unilateral disengagement. Yet as important is Palestinian acceptance of these moves, which requires negotiation to come to a mutually agreeable settlement.
I then asked him to explain why there has been no withdrawal thus far aside from isolated dismantling of settlements in the northern West Bank. Here he indicated that this is simply not on Netanyahu’s agenda. Even under Olmert, he may have had some intention to withdraw but exhausted all his political capital fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. By the time these wars ended, he no longer had the power to implement another disengagement and was no longer trusted by the public.
As for why the public is not accepting of another withdrawal, he gave three reasons. 1) The enormous settler population: some 8% of Israelis and some 10% of Israeli Jews live outside the Green Line and this is no small proportion. These people live in these places, and cannot be convinced that security, ending occupation, and an unreliable peace are worth giving up their homes. 2) Israelis, and “nations in general across the world” have always supported wars. Occupation is not of great concern to them nor do they understand (or care to understand?) the day to day realities in the territories. 3) Propaganda from the Israeli right wing which presents a narrative of suffering during and after the disengagement by the settlers, and the violent reaction of the Palestinians. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult to implement a similar approach again.
Our discussion final moved to Jerusalem. In this, he admitted that although Meretz today supports a division of Jerusalem with Arab neighborhoods for Palestinians and Jewish neighborhoods for Israelis, until 2005, a united and indivisible Jerusalem was part of their party platform. As early at 1988, the platform of one of the party’s precursors, Ratz, allowed some ambiguity on the subject. Although they too supported a united Jerusalem, they included a passage noting that the “final status” of the city would take into consideration the “relations” of “religions and nations”. It was not until the Geneva Initiative in 2003, spearheaded by then party head Yossi Beilin, that Meretz formally came out in support of division.
As for why Israelis largely oppose dividing the city, my host recognizes that Jerusalem is still holy for Israelis and division is still a taboo subject. As previous interviewees have suggested to me, my host asserted that when Israelis think of division, they think of the stark and violent division between East and West which lasted from 1948 to 1967. But, he insisted, it matters how the question is framed. Many Israelis are prepared to give up Arab majority neighborhoods around the city when it is not framed as dividing the city. Conversely, many Israelis are willing to give up “settlements” for peace, but do not consider large urban centers like Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat, or Ariel to be settlements at all.
Asking about Meretz’s position on groups like Ateret Cohanim and the City of David Foundation which seek to buy properties in Arab neighborhoods (whether previously Jewish owned or not), the answer is clear. They are very much against it; not as a matter of property rights or legality, but as a matter of politics. If this issue is simply a matter of property, why not allow Palestinians to buy back properties lost in 1948? The biggest question in the conflict, my host believes, is the status of Palestinian refugees. When Israeli groups are buying back property, they are playing the same game, he argues, as Hamas; delegitimizing the accepted borders and opening the way for reverse claims by Arabs.
Finally, I inquired as to what Meretz’s position is on the possibility of transferring control of territories in the “little Arab Triangle” to a future state of Palestine in exchange for Jewish populated territories in the West Bank. Meretz takes two stances; the first is that they believe it is a good thing that Arabs in this area are, on the whole, against such a swap. If citizens of the state are loyal, support the country, and want to remain a part of it, this is something to be supported, not discouraged. Second, they maintain that such a move contravenes agreements made in 1949 when Iraqi units which were occupying the territory withdrew, namely that Israel would not discriminate against Arabs living there and allow them to be equal citizens of the state. With the power of taking control of these territories comes the responsibility of taking charge of its residents.
Taking stock of this interview as a whole, I found both a great deal of consistency between the position of Meretz and other leftist groups in Israel and even some correspondence with the right. Namely, all parties I have interviewed thus far seem to view Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and control of the Golan almost entirely in terms of state security. My host’s inclusion of economic and leisure considerations with respect to the Golan Heights, however, took me by surprise. I am interested to see if this will be a minority position or if it is more widely held.
Meretz’s narrative with regard to the West Bank and even Jerusalem seems to be primarily guided by sensitivity to self-determination issues, although the question of a demographic threat itself was never raised. Like all other parties with whom I have spoken, Meretz accords a special significance to Jerusalem in terms of its religious and cultural value and association with national history, but not in as stark or definite terms as others. This is probably to be expected the farther left one goes on the political spectrum just as the opposite is likely to be true toward the right. Still, this is an observation worth tracking for content and consistency.
Tomorrow I will be going on a tour of East Jerusalem with Ir Amim and then settling in for what will hopefully by a relaxing Shabbat. Next week I already have several interviews lined up in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and perhaps even the South. One and a half weeks into my formal research, I am pleased with the pace and progress made so far. Stay tuned for much much more.