On Wednesday, I had the privilege of meeting with Haim “Jumas” Oron, the current leader of Meretz, at their party offices in Tel Aviv. Oron has been a longtime leftist political activist in Israel, was one of the original founders of Shalom Achshav, and was the top spot on the party’s oldelectoral list in 2009. After a rather disappointing showing, he has made it his mission to rebuilt the party and revitalize the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
In this respect, he told me at the start of the interview that Meretz is the only Zionist party that describes very clearly its position in terms of a solution for the conflict. The Geneva Accord is a key part of their platform and, as many have told me previously, is incredibly detailed in terms of its program, plan, and offer to the Palestinians. Meretz sees this as one critical piece of the puzzle to resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict as a whole. In this respect, the party is also supportive of the 2002 Arab League peace initiative as an umbrella for resolution, setting the stage for negotiated agreements with the Palestinian Authority, Syria, and Lebanon.
A critical aspect of this approach is peace with Syria. This, they believe, can only come about as the result of a detailed agreement in which Israel withdraws totally from the Golan Heights. Whether this is to the 1949 ceasefire line or the “official” international boundary is of less concern. More important, he asserted, is the recognition that peace with Syria will be impossible so long as Israel maintains control of the Golan. While there are those who claim that the status quo of a relatively quiet border is enough, that Israel need not seek a negotiated peace, Meretz takes the position that there “is no status quo.” Syria is now more or less aligned with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, parties which are totally opposed to Israel’s very existence. If Israel wishes to break the chain that binds these entities together, it must make peace with Syria.
This is not to say that Oron believes withdrawing from the Golan will be easy. He recognizes that although his party is opposed to “settlements”, Israelis have been settling in and developing in the territory for the last 40 years. Yet, the longer Israel waits, the harder it will be to withdraw. A continued occupation and no peace agreement with the Arab world is dangerous for Israel and he believes the leadership must make tough decisions.
With respect to Gaza, Meretz takes the position that while it may have been better to have negotiated a withdrawal from the Strip with the PA, any withdrawal is better than none at all. This, he asserted, was not just political posturing on the part of Meretz but it was a matter of realized policy. Without Meretz’s 6 votes, the government under Ariel Sharon’s leadership would not have had a majority to implement the disengagement.
To the charge that Israel is less secure than it was prior to the disengagement, Oron admitted that Israel was indeed attacked upon its withdrawal. That said, there were qassams being launched from Gaza before the withdrawal. Moreover he claimed that Israel is not being attacked with missiles from Jordan, the West Bank, or “even Lebanon really.” The fear of being attacked should not dictate from where Israel withdraws or with whom Israel makes peace. Of course, many security analysts disagree with this position, claiming that the only reason the West Bank doesn’t pose a similar threat to Gaza is because the Israeli military is there actively propping up the PA and apprehending Hamas cells.
Whatever the veracity of either of these claims, it is clear that Meretz’s position stems from one in which ending the occupation is seen as a primary good. The question, Oron suggested, is whether there can be any solution to stop terrorism while continuing the occupation. Some will argue that Israel is attacked simply because it is a Jewish state, therefore it should remain in control of all territories to prevent any strategic weakness. However, both the first and second intifadas erupted while Israel was in control of all territories.
The only alternative he sees to stop the violence permanently is to support the creation of a Palestinian state. Supported certainly by the Palestinians themselves, the Arab states, and most of the international community, Meretz believes a negotiated settlement would put an end to the conflict. It is in the Palestinian interest to live in peace in an independent state beside Israel just as continued terrorism is against their interests. On the Israeli side, he believes that withdrawal from the territories is critical as it is the only way to build and preserve a Jewish, democratic state. To have these things and a continued occupation are totally contradictory.
Turning to the West Bank and the potentially renewed peace process, Oron noted that while “Abu Mazan and Bibi” are resuming direct negotiations next week, no new discussion and dialogue is necessary. Everybody knows more or less what the framework must be for a solution, a asserted: a Palestinian state demilitarized and based on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps in which Israel retains the major settlement blocs. The discussion is now not between Palestinian control of 0-100% of the land in question, but 2.7% according to Geneva or 5-6% based on what Ehud Olmert offered to Abu Mazan two years ago. If Netanyahu proposes that Israel keep some 20% of the West Bank, he should not bother to negotiation because there will be nothing to talk about.
As for Jerusalem, he believes that it can be two capitals for two peoples, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians. Most of the land where Jews live now must be part of the swap while all the Palestinian suburbs must be under Palestinian sovereignty. This is not something hypothetical, but based on the detailed roadmap laid out in the Geneva Accords. The agreement proposes the complete division of the city with special status accorded to the Old City where sovereignty would be divided but an international monitoring regime would preserve it as a somewhat neutral and certainly separate space.
Regarding Palestinian refugees, Meretz believes this is an international issue which must be resolved with Israeli involvement but the “right of return” per say is utterly unacceptable. While Israel must make some effort to resolve certain problems, to say that Palestinians should return to Jaffa, this, he asserted, “will ruin Israel,” and you do not sign a peace agreement based on the ruining of one of the partners. The Palestinian state is the place in which Palestinian nationhood will be achieved just and Israel is the place where Jewish nationhood will be achieved. In Oron’s point of view, asserting that these two spaces are where the Israelis and Palestinians will achieve Self-Determination is a much better approach than demanding that the PA recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
I then asked him among all these issues, what is the biggest problem standing in the way of an agreement? He believes it is more an Israeli issue than a Palestinian one. While he supports Israel returning to direct negotiations with the PA, it is unclear to him what Netanyahu will even be willing to offer to Mahmoud Abbas. To say that there will be a two-state solution in 2010 without saying that you accept the 1967 border as the line of compromise, or if you do not say that Jerusalem will be two capitals, it is “as if you say nothing.”
He recognizes that for Netanyahu to say there will be a Palestinian state represents a great deal of progress in his own thinking, but it is not enough “because the world is in a different place.” The gap between world and Palestinian perceptions of what the resolution of the conflict should be and what Likudniks think it should be must be closed, because, “at the end of the day, they have to meet each other.” Oron is truly worries that the maximum that Bibi is ready to give is less than the minimum than the Palestinians are willing to receive, and the maximum that the Palestinians are willing to concede is less than the minimum which Israeli will demand.
In terms of recent discussions about transferring control of the “little Arab Triangle” in the Galilee to a future Palestinian state, Oron broadly denounces such a move. Where his party has discussed swapping territory, the lands have been totally with out citizens. Where one is transferring control of land with citizens, this is not swapping. A basic right of citizenship is that no one can push you or your land into another country. No more than the United States should be transferring parts of the southwest populated by Latinos to Mexico should Israel conceive of taking such a move with respect to its Palestinian citizens.
We then discussed the bi-national option. Here he pointed to the basic program of Hashomer Hatzair, one of the founding organizations behind the Kibbutz movement, as laid out in their 1927 political charter. They asserted that the Jewish people were returning to their homeland to establish a state for the Jewish people and the Arabs that lived there. This “dream” of one state for two peoples lasted for approximately one year before the 1948 war. With the proposal of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the Zionist Congress accepted the division of the land. Now, to come back almost 100 years later to the Hashomer Hatzair approach is “strange.”
It would be very difficult for such a state, with two distinct national peoples to exist anywhere, he asserted. When the right speaks of this, he believes they are basically speaking of an Apartheid state. Maybe some Israelis truly believe in this bi-national vision, and they are free to be citizens in a Palestinians just as Arabs are citizens in Israel. But, he argued, they must recognize they will be living in the land of Palestine. In the rest of the world, there are minorities living in states which are dominated by other ethnic majorities; borders do not perfectly divide between peoples. The issue is how the state can make those minorities feel equal in rights and status, not to change borders to ensure ethnic homogeneity.
Why, then, should there be a Jewish state at all? Here, he asserted that even though he is secular, he is still a Jew and he does not accept the argument that those who are more religious and more Jewish. Most of the Jewish nation, he believes, is non-religious, at least in the meaning of orthodox parameters. So when he speaks of a Jewish state for Jews, he says that he does so in the same way that a Frenchman speaks of a French state; one can be Catholic, Christian, or Muslim and still be a Frenchman.
While the Jewish situation is more complicated because of “certain parallels between religion and nation,” the idea of a secular Jewish nation is not new. One reason he believes there must be a Jewish state is so that secular people can continue to be Jewish without needing to increase the differences between themselves and their neighbors. Assimilation, he asserted, is not an issue that one needs to face in a Jewish state.
“We are Zionist and Zionism is a family name.” The Zionist mission, he believes is to build a Beit Leumi (national home) for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Each of these three terms are still under discussion, and rightly so. Yet, it is the belief of Meretz that the only way to build such a home is to split the land. It must be done on the basis of 1967 because this is the only compromise to which both Israelis and Palestinians as well as the rest of the world can agree. The other option is not a compromise of “Big Israel” but a compromise based on the 1947 Partition Plan, less than 2/3 of the modern state. A return to this discussion is more threatening, he believes, to the state than a withdrawal to the 1967 lines will ever be.