Martin Raffel

Post Israeli Election: Speech at a Presbyterian Church

I delivered a speech to the congregation at Faith Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral, Florida on March 24, 2015. The church is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which narrowly adopted a resolution at its last national gathering in Detroit calling for divestment from American companies doing business in Israel. My aim was to encourage their continued support for the vision of two states for two peoples and to urge that they reject the use of BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions).  Here is the text of my speech:

The objective “truth,” certainly the whole truth is impossible to discern in any situation, let alone one as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I often think of that classic Japanese movie Rashomon in which all three of the participants in an event in the forest came away with very different, but sincerely held interpretations of what actually took place there.

Therefore, I intend to share my own personal and admittedly subjective interpretation, based on life experiences, the books and materials I have read over the years, the many people with whom I have interacted, all filtered through the prism of my biases and loyalties. In short, I am here to share what I believe, not necessarily what I know.

First, an executive summary: I believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents a more than century long struggle between two peoples competing for national sovereignty in the same small tract of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  I believe this struggle is not between right and wrong, but rather between right and right – and occasionally between wrong and wrong.  I further believe that the only just and viable solution is to divide this land into two separate and independent states.

To state the obvious, this conflict has produced enormous suffering on both sides. To be human is to feel empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians. For me, the suffering of the Israeli people is like the suffering of my own family.  But I also anguish over the pain of the Palestinian people, especially today in Gaza as they live in an impossible situation – caught between Hamas, which criminally uses this area as a base for attacking Israeli cities and towns and deploys civilians as human shields, and, on the other side of the border, a powerful Israeli army.

Speaking of Gaza, the asymmetric warfare Israel’s army has had to wage there has presented excruciating dilemmas. The challenge: how to target the bad guys, without harming the innocents. I submit to you that while Israel is far from perfect, its record compares very favorably with other countries forced into this type of combat, including our own.

Here’s where I respectfully am going to differ somewhat with my friend Rabbi Jim Rudin, who last week said he wanted the same standard applied to brutal dictatorships in the Middle East and Africa also applied to Israel. I understand the frustration of many in our community when they see hundreds of thousands and sometimes even millions being killed and maimed elsewhere, yet somehow the spotlight always seems to fall most strongly on Israel. I much prefer Israel to be compared not to Iraq and Sudan and Libya, but to other liberal democracies, such as the United States. How did we deal with 9/11? Rendition, Guantanamo, and the Patriot Act were some of our responses. Keep in mind, also, that Israel’s security environment is much more precarious than ours.

Some basics: Being Jewish is not simply a religious category. It involves belonging to a people, both ancient and modern, with a shared narrative, and shared culture and language, even as distinctive variations of our identity as Jews have developed over the millennia.  As a people, we Jews possess the inalienable right of national self-determination.  I believe it is just and natural for the Jewish people to exercise that right in the Land of Israel, where we first gained sovereignty as a people. During the period Jews lost and regained that sovereignty, we maintained both an unbroken physical presence and deep spiritual connection in the land. From the Bible period, to the time of Jesus and the Second Temple, through the Byzantine era, the emergence of Islam, the Crusades, and the Ottoman Empire—there were Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Haifa, Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron in the West Bank…one of Judaism’s holy cities, site of the Machpela Cave where, according tradition, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried.

I am a third generation American.  I grew up in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Frankly, I didn’t think much about Israel as a youngster.  I remember being taken to see the movie Exodus with Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint in the 1950’s. When cars appeared in the first scene, I still remember turning to my parents and asking, “What’s going on here? How can there be cars in the time of the Bible, Moses, and the exodus from Egypt?” But when in 1968 I arrived in Israel for the first time, as a teenager, I experienced a powerful, unexplainable, almost mystical feeling of coming home — a feeling that would lead me to make a fundamental change in my life, to seriously attempt to live there even though my entire family was located in the United States, and then to devote my 35 year professional career to Israel and its search for security and peace.

While I believe Jews are entitled to national self-determination, I also believe Palestinians, a distinct people with a national identity, are entitled to self-determination as well. In fact, this was a position I came to all the way back in the late 1960’s and 70’s — long before the idea of an independent Palestinian state became part of our national and international consensus.  As a matter of fact, those were the days when former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, and none of the Arab states recognized anything called Israel or Israelis.  It was just the “Zionist entity.”  The Israeli political divide well into the 1980’s was between those who advocated retaining all of the territories captured in 1967 either for security or religious reasons—or both – and those who wanted to reach a territorial compromise with Jordan. But an independent Palestinian state – in that era only a very small number, like yours truly, supported it.

It is worth recalling that the inherent logic of resolving the territorial dispute between two peoples in this manner was formally recognized by the international community in the form of the UN General Assembly Partition Resolution of 1947, which called for the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. The notion of Jews and Palestinian Arabs establishing one unified and cohesive bi-national state was seen in 1947 as a non-starter – and, almost seven decades later, in my opinion, it remains a non-starter.

I like to use the metaphor of two families living together in one little house. These families don’t get along – to say the least. They have different languages, cultures, religions, and historical narratives. They have been at each other’s throats constantly; and they both believe, in their heart of hearts, that they possess title to the entire house. What is the only viable solution? Separate them into two sides of the house on the basis of an equitable distribution of rooms, so that both families can live comfortably.  Here is where I believe the importance of mutual recognition comes into play. Each family can continue to maintain an emotional attachment to the part of the house occupied by the other family, but each must accept the legitimate right of the other family to be there.

That is why I believe just as Israel has formally recognized the right of the Palestinians to statehood in part of the Land of Israel, notwithstanding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments made on the eve of a hotly contested election; so too should the Palestinians be expected to accept the right of Jews to a state in a part of Palestine. If we want there to be genuine reconciliation that lasts for generations, it cannot be dependent merely on a political agreement between leaders. What we teach our children counts for a lot.

It is easy to be pessimistic about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Nobody ever lost money betting against Middle East peace. But I take the long view, and, as I get older, this is easier and easier to do.  Despite all the setbacks and bloodshed, I believe we are getting there.  To our bitter disappointment, the Oslo Accords did not quickly produce a conflict-ending resolution. But it launched a gradual process of mutual national recognition; it gave rise to the Palestinian Authority, which, with all its flaws, began to take meaningful steps toward responsible governance, including by establishing, and, to this day, maintaining security cooperation with Israel.

I had the opportunity to visit Ramallah in recent years and personally meet with a variety of Palestinian leaders, including the amazing former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Fayyad told us that David Ben-Gurion was his role model.  The Palestinians, he said, had it backwards. Rather than first seeking recognition of statehood, we Palestinians, he told us, must first build the necessary political, legal and economic infrastructure. When statehood came to Israel in 1948, he observed, the solid foundation for a viable state already was in place.

Another reason for cautious optimism is the regional dynamic. Today, Israel and a big part of the Arab world, particularly Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States, have shared interests – preventing the growth of Iranian influence and its nuclear weapons capability; blocking expansion of the Islamic State and other radical Sunni groups; and generally trying to restore a semblance of stability in an area undergoing massive violence and dislocation. As a result, the Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 may be ripe for taking off the shelf and using as the basis of a new initiative.

What then is the responsibility of third parties who seek a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians?  I would say, first and foremost, do no harm. That means serving as agents of reconciliation, not conflict. Blaming one party or the other for the absence of peace is both historically inaccurate and functionally counterproductive.  I recognize that I am speaking to a church whose national denomination, the PCUSA, by a narrow margin recently adopted a resolution divesting from a number of U.S. companies doing business in Israel. This is furthering conflict.  I believe it is not only wrong on the merits; it also will have no effect on Israeli policy.

On the contrary…BDS and other attempts to isolate Israel economically or diplomatically will only cause decision-makers in Israel to hunker down. I will come back to this theme shortly. The same, of course, is true for the Palestinians. Efforts to punish Palestinians for their behavior will only further their isolation and despair, decreasing prospects for reconciliation.  What then constitutes a constructive contribution to peace? Rejecting zero-sum politics, and working with both Israel and the Palestinians to advance win-win scenarios. This includes joint economic ventures and people to people exchanges that break down barriers and create grass roots pro-peace pressures on their respective political leaders.

Some of you may be wondering, when will I address the 800 pound gorilla in the room, Israeli settlements in the West Bank? How can a just two-state solution possibly be achieved, you may ask, when Israel continues to expand its already substantial presence in areas that, presumably, will be part of a future Palestinian state? Clearly, this is a very controversial issue within Israel and in the American Jewish community. And it is complicated. The 1967 boundaries (also called the Green Line) were never internationally recognized political borders. They were simply armistice lines freezing in place where the Israeli and Arab armies stood at the conclusion of the fighting in 1948-49. And as you all know, Jerusalem’s Old City was occupied by the Jordanians, who denied Jews access to our holy places. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City, where Jews lived for centuries, millennia really, was destroyed by Jordan during and after the 1948-49 conflict.  It now has been rebuilt. The Jewish Quarter is over the Green Line. But can anyone seriously argue that this represents an illegal Jewish settlement?

My point here is not to get into legal or historical arguments, just to underscore the issue’s complexity.  Let me speak about this issue personally; I believe Israel’s settlement policy since the 1967 Six Day War — especially in setting up communities deep inside the West Bank near heavily populated Palestinian areas — has been a mistake.  It has strained U.S.-Israel relations through Democratic and Republican administrations, and through labor-led and Likud-led governments. It has placed Israel in a difficult position within the wider international community.  More importantly, it has undermined the perception among Palestinians themselves that Israel is serious about reaching a reasonable agreement with them.

That said; I also believe this is not an irreversible mistake. Entrenched positions can change. In the 1970’s, I was a student at the Hebrew University Law School in Jerusalem.  I was there during the period when Israel experienced a surprise attack in 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Over 3,000 soldiers were killed by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, and the country literally teetered on the brink of annihilation.  Each and every family in the country was touched in one way or another. The grief was palpable; it truly was a national trauma of epic proportions.

I was still living there in 1977 when Anwar Sadat, the architect of this Yom Kippur attack, made his inspirational journey to Jerusalem. I recall sitting in a living room watching television with my Israeli friends, many of whom had lost relatives and friends just a few years before.  As Sadat got off the plane and began shaking hands with Israel’s leaders, there was not a dry eye among them. Thousands of Israelis spontaneously lined the road from the airport to Jerusalem waving Egyptian flags.  When a couple of years later an agreement crystallized between Egypt and Israel, the right-wing no compromise Prime Minister Menachem Begin had overwhelming public backing for evacuating Yamit and other Jewish settlements in the Sinai.

This was a long time ago. I also am well aware that the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is not Sinai. It has much more historical and religious resonance for the Jewish people, and, situated close to Israel’s population centers, handing it over to another sovereign power entails greater risks.  But I believe that the yearning for peace and normalcy is so strong in Israel that a substantial number of the settlements can and would be dismantled in the context of a comprehensive conflict-ending peace agreement that will provide the necessary sense of security.

As my friend David Makovsky points out with his maps (David served with Secretary Kerry and Martin Indyk during the negotiations last year), most Jewish settlers live in communities close to the Green Line. As a consequence, I believe the parties could arrive at final borders based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed upon swaps.  Removing settlers from their homes will not be an easy task to say the least – we have the seen the disruption it caused in the Sinai and in Gaza. But it is doable. I mention Gaza because, as you will recall, this was another example of Israel removing settlers…Ariel Sharon’s 2005 unilateral disengagement, when some 10,000 Jewish settlers were removed from their homes. I know Rabbi Rudin made this point last week, but I want to repeat it. Just as many Palestinian Arabs live as citizens in Israel – in fact they represent some 20% of Israel’s population — perhaps Jews who choose to remain in their settlements can do so as law-abiding residents of Palestine.

Now I want to share some analysis of Israel’s election and Benjamin Netanyahu, who is poised to retain his position as prime minister. Some have tried to characterize the election results as a landslide for the political right. This is far from the truth.  In fact, comparing it to the previous election, there actually was a modest shift to the political left.  But the nature of Israeli politics places Netanyahu in a stronger position to organize a coalition government.

Netanyahu’s comments about not supporting a Palestinian state, subsequently qualified, and his indefensible warnings about the danger of “droves” of Arab voters to his continued leadership (he later apologized) were acts of political desperation. He was about to lose the election, and he knew it.  By the way, a paradox—Israel is full of them. While Netanyahu was expressing concern about Arab voters, an Arab Supreme Court Justice, Salim Joubran, was serving as Chairman of the Central Elections Committee and overseeing the entire process.

Back to the election: Netanyahu’s only hope was to entice voters from parties further to the right to rally to Likud. It was a political Hail Mary pass—and he scored a touchdown.  He successfully played on the people’s fears of Palestinians, of Israel’s Arab citizens, of political “leftists, and of their foreign-backed NGO supporters.

While I certainly do not condone this kind of politics, you should be aware that fear felt by the Israeli people is not artificial. It is very real. It is rooted in 67 years of unrelenting warfare, terrorism and delegitimization—being told constantly that Zionism, their national liberation movement is by definition racist.  Israelis, with just cause, are feeling a deep sense of vulnerability surrounded by Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria and Sinai, and a hegemonic Iran with nuclear aspirations just over the horizon.

I felt this fear, myself, when I lived in Israel. Back in the 70’s, Palestinian terrorists were placing explosive devices in automobiles and in appliances on the streets of Jerusalem. That was the MO then.   All these years later, I can still remember the tension I felt coming into the center of the city. I remember the uneasy feelings of having to show my bags every time I entered a store or public building.  My very first week in Israel in 1968, there was a bombing in the Machane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market in Jerusalem perpetrated by the PLO that killed two people—well before the settlement movement got underway I might add. For the last 47 years, I think of it every time I visit the area, and worry.

Consider what Israeli families have had to go through repeatedly facing thousands of rocket attacks, often having no more than 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter once the siren goes off. There is a fear of being stabbed on the street or run over by a vehicle driven by a terrorist. Israelis left southern Lebanon, and got Hezbollah. They left Gaza, and got Hamas. The prospect of leaving the West Bank inevitably arouses concern that a similar scenario could play out there as well. I know that there is a tendency to wonder why Israelis would feel so vulnerable, given their powerful military.  But, believe me, they do feel vulnerable. It is this sense of vulnerability that brings to power leaders who project strength, like Netanyahu.

In recent years, polls show that both Israeli and Palestinian publics strongly support the two-state solution, in principle.  At the same time, both are equally as skeptical that the other party is genuinely committed to it. From Israel’s side, they saw that while Ehud Barak was making PLO chief Yasser Arafat a generous offer at Camp David and Taba, including the sharing Jerusalem for two capitals, Israeli buses and restaurants were being blown up week after week in the Second Intifada.  The scar tissue from that grim experience remains to this day. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an even more far-reaching offer to President Abbas in recent years, which was not accepted.  Reportedly, even Netanyahu was prepared to accept negotiations under Secretary Kerry’s stewardship on the basis of the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. It was then that Abbas entered into his unity agreement with Hamas, bringing the process to an abrupt halt.

I know that the Palestinians also have their own grievances and reasons to be skeptical. Netanyahu’s pre-election comment about not allowing a Palestinian state under his leadership — despite the fact that it was politically motivated and has since been qualified — is not helpful, to say the least.

Although I do not believe this to be the case, for the sake of argument, let us assume that some of you believe Israel is more responsible than the Palestinians for the failure to reach a peace agreement. That Israel should be punished for its behavior by increasing its diplomatic and economic isolation, and ratcheting up BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions.  Ask yourselves, will this pressure reduce the anxiety of the average Israeli? Will it move that average Israeli to vote into office a leader who will take a more compromising stance on the peace process?  Quite to the contrary; it will only have a “circle the wagons” effect.  It certainly will not create conditions more conducive for the emergence of a different kind of leader in Israel’s next election. Given the nature of Israeli politics, that next election is likely to occur sooner rather than later.

There is much a new Israeli government can do to promote a more positive environment. The former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren is a prominent member of Kulanu – the key swing party that likely will enable Netanyahu to assemble a coalition government. Oren has been calling for a freeze on settlements outside of the three major blocs along the Green Line and taking additional steps to create a two-state “situation” while continuing to probe opportunities for a two-state “solution.”  I hope his views will be given serious consideration by the new government.  What can the Palestinians do to enhance the peacemaking environment? Initiating prosecutions of Israeli political and military officials at the International Criminal Court will not instill confidence, as you can well imagine.

I spoke earlier about the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of the “other.” No Israeli government, including Netanyahu’s, has ever conditioned negotiations on Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.  But just imagine the impact if President Abbas simply declared that — “the Jewish people are indigenous in this land too and entitled to self-determination alongside the Palestinian people.” That truly would be a Palestinian “Sadat moment,” which I genuinely believe would have a similarly profound psychological effect. Such a Palestinian statement could lead Israelis to support their leaders in making prudent sacrifices for the sake of a peace agreement…creating similar pressures to those that led Menachem Begin to his historic turn-around with Egypt.  Let’s face it. Both sides will be asked to make painful sacrifices for the sake of peace.

Finally, we — who care for the welfare and security of the children of Abraham — all have a responsibility to help. Together we must find the wisdom and compassion to help reduce the fear and pain on both sides, and to make positive and pragmatic contributions toward peace.

I trust you will be active partners in this sacred effort.  Thank You.


About the Author
Martin J. Raffel, until his retirement in 2014, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body with 16 national member organizations and over 120 locally based organizations (JCRCs). He was JCPA’s lead professional on matters related to Israel, world Jewry and international human rights. In 2009, Raffel took the lead in organizing the Israel Action Network, a joint strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA that seeks to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. He currently serves on the Board Of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.