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Reflection on My Recent Trip to Israel

In January I accompanied the JRF Leadership Mission to Israel. The following are some thoughts from someone who lived in Israel for four years in the mid-to-late 1990s and has tried to maintain a connection with, and activism on behalf of, Israel.

There's a lot of pessimism in Israel about the near-future and, although most people think the final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians will come out pretty much along the lines articulated at Camp David and Taba, there's no telling how many people will have to die before the politicians come to this obvious conclusion.

Israelis are more fatalistic about the “matzav” then ever. Activist and politicians that we met with are all anticipating that the present situation will continue to deteriorate for a period of years. My friends are expressing an expectation of living with constant terrorist attacks.

The peace process is a dead letter in the eyes of most Israelis. Our trip spent a lot of time talking to peace activists -- probably too much, relative to their role in the population at the moment. Every time I raise the prospect of returning to the table (which I believe is the only thing to do at this moment), Israelis say, “With who, with Arafat?” There's just no credibility there. And although there are a number of more moderate voices among the Palestinians, they are perceived by Israelis (and I would venture to guess, by Palestinians) as marginal voices right now. Of course the Palestinian people would be very happy if the situation were different, but they count very little in the Arab world.

I've heard a lot of people try to explain why Arafat turned down the agreement that was being worked out at Camp David and Taba. (Remember that the general feeling is that Barak offered the Palestinians 96 percent of the occupied land, with the concomitant withdrawal from settlements.) These reasons often turn on the supposed ability of the four percent to control the 96 percent, or the residual anger at the continuation of settlement building over the course of the Oslo process, or dissatisfaction with the solution proposed to the refugee problem, or Arafat's inability to sign an agreement “concluding” the struggle.

A lot of this sounds like apologetics, although some of these reasons are more convincing (Israel did not fulfill its obligation to pull back from an additional 13 percent of territory after the Wye agreements, and nothing breeds resentment like broken treaties, as the Israelis well know.) But I get the feeling that most of these people are guessing as to Arafat's motives, that he remains as inscrutable as ever, even to his own people, who probably find his behavior as bewildering as we do. The obvious conclusion is that Arafat made a huge mistake saying no to the Camp David process -- and the results have been horrifying, on both sides.

As liberal Jews and progressive Zionists we must acknowledge that the Palestinians are suffering probably as never before in the history of the occupation. They are virtually locked down in their homes, unable to work, unable to visit or even go to the hospital. They are subject to daily, petty humiliations on the part of young soldiers who have come to see them as sub-human. Collective punishment is called security, and few people question it, because the intifada and the terrorism excuses it in the eyes of many Israelis (although that is starting to change, as the daily Ha'Aretz again begins to call attention to regular abuses of power on the part of the Israeli army). Rightist Israelis often talk about the incitement to hatred on the part of the Palestinian media, and this is indeed an issue, but we ourselves are training another generation of Palestinians to hate and fear us, and this has dire repercussions for the future possibility of settlement.

Yossi Sarid calls occupation “the original sin,” and that seems about right. We can never move to another level of relationship with the Palestinians, and they will never forego their hatred and violence, as long as this situation continues as it is. Of course, when I say this to Israelis, they say, “But if we withdraw, they'll just be able to blow themselves up inside Israel.” To which the answer is: they already can. Again, the only thing for it is a return to the negotiating table.

To conclude this section, I would like to state the obvious by saying that the students who live in Jerusalem, and our mission, have somewhat of a misleading impression of the mood in the country by virtue of their location. Jerusalem is the center of the storm, and there's a huge amount of pressure, of heaviness in the air. But in much of the rest of Israel, life continues much as before, with a little more cynicism perhaps, more pessimism, but people in places like Nahariya do not worry much about pigu'im. Or about the condition of the Palestinians.

One interesting thing to note is that each speaker that we met, be they left or be they right, cautioned us against demonizing the settlers, blaming them for the situation. Even those who feel that the Occupation is the “original sin” reminded us that it was the government who encouraged most of those people to be there, with tax breaks, roads, etc. So our speakers all expressed the concern that these people be brought back in to the main of Israel, both literally/physically, and figuratively/emotionally.

I read a report of the Kansas City Federation Mission, which was in Israel the week before we were. When someone asked Sharon about religious pluralism, he said, in essence, Don't bother me with this now, I'm busy with security. And this seems to be his attitude toward nearly everything. The economy is very bad, with last quarter being the first quarter of negative growth since the 1950s. The shekel has devalued by nearly 10 percent over the past couple of months -- devastating for a population that earns its money in shekels but pays rents and mortgages in dollars. The high-tech sector, which was kiviyakhol (supposedly) going to be the engine driving the economy, is nearly dead. There's no venture capital to be had. The tourist sector is nearly completely dried up; the streets of the tourist areas of Jerusalem are empty, as are the hotels and restaurants. Many people we spoke to mentioned the growing gap between the richest and the poorest in Israeli society. Nothing is being done about any of it. Arafat is Sharon's perfect alibi.

The deficit is probably going to be over four percent this year, which is going to cause international financial institutions to lower Israel's bond rating, making capital even harder and more expensive to get. To battle this, Sharon initially proposed a major cut in social spending, which would have had a negative impact on many weaker sectors of society but which economists seem to feel is necessary. So he cut spending for education, for social security, and more, and then tried to get the budget through the Knesset. Of course, far from pulling together for the sake of the country, the special interests, especially the ultra-Orthodox, used Sharon's desire to have the broadest possible coalition as a lever to get their pet projects funded. Uri Regev pointed out some frightening figures about how double-dipping (having the government pay more than one institution for the same students' studies) has become almost established as government policy. And, of course, there's always plenty of money for settlements. So much for fiscal responsibility, or for the prospect of economic improvement in the near term.

I have some thoughts about religion in Israel as well, but I think they can wait for another time.

Sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable putting my thoughts down because I’m a Zionist and I don’t want to inadvertently give aid and comfort to those, either Jewish or otherwise, who are not. As I think is clear, I’m not interested in excusing the Palestinians for their behavior and I remain far more concerned about the Israelis. It is precisely because I am concerned for the Israelis that I speak thus, about the occupation, for instance. I do not want anyone to think that my words mean that I think that the Israeli experiment has failed, God forbid. I do not think so for one moment. But I am motivated by doing what little I can to make Israel better reflect the best of our Jewish values, which its founders articulated so movingly in the Israel Declaration of Independence. Let it be so in our day.
Type: Essay

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