Netanyahu’s “Shibboleths” Scuttle Peace Talks
“No partner for peace” is one of several “shibboleths” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his cabinet are now using to scuttle any peace agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas, no matter how often U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Tel Aviv.
As readers of Judges 12:6 are well aware, pronunciation of the word “shibboleth” is used to separate friends from enemies.
In episode eight of the second season of the television series West Wing, for example, President Josiah Bartlett used “shibboleth” to determine that Chinese immigrants were truly Christian and therefore deserved admission to the U.S. To assert that Israel “has no partner for peace” is a verbal signal, a “shibboleth”, which quickly certifies that the speaker is “with Israel”, without reservations.
When John Kerry returned last week to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for his tenth visit, he brought with him a proposal to discuss “four core issues” with the peace negotiators. Because he is a master diplomat (another reason to regret his failure to defeat incumbent President George W. Bush in 2004), Kerry knew Netanyahu would find ways to defer progress toward peace.
Kerry’s “four core issues” were quickly expanded by Netanyahu and members of his cabinet, to “six core issues”. Added to the negotiation table were two tried and true Israeli “shibboleths”, ”Israel must be acknowledged as a Jewish state” and Israel must maintain military control over the Palestinian Jordan Valley.
Both are what negotiators refer to as “poison pills”, demands certain to be rejected by President Abbas. ”No partner for peace” is used to add icing on the cake, since negotiations are simply not a part of Israeli leaders’ DNA.
The Zionists who planned the Nakba, village by village, prior to the outbreak of war in 1947, were there as colonial conquerers. The intent was to move steadily from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east. Thanks in large measure to the horrors of the Holocaust, the world both tolerated and encouraged this march to the east.
There were always signs that this march would be unrelenting and not subject to negotiations. This has been obvious in subsequent Israeli governments that employed “peace talks” as diversions for expansion and additional military control. Even when Israel pretended to move in a positive manner, it was for its own security purposes, as was the case of its “withdrawal” to the Israeli-controlled borders of Gaza.
Early in President Jimmy Carter’s term in office, I traveled with President Carter to the United Nations where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachen Begin. When I was very briefly introduced to Begin, I knew he had been briefed by his American aides who assumed, correctly, that because I was with President Carter, I would behave.
“Oh yes”, he said to me, “You are with us”. I mumbled an answer that I hoped was both diplomatic and accurate. Since I was not whisked away, I must have passed the “you are with us” test.
It was not a proud moment for me, having by that time made enough visits to the occupied areas to know this was an grossly uneven struggle between the occupier and the occupied. But knowing President Carter, I knew he would say “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak”, I responded to Begin in polite no-speak platitudes.
The encounter, however, was revealing to me of the Israel leader’s strong “us against them” mindset. After that, I responded often to the prime minister and his successors, through whatever avenue of communication I was able to commandeer.
I have no idea how Israel identifies frequent visitors who are either “with us” or “against us”, but I do know that all my subsequent arrivals and departures in Tel Aviv have not been greeted with warm smiles. Maybe the Israeli border computer records have a “smiley face” that stands for “with us” and a “frowny face” for those who are “against us”.
I do know that one attempt I made to travel to Tel Aviv hit a snag when I flew from Chicago on American Airlines and changed planes in Rome to fly on El Al to Tel Aviv.
Israeli officials had their own little corner security operation in the airport basement in Rome. Because the Israelis felt I had not given them sufficient time to have all my bags (including my laptop) thoroughly examined, I was required to spend a night in the Rome airport hotel. That cost me some money and it may also have earned me two “frowny faces”.
In Jerusalem the next day, I complained about this experience to a American Jewish Committee staffer who spoke to the group I was leading. His “with us” or “against us” answer was blunt. He told me that earlier (I knew it was at least several years earlier) a Catholic or maybe it was an Orthodox priest, had been apprehended driving into Israel with a trunk load of rifles.
But I digress. John Kerry has no trouble getting in and out of Tel Aviv. He is on a mission for peace. The Secretary, however, was greeted with anything but smiles by Israeli leaders who were supposed to be discussing steps toward a peaceful future. They greeted him with Netanyahu’s demand that Abbas “recognize Israel as a Jewish state” and the promise of more housing startups in Israeli settlements.
Netanyahu also used the early part of January to attack President Abbas for “failing to curb” what Netanyahu claims is hate propaganda aimed at Palestinian children and young people. These charges have long been a staple in Israel’s hasbara campaigns. The charges are hardly effective generators of hatred compared to frequent IDF night raids into Palestinian homes and the arrests of children on the streets. These heartless attacks are more than adequate generators of youthful and intense dislike of Israel by Palestinian children.
On his tenth peace visit, Kerry used his time well. He traveled between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, reaching for consensus for an outline for peace which he wants to have finalized by his deadline of mid-year.
When Kerry departed for home, there was speculation in the Israeli media that he might be open to pushing Abbas toward accepting the “Jewish state” shibboleth. Richard Silverstein reports that Kerry may be using Arab leaders to pressure the Palestinians into giving Israel this particular “shibboleth”..
For Kerry’s sake and for the sake of peace in the region, we can only hope these reports are a misreading of Kerry’s thinking.
Meanwhile, Bernard Avishai, (left) Israeli author and academic, wrote a posting in a January 2 blog in the New Yorker, which offers a wise and thoughtful perspective on the “Israel as a Jewish state” issue.
Avishai teaches at Dartmouth College as a visiting professor of government, and at the Hebrew University as an adjunct professor of business. He is the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism” and “The Hebrew Republic”. His most recent book is “Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness.”
The core of Avishai’s blog posting covers three layers of the ”Israel as a Jewish state” issue. The excerpt below is long but access to the full posting may require a subscription. The posting should best be read in full.
Netanyahu’s demand has at least three layers to it. The first is symbolic, without practical significance—understandable, but superfluous. The second is partly symbolic, but is meant to have future practical significance; it is contentious but resolvable. The third, however, is legal: it has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian or, for that matter, Israeli democrat, deplorable. We are no longer debating resolutions at fin-de-siècle Zionist congresses. Making laws requires settled definitions, and what’s being settled in Israel is increasingly dangerous. Netanyahu’s demand is a symptom of the disease that presents itself as the cure.
On the first, symbolic point: Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people, in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed of a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust—a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries—that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism’s DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.
When Palestinians say they recognize Israel, they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging the name of a communal desire. The state is not called Ishmael, after all.
At the most visceral level, when we Israelis insist that Israel be recognized as Jewish, we mean that we want this narrative recognized, the same way in which Palestinians implicitly want acknowledgement of their particular formative sufferings at the hands of Zionism when they say “Palestinians” rather than “southern Syrians.” To say, as Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Finance, does, that he doesn’t care what Palestinians think is rude. When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way. To ask for more is tactless.
That leads to the second, partly symbolic, partly practical aspect. Why does Netanyahu insist that this recognition is not enough? Because, he claims, in any negotiation with the Palestinians, it must be understood in advance that there can be no “right of return” for Palestinians to Israel—and, therefore, accepting this formulation, “the state of the Jewish people” signifies a joint decision to preclude a flood of Palestinian refugees into Israel’s borders and onto its electoral rolls.
But Netanyahu’s claim is false, and puts a stumbling block where a pathway needs to be cleared. You can certainly find a formulation for the refugees that does not ruin Israel’s Jewish/Hebrew character—one that preserves the Palestinian “right of return” as a seminal piece of the Palestinians’ narrative, the name of their desire. It might say, for example, that refugees have a right of return to their homes, but that the forms of compensation, the number of returnees, etc., must be agreeable to Israel, and that, in any case, the majority will exercise that right by returning to a future Palestinian state.
The contradiction between “the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state” and “the right of return of Palestinians” may sound intractable. In fact, it was pretty much resolved at Taba, in January, 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little useful ambiguity will do?
Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase “Jewish state” also has a third meaning, with legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); laws that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion’s rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago; laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy.
As the New Year begins, where do we look for signs of hope? Start with John Kerry, who may yet find a way to break through Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn exterior. And look to authors like Bernard Avishai, who found his way into the pages of The New Yorker to enlighten information-starved American readers. Added tip: Avishai also writes on occasion for Harpers and the Nation.
Filed under: John Kerry, Middle East Politics, Netanyahu, Religious Faith | 5 Comments