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C'mon Eric, Join the Movement

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Before I begin, a quick thought that came to me as I was about to appear on Hannity and Colmes this evening. For those who think that encouraging Israel in its war against Lebanon and rushing weapons to help it continue is the best way to show their support, would you also agree that giving Mel Gibson a bottle of tequilla, a copy of Mein Kampf, and the keys to a sports car is the best way to be a "real friend"?

Dear Eric,

As someone who has long been a major fan of yours, and a fellow blogger on the Huff Post, I wanted to respond to your recent post, since it discusses an ad to the NY Times for which I wrote the first draft.

The ad in question appeared in the July 31 NY Times, and can be viewed on the Tikkun magazine website here. Titled "Stop the Slaughter in Israel, Lebanon and the Occupied Territories," it was, as you say, signed by a bunch of "pro-peace Jews"; however, it was also signed by over 2,500 other people, a large share (and perhaps the majority) of them non-Jews. What I want to explore with you is why you think that the ad "isn't all that useful." To begin with, it is, to my knowledge, the first time a group of major American intellectuals and activists, including leading Jewish progressives, have ever called for an arms embargo on Israel and the suspension of diplomatic relations with it unless and until it accepts a cease-fire. The fact that the signers of this ad, particularly those like Michael Lerner, Cornel West, Deepak Chopra, Sidra Ezrahi, and other people who have a strong record of support for Israel, are demanding that the US government take such drastic steps, is signalling to the world how dangerous the actions of the Israeli government are, to Jewish interests as well as to the interests of Lebanon, Palestine, and the rest of the world. At the same time, however, we all recognize that Hamas and Hezbollah have committed serious war crimes, and that any attempt to force Israel to stop the violence is useless unless they also stop their violence. This would seem to be precisely the proportionality that you are seeking to see the Left exercise in its arguments.

But you also argue that the ad won't help anything "since it does not address the inability of any Israeli government to make peace with these Hamas fanatics and corrupt Fatah-ists, particularly when they cannot make peace with themselves." Here we're running into a lot of trouble, which it is crucial to address if the Left, mainstream or radical, is to play any role in healing the conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinian people. Let's start with a simple fact: The Hamas fanatics are in fact a creation of the Israeli government, who encouraged Hamas's formation and growth in the 1980s precisely because Israel's intelligence services felt that a religiously grounded opposition movement would wind up splitting the Palestinian nationalist movement and weakening the PLO, which would make it that much harder to fight the Israeli occupation.

Well, they were right, but I'm not sure that the way events have turned are exactly as the Israeli government planned (although, the chaos in Palestine and the increasingly open internecine violence between the two groups/parties was certainly part of the Israeli government's plan). And let's talk about Fatah--or rather, Palestinian Authority--corruption. As in America's Iraq, the high levels of corruption are owed in very strong measure to the policies of the occupying power. I saw this in Israel in the 1990s when I lived there, and almost weekly the papers would report on another meeting between CIA, Mossad, and Palestinian "security" officials with the express purpose of destroying any opposition to the Oslo Accords. And just like in Iraq, the economic agreement of the Oslo process, particularly the Paris Agreement of 1994, created monopolies that would be run by Arafat and his cronies at the expense of ordinary Palestinians, who got so fed up with the Arabesque McMansions of the PA leadership built with money they--including current PA head and supposedly straight shooter Mahmud Abbas--stole from their people with the help of Israel, that they'd occasionally attack them, or at least scribble damning graffiti on their walls to vent frustration. And then there was Arafat's secret Israeli bank account, fed by Israel, that even his arch enemy Netanyahu let him keep after it was disclosed in 1997.

None of this excuses the actions of Hamas or the PA, but to assume Israel is somehow not a party to and partly responsible for them is not accurate. More important, we need to discuss the use of the term "fanatic" next to Hamas. First of all, there is the issue of whom you are referring to when you refer to Hamas. Like Hezbollah it is the most important and deeply rooted of all Palestinian social movements; part party, militia, educational and health institution, terrorist organization, propaganda instrument, all wrapped into one incredibly dense network. It is precisely this rootedness that leads so many Jews and Israeli to facilely substitute "Hamas" for the entire "Palestinian people," with all the dangerous implications such confusion implies. Yet even here, polling I helped conduct of Hamas supporters after the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada revealed that at least half, and most likely the majority, supported Hamas not because they shared its basic ideological commitment to destroy Israel, but because they saw it as the only group that was standing up to the ongoing--no, intensifying--occupation during the Oslo years.

And even if we refer to just hard-core activists, some of whom I've interviewed over the years, I would say that very few of them were "fanatics." They may have hated Israel and/or been willing to commit acts of terrorism, but fanatic implies "unreasoning extremism" according to the American Heritage dictionary. Assuming that Hamas--or Hezbollah--is "unreasoning" is a mistake that can prove quite costly indeed, as Israel is learning in southern Lebanon (and America learned with those fanatical terrorists in the Iraqi insurgency as well).

But let's assume that by fanatical you intend that they refuse to accept Israel's right to exist and are bent on its destruction. This is certainly what we can assume by looking at the movement's charter and innumerable statements of its leaders, not to mention the star of David painted on the street in front of the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's house in Gaza so that passing cars could have the pleasure of running over it. But as I explored at length in a recent article, reality as opposed to rhetoric is far different. Hamas leaders have long spoke of accepting a two-state solution with Israel. Everyone knows this, including Israelis. Of course, the terms--a full withdrawal to 1967 lines, East Jerusalem as Palestine's capital, giving up most settlements, and some kind of resolution to the refugee problem--are more than any Israeli government seems willing to agree to. Nevertheless, Hamas's pragmatism and willingness to compromise in the end is no less a mirage than was Ariel Sharon's combination of ruthlessness and ability to give up long cherished aims to preserve national imperatives, in Hamas's case as a viable Palestinian state.

As one of Hamas's senior intellectuals retorted to me in 2003 in Gaza when I asked him if he supported a binational solution, "What are you, crazy? We want a divorce from the Jews, not to live closer to them." When I reminded him that the "divorce" allusion was in fact first put out there by Ehud Barak, he smiled wanly, as if to say, Yeah, so what do you want me to say. What he did say, continuing on, was that "Israel has won, why can't they just leave us alone."

This is the real crux of the problem, and not your argument, which to be honest is factually incorrect, that "the Palestinians have given the Israeli public no indication at all that they are ready to live side by side with Israel." Nothing could be farther from the truth. For the entire Oslo period, and indeed for almost a decade before (ever since major PLO figures publicly endorsed recognizing Israel in the mid-1980s), Palestinians consistently supported--and continue to support--a two-state solution. And all the while Israel refused to just leave Palestine "alone." Instead, it continued and even intensified its occupation, settlements, home demolitions, seizures of land, extrajudicial arrests and executions, and I could go on and on but we all know the story at this point.

And as the polling I helped conduct revealed, a high percentage of the "fanatics" who support Hamas also support a two-state solution, just as the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution even as they also endorse the large-scale violence of the Israeli state upon the Occupied Territories, not to mention continued settlement expansion in the West Bank. Just because people are inconsistent and can live with a high degree of cognitive dissonance doesn't mean that they're fanatics.

Even Hezbollah, though it certainly would like to see Israel wiped off the map, has not made such an eventuality a strategic priority or goal, for the simple reason that it is impossible to achieve it, and the leadership of Hezbollah, anti-Jewish (almost as much as Mel Gibson, we can assume) and anti-Western as they may be, are not fanatics--or at least, not unreasonable (in the first days of the war, a leading Israeli intelligence expert commented that Sheikh Nasrallah was a "very reasonable man" with whom a prisoner exchange could certainly be arranged). Of course, the real tragedy of this war for Israel is that the piercing of its aura of invincibility by Hezbollah might encourage some people to return to dreams they thought could never be realized, leaving Israel in the very fight for its existence it supposedly was trying to prevent by launching this all-out war.

So Eric, we're trying to raise some more money to put the ad in the Washington Post and then papers across the Middle East. We want to show the world, Jew and gentile alike, that there are Jews in the United States who refuse any longer to accept the status quo of the United States' disastrously uncritical "support" for Israel all these years no matter how egregious its actions, and that there are Muslims and Christians who are willing to stand with them to condemn all violence, terrorism, and occupation no matter who's the victim or the victimizer. Most important, we want to tell people that violence does not have to be the currency of politics in the Middle East; that there are practical solutions that can bring peace, justice, and security to all the peoples of the region. Surely that's an ad you can sign your name to, and maybe even throw in $50?