JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson in ZEEK: the Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture
The “peace process” has been going on for 19 years now.
Why the quotation marks? Because the “peace process” looks more and more like an excuse to help Israel consolidate and permanently annex the occupied territories, rather than a sincere attempt to ensure justice, freedom and security for Palestinians and Israelis. We at Jewish Voice for Peace cannot be enthusiastic about U.S.-brokered peace talks that actually perpetuate the occupation.
Israelis have all the time in the world to continue the talks, since they can live their lives in the meantime - they can go to school, work, receive health care when needed, travel freely, and pursue all other aspects of a normal life. Palestinians, in contrast, are penned into ever smaller areas of land, with their freedom of movement strictly curtailed. They are subject to military law, and the prospect of violent repression, whether perpetrated by settlers or the Army, is a daily reality. This inequity - the difference between occupier and occupied - is the furthest thing from the level playing field necessary for fair and honest negotiations. Israel has the military power, the economic power, and the support of the United States.
Facts on the Ground
Prime Minister Shamir, whose government began negotiations in 1991 in Madrid, told Maariv newspaper after his electoral defeat in 1992, that “I would have conducted [peace] negotiations for 10 years, and in the meantime we would have reached half a million souls in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]….Without such a basis there would be nothing to stop the establishment of a Palestinian state” (quoted in English in the New York Times.)
Shamir was a Likudnik, but that hardly matters when it comes to Israel’s settlement policy. Every Israeli government has continued to build, and build, and build even as they talk, and talk, and talk, in a policy widely known as “creating facts on the ground.” Even Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is often revered for working toward peace, supported continued settlement construction, especially around Jerusalem. In fact, in an interview with Davar, an Israeli publication, he boasted,
“For all its faults, Labor has done more and remains capable of doing more in the future [in expanding Jewish settlements] than Likud with all of its doing. We have never talked about Jerusalem. We have just made a ‘fait accompli.’ It was we who built the suburbs in [the annexed part of] Jerusalem. The Americans didn’t say a word, because we built these suburbs cleverly.” (quoted in English in the Washington Report on Mideast Affairs.)
When Shamir began the peace process in 1991, there were about 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Today there are around 500,000 in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It took twice the time Shamir predicted, but his stated intention indeed came to pass.
Settlements are far from the only issue that needs to be resolved in order to establish a just peace. But stopping the annexation of land and the flow of Jewish Israelis into the occupied territories, which becomes harder and harder to reverse, is a good case study of how Israel has managed to shift the discussion so far from the root issues that we are now talking about the fly on the flower of the plant growing from those roots. That is, rather than talking about the right of return, the status of Jerusalem, or permanent borders, the debate now rages around an extension of a partial, temporary settlement freeze in exchange for permanent Israeli gains.
The Role of the U.S.
The U.S. has always claimed for itself the role of “honest broker” in Palestinian-Israeli talks. But the U.S. has never played a neutral role. It is widely known that Israel is the largest recipient of military aid from the United States, and every U.S. president trumpets the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. Aaron David Miller, former state department negotiator and advisor, called the U.S. “Israel’s lawyer.”
What has happened since Obama became President is instructive. In Cairo in June 2009, in his first major policy speech on the Mideast, Obama revealed an insightful understanding of the role that Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination play in the widespread Arab enmity against the U.S, and called for a permanent ban on settlement expansion.
Since that time, however, President Obama has been unable or unwilling to hold the Israelis to this most basic precondition for negotiation. When the Israelis refused a permanent settlement ban, Obama obligingly shifted to a call for a settlement freeze.
A couple of weeks ago, the settlement “freeze” expired. “Freeze” also belongs in quotation marks, given that, according to Peace Now, 600 new buildings for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem were begun in 60 settlements, 492 in direct violation of the terms of the freeze, during the time that it was in place.
Israelis are back to ostentatiously building, and President Obama is now begging Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept a one-time, two-month settlement freeze, in exchange for massive concessions to Israel’s continuing occupation. As Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and negotiator under President Clinton said, “It’s an extraordinary package for essentially nothing.” In other words, it is a bribe for Israel to briefly refrain from doing things that are illegal.
This is the way it goes in U.S. diplomacy on this issue. Despite the growing power of alternative Jewish voices critical of Israeli policies, AIPAC was still able to get 87 of 100 senators to sign on to a letter in September that puts the pressure on the Palestinian Authority to continue the talks regardless of settlement construction.
An Alternative Vision
Given these conditions - the worsening human and civil rights situation on the ground in the Palestinian territories, the decades-long continuation of peace talks that only serves to solidify Israel’s position, the U.S. government’s utter unwillingness to intervene in any meaningful way to create the conditions of negotiations between equals - we at Jewish Voice for Peace can only conclude that focusing on the official “peace process” will not bring about the change we seek. Yes, we are in favor of negotiations with all parties at the table, including Hamas. But the current inequities built into this process doom it to something worse than failure - a false hope that perpetuates an inaccurate narrative about the balance of power and the reality on the ground.
The only thing that can right this inequity is a movement that forces our own Congressional representatives and the U.S. political apparatus to realize that blind support of Israel’s policies is no longer acceptable to the American public. Since the assault on Gaza in 2008-2009, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, has been gaining strength in the U.S., and the attack on the flotilla in 2010 gave it further momentum.
The BDS movement is a non-violent response to the ongoing and structural violence of Israel’s relationship to Palestinians. It is a movement that allows people all over the world to peacefully act on their values. Its emergence reflects both a strategic and moral analysis by Palestinian civil society leaders that the violence of the second intifada was leading the Palestinians nowhere. Yet Israel and the Jewish establishment in the U.S., has responded with the same level of vitriolic attack as they did to the violent resistance of the most recent intifada.
Most importantly, BDS offers us a road map that can work. BDS efforts have been employed in some of the most noble struggles in history, from sugar boycotts in protest of the slave trade in the 1700’s, to Gandhi’s boycott of British goods, the Montgomery bus boycott in our own civil rights struggle, and of course, the world-wide movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa. Israel is not just like any of these cases, but there are enough similarities to make it reasonable to think that these strategies could work.
The BDS movement grows stronger by the day. In just the last two months, for example, the Norwegian government pension fund has announced that it is divesting from several companies profiting from the occupation, and the Dutch government dis-invited a delegation of Israeli mayors because several of them were mayors of settlements. And a board member of CARE, a large international aid organization, had to resign due to his affiliation with Africa Israel, a company implicated in illegal settlement construction. In each of these cases, BDS is the chosen medium for governments and institutions to express their displeasure with Israel’s policies, because BDS is the most direct and effective way to make this point.
Here in the United States, we are just at the beginning. Two years ago, Hampshire College divested from the occupation. Last year, at least five more campuses launched serious divestment efforts. At Evergreen and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, they were successful. At UC-Berkeley, only the veto of the student Senate president was able to overturn the divestment bill.
Perhaps the most important impact of these efforts, especially here in the U.S., is their success in educating people about the reality of what is happening in Israel and Palestine, and emboldening them to speak out about it.
In the Jewish community, many of us were brought up to be proud of Jewish values of justice and the principle of tikkun olam, repairing the world. We have much to be proud of in U.S. Jewish history, given the strong support Jewish Americans have offered civil rights struggles here. As a small religious minority in the U.S. we certainly should appreciate the principles of religious freedom and full equality for everyone.
Yet many of us have also been taught to blindly defend Israel, no matter its actions. This can create a terrible cognitive dissonance. It is only through opportunities to really talk about what is happening – like at the two all night hearings at Berkeley this spring, when a serious, passionate, largely respectful conversation was held by the most diverse range of young people imaginable - that we can start to reconcile, understand, and stand up for the values we most deeply treasure.
For it is really some of the most bedrock principles - freedom and equality, not settlement freezes - that this discussion should be about. Each time one of these conversations happens, the generational shift that will push toward an ultimate change in U.S. policy moves a little closer.
Why shouldn’t we try BDS? Many Israeli activists have been putting their bodies on the line for literally decades to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Now they too have turned to BDS and formed a group called Boycott from Within. At last, there is a time-tested, non-violent strategy that everyone can adapt to their own local communities and circumstances. The other options have already proven inadequate, so why not try it?
That’s why JVP is proud to be a part of the BDS movement, which encompasses a variety of tactics and strategies. Our own practice of BDS entails a focus on the Occupied Territories. As such, in June we launched a campaign to get the pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit from the occupation; it has already attracted the support of over 17,000 people. And in September, we were able to support Israeli artists who are boycotting performances in the settlements by getting over 200 prominent U.S. (and U.K) theater artists to affirm their courageous stand.
One of the things that distinguishes JVP is that we don’t just talk, we act to bring about the conditions for a just peace. We look forward to the day that Israelis and Palestinians can meet as equals to pursue negotiations about a future for Israel and Palestine that values the freedom and security of all of its people equally. We believe that BDS tactics can bring us closer to that day, and that is why we are a part of it.
Rebecca Vilkomerson is the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace www.jvp.org. Many thanks to Jesse Bacon for his assistance with this article.