Your Saturday column, “The Price of Occupation,” had exactly the right message and came at precisely the right time, as the violence in the Middle East escalates to frightening levels. Because you are among the most important commentators in the national press corps and happen to be Jewish, you can make these points with great credibility.
I’d never heard of Professor Saul Friedlander or his 1967 warning that there would be disaster for Israel in its victory, as it chose to occupy the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. When you interviewed him last week, he said: “I thought that occupation would lead to a dynamic of domination … It would backfire on the fiber of our society, destroying the values that idealistic Zionism had nurtured.” You went on to observe:
Like Cassandra, Professor Friedlander has seen his prophecy ignored by those in power in Israel. But he was right. Indeed, if anything, he understated the damage occupation would do. It has endangered the security of Israel and corrupted the values of not only Israel but some of the Jewish community outside. The 145 Jewish settlements planted in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 sap Israel’s finances and its governing energy. Israeli military leaders say they strain the country’s defenses. A minister in the present government, Ephraim Sneh, said in Washington two months ago that Israel would need large new sums from the U.S. in supplemental aid to protect the settlements. The establishment of the settlements in violation of international law mocks the tradition of Jews as a people of law.
Louis Brandeis, a great Zionist as well as the greatest of Supreme Court justices, would denounce them with the force of an Isaiah if he were here. The damage occupation has done to Jewish ethical values is distressing. When I wrote critically of the settlements in a recent column, I got letters and messages seeking to justify them in the most fantastic terms. One dismissed Palestinians as a nonexistent nation – people who had ‘crept into the country from Egypt, Jordan and Syria.’ Other readers insisted that Jewish settlements in the occupied territories were built, as one put it, ‘on unwanted, unclaimed property.’ Can such readers really be ignorant of the pain suffered by Palestinians who have seen their olive groves bulldozed to make room for settlements?
When all the invention and pettifogging arguments are finished, the inescapable fact is that Israel has been colonizing the occupied territories. And still is. Professor Friedlander was not alone in his concern about holding onto the territories. The creator of modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion, came out of retirement in 1967 to say that, Jerusalem apart, ‘To get peace, we must return to the pre-1967 borders. Peace is more important than real estate.’ He said the occupied territories should be given back quickly, before resentment could build.
The Arabs would not make peace at once, he said; pride barred that after such a defeat. But it would come.
The moment for peace came with the Oslo agreement in 1993, when the P.L.O. at last accepted the reality of Israel. Palestinians believed it meant that they would have a state alongside Israel. A wise Israeli government would have made that belief concrete by closing down at least the settlements in Gaza, which have no purpose except provocation and domination. But instead, settlements continued growing. The United States has a heavy responsibility for this disastrous history. For 30 years it has provided enormous aid to Israel while making no effective objection to the settlement process. What a difference it would make if President Bush had the courage to say no, finally, to a process that undermines the hope of peace in the Middle East.
You may not have seen the June 1 issue of the Jewish weekly Forward, Tony, but its lead article on the front page is about one of the top three Palestinian military commanders, Jibril Rajoub, a “reputed moderate,” the paper says, “who is often mentioned as a possible successor to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.” What makes the piece really interesting is the Forward’s focus on Rajoub’s rejection of “widespread Israeli contentions that the current uprising is aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state,” plus its seeming approval of his formula for peace, that Israel return to the 1967 borders instead of merely leaving the Palestinians a series of hamlets intersticed with Israel-controlled roads to protect their settlements on the occupied land and an agreement that the Palestinian Authority would not press the demand for a “right of return” to Israel itself: “We have long made it clear that insisting on this principle will not mean seeking a drastic demographic change in Israel,” which a right of return would of course mean.
Now I don’t know if Arafat would have to give way to a successor at this point, although it may be that he has run out of gas. But it certainly seems to me that the pieces could be put together for a permanent peace, with a bit of money to settle Palestinian claims that could come out of a public/private fund for that purpose, plus an agreement on Jerusalem. That would be a barrier to Arafat or Rajoub, as the entire Islamic world would object to Israeli exclusivity.
Two weeks ago, in this space, I suggested that this last sticking point would have to be resolved by Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders. The one billion Muslims who insist on some authority in the holiest places in the Holy Land will not trust their secular leaders. Arafat would be a dead man if he dealt that demand away, I said, because there are plenty of “Muslim McVeighs” who will take the law into their own hands with holy war. I directed my suggestion to Senator Joseph Lieberman and urged him to follow through on his promise last year to meet with Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who is highly respected in the Muslim world.
Minister Farrakhan repeatedly has affirmed Israel’s right to exist while maintaining a steadfast defense of the rights of Palestinians, and he has declared that there is no military solution to the conflict. He is an asset in that as a primarily religious leader he approaches the conflict from the perspective that only reconciliation between the parties can lay the basis for enduring peace. Would Israelis, let alone Jews, trust him? No. Would Muslims and Arabs? Yes. Would they trust Lieberman? No. Would Israelis and Jews trust Lieberman? Yes. But Lieberman and Farrakhan have to dialogue first, or this potential will wither. I’ve not heard back from Senator Lieberman, but you might think about it, as I can’t see much wrong with that idea and I’ve heard no others that could bridge the final gap in a settlement. Please let me know what you think.