National Post Letter

letter to the editorShould any readers take a look inside today’s National Post, they might find a letter of mine defending Canada’s United Church and its boycott of goods from Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Click here to read my letter and scroll down to the heading “… or is it just?”

Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorA letter of mine in the Vancouver Sun today, this one about the “Disappearing Palestine” ads on public transit here in the city. I try to defend the ads against the absurd charge that they target Jews. Click here to read it (second entry from the top).

An Open Letter to TransLink Regarding the “Disappearing Palestine” Ads

Disappearing PalestineDear TransLink:

I am writing to express my wholehearted support for your decision to display the pro-Palestinian transit ads recently unveiled at the Vancouver City Centre Skytrain station and on several buses. The ads offer an important perspective that needs to be heard as part of any informed debate on the Middle East conflict.

My praise may sound a bit strange, since, as you yourselves have noted, “within defined limits TransLink has no legal authority to decline advertising content.” A 2009 Supreme Court decision established that TransLink, as a public body, is bound by the free speech provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nevertheless, I insist on applauding you during the minor melee currently underway in the city’s media. Please do not feel deterred or bullied by the individuals and organizations that have criticized the ads in recent days — shamelessly conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, even going so far as to threaten legal action. I myself am Jewish and do not feel unsafe or offended in the least. Many members of the Palestine Awareness Coalition, the group responsible for the ads, happen to be Jewish as well. And while neither they nor I make any claim to be representative of all Vancouver Jews, to characterize the Jewish community as monolithically mortified by the ads, as strongly implied by some media coverage, is clearly ridiculous.

Ethno-religious affiliations are one thing; politics are another. Most people are perfectly capable of looking beyond the former in coming to opinions on the latter.

Thank you for standing up for the principle of freedom of expression and for facilitating a public discussion that needs to be had.

Sincerely,

David Taub Bancroft

Vancouver, BC

Thoughts on the New Israeli Government

KnessetOn the same day that the world erupted in joyous, teary-eyed celebration following the selection of a new pope, a slightly less climactic breakthrough was reached thousands of kilometres away as four Israeli political parties, nearly two months after elections, quietly decided to form a coalition government. Right away, the deal seemed like it might fall apart over a last-minute dispute regarding deputy prime ministerial appointments, but two days later, all differences have been ironed out and the coalition agreement signed.

The chances were never exactly high that Israel would bend far enough to conclude a successful peace agreement with the Palestinians any time soon. However, what little optimism I had gained after January’s elections has now dissipated almost entirely.

The most noteworthy feature in the new centre-right government is the complete absence of ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in years, enabling the coalition partners to commit to ending draft exemptions and other privileges for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. In itself, this is a good thing and should be celebrated by all who value secular government.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In the Israeli political system, the settler movement has no greater friends, and the peace movement no greater enemies, than the secular and moderately religious right-wing nationalist parties, like Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, which dominate the incoming government.

After the elections, there was some hope that the surprisingly strong showing by the centrist Yesh Atid party, with its relatively moderate views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might push the government towards compromise. But Yesh Atid never prioritized peace talks as highly as it did domestic issues, and during coalition negotiations, party leader Yair Lapid aligned himself firmly with Habayit Hayehudi’s far-right rejectionist leader Naftali Bennett.

Also, one of the terms of the coalition agreement involves a plan to increase the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset from the current two per cent up to four per cent. This will likely reduce the amount of time necessary for post-election negotiations and allow for greater government stability. But all this will come at the expense of the small Arab parties which could quite possibly be shut out from all future Knessets. Raising the electoral threshold may have the effect of even further marginalizing the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The greatest hope for peace in the incoming government lies in its smallest coalition member, Hatnuah, a new centrist party composed of former Kadima and Labor members, which has made the renewal of peace talks its number-one issue. In addition to gaining a seat at the cabinet table, party leader Tzipi Livni will be made the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

It is worth remembering, however, that when Livni was foreign minister in a previous government, Israel killed 1400 Gazans in Operation Cast Lead. For her to be the new government’s strongest voice for peace is perhaps the most depressing development of all.

Israel’s Election Results and the Prospects for Peace

Yair Lapid

Yair Lapid

Well, that wasn’t quite as bad as I thought.

Sadly, Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly remain prime minister of Israel after his Likud party and its electoral partner Yisrael Beiteinu won a plurality of seats in Knesset elections today. But their share has gone down sharply since the last election. Even Habayit Hayehudi, an extreme right ultra-nationalist party that was widely expected to place a strong third or perhaps even second, suffered an upset with a fourth-place finish.

The Knesset now appears to be split almost in half between the right wing on one side and the centre, left, and Arab blocs on the other, which means Bibi will have to reach outside his comfort zone if he wishes to form a workable coalition. And the first door he will most likely knock on is that of Yesh Atid, which surprised everyone by coming in second ahead of Labor.

Yesh Atid, a centrist party I did not even mention in my post on the Israeli political landscape last week (I did not expect them to do so well), was formed only a year ago by popular journalist Yair Lapid as a place for Israelis who are frustrated by the traditional parties. As conditions for entering a governing coalition, Lapid has mentioned eliminating the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service and peace talks with the Palestinians, and while I am doubtful that I would agree with all of his positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is at least nice to see that he takes the issue more seriously than Netanyahu.

Finally, the Arab parties all maintained their presence in the Knesset –¬†Haneen Zoabi, for instance, will be returning, despite vicious and anti-democratic efforts by her opponents — while both Meretz and Labor, the Zionist left parties, improved on their 2009 election results.

I am still not holding my breath for any sudden breakthroughs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the makeup of the new Knesset is at least considerably better than the projected worst-case scenario of continued unchallenged dominance by the rejectionist right. While it won’t be easy, it is conceivable that peaceniks in Israel and Palestine might have something to work with.

Update 24/01/2013: This post has been revised slightly upon the release of the final election results.

Fanatics, Zealots, Warmongers, and Peaceniks: Israel’s Crowded Electoral Landscape

Haneen Zoabi

Haneen Zoabi

Due perhaps to my Jewish identity and my family’s history, Israel tends to be the country whose politics I follow most closely apart from Canada’s and the United States’. Nevertheless, there is a giant gulf separating numbers one and two from number three. My understanding of Israeli parties, personalities, and issues is far from perfect, and when I observe the campaign leading up to the January 22 elections to Israel’s Knesset, I do so as an outsider.

There is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that I feel very passionately about, as I strongly believe in Palestinian national aspirations, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a just peace to the decades of bloodshed. But there are other issues too, issues regarding which I have less information: the 2011 social justice protests against high housing costs that have bestowed renewed importance upon socioeconomic matters in Israel, the perpetual debate over the role of religion in society and the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

Notwithstanding these few gaps in my knowledge, regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am compulsively prone to the projectile expression of opinions. They will also know that I display unnatural excitement towards elections of all kinds. So despite my acknowledged dearth of expertise, I would like to say a few things about Israel’s many political parties and to discuss my preferences — my endorsements, if I may put it that way — for the benefit of any Israeli readers who happen to be curious. Therefore, I hereby offer a non-exhaustive list of parties, divided into categories, presented in order from those I like most to those I like least.

(Any readers looking for more information on Israel’s political landscape can find some here and here.)

Arab parties

If I had the right to vote in Israel’s election this month, I would most likely choose Hadash, Israel’s communist party. While predominantly Arab, Hadash boasts a significant minority of Jewish members and supporters, thereby lending itself a certain binational street cred. And while I am not personally a communist, I recognize that Hadash tends to take exceptionally progressive and enlightened positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The party has also become known for its strong stances on the environment.

Balad, another secular left-wing Arab party, would be my second choice. Though Balad is more explicitly nationalistic, while Hadash officially expounds Marxist internationalism, both parties demand an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and equality for Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Israeli political establishment’s endless efforts to persecute Balad and its Knesset members — such as the inspiring Haneen Zoabi — if anything, makes the party even more deserving of support.

Unfortunately, neither Hadash nor Balad does particularly well in elections.

Zionist left parties

Within the Zionist mainstream, the choices are not all bad. Meretz, a small social democratic party with some experience in coalition governments, is the traditional choice of left-wing Jewish peaceniks.

Considerably closer to the centre is Labor, one of Israel’s two major historic political forces. Labor has tended to be ever-so-slightly more open to peace and compromise than its opponents on the right. Currently, it is focusing primarily on socioeconomic issues in the wake of the recent social justice protests, but voters looking for truly courageous leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian file are advised to skip over the Labor doves who appear to come by their dovishness with such reluctance.

Centrist parties

A new arrival in the increasingly crowded centre, Hatnuah was formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and benefited from several defections from across the centre and left, including two high-profile former Labor party leaders. It presents as the main plank of its agenda the pursuit of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Kadima, creation of hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Livni’s one-time home, appears to be just about on its way out of the Israeli political scene. If I had to choose between the two, I would say the right one is headed into oblivion.

Right-wing parties

In the graveyard of unrepentant racists and warmongers on the Israeli right, the most moderate option is incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a party that supports free market economic policies, can’t quite make up its mind on the two-state solution, and has never met a war it didn’t like. Partnering up in a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, led by downright fascistic ethnic cleansing advocate Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is almost guaranteed to win a plurality of seats in the coming elections.

Farther down the right side of the spectrum are a variety of small ultra-nationalist and fanatical religious parties (Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism). With an expected Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu victory, at least some of these parties are guaranteed spots in the governing coalition.

Which means things will probably get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Two-State Twilight

PeaceFor many years, I have felt that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were an exaggeration. Yes, Israel has been unyielding in its expansion of settlements in the West Bank in clear violation of international law, effectively dividing the already-slight territory into several isolated segments and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state nearly impossible. But Israel has withdrawn settlers from occupied territory before, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Unlikely as it may now appear, it could always happen again.

The above represents the optimistic perspective I have traditionally held. With every passing year, it becomes harder to maintain this optimism. Israeli settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) currently number around half a million — far more than anything Israel has ever removed before. I do not know exactly how close the settlements are to a point of no return — or indeed if they have passed that point already — but what seems obvious to me is that if the two-state solution is not yet dead, it is clearly dying, and every decision to authorize or excuse settlement expansion in the West Bank diminishes its chance of full recovery.

This is the only lens through which to understand last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote granting Palestinians “non-member observer state” status. While Israel occasionally claims to be in favour of some form of two-state solution, as soon as the moment came to put its money where its mouth was, the country led a small number of other rejectionists (shamefully including my own Canadian government) in voting against Palestinian statehood. Then, in retaliation against Palestine for its victory at the UN, Israel announced plans for new settlement construction in a move that will further carve up the West Bank.

The occurrence of these events mere days after Israel concluded its brutal assault on Gaza and agreed to a truce with Hamas is especially disturbing. According to Palestinian parliamentarian and peace activist Mustafa Barghouti:

What worries me most today is that Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians that if you do non-violence, we will oppress you. If you do the most peaceful, non-violent act of turning to the United Nations, we will punish you. But if you use violence and guns, we will respect you. That’s the message that Palestinians are getting, and that’s a wrong message.

Furthermore, in addition to hurting Palestinians, Israel is hurting itself. If the two-state solution becomes impractical, Palestinians and their international supporters will not simply roll over and accept the eternal occupation of Palestine as a fait accompli. Rather, they will demand (and who can blame them?) voting rights in Israeli elections for all living under Israeli sovereignty. The two-state solution will die and be reborn as the one-state solution, featuring equal democratic rights for all people — Jewish and Palestinian — between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

For most Israelis, this is a nightmare scenario. I am not quite so pessimistic.

Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip together make up a natural social and economic unit, and if one accepts the right of return for Palestinian refugees (as anyone who believes in the universality of human rights must), then the pre-1967 borders are a rather arbitrary place to draw the partition line. The only good reason to defend the two-state solution is that it remains the path of least resistance. Majorities or pluralities among Israelis and Palestinians support two states, as does virtually the entire international community. Furthermore, after decades of violence and hatred, there may be some utility in at least temporarily giving each population its own state.

For these reasons, I have always supported an interim two-state period to allow tempers to cool, but have remained hopeful that eventually, after years of reconciliation, a single binational state might emerge.

Naive? Who’s to say? What is obvious, however, is that Israeli intransigence on settlements is eclipsing any possibility of an intermediate stage. A time will soon come — if it hasn’t already — when one state is the only choice left.