I had the opportunity recently to participate in a JStreet rabbinic conference call with two members of the Israeli Council for Peace and Security, a movement of over 1000 Israelis with backgrounds in security and diplomacy who consider support of the peace process to be critical to Israel's national security. The call was with retired Major General Shlomo Gazit and advocate Talia Sasson.
Major General Gazit was appointed in 1967 as the head of the Unit for Coordination of Operations in the Territories; he later served as head of the intelligence service of the IDF from 1974-1978, and today is a member of the staff of Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at the Tel Aviv University. Talia Sasson served for 25 years in state advocacy; she authored the Sasson Report, an official Israeli government report which concluded in 2005 that the Israeli Ministries of Defense and Housing/Construction, and the World Zionist Organization, had been diverting millions of shekels to build settlements and outposts which were illegal under Israeli law.
I missed the beginning of the call due to technical difficulties, but I did eventually get in. When I entered the call, one rabbi was asking the speakers how they respond to the rhetoric which argues that Israel has no partner for peace?
General Gazit replied, "I have no intention of saying that the Palestinians are all angels and that we Israelis, we are all devils!" But, he added, Israel is "responsible for creating a situation which is extremely dangerous first and foremost to ourselves, to Israel as a Jewish state. We were at the point of almost reaching an agreement," he noted, during Olmert's tenure; "since then, for the last two years, there were no serious negotiations between the parties, and what we have established is a most dangerous situation."
Further, he pointed out, during previous negotiations, Israel was negotiating with Abbas in a manner which dealt with the results of the 6-day war in 1967; "by not continuing to negotiate in these terms, we have now opened the so-called 1948 file, and the problem of Palestinian recognition of Israel as having a right to exist. This is an extremely serious situation."
Talia Sasson added:
I believe that Israel has a partner. I myself was in Abu Mazen's office with the Council for Peace and Security. We asked him questions, and I believe that he is ready to make real negotiations with Israel and to achieve a peace agreement that Israel could live with. Israel is for the last years claiming that she has no partner, because the Palestinian people is split to Hamas movement and the PLO; but today they became united. So Israel can't be heard that it has no partner, because the Palestinian people are represented by Abu Mazen, with Hamas or without Hamas.
Israel can choose its enemies, Israel could choose its friends. But peace [is something] you make with your enemy, not with your friends. I believe that Israel today has a partner who will recognize Israel; all of [the Palestinian] speakers are recognizing Israel; and their demand, of freezing the building in the West Bank -- which I believe is wrongdoing by Israel -- Israel should accept it and stop the building there. Everything that Israel is building there, Israel should remove it and pay compensation for those buildings which today it is wasting its money for. I believe there is a partner on the Abbas side, I believe it is good for Israeli interests to make these negotiations. I believe it's possible.
Another rabbi asked: how do we handle the questions raised about Hamas' intent to do Israel harm?
"When you are negotiating between two parties," said Gazit, "the negotiations are between two states, between two governments, between two heads of government. You are not getting involved with every party within the coalition or within the parliament of the other side. I have never heard Mahmoud Abbas telling Prime Minister Netanyahu, 'we are not going to negotiate with you as long as Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu are part of your coalition'" -- even though, he noted, surely Abbas knows Yisrael Beiteinu's position regarding Palestinians!
Negotiations happen, he stressed, between one head of state and another. "We have been negotiating with the head of state; who is within his coalition is his business, not my business." What matters to Gazit is the terms of whatever agreement the heads of state eventually reach. "If they do satisfy me, then it will be the responsibility of the Palestinian government to make sure that this agreement is ratified by his parliament and his people. Proof of the pudding is, with whom do we negotiate, and what will be the character of the agreement reached? Not what this or that Palestinian party does or does not think of Israel."
"I think that the Hamas movement is weak today," added Sasson, "and because of this weakness they decided to join the PLO government, and to act politically and not by violence. Israel should take advantage of this opportunity and to have these negotiations with Abu Mazen. These negotiations, and peace agreement, will weaken Hamas. But I think that if Israel won't do that, Hamas will become much stronger and will take advantage on the PLO and will win in elections. This is part of the Israeli interest now, to take advantage of this situation and to start the negotiations with the PLO."
And what did our speakers think about the Palestinian policy of bringing their quest for statehood to the UN?
"If we have a chance of restarting negotiations before September, I don't think we will see" the press for statehood which is currently being discussed, said General Gazit. He thinks the unilaterial demand for statehood arises when negotiations have failed, and he argued that if it does happen, it will involve demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and it will be a very serious issue. Sasson added that if Israel merely stands aside and waits until the UN acts, that would be very risky for Israel. "Therefore we call Israel to join the recognition of the Palestinian state in 1967 borders; to take it as a starting negotiations with the Palestinians about the borders of Israel and Palestine, and the security arrangements," she said.
There was some conversation about Syria, and then one rabbi asked our speakers to tell us what they hope President Obama will say. Intriguingly, both of them declined to offer their thoughts on that; each of them acknowledged that they do have opinions on the matter, but they agreed that just as they don't want Americans telling the Israeli head of state what to say, they don't think it's appropriate for Israelis to dictate what the American head of state should say.
And then the call was cut short by another technical difficulty, so we closed there. On the one hand, I'm grateful for the conference call technology which allowed rabbis from all over the country to participate; on the proverbial other hand I'm frustrated by the technical challenges which got in our way! But regardless, I'm glad to have been on the call. Both of our speakers struck me as pragmatic, somewhat wary, but ultimately deeply hopeful that Israel can and will enter into negotiations with the Palestinians in a way which will yield real results. From their lips to God's ears. Speedily and soon.