David Grossman's widely publicized speech at the
annual memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin earlier this month has prompted some
fine deconstruction of his "words of peace" from critics.
Grossman, one of Israel's foremost writers and a figurehead for its main peace
movement, Peace Now,
personifies the caring, tortured face of Zionism that so many of the country's
apologists in Israel and abroad, trenchant and wavering alike
desperately want to believe survives, despite the evidence of the Qanas,
Hanouns and other massacres committed by the Israeli army against Arab civilians.
Grossman makes it possible to believe, for a moment, that the Ariel Sharons
and Ehud Olmerts are not the real upholders of Zionism's legacy, merely a temporary
deviation from its true path.
In reality, of course, Grossman draws from the same ideological well-spring
as Israel's founders and its greatest warriors. He embodies the same anguished
values of Labor Zionism that won Israel international legitimacy just as it
was carrying out one of history's great acts of ethnic cleansing: the expulsion
of some 750,000 Palestinians, or 80 per cent the native population, from the
borders of the newly established Jewish state.
(Even critical historians usually gloss over the fact that the percentage of
the Palestinian population expelled by the Israeli army was, in truth, far higher.
Many Palestinians forced out during the 1948 war ended up back inside Israel's
borders either because under the terms of the 1949 armistice with Jordan they
were annexed to Israel, along with a small but densely populated area of the
West Bank known as the Little Triangle, or because they managed to slip back
across the porous border with Lebanon and Syria in the months following the
war and hide inside the few Palestinian villages inside Israel that had not
Remove the halo with which he has been crowned by the world's liberal media
and Grossman is little different from Zionism's most distinguished statesmen,
those who also ostentatiously displayed their hand-wringing or peace credentials
as, first, they dispossessed the Palestinian people of most of their homeland;
then dispossessed them of the rest; then ensured the original act of ethnic
cleansing would not unravel; and today are working on the slow genocide of the
Palestinians, through a combined strategy of their physical destruction and
their dispersion as a people.
David Ben Gurion, for example, masterminded the ethnic cleansing of Palestine
in 1948 before very publicly agonizing over the occupation of the West Bank
and Gaza even if only because of the demographic damage that would be
done to the Jewish state as a result.
Golda Meir refused to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people as
she launched the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, but did
recognize the anguish of Jewish soldiers forced to "shoot and cry"
to defend the settlements. Or as she put it: "We can forgive you [the Palestinians]
for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours."
Yitzhak Rabin, Grossman's most direct inspiration, may have initiated a "peace
process" at Oslo (even if only the terminally optimistic today believe
that peace was really its goal), but as a soldier and politician he also personally
oversaw the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian cities like Lid in 1948; he ordered
tanks into Arab villages inside Israel during the Land
Day protests of 1976, leading to the deaths of half a dozen unarmed Palestinian
citizens; and in 1988 he ordered his army to crush the first intifada by "breaking
the bones" of Palestinians, including women and children, who threw stones
at the occupying troops.
Like them, Grossman conspires in these original war crimes by preferring to
hold on to what Israel has, or even extend it further, rather than confront
the genuinely painful truth of his responsibility for the fate of the Palestinians,
including the hundreds of thousands of refugees and the millions of their descendants.
Every day that Grossman denies a Right of Return for the Palestinians, even
as he supports a Law of Return for the Jews, he excuses and maintains the act
of ethnic cleansing that dispossessed the Palestinian refugees more than half
a century ago.
And every day that he sells a message of peace to Israelis who look to him for
moral guidance that fails to offer the Palestinians a just solution and
that takes instead as its moral yardstick the primacy of Israel's survival as
a Jewish state then he perverts the meaning of peace.
Another Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, diagnoses the problem posed by Grossman
and his ilk with acute insight in a recent article. Although Grossman wants
peace in the abstract, Avnery observes, he offers no solutions as to how it
might be secured in concrete terms and no clues about what sacrifices he or
other Israelis will have to make to achieve it. His "peace" is empty
of content, a mere rhetorical device.
Rather than suggest what Israel should talk about to the Palestinians' elected
leaders, Grossman argues that Israel should talk over their heads to the "moderates,"
Palestinians with whom Israel's leaders can do business. The goal is to find
Palestinians, any Palestinians, who will agree to Israel's "peace."
The Oslo process in new clothes.
Grossman's speech looks like a gesture towards a solution only because Israel's
current leaders do not want to speak with anybody on the Palestinian side, whether
"moderate" or "fanatic." The only interlocutor is Washington,
and a passive one at that.
If Grossman's words are as as "hollow" as those of Ehud Olmert, Avnery
offers no clue as to reasons for the author's evasiveness. In truth, Grossman
cannot deal in solutions because there is almost no constituency in Israel for
the kind of peace plan that might prove acceptable even to the Palestinian "moderates"
Grossman so wants his government to talk to.
Were Grossman to set out the terms of his vision of peace, it might become clear
to all that the problem is not Palestinian intransigence.
Although surveys regularly show that a majority of Israelis support a Palestinian
state, they are conducted by pollsters who never specify to their sampling audience
what might be entailed by the creation of the state posited in their question.
Equally the pollsters do not require from their Israeli respondents any information
about what kind of Palestinian state each envisages. This makes the nature of
the Palestinian state being talked about by Israelis almost as empty of content
as the alluring word "peace."
After all, according to most Israelis, Gazans are enjoying the fruits of the
end of Israel's occupation. And according to Olmert, his proposed "convergence"
a very limited withdrawal from the West Bank would have established
the basis for a Palestinian state there too.
When Israelis are asked about their view of more specific peace plans, their
responses are overwhelmingly negative. In 2003, for example, 78 per cent of
Israeli Jews said they favored a two-state solution, but when asked if they
supported the Geneva Initiative which envisions a very circumscribed
Palestinian state on less than all of the West Bank and Gaza only a quarter
did so. Barely more than half of the supposedly leftwing voters of Labor backed
the Geneva Initiative.
This low level of support for a barely viable Palestinian state contrasts
with the consistently high levels of support among Israeli Jews for a concrete,
but very different, solution to the conflict: "transfer," or ethnic
cleansing. In opinion polls, 60 per cent of Israeli Jews regularly favor the
emigration of Arab citizens from the as-yet-undetermined borders of the Jewish
So when Grossman warns us that "a peace of no choice" is inevitable
and that "the land will be divided, a Palestinian state will arise,"
we should not be lulled into false hopes. Grossman's state is almost certainly
as "hollow" as his audience's idea of peace.
Grossman's refusal to confront the lack of sympathy among the Israeli public
for the Palestinians, or challenge it with solutions that will require of Israelis
that they make real sacrifices for peace, deserves our condemnation. He and
the other gurus of Israel's mainstream peace movement, writers like Amos Oz
and A B Yehoshua, have failed in their duty to articulate to Israelis a vision
of a fair future and a lasting peace.
So what is the way out of the impasse created by the beatification of figures
like Grossman? What other routes are open to those of us who refuse to believe
that Grossman stands at the very precipice before which any sane peace activist
would tremble? Can we look to other members of the Israeli left for inspiration?
Uri Avnery again steps forward. He claims that there are only two peace camps
in Israel: a Zionist one, based on a national consensus rooted in the Peace
Now of David Grossman; and what he calls a "radical peace camp" led
well, himself and his group of a few thousand Israelis known as Gush
By this, one might be tempted to infer that Avnery styles his own peace bloc
as non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist. Nothing could be further from the truth,
however. Avnery and most, though not all, of his supporters in Israel are staunchly
in the Zionist camp.
The bottom line in any peace for Avnery is the continued existence and success
of Israel as a Jewish state. That rigidly limits his ideas about what sort of
peace a "radical" Israeli peace activist ought to be pursuing.
Like Grossman, Avnery supports a two-state solution because, in both their views,
the future of the Jewish state cannot be guaranteed without a Palestinian state
alongside it. This is why Avnery finds himself agreeing with 90 per cent of
Grossman's speech. If the Jews are to prosper as a demographic (and democratic)
majority in their state, then the non-Jews must have a state too, one in which
they can exercise their own, separate sovereign rights and, consequently, abandon
any claims on the Jewish state.
However, unlike Grossman, Avnery not only supports a Palestinian state in the
abstract but a "just" Palestinian state in the concrete, meaning for
him the evacuation of all the settlers and a full withdrawal by the Israeli
army to the 1967 lines. Avnery's peace plan would give back east Jerusalem and
the whole of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians.
The difference between Grossman and Avnery on this point can be explained by
their different understanding of what is needed to ensure the Jewish state's
survival. Avnery believes that a lasting peace will hold only if the Palestinian
state meets the minimal aspirations of the Palestinian people. In his view,
the Palestinians can be persuaded under the right leadership to settle for 22
per cent of their historic homeland and in that way the Jewish state
will be saved.
Of itself, there is nothing wrong with Avnery's position. It has encouraged
him to take a leading and impressive role in the Israeli peace movement for
many decades. Bravely he has crossed over national confrontation lines to visit
the besieged Palestinian leadership when other Israelis have shied away. He
has taken a courageous stand against the separation wall, facing down Israeli
soldiers alongside Palestinian, Israeli and foreign peace activists. And through
his journalism he has highlighted the Palestinian cause and educated Israelis,
Palestinians and outside observers about the conflict. For all these reasons,
Avnery should be praised as a genuine peacemaker.
But there is a serious danger that, because Palestinian solidarity movements
have misunderstood Avnery's motives, they may continue to be guided by him beyond
the point where he is contributing to a peaceful solution or a just future for
the Palestinians. In fact, that moment may be upon us.
During the Oslo years, Avnery was desperate to see Israel complete its supposed
peace agreement with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. As he often argued,
he believed that Arafat alone could unify the Palestinians and persuade them
to settle for the only two-state solution on the table: a big Israel, alongside
a small Palestine.
In truth, Avnery's position was no so far from that of the distinctly unradical
Oslo crowd of Rabin, Peres and Yossi Beilin. All four of them regarded Arafat
as the Palestinian strongman who could secure Israel's future: Rabin hoped Arafat
would police the Palestinians on Israel's behalf in their ghettoes; while Avnery
hoped Arafat would forge a nation, democratic or otherwise, that would contain
the Palestinians' ambitions for territory and a just solution to the refugee
Now with Arafat gone, Avnery and Gush Shalom have lost their ready-made solution
to the conflict. Today, they still back two states and support engagement with
Hamas. They have also not deviated from their long-standing positions on the
main issues Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees even
if they no longer have the glue, Arafat, that was supposed to make it all stick
But without Arafat as their strongman, Gush Shalom have no idea about how to
address the impending issues of factionalism and potential civil war that Israel's
meddling in the Palestinian political process are unleashing.
They will also have no response if the tide on the Palestinian street turns
against the two-state mirage offered by Oslo. If Palestinians look for other
ways out of the current impasse, as they are starting to do, Avnery will quickly
become an obstacle to peace rather than its great defender.
In fact, such a development is all but certain. Few knowledgeable observers
of the conflict believe the two-state solution based on the 1967 lines is feasible
any longer, given Israel's entrenchment of its settlers in Jerusalem and the
West Bank, now numbering nearly half a million. Even the Americans have publicly
admitted that most of the settlements cannot be undone. It is only a matter
of time before Palestinians make the same calculation.
What will Avnery, and the die-hards of Gush Shalom, do in this event? How
will they respond if Palestinians start to clamor for a single state embracing
both Israelis and Palestinians, for example?
The answer is that the "radical" peaceniks will quickly need to
find another solution to protect their Jewish state. There are not too many
There is the "Carry on with the occupation regardless" of Binyamin
Netanyahu and Likud;
There is the "Seal the Palestinians into ghettoes and hope eventually
they will leave of their own accord," in its Kadima (hard) and Labor
And there is the "Expel them all" of Avigdor Lieberman, Olmert's
new Minister of Strategic Threats.
Paradoxically, a variation on the last option may be the most appealing to the
disillusioned peaceniks of Gush Shalom. Lieberman has his own fanatical and
moderate positions, depending on his audience and the current realities. To
some he says he wants all Palestinians expelled from Greater Israel so that
it is available only for Jews. But to others, particularly in the diplomatic
arena, he suggests a formula of territorial and population swaps between Israel
and the Palestinians that would create a "Separation of Nations."
Israel would get the settlements back in return for handing over some small
areas of Israel, like the Little Triangle, densely populated with Palestinians.
A generous version of such an exchange though a violation of international
law would achieve a similar outcome to Gush Shalom's attempts to create
a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Even if Avnery is unlikely to be
lured down this path himself, there is a real danger that others in the "radical"
peace camp will prefer this kind of solution over sacrificing their commitment
at any price to the Jewish state.
But fortunately, whatever Avnery claims, his peace camp is not the only alternative
to the sham agonizing of Peace Now. Avnery is no more standing at the very edge
of the abyss than Grossman. The only abyss Avnery is looking into is the demise
of his Jewish state.
Other Zionist Jews, in Israel and abroad, have been grappling with the same
kinds of issues as Avnery but begun to move in a different direction, away from
the doomed two-state solution towards a binational state. A few prominent intellectuals
like Tony Judt, Meron Benvenisti and Jeff Halper have publicly begun to question
their commitment to Zionism and consider whether it is not part of the problem
rather than the solution.
They are not doing this alone. Small groups of Israelis, smaller than Gush
Shalom, are abandoning Zionism and coalescing around new ideas about how Israeli
Jews and Palestinians might live peacefully together, including inside a single
state. They include Taayush, Anarchists
Against the Wall, Zochrot
and elements within the Israeli Committee
against House Demolitions and Gush Shalom itself.
Avnery hopes that his peace camp may be the small wheel that can push the
larger wheel of organizations like Peace Now in a new direction and thereby
shift Israeli opinion towards a real two-state solution. Given the realities
on the ground, that seems highly unlikely. But one day, wheels currently smaller
than Gush Shalom may begin to push Israel in the direction needed for peace.