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Dateline: Israeli Peace Bloc

Earlier this week President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Israel to withdraw its forces from Palestinian-controlled territory. But Israeli officials said they would not do so until Palestinian security forces arrested those responsible for murdering Israel's tourism minister last week. At the same time, Israel's best-known peace activist was touring several U.S. cities, calling on the U.S. government to put forward a serious peace initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Judith Latham examines the mission of the "Israeli Peace Bloc" in this edition of Dateline.

For the past two weeks, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has been speaking to American audiences in five major cities, urging them to press for a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Earlier this month, the jury of the so-called "Alternative Nobel Prize" announced that it had awarded this year's prize to Uri Avnery and his wife Rachel and to Gush Shalom or "Peace Bloc," an organization founded by Mr. Avnery. The award will be presented in the Swedish parliament on December 7, one day before the official Nobel awards.

Uri Avnery, a journalist and three-time member of the Israeli Knesset, spoke with VOA about why he is undertaking an American tour now. "I think it's very important at this moment perhaps more than ever before to create some clarity about the problems in the Middle East," he said. "I believe events will pressure the American administration to come forward for the first time with a serious peace initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I would like the Jewish community of the United States, as well as Israeli public opinion, to support such a peace initiative even if my own government doesn't like it."

Latham: Everything I read or hear from people is that this is the lowest point in terms of the prospects for peace. People who have been involved in the peace movement on both sides are very discouraged. Do you also feel discouraged?

Avnery: Not at all. I think this is a temporary setback created by the Camp David conference. But I think progress towards peace is inevitable. Over the decades, we have come so much closer to peace. Few people realize how long the distance is that we have covered. Fifty years ago there were not ten people in Israel who acknowledged the existence of a Palestinian people. Much later Golda Meir said, "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people." And then, when my friends and I started our first contacts with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, this was considered high treason. I met Arafat for the first time in 1982, and some people in the government demanded to put me on trial for that. We raised the point that there can be no peace without a viable Palestinian state. This was considered outlandish. Today the great majority of Israeli public opinion, in public opinion polls, has said there will be no peace without a Palestinian state. The choice is between an ongoing bloodbath and making peace.

Latham: Here in the United States there have been voices raised to say among Middle East experts that the offer that was made in late December was a much more reasonable offer. And had it been possible to pursue that offer, there might have been some sort of comprehensive settlement. Is that your point of view? Avnery: The U.S. administration needs to come forward with a peace initiative on the part of the war against terrorism. I think they should start a new initiative based on what was more or less agreed in Taba. Which means a Palestinian state in all the territory of the West Bank and Gaza. The borders of '67 should be re-instituted, with some exchanges of territory to allow some of the Israeli settlements that are close to the border to be incorporated in Israel in exchange for equal territory to be turned over by Israel to the Palestinians. Jerusalem must become the capital of both states. We hope to keep Jerusalem united jointly administered by the two municipalities. The settlements must be evacuated. And there must be found a just practical solution to the refugee problem.

Latham: How have the events of September 11th in the United States brought pressure to bear on what used to be called the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Avnery: To conduct this war against terrorism, the United States must build a great coalition, including nearly all Arab states and nearly all Muslim states. Such a coalition will not hold if this bloodbath in Palestine goes on. I think it's clear to the American administration because Colin Powell has started to talk about a need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian question. Mr. Bush has started to talk about a Palestinian state. The question is whether or not the administration has enough determination to push forward a settlement that I believe is now possible. But it needs American will. And it needs perhaps an international peace conference like the one convened after the Gulf War in Madrid. Latham: What kind of response have you met with on the part of regional experts here in the United States? And how do you judge the public mood in the United States toward the Israeli government?

Avnery: I think there is a growing part of the Jewish community in the United States that realizes something has to be done and that there should not be a united front of the Jewish community supporting the Sharon government. And they should be more critical toward Israeli policy. The American national interest is closely bound up with peace in Palestine. It concerns America very directly because there can be no war against terrorism if terrorism is supported by millions of people throughout the Middle East. I think the Arab masses are being set in motion now, and the American government must realize that all it allies in the Middle East are tottering. The survival of these Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States is very much in doubt if the masses of the Palestinians continue to perceive the United States as a supporter of an unjust and oppressive policy against the Palestinians. The Palestinian problem must be solved." When on Monday the State Department condemned Israeli incursion into the West Bank, American Jewish groups were divided in their response. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a letter to Secretary Powell that he was "extremely troubled" by the State Department's call for an Israeli withdrawal and considered it "contrary" to U.S. policy that Israel has a "right to defend itself."

Foxman: We felt it was stepping over the bounds of instructing a friend and ally what to do. From what I understand, the Israelis moved in because of the assassination of a member of their government. They asked the Palestinian Authority to apprehend and bring to justice the people responsible. They weren't doing a thing. The Israelis then moved into the towns and said again, 'Either you, the Palestinian Authority, bring these people in, or we will.'

Latham: As you know, there is considerable pressure on the U-S government because of the assault on New York and Washington and a need to keep together a coalition. How responsive do you think Israel is to that need?

Foxman: I think Israel is very responsive to the need in that both Israel and the United States are fighting terrorism. You cannot say to people you want in your coalition, 'Only we can defend ourselves against terror attacks against citizens, but others can't.' Latham: To what degree is there unanimity in the American Jewish community in the fight against terrorism?

Foxman: I think there's unanimity in support of the President and his effort to mount this battle against terrorism internationally across the board. It's the violence that is threatening the coalition. But on the issue of the peace process, whether now is the time to proceed with the peace process, there are disagreements.

Latham: What is the response of most people in the American Jewish community to the Sharon government?

Foxman: There is overwhelming support for the Sharon government today in Israel and here in the American Jewish community because his major goal now is to stop the violence. This isn't violence on both sides. If Mr. Arafat and the P-A would stop the violence, Israel would not be going into the West Bank. Israel would not be deploying tanks. Israel would not have targeted assassinations if they stopped it. As long as this prevails, the American Jewish community with some very minor exceptions will support Prime Minister Sharon and his unity government." Latham: Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League spoke with us from his office in New York. But Joshua Reubner, director of the Washington-based Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, says Uri Avnery's proposals have struck a responsive chord among many American Jews who are deeply concerned about the long-term prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Reubner: I think it's important to distinguish between the organized mainstream of the American Jewish community and the grassroots. In general, the established American Jewish community wants American policymakers believe that the Jewish community speaks in one voice when it comes to Israel. And that's simply not true. [END OPT] There's a growing movement within American Jews who oppose not only the policies of the Sharon government but also oppose Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestine. Latham: To what degree do you make common cause with non-Jews in the United States?

Reubner: That's a fundamental goal of our organization, which is called Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel. To change the mindset in this country and to influence policymakers, we have to show that all Americans of good conscience, regardless of their ethnic origin and religious beliefs, are united in the cause for a just peace in the region. And in order to convince the decision-makers that is the case, we need to work in a coalition of organizations that includes Arab and Muslim and Christian organizations as well.

Latham: Given the events here of September 11th, does that make this in some way a more "teachable" moment for Americans?

Reubner: Absolutely. There's a huge window of opportunity right now to educate the American public as to U-S policies towards this conflict and why these policies cause so much anger and despair and frustration in the Arab world and the Muslim world. And that is that the United States blindly supports whatever Israel does. And we need to re-examine that. And, if our country truly wants to be an honest broker in the conflict, then it can't take sides.

Latham: In recent days and recent weeks, there has been considerable criticism from the State Department of the Sharon government with regard to assassinations and particularly these incursions into the Palestinian territories.

Reubner: Hopefully, there will be some pressure brought to bear on Sharon to rein in his very destructive and counter-productive policies. It's clear that the State Department and the administration say one thing and members of Congress say another thing when it comes to this conflict. Unfortunately, many members of Congress are under the illusion that they must support whatever Israel does to placate the American Jewish community. And that's simply not true. American Jews tend not to accept settlements. American Jews tend to believe in the sharing of Jerusalem and in the establishment of a Palestinian state. A survey published this past Sunday showed Israelis are evenly split over what to do next. A Gallup poll found that 38 percent of those asked favored all-out war against the Palestinians, while an equal segment of 38 percent preferred accelerated peace talks. In the United States, support for Israel increased sharply after the terrorist attacks with 55 percent of Americans saying their sympathies were with Israel while only seven percent supported the Palestinians.