Op-Ed: Zionism and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The following is an edited transcript of remarks by Henry Siegman to the Middle East Policy Council’s 72nd conference on Capitol Hill about expanding the debate on U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine.  Mr. Siegman is the president of the U.S. Middle East Project.

I am a Zionist. I am not only not opposed to a Jewish state, but I spent much of my early life supporting and defending it. My understanding of Zionism, however, was shaped by the early founders of the Zionist movement, who would be appalled, and would turn over in their graves if they knew what their historic experiment has actually yielded. It became clear to me in the mid-‘70s that the principles of the early founders of the Zionist movement were being traduced and violated by successive Israeli governments. The assumptions they made about the kind of society that would be shaped by the Jewish state turned out to be false. This is not because the enterprise of developing a Jewish and democratic state was inherently false, but because the people who came to power in Israel, who led its governments, tragically and sadly seemed to have learned absolutely nothing from 2,000 years of Jewish experience — and even less about the heritage that gives the name “Jewish” to the state and to the governments that they formed. That is when my attitude, not to the idea of a Jewish state but to the policies of the government of that state, changed so completely.

I will share with you some random thoughts on this general subject. To begin with, the Middle East peace process is probably the greatest scam in modern diplomatic history, and future historians will be in absolute awe over how this scam was pulled off. The deception has been going on from the very outset. From the day after the 1967 war, there has not been a single Israeli government that has seriously considered the possibility of allowing a truly “independent” and “sovereign” Palestinian state — terms implicit in the Oslo Accords and explicitly used by the Roadmap that everyone, including the United States, Israel and the Palestinians, signed on to. Even Benjamin Netanyahu committed himself to a two-state accord in his Bar-Ilan speech. No Israeli government entertained the idea that the West Bank might not remain under Israel’s complete control. Palestinians could call their self-governing entities — whatever forms they would be permitted to take by Israel — a state, or an empire, or whatever they may want to call them, but they have to remain entirely under Israeli control.

This is not just a Likud idea. Some of you are old enough to remember who Moshe Dayan was: a legendary figure who was celebrated as a hero of the 1967 war. Immediately after that war, and then again 10 years later, when asked what will happen with the West Bank and with the Palestinians, he said that Israel’s challenge is to make sure that the situation today remains permanently unchanged. He said this publicly; in this respect, he was an honest man.

That is how successive Israeli governments—whether right, left or center—have dealt with the Palestinians. The chosen instrument for establishing that permanent control over the occupied territories has been Israel’s colonial settlements project. It was begun not by radical rightists but by Shimon Peres. It was, of course, improved upon by Begin and Shamir and all those who followed, particularly by Ariel Sharon, who became the settlers’ godfather. Consequently, if one asks why the peace process has failed, why we are facing the situation we’re facing today, it’s because the policy of Israel has been from the outset not to permit an independent viable and sovereign Palestinian state to ever come into being. I believe they have succeeded in that. I don’t think the two-state solution is on life support. I think it is “history”; it is gone. And the reason it is gone is because the settlement project has become irreversible.

I wish I could believe that it is possible to draw optimism from Tom Friedman’s latest column on the subject. I admire Tom’s courage in speaking certain truths he has been reluctant to express in the past. But one of the reasons we do not have an honest discussion in this country even about the most obvious of these truths is that we always feel, even when we finally acknowledge the gross injustice and unfairness of the situation, that we cannot express these truths without first embedding them in a critique of Palestinian behavior. So, even a Tom Friedman must first begin by criticizing Palestinian shortcomings every time he wants to say something critical about the behavior of Israeli governments.

The American public has bought a narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is dishonest. For example, what could be more obvious than that Israel cannot be serious about the peace process when it systematically steals the territory it is supposed to be negotiating with the Palestinians? A six-year-old would understand the obviousness of the deception.

The reason the American public is overwhelmingly supportive of the Israeli position, and only a small minority has any sympathy for the Palestinians’ situation, is because Americans are largely uninformed about foreign affairs. This was brought home to me several years ago when I was at the Council on Foreign Relations. A well-known TV news anchor asked to come by to see me, along with two researchers, for a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As our conversation began, I discovered that not one of them was aware that the State of Israel was created as a result of the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947. It came as a complete surprise to them.

Most world leaders were aware of Israel’s opposition to a Palestinian state. However, it was widely assumed that because of America’s generous support and deep friendship for the Jewish state, the United States would at some point leverage the vast credits it had accumulated over the years with Israeli governments and its people to say to its friend: “Enough; there are certain lines which you cannot cross, for if you do, then we can no longer invoke our common values as the foundation for this extraordinary relationship, because permanent occupation of another people seeking its rights and apartheid are not common values.”

So if there won’t be a two-state solution, it is not only because of the policies of Israeli governments but because the U.S. White House and the Congress never had the political and moral courage to act on that expectation. President Obama went to Israel and competed with several other members of his administration who had previously visited Israel in finding adjectives that adequately express our unconditional support of the State of Israel, and in assuring Israel that only its own government can decide how to protect its security, no matter how those decisions comport with international law or affect Israel’s neighbors or U.S. interests. After that performance, can anyone really believe that President Obama can make a 180 degree turn-around and say, “No more”?

The United States will not come to the rescue. What hope there still is lies not with the United States, not with the Europeans, and not with the international community. It lies instead with Palestinians themselves — not with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, an institution that incarnates Israel’s occupation, but with Palestinian civil-society activists, with the leaders of Palestinian villages and towns who have been conducting non-violent resistance against the occupation. For them, the issue is their dignity and rights. They don’t care whether it’s in a state that’s called Israel or a state that’s called Palestine. But they will not accept their permanent disenfranchisement and dispossession. If they will act courageously on those demands, as I believe that sooner or later they will, they may yet achieve their goal.

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