Five years after a previous visit to Israel and the West Bank and Gaza (or the OPT—Occupied Palestinian Territory—as the UN and the Palestinians call it), I am once again residing in the charming American Colony Hotel. As on my two most recent previous visits (in 2005 and 2006) I am advising the Palestine Monetary Authority that I helped set up in the mid 1990s on strengthening its capacities as a central bank and preparing to issue its own currency should the political and economic situation ever justify doing so.
The American Colony Hotel, now decked out for Christmas (see pictures), has a long history here—over 150 years—and has hosted many interesting guests. There are the politically important visitors such as Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev, Senator George Mitchell, George Shultz, James Wolfensohn, Kofi Annan, and T. E. Lawrence. There are the artistically important visitors such as Graham Green, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck and Marc Chagall. There are some big names in the media business such as Ted Turner and Barbara Walters and in music such as Sting and Juan Baez (my personal favorite). The list of movie starts is long, including Sir Ben Kingsley, Lauren Becall, Peter Ustinov, Ingrid Bergman, Omar Sharif, Richard Gere, Uma Thurman and Vanessa Redgrave. But the one that tickles me the most is Peter O’Toole, who visited here many decades after the visit of T.E. Lawrence who he portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia.
The Hotel is in East Jerusalem, that part of the city that is in the West Bank, OPT, or Palestine as you wish, that was occupied by the Israelis in the Six Day War of 1967. Following that war, famous visitors were generally making a political statement in favor of peace. The American Colony was considered neutral territory. I have written a lot in the past about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and if you are interested I urge you to reread earlier blogs (posted here for the first time): “The View from the West Bank – a history of the conflict”, “Jerusalem in august 2006”, “Leaving Israel August 11 2006”.
While here this past week, American politicians demonstrated again a lack of balance and/or understanding in addressing the truly difficult situation here. In the case of Newt Gingrich, who brushed aside the desire of Palestinians (Arabs or whatever you want to call the people driven out of their homes by Zionists sixty years ago and the Israeli Defense Forces almost 45 years ago) to return home, it is surely blatant dishonestly and vote pandering, as he knows better. The Israeli Press is ablaze with debate about Newt’s comments (as it always is about something), and Israel’s political relationship with the U.S. more generally. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit and comments about women are still reverberating.
Balancing America’s commitment to the military defense of Israel with promoting the peace in the region that we rightly see as essential to Israel’s well being, has grown particularly difficult of late. President Obama stated the obvious several times during his administration (Israeli settlements being build in the West Bank are illegal, and the border between Israel and a new Palestinian state should be based on the borders of Israel approved by the UN long ago) then rolled over dead in the face of Israeli President Netanyahu’s (who we know from French President Sarkozy is a liar) shouts of outrage.
I had not appreciated before that when some Israelis quote Hamas and some other Palestinians as refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist (which sounds rather like the desire for another holocaust) they are referring to the Palestinian demand for their “right to return” to their homes, the other insoluble issue preventing a resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Two articles on the front page of Monday’s The Jerusalem Post illustrate the issue. The banner article was titled: “Cabinet approves plan to fight illegal infiltration; Netanyahu: We will close businesses, so that the enterprise known as the State of Israel does not close – PM to consider repatriating workers when he visits Africa.” What is this all about? Statements by Israel’s Justice Minister, Yaakov Neeman, in the article just below the one quoted above help clarify that question.
Reacting to criticisms from visiting American participants in the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) leadership mission to Israel of pending legislation containing loyalty oaths, the Minister scolded the American’s with raised voice saying: “There is no discrimination in any of the legislation…. We will have a majority of non-Jews if not. This is a Jewish state. If you don’t like it, you can move to another country.” He followed this with: “All Jews need to come home to Israel. I want them here. A Jew who doesn’t live here in Israel is not doing the most important thing.”
The Minister and many Israeli’s want a democratic Jewish state. That required them to drive out those living here who were not Jewish and preventing them and other non-Jews from returning (about 20% of Israelis are Arab). The refusal of Hamas and some other Palestinian’s to accept the legitimacy of the Israeli state is not anti-Semitism, it is an expression of their demand for their “right to return” home. It is anti-Zionist.
Israeli Jews are divided on this issue. Palestinians are divided as well. Those in the West Bank and living in Jordan as Jordanian citizens lead relatively prosperous lives and are prepared to give up their past claims on their homes and move on. These Palestinians are generally well-educated and hard-working. For them some token return of a few hundred thousand of the almost 5 million Palestinians driven out of their homes would be enough. But those 1.4 million still living in refuge camps after all these years (largely in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria) have little to gain from, nor interest in, moving on. This split in the Palestinian ranks largely reflects the Hamas – Fatah divide.
Why then hasn’t the U.S. and the Quartet (U.S., EU, UN, and Russia) focused more on better treatment and integration of refuges in their host countries, largely Lebanon, following the good example of Jordan? And why has Israel so often frustrated the economic development of the West Bank and especially Gaza where most of the refugees still living in camps can be found. There in lies a very complicated story of conflicting interests among Israeli Jews, and among Lebanese political groups. The Lebanese do not allow Palestinians to work or become citizens for fear they will upset the delicate, existing balance between Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shea Muslim political groups and interests. The political conflict in Israel between those wanting a greater Israel and turning a blind eye if not actually encouraging illegal settlements in the West Bank and the peaceniks who favor a “two state solution,” is complicated by monopolistic business interests who continually use their economic and political influence to stifle (if not crush) economic competition from often very adept Palestinian enterprises. Thus no proposal for peace with the West Bank and Gaza can gain wide-spread support in Israel or in Palestine.
The Governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority told me at dinner last night that he feared that the resent wave of so-called “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and mosques in the West Bank and on the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) by right-wing Ultra Orthodox Jewish settlers risked turning what is now a territorial dispute into a religious dispute (Muslims vs Jews). For decades Ultra conservative Jews would park their campers in target areas of the West Bank and stay. When they were harassed by Palestinians for being on Palestinian property, the about to become settlers would seek protection from the IDF, which has occupied the West Bank since the Six Day War. Some months later they would demand adequate water and waste disposal, and then electricity and a few years later they would demand permission to build homes their on the grounds that they had already been living there for some time.
Many Israelis have lost patience with these settlers and periodically the IDF remove them from their illegal settlements. The settlers have dubbed their current attacks on the IDF as the “price tag” for being evicted from their illegal settlements. But right-wing Israeli governments have tolerated the continued advances of these settlements for years. The mystery is that the U.S. seems to tolerate it too. Netanyahu’s sharp rebuke of President Obama’s criticism of the settlements last year and Obama’s quick back down is a case in point. For the moment, the Israeli government seems to be creaking down. According to the Jerusalem Post: “IDF feels that to tackle ‘price-tag’ phenomenon, the gov’t needs to toughen legislation, increase policing, send a clear message.”
The United States has already faded as a major influence on events here. Speaking the truth would be the best way to serve the best interests of our friends in Israel, Palestine, and region. It would help if Newt Gingrich and other politicians stopped pandering to the Jewish and religious right voters in America who ally with them with unprincipled and inaccurate characterizations of the situation here in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. “Look who is talking about ‘invented’ peoples”