J. J. Goldberg speaks on Israel and Palestine: Is there a way out?

The distinguished journalist J. J. Goldberg is currently editor-at-large of the Forward, the national Jewish newsweekly published in New York that is the sister publication of the 1897-founded and still published Yiddish newspaper Forverts. Goldberg has served as a syndicated columnist, and as U.S. Bureau Chief of the Israeli newsmagazine, The Jerusalem Report. In 1996 he authored a study of Jewish political clout, “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He is a sought-after guest on many media outlets for up-to-the-minute commentary on Israeli developments.

As a longtime writer embedded in the worldwide Jewish community, and known for his fresh independence, he is taken into confidence by a wide range of actors. He often serves as an unofficial go-between, connecting people and movements who are not officially on speaking terms, floating proposals, concessions and talking points before the parties get to the conference table.

It was J. J. Goldberg who broke the news, in the Forward, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers early this summer had been manipulative and exploitative. Almost as of the first moment, from cell phone recordings, the government knew the boys were dead, but used the next three weeks to orchestrate a manhunt up and down the West Bank, arresting hundreds and killing several “suspects,” not forgetting to destroy their homes in the process, and whipping up Israeli fury against Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular, which he accused, without any evidence, of the killings.

Many people around the world had already lost any hope that Netanyahu was at all serious about pursuing peace with the Palestinians. This new level of cynicism shocked even Israel’s traditional allies. Goldberg deserves much credit for, in effect, blowing the whistle on the Prime Minister.

Goldberg came to speak in Los Angeles on September 7, sponsored by Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance) and attended by some 75 deeply concerned people. The title of his talk: “Israel and the Palestinians: No Way Out?”

The pessimism implied by Goldberg’s question may be justified, but it’s his explanation of “facts on the ground” that is so interesting. Following are some of Goldberg’s key observations:

Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, just about half the population is Palestinian. Gaza, controlled by Israel, which intentionally isolates it from other Palestinians living in the West Bank, has at best an ambiguous political status, while the West Bank is under extremely repressive Israeli military control. For the last almost half a century now, since the 1967 War when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Golan Heights and Sinai, there has been no agreement about the borders of the territory that is or is not part of Israel, not to mention what borders an eventual Palestinian state will assume.

In the meantime, as the prospect looms in a future peace agreement of possibly dismantling Jewish settlements in the occupied territories-as happened in Gaza-the numbers and percentage of modern Orthodox Israelis in the military has grown exponentially. In half a dozen years the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) may have a cadre of commanding officers no longer answerable to the Israeli government, but to their fundamentalist rabbis back home, some of them in the very settlements they may be asked to evacuate. These extremist rabbis claim that “God gave us this land” and would punish Israel harshly for ever giving it up.

As the recent film “The Gatekeepers” clearly showed, every living former head of Israel’s “Homeland Security,” Shin Bet, is in favor of Israel coming to terms over a final border with the Palestinians. These men have been joined, according to Goldberg, who knows them all, by almost every other Army and Mossad (secret service) leader past and present. They recognize, more than anyone, that the present situation is untenable: Surely the IDF can ably defend the country’s borders. What is unsustainable in the long run, they say, is controlling a “Greater Israel” of undefined borders in which so large a percentage of the populations is angry, resentful, and repressed basically under conditions of permanent house arrest. That can only worsen over time if nothing gets resolved.

It comes down to this: From their point of view, Israel would be far safer if the Palestinians were on that side of the border, not on this side. Not for the generals, and for all practical purposes for no Israelis (not to mention for Jews worldwide), is a unitary secular state a possibility, not in this historical epoch, and maybe not ever. Two nations exist there on the same land. Each seeks and requires its own national destiny.

In short, for mystical, Biblical reasons, the religious zealots seek to hold onto the West Bank, or what they call the ancient Judea and Samaria, while the military (at least until now) believes that the West Bank under continued Israeli control is indefensible.

In 2002 the Arab League adopted a program, drafted by the Saudis and signed onto by 22 Arab states, that called for a final settlement, including normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel, based on the 1967 borders, with appropriate exchanges of territory that might incorporate into Israel some 80 percent or more of the current settlements. That offer has been renewed several times, most recently in 2012, and has been agreed to by all the non-Arab Muslim states, including Indonesia and Iran.

But, Goldberg explained, Israel’s internal politics are such that although a majority of Knesset members would agree to a “1967” plan, they are unable under Israel’s parliamentary system to form a government. In part it was Netanyahu’s idea to ratchet up an almost fascistic anti-Arab sentiment in Israel in order to guarantee future majorities for right-wing parties holding the balance of power in the Knesset.

Israel’s educational establishment, and just as important, Israel’s increasingly militaristic media, has served to keep Israeli citizens ignorant. According to Goldberg, 85 percent of the Israeli public has never heard of the Arab peace plan. He fantasizes about a grand international press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with all the Arab countries publicly reaffirming the plan, and a broad-based organization in Israel, headed by generals, granting its approval and support.

So much depends on changing Israeli public opinion, on capturing a peace-oriented majority in Knesset, on electing a prime minister willing to sign an agreement. Can this happen? Can it happen before the religious demographics within the IDF no longer make it possible? Can it happen before secular-minded Israelis lose faith in the country’s future, and start leaving (a process that has actually been going on for many decades already)? Is there a way out, indeed? Goldberg honestly doesn’t know. “Prophecy,” he says, “is for children and fools, and I am neither.”

And yet, is it good politics for progressives to passively “wait and see” what develops in Israel under admittedly gloomy conditions? Proud Israelis, like most people, do not like being ordered or pushed around. Official Israeli policy seems to be: Stomp out all authentic movements for peace, domestic and global, such as Peace Now or J Street, by claiming they “support Arab terror,” and watch the American politicians stumble over each other in the rush to defend Israel, especially her precious “right to defend herself.”

The world, however, does not care to sit on the sidelines and watch two mortal enemies slug it out, both of them feeling like wounded martyrs, but one a military superpower, the other a stateless, restless people struggling to establish a home for themselves. A global campaign of boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) has emerged, and while Israel hates to admit that it’s making any inroads, millions, perhaps billions of people are seeing Israel today in an unfavorable light. The BDS campaign can only grow, to the point of making a real dent in Israel’s prosperity, if there is no discernible movement toward peace.

For Americans the challenge is to keep up the pressure on Congress, the State Department, and the President, as well as on corporations with investments in the West Bank, to adopt policies that are not only “pro-Israel” but pro a democratic Israel at peace, and pro-Palestine as well. A solution to this long irritant to world peace – from a technical standpoint not that far out of reach, as all the essential elements are well known – would be a positive affirmation that just about any global problem can be resolved with sufficient political will.

Photo: Sept. 3, Palestinian children play outside a U.N. school in Gaza City where they live after their houses were destroyed by Israeli strikes. With a population of 1.8 million people, the Gaza strip is a densely populated coastal strip of urban warrens and agricultural land that still bears the scars of previous rounds of fighting. Rebuilding Gaza will take years, and some Palestinian officials say it could cost in excess of $6 billion. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)   

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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