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Earlier this month, following the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ annual convention in Israel, J Street Rabbinic Cabinet member Rabbi Andrea London helped lead several colleagues on a three-day trip in the West Bank, with the hope of listening, and learning, and gaining a stronger sense of what is taking place in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. Over the first three days of this week, we will share with you Rabbi London’s account of what she saw and learned over the course of each day of her important trip.p>
On the final morning of our trip we met with Ashley Perry who was adviser to Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2009 to 2015 and is a representatives of the settlers. He promotes the idea of a two-state solution, but believes the Palestinians are responsible for the failures in negotiations over the years. Hearing Iyyad and Ashley, I reflected on how drastically the right and left positions on the solution to the conflict have changed over the years.
In 1987 after spending a year in Israel, I began my activism for peace by supporting the two-state solution, which then was anathema in mainstream American Jewish circles. At that time, the settlers were promoting the Greater Land of Israel solution which meant annexing the territories. The left in Israel was supportive of creating some demarcation between Israel proper and the West Bank. When it was eventually constructed, however, the separation barrier was built by right- wing governments — not as a demarcation, but as a deterrent to terrorism. It was not built on the Green Line, but along the borders of some settlements, and often on Palestinian land inside the West Bank.
At the closing panel discussion, we had a discussion about the present situation. We heard from journalists Noam Sheizaf and Mairav Zonszein from +972, Mossi Raz, who has served in the Knesset for the Meretz party and is the founder of All for Peace Radio, Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights and Isaac Kates Rose from The Center for Jewish Nonviolence. Sheizaf painted a bleak picture, arguing that Israelis don’t have any incentive to come to a resolution with the Palestinians. A resolution would mean dividing assets with the Palestinians that Israel currently controls. In return, the only thing that Israel would get is knowing it had acted justly. He also pointed out that Palestinians don’t have an incentive not to use violence; violence works for them. The first Intifada brought the Oslo agreement and the second Intifada led to the Gaza disengagement. In 2012, when there were no deaths in the West Bank, Israeli willingness to negotiate was at an all time low. Juxtapose this with 2003, during the height of the second Intifada, when Israeli willingness to negotiate was at an all time high. He predicted that the situation in Israel will get much worse and that Israelis won’t compromise until the price for the occupation is much higher than it is today.
Zonszein, also a journalist for +972, chimed in with her own pessimism about Israeli society. She is concerned about the current trends to silence dissent within Israeli society through intimidation (eg. Im Tirzu’s smear campaign against leaders of several human rights organizations) and the government’s attempts to pass anti-NGO legislation that undermines the legitimacy of human rights organizations. She called the occupation a failing vision of statehood. Raz believes that Israelis aren’t prepared to take risks for peace. He thinks that the only way to come to a resolution is to find a new mechanism to bring the parties back to the table.
Later in the evening, we spoke with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman who started the first Palestinian telecom company in the West Bank. Sam was born and raised in Ohio and came to Ramallah shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords with his Palestinian wife. He gave us insight into just how difficult it is to develop the economy in the West Bank because so much is under Israeli control. In order for Bahour’s his company to set up a 3G network, he had to get permission from Israel.
As Bahour explained, it’s extremely difficult for Palestinians do to business in the West Bank. All goods entering the West Bank must go through an Israeli port of entry and often get delayed. Additionally, Palestinians must pay 3% customs to Israel which they receive back if they “behave.” Netanyahu has withheld this money in the past. For example, when the Palestinian Authority asked for admittance to the International Criminal Court, Netanyahu withheld the money.
So what was I left with after three intense days in the West Bank? First, I am grateful to Sam Sussman and Extend Tours for organizing a trip that allowed us to see first-hand what’s happening on the ground in the West Bank and to meet and engage in serious conversation with knowledgeable people who were able to convey to us the complexities of the occupation.
I’m also grateful to my colleagues who travelled with me. For years, I’ve wanted to have a serious conversation with colleagues about the situation in Israel, but this has often been limited by people’s lopsided knowledge of the conflict or desire to come to Israel’s defense. On the trip. our conversations were open, probing and deep. What we learned is that most observers believe there is no leadership on either side that can make peace, and there’s no one on the horizon. Israel doesn’t see it in its best interest to change the status quo, and the Palestinians are too weak to do so.
It’s not a pretty picture, which is why it’s important for organizations like J Street to educate the American Jewish public about the costs of the occupation and to encourage the US government to play a crucial role in helping the parties find a resolution. I come away from the trip more energized to continue working for peace and committed to taking the small steps that will make a difference on the ground today.
I’m more convinced now than ever of the importance of American Jews traveling to the West Bank and meeting the people on the ground there. There is no substitute for being physically present and engaging in face-to-face conversation with people who live and work there if one wants to increase their understanding of the conflict and be an advocate for change.
Rabbi Andrea London is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois. She’s on Twitter at @RabbiLondon