Moderates on both sides need support
Under the banner “The Majority has Decided — Get out of Gaza and Start Talking”, 150 000 Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on May 15.
Israeli Arabs were among the demonstrators, as were a group of 50 Palestinian supporters of the Geneva Accords. Organisers claim this to be the largest rally of the political left in 20 years.
There is a significant sense among liberal South African Jews, who identify themselves with those who support an equitable negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that too little international exposure and support is given to these positive initiatives and to the very active Israeli left wing, which opposes the policies of the current Israeli government.
The resulting and flawed impression is that Israel is a monolithic society, unified in its support of immoral and short-sighted policies regarding settlement expansion, house demolitions, extra-judicial executions and the present route of the security fence.
The falsity of this impression is reflected by the rally in Tel Aviv, and by opinion polls that show 75% support for withdrawal from Gaza and more than 50% support for withdrawal from the West Bank.
The left in Israel suffered an enormous setback after the failure of the Camp David talks in July 2000. Many Israelis perceived this as reflecting Arafat’s intention not to reach a settlement, and similarly interpreted the outbreak of the intifada as an orchestrated move. The resulting psychology of Israeli society is one in which people see no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
In the past six months there have been the beginnings of an awakening in Israeli society that sees an inadequate reduction in terrorist activity despite three years of repressive measures by the Israeli government, and that feels a two-state solution slowly ebbing away.
This awakening’s most blatant manifestation was the rally in Tel Aviv, which represents a harsh backlash against the ability of the settlers to defeat Sharon’s disengagement plan in the recent Likud referendum.
Many people were brought to the rally by a sense of outrage that the country was “being held hostage” by a minority of settlers motivated not by concerns of security or national interest but by an anachronistic ideology.
The rally also served notice of a new cohesion among the left. There is a pragmatism that sees political parties such as Labour and Yachad cooperating with social movements such as Peace Now and Courage to Refuse, the organisation of 600 soldiers unwilling to serve beyond the 1967 border.
The South African Jewish community leadership seldom goes out on a limb to challenge Israeli government policy. Despite this, there is latent support among a growing number of South African Jews for a more progressive approach that would advocate the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to life, dignity and independence while demanding an understanding of Israel’s position and identification with its existence and prosperity.
I believe that once a settlement is reached in the Middle East, South African Jewry will rapidly accommodate itself to the new reality.
There is a mistaken assumption that the best form of assistance to Israel is unconditional, uncritical support. There is, therefore, a significant minority of American Jews who, while regarding themselves as liberal, will vote for Bush in November because of his staunch support for Israel.
However, a victory for Bush, as recognised by many Jews, will be a disaster for Israel, as it will mean another four years during which no significant pressure will be brought to bear upon the parties to return to negotiations.
Any more than cautious optimism would be foolish at present. Each terrorist attack on Israeli civilians serves only to reinforce the Sharon government and its pessimistic outlook, rather than providing impetus for a national rethink of government policy.
In addition, reversing the disastrous policy of settlement expansion is going to take Israel to the brink of civil war.
Despite this there are many South African Jews, and many Israelis, who remain committed to a human rights tradition and believe that mutual respect and understanding can be achieved, albeit with much pain and hardship along the way.
This will require all concerned with this tragic conflict to strengthen the moderates on both sides and assist them to reach each other in dialogue, while preventing those committed only to their own pride and intolerance from dragging us into a war with no victors and no spoils.
Doron Isaacs is the immediate past chairperson of Habonim Dror Southern Africa