Fiamma Nirenstein isn’t the kind of woman to mince her words. If you ask the Italian parliamentarian, the idea of land for peace is dead and Jewish intellectuals who signed a petition pressuring Israel to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians are out of touch with reality.
Last month Nirenstein, a member of parliament in Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative coalition government, who happens to live part of the year on the other side of the Green Line, in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, launched “Stand for Israel, Stand for Reason,” a pan-European counter-initiative to JCall. The latter, “A European Jewish Call for Reason,” was launched earlier in the year with the backing of prominent Jewish intellectuals such as Alain Finkelkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy to work for the “creation of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state” to “ensure the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Nirenstein is incensed by what she sees as JCall’s placing of the onus on Israel to take the steps necessary for peace. JCall’s document, she says, “is inspired by a shortsighted view of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict” and its signatories “do not fully understand the global physical and moral threat to which Israel is currently exposed.”
“It is this lack of sense of reality and absolute misunderstanding of history that made me think that there is a need for a movement that will be on the side of truth,” says Nirenstein in a phone interview from Rome. “Because putting all the responsibility for the peace process on Israel is completely denying historical truth.” Furthermore, Nirenstein adds, pushing Israel to make land concessions will not bring peace. “Only a cultural revolution and acceptance of Israel can make that happen,” she states.
To date, Stand for Israel, Stand for Reason has collected some 4,500 signatories. Nirenstein rejects the labeling of the petition as right wing. “We have people from all sides of the political spectrum,” she says. “It’s not a right-wing document; it doesn’t have a political characteristic. There are people from the Right, but also from the very Left. There are writers, military men, historians. It is not right wing to say that the Palestinians must take responsibility, and the problem is not to give and give, and that the question of land for peace is irrelevant if there is not room for Arab acceptance of the Jewish state. There are plenty of people, intellectuals and politicians, who are on the Left and who understand that.”
NIRENSTEIN, 65, didn’t always have such pronounced views. In fact, she started out as a communist and it was only after the Six Day War that her political stance took a shift to the right. “Everybody in Italy was a communist. It was a youngster’s aspiration to freedom, to a different society, to overcoming of any injustice. If you are not communist when you are young, you are without a heart, and you are without a brain if you remain a communist when you are older.”
Her late father was a correspondent for Al Hamishmar, a now defunct left-wing Hebrew daily affiliated with the Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz movement, who came to Israel as a leftist Zionist in 1936 from Poland with his sisters and lost the rest of his family in the concentration camps. He joined the Jewish Brigade and came to Italy with the British army, where he met Nirenstein’s mother, who was a partisan. She is still alive and well and writes for Corriere della Sera.
Nirenstein followed in the family tradition and has written for Commentary, La Stampa and Il Giornale. The author of several books on anti-Semitism, terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, she also headed the Italian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv for two years in the mid-1990s.
Nirenstein’s anger at the JCall petition is about more than just interpretation of the tactics required to bring about a resolution with the Palestinians. JCall for her is no less than an “attempt to compel Israel to give up and surrender.”
“When is it that somebody has to give up and surrender,” she explains, “when there is no exchange between the sides? There is one request of the Palestinians: that they recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish nation – they never did it and they keep up with their attitude of denial and even with very strong incitement. I was particularly struck when they named a square after Yihye Ayyash [Hamas’s chief bomb maker, nicknamed “the engineer,” who was responsible for a string of suicide bombings that rocked Israel in the mid-1990s before being killed with a bomb planted in a cellphone] because as a journalist I saw all the buses that ‘the engineer’ blew up in Jerusalem. I cannot figure why international public opinion doesn’t cry out and say to the Palestinians, ‘How can you name a square after Yihye Ayyash?’ It’s something so terribly disgusting.
“When I relate to surrendering, it is because there is a worldwide change of strategy toward Israel that pushes it into a corner. First of all, I am talking about the Islamic fundamentalist attitude guided by Iran. Israel is surrounded and they try to terrorize it. Iran, Hizbullah with its 40,000 missiles, Syria that gave Hizbullah the missiles on behalf of Iran and the other terrorist organizations. It’s blackmail. There is an attempt to blackmail Israel that says surrender or you will be completely destroyed. This is the first step to get the surrender of the Jewish state. It’s not a territorial threat, it’s a moral threat because Israel represents the West.
“Israel with its lovely democracy is in the middle of that world. They hate us because of this. Because women dress as they like, because they work, because they do what they like, because children of both sexes learn in the same class, because there are Arabs sitting in parliament while no Arab regime would allow a Jew to sit in its parliament and because Israel has such a flourishing economy, while the Arab states never gave birth to a culture or scientific invention and Israel has all its astonishing start-ups. All of this reminds the Islamic extremists of such a cultural inferiority, and I’m speaking only of a cultural inferiority of course, in front of the Western world. After Israel surrenders the way is open to its complete destruction.”
Nirenstein’s anger is working up to a passionate crescendo. Surely, I protest, you aren’t accusing JCall’s backers of being in league with the kind of forces you have described.
“No, absolutely not,” she replies. “What I wanted to explain is what I see as a surrender. With JCall of course it is something different. Many of them belong to a history of the Left, which for a long time has been a victorious history and is also the history of the peace movement. But if you look at the movement, it has lost its way because it does not propose viable solutions. The solutions it proposed, such as at Camp David [under Ehud Barak] and Ehud Olmert’s proposals, have lost their way because they never won. The Palestinians always rejected them and I challenge anybody to say this is not true.
“Now you have [Barack] Obama. He is a big new hope in the eyes of the European Left that has lost the elections everywhere, that has lost its cultural presence everywhere and has lost its political and moral meaning. Obama really believes, I suppose, that there can be the possibility of peace based on the surrender of Israel. This opens up to the European Left the possibility of achieving a new international space. It’s an inspiration for them and sparks hopes for them and tells them let’s try again. They feel they have such a strong leader, the United States of America on their side, so why don’t we try again to focus on the battle for peace even if the formula land for peace has been defeated by history.
“I think people like Bernard-Henri Lévy know very well that the formula has been defeated by history, but the temptation of saying that a right-wing government is in itself against peace because it is right wing is something that probably, culturally, he cannot resist.”
IF LAND for peace is dead, what is the alternative as Nirenstein sees it?
“Land for recognition of the Jewish state, for a complete stop to incitement – and as I propose all the time, we need international sanctions against incitement. Look at the dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion all over the Arab world; this is something that must be the subject of sanctions. There must be a revision of the idea of what is primary and what is secondary in the peace process. Land is not primary.”
But while she does not buy into the land-for-peace formula and rejects what she calls “the politically correct idea that settlements are the problem,” Nirenstein is willing to give up land if – “ and that is a big if,” she says – the Arab world accepts Israel as a Jewish state.
“I think that all the history of Israel is a history of settlements, of pioneering, of making the land bloom. I don’t consider the settlements a crime, I consider them the consequence of war,” Nirenstein states. “But I think that to find a peace agreement, while I repeat that we need mostly the acceptance of the Arab world, I also understand that some of the settlements must be abandoned. I think that the old agreements where blocs of settlements were conserved and there were territorial swaps was an acceptable position. At the end of the day, I think there will have to a be a renunciation of some of the settlements, but the most important blocs, where there are a concentration of Jewish people, will be kept. I respect the settlers and understand them. It’s ridiculous that the settlers have become a sort of offense.”
The point is, she continues, that any territorial compromise cannot be “for free.” “This is the main point of the story,” she says, “this is why we had to collect all of those signatures, because people are not ignorant, people are not stupid, you cannot sing always the same song even when you go out of tune, and this is what happened with JCall. They sang the same old song thinking that singing it again and again will allow them to win. No, history tells us what happened when Israel tried very hard to give away whatever was asked from the territorial point of view in order to make peace.
“But territory is not the point; the real point is the soul, and the soul of the Arab world today is always on the side of considering the Jews unwelcome and foreign guests in a place which is not theirs. Why doesn’t Obama stand up and say to the Palestinians – with the same strong voice that he uses when he asks Israel to stop construction – recognize the State of Israel as the Jewish state? This would be the real move that would change everything.”
In that context then, how does she see the efforts of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad?
“Salam Fayyad is a very interesting leader who puts more emphasis on
society building, and this is certainly the key to democracy. When you
have a society that builds its institutions and becomes a creative
society, it has much more possibility of becoming a democratic society
and therefore becoming an interlocutor. Because interlocution between a
democratic society like Israel and a nondemocratic entity like the
Palestinians’ is very hard. There are words that don’t have the same
meaning. It’s the three Ps: Parliament doesn’t have the same meaning,
police doesn’t have the same meaning and, most of all, people doesn’t
have the same meaning.
“Salam Fayyad is very aware of this, but his proposal for establishing
a Palestinian state unilaterally in 2011 is masochistic. On the other
side you have Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas], and this fight
between the two is very disturbing from the point of view of a real
peace process. This is also something that the JCall people don’t take
into consideration because to whom do you give the territory – to
Fatah, to Fayyad or even to Hamas which is a very strong part of the
Palestinian people? The question is very important and we cannot ignore
it. The JCall document misses the most important points. It misses on
the Palestinians, it misses on democracy and it misses on the Arab
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