Two gatherings on two sides of the Atlantic

Approaches for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not have been more strikingly dissonant at American and European events.

By MICHAEL FELSEN
December 1, 2011 23:09
Mort Klein, Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann.

ZOA Mort Klein Glenn Beck Michele Bachmann 311. (photo credit: (Courtesy Joshua Teplow/ZOA)

Last week, at events held an ocean apart, the approaches championed for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not have been more strikingly dissonant.

In New York City, the Zionist Organization of America held its annual National Dinner on November 20. The dinner’s keynote speakers were “media superstar” Glenn Beck and US Congresswoman and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

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Beck was awarded the Defender of Israel Award by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared by video remote, and US Congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann addressed the 800 guests.

The roster of speakers sounded common themes: Bachman chided President Barack Obama because “he doesn’t stand with Israel,” while claiming that under current conditions, Israel should cede to the Palestinians “not one acre, not one square foot, not one inch.”

Bar-Ilan University Prof. Efraim Inbar complained that “an evil wind is emanating” from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem due to the proliferation of “Bolshevik post- Zionists” there.

ZOA National President Morton Klein opined that “Arabs don’t want peace with the Jewish state, they never wanted peace with the Jewish state,” and that while “people speak as though a Palestinian state was the solution... it isn’t.”

And Glenn Beck, a “proud Christian Zionist,” told the assembled guests that “Jerusalem must remain Israel’s united and undivided capital,” and that “evil hates you.”

Needless to say, this was not a group who sported dove pins on their lapels. The unmistakable message: Prepare for the coming battle; peace is an illusion.

A FEW days later, across the Atlantic, another gathering offered a distinctly contrasting view. On November 22, Micheline Calmy-Rey, president of the Swiss Confederation, hosted a conference of Israelis and Palestinians to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the Geneva Accord, the visionary agreement crafted by prominent members of Palestinian and Israeli civil society to serve as a model for the resolution of all facets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conference, dubbed “Geneva Initiative 2.0,” featured French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, Hossam Zaki of Egypt, Geneva Initiative founders Yasser Abed Rabbo and Yossi Beilin, Knesset members from the Shas, Kadima and Labor parties, and several prominent Palestinian activists and opinion leaders. But at least as important, it was attended by a cohort of young Israelis and Palestinians.

President Calmy-Rey told the delegates that “eight years have not been enough to convince leaders that peace is not only desirable but also achievable,” and that “we are counting today on a new generation to drive the peace effort forward” – especially in the wake of Israel’s summer social protests and the Arab Spring.

A young Israeli who picked up that cue was Vicki Idzinski, a Russian Jewish immigrant who had joined the social protests last July. She spoke of how she and other Russian Jews – often viewed as right wing – found themselves speaking about economic issues, housing and human rights.

Before they knew it, they were asking questions about the peace process, wondering why so many politicians are “only occupied with hatred” and aren’t “solving real problems.”

As Idzinski saw it, the “silent majority woke up,” realized that “we need to dream about peace and equality” and, beyond that, demand it. “If we don’t do it, nobody will do it for us,” she insisted.

Similar sentiments were expressed by a young Palestinian woman named Tami Rafidi.

Filled with indignation at being a victim of occupation, she spoke passionately about the role of youth in “making the impossible possible.”

Demanding recognition of the right to self-determination through establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, she echoed the basic two-state principles of the Geneva Accord.

Like Idzinski, her Israeli counterpart, Rafidi spoke of dreams, “of white lilies, of a song-filled street.”

And then she imagined: “Connect light to light to light and join the lights together of the one billion young people in the world today. We will be enough to set the whole planet aglow.”

The fresh, poetic intensity of these young people was matched by the time-tested but no less passionate perspectives of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo.

When a member of the audience suggested that two states are not the answer, Beilin – former justice minister and Meretz Party leader – insisted that there is no alternative. Israelis and Palestinians, he avowed, must inevitably grasp that the solution cannot lie in the satisfaction of their own side’s national interest alone: Both sides’ national aspirations must be fulfilled.

And Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, echoed that view: “To hell with all scholars, whoever they are, who predict that the two-state solution is impossible.”

Acknowledging the ever-increasing obstacles to two viable states, Abed Rabbo agreed with Beilin that there is, nonetheless, no other acceptable answer.

As the conference session drew to a close, Abed Rabbo chastened those who say otherwise, reminding them – the naysayers on both sides – that they don’t know the price their people will pay if “two states” becomes impossible. In the face of that uncertainty, the Geneva Accord demonstrates that a negotiated two-state agreement is not impossible, if the will is there.

Two gatherings on two sides of the Atlantic. At one, it’s time to hunker down and gird for conflict: Israeli-Palestinian peace is, quite simply, out of the question.

At the other, it’s time to reengage and recommit, and, with the help of a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians, make the dream of peace a reality.

While I’m a native New Yorker, on this one I choose Geneva.

The writer is an attorney and president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education and culture, and social justice.


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