Note to the reader: This speech below was given November 10, 2002, by Henry Lowi at a conference at the University of Toronto sponsored by Science for Peace, Bloor Street United Church, Jewish Youth Against the Occupation, and Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation, as part of a panel discussion of "the peace movement: lessons learned and the way forward" attended by an audience of approximately 300 people.
Palestine & Iraq: Any Signs of Hope?

The lessons we have learned

By Henry Lowi


My talk today is about the lessons we have learned and the way forward.

About 10 years ago, many people thought that there had been a major breakthrough in a "peace process."  Oslo was all the rage, and people were talking about "Jericho first," and other catchwords for implementation.  "Confidence building" became the foundation of the so-called "peace process."  No one really wanted to talk about the issues.

In my profession, we take negotiation very seriously.  And we learn to focus carefully on what we call "substantive issues," as distinguished from "relationship issues."  Both are very important, and both must be dealt with, responsibly, and with due regard for the differences between them.  This was not done in the Oslo process.  Substance was totally sacrificed for "confidence building."  In the last 2 years, confidence has totally broken down, between the negotiating partners, and all out war is being waged, with all the means at their disposal, and the people are suffering terribly.

Back in the days of Oslo euphoria, I was invited to speak at a small meeting in Toronto.  In those days, the mere fact, that representatives of the State of Israel were speaking with representatives of the PLO, was considered a big deal.
At that meeting, I said that I am all for negotiations, and talk, and confidence building.  But all the talk in the world is pointless as long as the fundamental problems remain.  I said that fundamental, substantive issues would have to be addressed if there was to be peace.  Otherwise, there would be war.

Those substantive issues, preconditions for peace, then and now, are the following:

1. Removal of all Israeli forces of repression - police, army, undercover agencies - from all the lands and communities inhabited by Arabs.  There is no way for there to be peace between an occupying power and an occupied population.   This applies to the areas occupied in the 1967 war and to those occupied by Israel in the1948 war.

2. Release of all the political prisoners and detainees from Israeli prisons and concentration camps.  As long as Palestinian political activists are held and prevented from interacting with their population and competing for leadership, there is no chance for democratic political development.

3. Recognition of the right of all Palestine refugees to return to the communities and lands from which they were expelled and fled.  The refugee issue is the big piece of unfinished business from the war of 1947-48, and the establishment of the State of Israel.   The refugee issue is not going away, and it does not make sense to defer it indefinitely.

As I said, Oslo was not supposed to touch on the substantive issues.  It was really a mechanism to defer the substantive issues, and permit a re-organization of the status quo.  The re-organization of the status quo blew up in everyone's faces in an orgy of human misery that has no end in sight. 

My position is that, until the substantive issues are addressed, front and center, no progress can be made.

Through all the years of Oslo-inspired conferences and signed agreements, there were some forces in Israel that began to notice that things were not going well.  I will just mention 2 of those forces:

a. An anti-Apartheid movement grew up in Israel in the period before September 2000.   This movement identified the fact that, while the diplomatic "peace process" was ongoing, -- on the ground, in Israel, inequality, separation, and discrimination were proceeding along ethnic lines.  As you know, Israel defines itself as a "Jewish and democratic state."  There is tension inherent in this definition, and this tension has been dealt with many times by the Supreme Court of Israel.  The activists of the anti-Apartheid movement tried to alert the peace-seeking segments of the Israeli public that, under the guise of Oslo, the "Jewish," ethnic, and supremacist aspect of the State of Israel was progressing, at the expense of its "democratic" aspect.  So, you had this small anti-Apartheid movement trying to point out the limits of Oslo, insofar as it impacted the Arab Palestinian, and other non-Jewish (or questionably Jewish) citizens of the State of Israel.

b. At the same time, some people were monitoring how Oslo was being implemented in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Jeff Halper, a professor at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, developed a theory about what he called the "matrix of control."  Halper pointed out that, throughout the Oslo process, there continued the expropriation of land, the demolition of homes, the formation and thickening of "Jewish only" settler-colonies, and the construction of "Jewish only" access roads.  The result of all this would be that no Palestinian authority, that came out of Oslo, could exercise sovereignty over the West Bank.   In fact, the Israeli Government, the IDF, and the settlers, had created a "matrix of control," on the ground, that would continue long after the diplomats had completed their work.

At Camp David in the summer of 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, did not offer to dismantle the "matrix of control."  What he offered was to recognize Palestinian self-rule over most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving the "matrix of control" intact.  There is no doubt in my mind that Barak's "generous offer" went as far as any Zionist politician could ever go.  But the result is that the talks broke down, and violence exploded, both inside Israel, and in the occupied territories.  The violence broke out against the undemocratic apartheid and the "matrix of control" that the Oslo process was designed to formalize.

By the fall of 2000, it was clear that this was different from the Intifada that had begun in December 1987.  The pre-Oslo Intifada had a grassroots local leadership, based in labor unions, student organizations, and women's committees.  It had political demands, it was based on mass mobilization, and it was carefully conscious of its allies inside Israel.

The so-called "Al-Aksa Intifada" broke out in very different circumstances.  The Palestinian Authority, created by Oslo, was in place, and was working with Israel.  The PA had exercised repression against the grassroots political leaders, and had left the people leaderless.

We all recall those images of young Palestinians, armed with stones, or light machine guns, and confronting tanks.  This goes against all the established rules of guerrilla warfare, where you are required to avoid any battle that you cannot win.  The resort to arms was totally self-destructive.
Later, the dispatch of suicide bombers against Israeli civilians, Jews and Arabs, could not and cannot serve any legitimate political goal.  In this case, it targets the very people whom you should be trying to win over.  The handlers of the suicide bombers have done a very good job of strengthening the hand of Sharon and the Israeli ultra right wing.  Their tactics and their timing could not have been planned better by the Israeli militarists.

So, the topic of today's panel is "Palestine and Iraq:  Any signs of hope?"

I respond that, with the old conceptions, there is no room for hope.  There is room for hope with some new thinking, and focusing on the substantive pre-requisites for peace, that I mentioned earlier.

There are some indications that there is new thinking.  There are some interesting activist responses to the breakdown of Oslo.  I will mention 2 of them.
First of all, there is the movement of Israeli military objectors.  This has 2 aspects.  One is the statement, issued by over 200 Israeli high school seniors, facing compulsory military service.  They have declared their opposition to the Occupation and the murderous repression carried out by the IDF, and many of them have already refused to serve in the IDF, and have gone to prison for it.  These young people uphold the best of Jewish morality, that requires us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The other aspect of the refuser movement are the more than 500 reserve officers and soldiers affiliated with "Courage to Refuse."  These are Israeli citizens who are called up to serve several weeks per year in their reserve units.  Many of them are veterans of the invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon, and of the Intifada.   Many of them have jobs and families and other responsibilities.  And many of these conscientious Jewish soldiers have gone to prison rather than participate in what they perceive as an unjust war, a war not of self-defense but of conquest, subjection, and humiliation.  Some very interesting statements have been posted on their website, some by relatively high ranking officers.

So there is a growing sentiment, in the activist peace camp in Israel, that the "same old same old" vicious repression, carried out by the IDF, cannot lead to peace and coexistence.  In fact, it damages and delays the possibilities for reconciliation.

Another important activist response, from inside Israel, is the "Taayoush" movement, that organizes Jews and Arabs to provide practical support and relief to the Palestinian communities suffering from siege and curfew.  The interesting thing about Taayoush is that, despite the limits of its political program, it upholds the principle of equality between Arabs and Jews, and seeks to find a way for them to live together.

Some academics and journalists, inside Israel, have begun to openly challenge the justice and the viability of the so-called "2 state solution," long considered an article of faith in the Israeli "peace camp."  The so-called "demographic identity of the State of Israel" has forced people to think about the choice they are facing, between a state in which ethnic nationalism is the bottom line, on the one hand, and, on the other, a state founded on the principles of constitutional democracy.   The supremacy of one ethnic group over another does not sit well with modern ideas of democratic political life.  Closing the Jewish community of the Middle East into a well-armed ghetto, or garrison state, does not sit well with those concerned with Jewish posterity.   Also, the idea of forcibly preventing the return of millions of refugees, who, generation after generation, are forced to remain in squalid conditions, does not sit well with our ideas of humanity and coexistence.

On the Palestinian side, too, there has been some talk recently about the non-viability of the so-called "2 state solution" in view of the facts on the ground.  This will require a complete re-thinking of the entire Palestinian strategy.  Because if Israeli colonialism continues to dictate the facts on the ground, why are they persisting in negotiating with Israeli colonialism?   If, for there to be peace, Israeli colonialism must be defeated, then one must come out and say so, and mobilize the people for that purpose. 
On the refugee issue:  The refugees are forcibly prevented from returning, and, in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, they are forcibly prevented from being integrated into those societies with equal rights.  The refugees must have a clear choice among options, which must include the option of return and repatriation.  I challenge the leaders of the Palestinian movement:  Speak loudly in favor of the right of the Palestine refugees to return to their towns and lands, and to live at peace with their neighbors.

I challenge Israeli peace activists:  Make your position clear and unequivocal.  The value of a so-called "Jewish state" pales in comparison with a state in which Jews can live at peace with their neighbors.  I challenge you to say:  "We invite all the Palestine refugees, who want to live with us in peace, to return peacefully to the places from which they were expelled or fled."

The UN Partition resolution of 1947 must be rejected, and the goal clearly stated:  a democratic Palestine, with a constitution that upholds human rights.  (By the way, this was the official position of the Fateh movement, in the early 70s.)

As to political regime, the PLO leadership, that staffs the PA (a creation of Oslo), has done a terrible job of promoting the Palestinian cause to Arabs and Jews, and to democratic-minded people overseas.  Maybe they are incapable of doing otherwise.  They have exposed the people to the most disastrous circumstances imaginable.  They have isolated the Palestinian people from democratic public opinion.  Maybe they need to be replaced with people who fully understand the lexicon of democracy, and who can use it to mobilize the people for their liberation.

I will mention briefly the draft Palestinian Constitution prepared by the PA.  The draft Constitution of the future State of Palestine says that it is an "Islamic State."  This might be an attempt to mirror Israel as a "Jewish State." Be that as it may, one must take a principled position.  I do not think that many will agree that ethnically defined states are the wave of the future.  We don't need a 21st century with "Islamic States," "Jewish States," "Hindu States," or whatever.

We all know that there is a world-wide community of Muslim believers, whose beliefs and practices are their own business.  Even in Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, there was a slogan:  "Al din li'l ullah, wa'l watan li'l muwatinin.  Religion belongs to God, and the homeland belongs to the citizens."  That is not such a difficult concept to grasp. 

As all left-wing Middle Easterners will tell you -- from Morocco to Lebanon to Iraq and Iran, political Islam-- Islam that aspires to state power -- is the sworn enemy of social progress and personal liberty.  Political Islam will have to be defeated by the peoples of the Middle East, in their struggle for liberty, equality, and fraternity.   So, I challenge Middle Eastern supporters of Palestinian rights, and Middle Eastern opponents of American aggression against Iraq, to make the distinction.  Speak out for the separation of religion from state!  Speak out for the people to exercise their power democratically!  Speak out against ethnic nationalism!

Another offshoot of the demise of Oslo has been the rise of anti-semitism.  By this, I mean Jew-bashing and the dissemination of hatred of Jews.  There have been some highly publicized anti-Jewish attacks, in France, and in Tunisia, and in Canada.  There has been state sanctioned or state tolerated incitement against Jews in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt.  As we all know, some anti-semitism disguises itself as anti-Zionism.  But the 2 are incompatible.  The one is oppressive, sectarian, and exclusive; the other humanist, democratic, and inclusive.  George Bush could care less about anti-semitism.  But those of us, who are fighting for peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, must know how to identify the poison of anti-semitism, and how to fight it. 

It is critical, for the future success of Palestinian liberation, and of Arab liberation, that a clear message be sent to the Jews: "There is a place for you in the Arab East, and in all other countries.  As peace-loving, law-abiding citizens, you are welcome.  Your personal security, and your culture are protected."  Without such a clear, unequivocal message, you drive the Jews into the arms of Zionism.  Which takes us back to square one.

So, the lessons I have learned are quite simple:  There is no sign of hope, for the old prejudices and the old concepts, and there is no hope for the colonialists, and the supremacists, and the ethnic nationalists.   There is hope for those who proclaim clearly, and organize diligently, for coexistence between Arabs and Jews under a democratic constitution that upholds human rights.

Thank you.

Henry N. Lowi