A solution is born – in Mongolia 

Sunday, November 30, 2003

I don’t wish to boast, but I’ve worked out a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Everyone else in Israel has already presented a peace plan during the past weeks, but I think you’ll agree that mine is the real thing.

Yossi Beilin and Ami Ayalon, with the Labor Party in tow, talk about a two-state solution based on the ’67 borders, a division of Jerusalem along demographic lines and so on. Boring! On the other side of the political spectrum, the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements has concocted a plan to divide the West Bank into Jewish and Arab blocs under Israeli sovereignty. This plan includes a formula for maintaining a Jewish majority in the Knesset even when Arabs come to outnumber Jews. This plan might get an “A” for Audacious, but it’s hardly original. It’s just the latest incarnation of the old “autonomy” plan and didn’t work too well in South Africa either.

My solution, on the other hand, is both original and grand – even global in scale - as befits a conflict that has riveted the world’s attention for many decades. Instead of the gradual steps envisioned in other plans, mine is the only one to involve steppes. While other plans argue about a separation wall, mine offers a chance to link up with a Great Wall that has proved its muster for centuries.

In short, my Mongolian plan will finally bring some peace and quiet to this region, while physically connecting it with over one billion Chinese and a lot of other folks along the way. Okay, here are some basic facts: the capital of Mongolia has lots of A’s (Ulaanbaatar) and its foreign minister’s name has lots of U’s (Erdenechuluun). Even more importantly, Mongolia is 75 times the size of Israel, with less than half of Israel’s population, the Mongolian foreign minister confirmed during an official visit this week.

Erdenechuluun (rhymes with Holon or chulent) also indicated that some Zionist-spirited Mongolian citizens are willing to help Israel expand its reservoir of foreign workers. Thus, Mongolia may truly become – to paraphrase Israel Zangwill - “a land without a people for a people without a just and comprehensive solution.”

My idea is simple, democratic and mobilizes Channel Two’s vast television audience. It would also contribute toward lowering the jobless rate by providing work for aspiring actors and others interested in playing a real role in peace making. In addition, it would help reduce the number of traffic accidents, as Israelis remain at home to monitor the peace process with their TV remote control devices in hand.

Mongolia would be divided into 70 Israel-size regions (five others would be left for those Mongolians who choose not to work on Israeli farms or factories). Each of these 70 regions would be named after a member of the Sanhedrin as a special get-well gesture to Education Minister Limor Livnat, who wishes to inculcate more Jewish heritage into the MTV-crazed minds of the nation’s youth.

Every one wishing to submit a peace plan would audition with Channel Two. Seventy contestants would be selected and assigned one of these 70 regions, complete with a photogenic and representative crew of real Israelis and Palestinians, including residents of refugee camps, religious fanatics of all sorts, and so on. Every night, during prime time, two or three of these regions would be the focus of a reality TV show, with home viewers rating the competing peace plans in each region in a “Star is Born” format.

Ten finalists would be chosen by the home audience. During the next stage, aimed at securing international backing, the Quartet would narrow the field to four. The decisive stage would follow. This final stage reflects the true beauty and brilliance of my plan.
Unfortunately, however, I cannot divulge the details of this final stage now because it might weaken my bargaining position with Channel Two and commercial sponsors. I can say, however, that it entails neither “painful concessions” nor “unilateral” actions. Stay tuned.

The saga of a West Bank hilltop 

Friday, November 28, 2003

(Published in Haaretz November 2003)

Daoud Nassar and Shaul Goldstein both speak eloquently about the need for co-existence and understanding between Israelis and Arabs. But both are also adamant about their rival claims to a tranquil hill bordering the Neve Daniel settlement in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem.

Nassar, 32, is one of nine children who share a claim to a 100-acre plot of land that has been the subject of legal proceedings for over a decade. While Israel recognizes the family’s property rights to some of this land, about half of the parcel was declared “state land” in 1991. The family submitted an appeal to the “Objections Committee” of the military court that adjudicates such disputes in the territories captured by Israel in 1967. This appeal was succinctly rejected in 2002, despite the witnesses brought by the family to testify that the Nassars have cultivated the land for decades. On July 9, the High Court of Justice reviewed the case and sent it back to the military court, ordering it to explain its decision. The military court delivered the requested documentation in late September and the Nassar family’s attorneys submitted a response last month. The next step will be to set a new date for a High Court hearing, probably in early 2004.

Goldstein, 44, is the head of the Gush Etzion regional council. He views the Nassars’ claim as another last-ditch attempt by Arabs to stymie the Jewish settlement effort. In his view, the land in question has definitively been declared state land and can be developed at the council’s discretion. As the court saga continued this summer, Goldstein inaugurated a new neighborhood overlooking the contested land in his Neve Daniel settlement, which is home to over 200 families.

Nassar says that his grandfather, a Christian from Lebanon, purchased the land in 1916, and he presents copies of land registration documents from the 1920s that bear the official stamp of the Israeli civil administration. His father and uncles grew up on the land, sleeping in a cave and cultivating figs, olives and grapes. When his grandmother’s health began to fail in the 1950s, the family moved to Bethlehem, but his father would come every day to farm the land. One unmarried uncle stayed continuously on the land until he died in 1987 at the age of 93. Nassar fondly recalls growing up with this land as part of his natural environment and says that he would not think of selling it.

Until recently, there has not been any friction between the Nassars and their Jewish neighbors. (Besides Neve Daniel to the east, Kfar Etzion – a community that pre-dates the state of Israel – is located to the south, and the Betar Illit settlement is several kilometers to the west.) Earlier this year, however, settlers began plowing a road up a hillside that the Nassars claim as part of their property.

Lawyer vs. bulldozer

Nassar’s attorney, Jonathan Kuttab, describes the confrontation over the road during a conversation in his East Jerusalem office, overlooking the gardens of the American Colony Hotel: “I remember it was on Election Day [January 28]. We went there – George [Daoud’s brother], a surveyor, myself and another lawyer, and two clergymen. The road they were digging was clearly on the non-disputed part of the Nassar’s property. We tried talking to the guy operating the bulldozer and to someone who was there with a gun, but they didn’t want to listen. We then called the police, but they wouldn’t come. So I decided to do a bit of non-violent protest. I used to do this a lot during the first intifada.”

At this point, Kuttab gets up from his chair to act out the drama: “I stood in front of the bulldozer and didn’t move. He dug to my right and then to my left, I lost my footing, but remained on the ground in front of the bulldozer. Finally, he gave up trying to get past me, telling me, ‘You’re lucky I still have a conscience.’ Then they called the police and this time the police came.”

Goldstein is fully convinced that the road did not infringe on the Nassar property, but was being carved up the hillside in the area that had been declared state land. He points on a map to an easier route they could have chosen for the road, but says they decided to take a more circuitous route precisely in order to avoid having to cut through Nassar’s land. In the interests of avoiding a confrontation, the settlers decided of their own accord to stop the road project “until the matter is clarified,” he adds.

Nassar confirms that no further work has been done on the road project, but charges that the settlers vented their anger by uprooting some 250 trees from his property.

Goldstein says he has no knowledge of any such incident and emphasizes that he has zero toleration for acts of harassment against Arab farmers. “If I see someone touching a fig, I tell them to stop and to come take a fig from my garden instead.”

In principle, Goldstein says, he has no problem with individual Arab farmers who have legitimate claims to land. “What’s ours is ours, and what’s theirs is theirs. There’s only a problem when it comes to nation against nation,” he says. “We’re no less stubborn than them,” Goldstein adds, noting that his father fought in this area in the 1948 War of Independence and that he is continuing this fight. He explains that the area where Neve Daniel was established in 1982 was part of the Cohen Farm purchased by a Jewish family in the early 1900s and sold to the Jewish National Fund in 1935.

Goldstein, a mechanical engineer and Israeli Air Force veteran, has served as head of the regional council for about four years. He also grows nectarines and cherries on Neve Daniel and emphasizes that his plot of land is “entirely on Jewish land.” Prior to his position at the regional council, he operated a contracting business for about 10 years and says he got to know many Arabs in the area through this work.

According to Goldstein, the actions of some peace activists and reporters have served to inflame tensions and undermine the efforts to build co-existence with his Arab neighbors. He was annoyed, for example, that some peace activists came to plant olive trees with the Nassars on territory he regards as state land that is under the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion regional council.

Tent of Nations

Daoud Nassar, who studied business and tourism management, and works organizing youth exchange programs, has formed a Tent of Nations organization, supported by groups in Switzerland and Germany, where he did some of his studies. His vision is to bring groups of people from different nations for dialogue sessions under the trees on his family’s hilltop.

In particular, Nassar speaks passionately about the need for Israelis and Palestinians to learn more about each other. He recalls seeing how Israeli and Palestinian youth who met in dialogue encounters in Germany were shocked to learn basic information about each other – that Israelis eat falafel and humus, for example, or that Palestinians have computers and e-mail accounts.

But Nassar is a bit guarded when asked whether he would be interested in conducting a dialogue with his neighbors from Neve Daniel. “If they want to meet us as people, to see the place we’re living and to hear our story, why not?” he says. “Everyone is welcome here, this is our ideal, our philosophy. It’s not just for a show. We need people who really want to understand each other.”

Goldstein also has no objection to meeting with Nassar, as long as the meeting is not staged as a media event. “No problem,” he says and tells the story of how a neighboring Arab farmer came to his office to complain about damage done to his field. After confirming that the report was correct, the council made sure that the damage was immediately repaired, Goldstein says.

Kuttab, who earned his law degree at the University of Virginia and practiced on Wall Street for several years before opening his law office in Jerusalem in 1980, is not particularly hopeful about the outcome of Nassar’s court battle. “Who knows?” he shrugs and launches into a bitter description of the “legal sophistry and trickery” Israel uses to take over land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For example, Kuttab explains, Israel can declare as state land any agricultural land in the West Bank and Gaza that has not been under continual cultivation for 10 years. And, indeed, Goldstein dismisses Nassar’s claim to the contested land by citing aerial photographs showing that the land was not being cultivated.

But even if the Nassar family’s land is state or public land – which it isn’t, Kuttab insists – “Why is public land only allocated to Jews?” he asks. The answer, he explains, is that Israel is defined as a Jewish state and that this translates into equating the public interest with Jewish interests.

Goldstein makes no apologies about this: “Indeed, the state of Israel is the state of the Jews and, therefore, its lands are earmarked first and foremost for its Jewish citizens. Any effort to change this is in league with Arafat’s design for a state of all its citizens.”

Basically, there is nothing unique about Nassar’s case, Kuttab concludes. The High Court will have to decide whether Israel’s public relations interests take priority over its appetite for land. In most cases, the court prefers not to overrule the decision of the military courts, he notes.

But the Nassar family is a bit unusual, Kuttab adds, in that “they have this crazy idea that maybe they can get justice.” Or, as Daoud Nassar says, “Living in this country, you are not allowed to give up hope.”

Harbingers of change in Israel 

Monday, November 17, 2003

Slowly, and not surely, things are starting to change in Israel. It’s difficult to identify exactly when and where this change began to take shape. But some of the conventional wisdom regarding Israel’s policies in the territories seems to be undergoing a gradual process of erosion in recent months.

No single event dramatically initiated this shift in direction. There has certainly been nothing on the scale of the Sadat visit to Jerusalem, on one hand, or the murder of Rabin, on the other hand, to shake the status quo or encourage fresh thinking. Rather, the different background “music” heard in Israel today appears to be the cumulative result of a number of events and initiatives.

The latest development in this process of erosion was the lead story published Friday by Israel’s largest mass circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, entitled: “We’re heading toward catastrophe.” There may not yet be a majority of Israelis who regard government policy vis a vis the Palestinians as approaching catastrophe, but Yedioth’s huge readership was presented with a dire prognosis for Israel’s future if it does not disengage from the territories – for its own sake, to preserve itself as a Jewish, democratic state.

The Yedioth article was not composed by a left-wing columnist or member of Knesset from Meretz. The power of the article derives from the fact that it presents the views of four previous chiefs of the Shin Bet security service: Avraham Shalom, Jacob Perry, Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon. The views of these four men cannot be easily dismissed as the delusions of ivory tower academics or liberal do-gooders from the suburbs. It cannot be said that they don’t understand the “Arab mentality” or are squeamish about the tough realities of combating terror.

The four decided to put aside some personal differences and meet for the newspaper interview in order to express their dismay over the current state of affairs in Israel and publicly line up behind the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative (“The People’s Choice”) led by Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh. This initiative offers the outline of a peace accord that would put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders; a shared capital in Jerusalem; no right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees and no Jewish settlers in the demilitarized Palestinian state.

As this initiative, launched in July, was gaining momentum, the final touches were being hammered out on a similar, but much more detailed plan for a final status agreement. Copies of this Geneva Accord, negotiated by teams led by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, are now being mailed to nearly 2 million households in Israel. Even before Israelis had the chance to study the details of this plan, surveys showed that it was already supported by as much as 40 percent of the population.

Still, these plans are a long way from becoming reality. Ariel Sharon and a right-wing government and Knesset have no intention of embracing these initiatives. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman attributes the “enraged, hysterical” reaction of the ruling Likud party to the Geneva Accord to the fact that it realizes it has “not made any creative initiatives for peace since coming to power, and hates being exposed.”

In a recent conversation with journalists, IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon also incurred the wrath of the prime minister by suggesting that the government was relying too much on military tactics to quash the intifada without taking the necessary initiatives to advance a political settlement with the Palestinians.

Still, the chief of staff’s remarks were relatively tame compared to the dire warnings expressed by the four Shin Bet veterans in the Yedioth interview. Echoing the SOS sounded by Avraham Burg in a widely discussed article some weeks ago, these four men talked about a real danger of the collapse of the Zionist enterprise. More than anything, the men bemoaned the government’s lack of clear direction or strategic goal in regard to the Palestinians.

Gradually, after more than three years of intifada and economic decline, the national consensus behind Sharon is starting to erode. More and more Israelis are beginning to suspect that the emperor may be naked after all.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting by HaloScan.com