Sacha is one of nine members, supporters and friends of the AWL are in Israel/Palestine on a solidarity delegation attending demonstrations, meeting Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and activists. Adam Keller an Israeli socialist, and spokesperson for the left-wing peace group Gush Shalom, spoke to Sacha Ismail.
I have been involved in the Israeli left, in all kinds of campaigns and action committees and political parties, since I was at school. I have the same position as your group: a two state settlement, on the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as the capital of both.
I’ve had a lot of contact with the AWL since the early 80s. Several times I visited England on your invitation, once doing a whole month of lectures and meetings, from Canterbury to Newcastle. I got heckled by the SWP several times! I understand that you have the same sort of problems now.
I am a socialist, but Gush Shalom is not a socialist group. Gush Shalom only a policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In principle you could join if you were Thatcherite but agreed with our position on the conflict. In practice, most people are on the left, but many are not socialists. Civil equality in Israel, the fight against racism and so on, are very much part of our fight in support of the Palestinians.
I am also involved with — and once stood as a Knesset candidate for — the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, Hadash, which is linked to the Israeli Communist Party. I am not a member of the CP, and I was not fond of the USSR while it existed. But they are the only real political party in Israel where there is real partnership between Arabs and Jews.
The Hadash Knesset member with whom I have most contact, Dov Khenin, looks to Gramsci as a thinker. He is not really a Stalinist.
Kenin’s quite remarkable achievement is that he ran for mayor of Tel Aviv, and got 31 percent of the vote on the back of quite a big grassroots movement, around issues like public transport, housing, and the environment. He got support from the slums of south Tel Aviv, which are right-wing in national politics, by agreeing to disagree about the Palestinians and agreeing on local or class issues. The existing mayor is Labour Party-affiliated but a pretty consistent promoter of the interests of the rich against the poor.
In Israel left and right are generally defined by the conflict, so this was a change.
I am sometimes involved in workers’ struggles or social issues, but my main work concerns the conflict. That’s more than enough to provide full-time work for an activist!
Gush Shalom started in 1992, shortly after Rabin was elected Prime Minister of Israel. Rabin started with a tough policy. After an Israeli policeman was kidnapped and killed by Hamas, his government arrested 400 Palestinians involved in Islamist groups and deported them to Lebanon. These were political not military activists, and not involved in the killing.
We felt the more established peace movement, for instance Peace Now, was very mild, particularly because this was a Labour Party government. We had a big public meeting and out of that we started a tent encampment outside Rabin’s office, to stay until the deportees were allowed back. The tents were put up by Bedouin from the Negev. We stayed for two months. We had a lot of discussions, including with many Muslim and even Islamist people. We discussed religion and politics and how they interact.
The name of our group was the Jewish-Arab Committee Against Deportations.
In 1993 when Bill Clinton came to office there was a deal with Rabin that the deportees could come back within a year, but we decided to carry on as a more generalised campaign. That was the start of Gush Shalom.
Shortly after that there was a rumour of secret negotiations with the PLO. I remember we demonstrated outside the Labour Party headquarters, and we had a big drawing of Rabin and Arafat shaking hands. At the time this was a kind of science fiction, and yet three months later it became reality!
There was a time after the Oslo Agreement when we had big illusions that our work was nearly finished. We found ourselves supporting Rabin.
Now, the Olso Agreement was designed by Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals of good will, with the help of Norwegian intellectuals. They left a lot of important areas blank, thinking they could be filled in later. They had the idea that the small problems could be solved first, and the big ones later. With hindsight this was not a good approach.
The people left to fill in the blanks were the army, the secret services, the settlers. They gave the only minimum, and they never gave today what they could give tomorrow. The people in charge made sure that the occupation could stay and the settlements could stay and grow.
Then there was the question of Palestinian prisoners. There were thousands and thousands in Israeli prisons. We argued for a general amnesty, which would have given an enormous boost to the peace process, since most families in the Occupied Territories have or have had someone in prison. Less than 10 percent were released. As a result the Palestinian leadership carried out a series of actions against Israel.
There was a feeling of frustration and disappointment on both sides. The Palestinians were disappointed, while the right wing in Israel capitalised on the small number of releases.
In 1994 there was a massacre in Hebron, when the US born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslim worshippers. In response there was a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. It is often forgotten that this had not happened before.
There were a lot of right-wing demos against Rabin, really violent, calling for people to kill him. We organised our own rally, and 200,000 people turned out. After the end of the rally, hundreds of young people stayed to talk and dance, with Brazilian samba music. It was then that we learned that Rabin had been shot and taken to hospital, and we learned that he was dead.
Young people changed the name of the square to Rabin Square, and the opportunistic mayor of Tel Aviv made it official. Now there is always a memorial rally of peace-minded people, usually 100,000 or more. This broad movement is pro-peace in a general, vague sense; the left-wing minority of it is anti-occupation.
Of course I don’t like Hamas, and in an independent Palestinian state I would not want them to win elections. But that’s not the point here.
1. It’s up to the Palestinians to define who represents them. If you start picking your favourite Palestinians, that’s problematic.
2. Any Israeli attempt to exclude Hamas only helps them.
When I was first involved in politics, the idea that you would talk to the PLO was very radical. For seven years it was illegal in Israel to meet or shake hands with a member of the PLO and you could get three years in prison. (I violated this rule when I toured Britain with the AWL!) We always called for the government to talk to them.
Hamas are not the same as the PLO, but the basic principle is the same. Instead the US and Israel helped Palestinian security services begin a civil war against Hamas.
Israel had a good chance to make a deal with Arafat. A deal made with him could have stuck. Instead, however, they delegitimised Arafat, and now there is a Palestinian leadership in the West Bank that is very unrepresentative.
I have faced many horrible things in my time as a peace activist — vilification, death threats — but nothing as difficult as persuading Israelis that the “generous” offer made by Ehud Barack at Camp David was not so generous. It looked good because he was willing to talk about Jerusalem, which was something new. In fact, the Palestinians were being offered only the Jordan valley and no real control.
The official narrative is that the Palestinians walked away for a measly two or three percent. In fact, they were offered a land exchange, but it was not equal in territory or value. Barack offered one square km for every nine taken, and wanted to take all the most fertile land in exchange for desert.
I doubt even one percent of Israelis know all this! The result is now that most people in Israel think that peace was tried, failed and is impossible, with disastrous consequences for the left and the peace movement. We used to be able to hold rallies of hundreds of thousands; now when we get a few thousands we’re pleased.
During the 2006 Lebanon war and the Gaza war, there were lots of demos, even big ones, but there was no growth of the movement. The same people were involved at the start and the end.
We did not succeed in getting the kind of snowball effect we had during the first Lebanon war in 1982.
I think Sharon’s strategy [later prime minister, Ariel Sharon was a minister of defence at the time] was that he wanted the expulsion of all Palestinians to Lebanon, then Syria, then Jordan, so that the Hashemite monarchy would fall and there would be a Palestinian state on the East Bank of the Jordan and more room for Israel to expand in the West. Our protests forced Sharon to leave the ministry of defence, and we thought we had got rid of him for good!
In recent wars, there had been nothing like that. We are a small, militant minority. During the Gaza war we had about 10,000 people out, which is not bad, but not on the same scale.
The basic problem is this feeling among Israelis that peace has been tried and failed. It’s like the problem of explaining socialism when most people feel that the experience of Stalinism was an experiment in socialism. We need to say no that was not socialism, and no that was not peace, but it’s hard to explain!
Because of this I don’t think peace will come as a result of a general upsurge from within Israel. We had a chance of this in 1993, but now now. What may happen now is a peace imposed from without, especially by the US, with some support from inside Israel.
Arabs are a big minority in Israel, more than 20 percent, but they are excluded from real influence in political life. Of the Jews, maybe 10 percent are really pro-peace, with 10 percent committed to a Greater Israel. Most people think peace has failed but are not very enthusiastic about military solution seither. They could support either war or peace depending on where the government leads.
When Sharon decided to withdraw the settlements from Gaza in 2005, and replace direct occupation by a prolonged siege, the religous/nationalist right mobilised on a big scale, but they failed to mobilise broader forces. This could happen again. There is discussion that they might resort to an armed uprising, or even a military coup. The army is becoming more and more right-wing, with religious nationalists probably comprising a majority of the junior officer corps, and soon probably the senior officer corps. So there is a debate among left-wing people about whether they should join the army to neutralise this threat.
I don’t rule out a revival of the left. Many things we thought absurd or impossible, good or bad, have happened. But I think the most likely scenario is pressure from outside. I’m afraid that means from above. I don’t like this; I would much prefer pressure from below, from within Israeli society. But while Israelis will mobilise on many issues — gay rights, ecology, many others — it is now hard to mobilise them for peace.
I should add that some people support a two-state settlement for essentially racist reasons — they want Israeli to a Jewish state, and hope to get rid of the Arab population. Mainstream peace organisations like Peace Now to an extent pander to this. On the plus side some left Zionist forces, for instance the socialist Zionist youth, have become somewhat more radicalised.
The most useful things you can do are firstly to demand that if the Palestinians go to the UN to ask for recognition unilaterally this year, as some speculate, the British government and the EU support this. Secondly, Israel has put great pressure on Britain to abolish the law that allows war criminals from across the world to be tried in British courts.
It is essential you defend this. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if Israeli generals feel their holidays in London are under threat, it may deter them from some of the more extreme war crimes. Keeping this law could quite literally save lives in Gaza and the West Bank.