Rivers of condemnation, criticism and vitriol have washed over the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem since its executive director's appearance before the UN Security Council. I searched for an iota of disagreement with a single fact or figure Hagai El-Ad presented at the debate on Israel’s West Bank settlements and came up short. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed B’Tselem a “negligible organization” and claimed, “Most of the Israeli public knows the truth.” But Netanyahu did not point to any distortion in El-Ad’s presentation and hid behind the mantra that the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its Jewish settlements there, but rather the ongoing Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state. The chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, echoed Netanyahu's label of “negligible organization” and claimed B’Tselem and its likes had “severed themselves” from Zionism. He, too, ignored the content of El-Ad’s review. His reaction went up on Facebook even before El-Ad took the stage in New York.
So what enraged the right, and what got politicians and pundits who define themselves as “centrist” and even “moderate left” so agitated? The answer lies in Netanyahu’s remark: “What these organizations fail to achieve in democratic elections, they try to achieve through international force. … We will continue to defend justice and our state against international pressures.” Lapid put it in crowd-pleasing terms: “They decided to join up with the anti-Semitic [boycott, divestment and sanctions] organizations in order to force Israel to its knees.”
In other words, the problem is not in the credibility of his speech. Had El-Ad simply reported factually on the human rights situation in the territories, his words would probably not have so disturbed Israeli politicians on their holiday break. But El-Ad remarked at the start of his speech, “What I’m about to say is not meant to shock you. It is, however, meant to move you.” The director of B’Tselem flew all the way to New York to tell the world that “anything short of decisive international action will achieve nothing but ushering in the second half of the first century of the occupation.” And it is imperative that you take action now, not tomorrow, he insisted.
Ever since the 1956 Sinai Campaign, which marks its 60th anniversary at the end of this week, the Israeli public has not pressured its government to avoid war or promote a peace arrangement. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, decided to withdraw from Sinai Peninsula and shelve his plan to establish a “third kingdom of Israel” (a term he used in a famous 1956 letter) only under heavy US and Soviet pressure. The refusal by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir into paying the price of peace with Egypt cost Israel almost 10,000 dead and injured in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Two years later, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the force separation agreements with Egypt and Syria, after Kissinger threatened a “reassessment” of American ties with Israel. Fear of the reaction by US President Jimmy Carter had a decisive contribution to Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to cede Sinai Peninsula captured by Israel in 1967 in return for peace with Egypt in 1978. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed to take part in the 1991 international Middle East peace conference in Madrid following concerted pressure by President George Bush Sr.
Heavy pressure by Bush to freeze Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, to the point of a crisis in relations with Israel, contributed greatly to Rabin’s 1992 electoral victory and the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord with the Palestinians. A sharp clash with President Bill Clinton made Netanyahu sign the 1997 Hebron Agreement and the subsequent Wye River Memorandum. Fear of President George H. W. Bush Jr., who initiated the 2003 Road Map for Middle East Peace, was a central factor in the decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. The public 2009 commitment by President Barack Obama in Cairo to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a catalyst for Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan University speech that same year, endorsing the two-state solution.
Indeed, as Netanyahu noted, B’Tselem and its likes are turning to the international community after having failed to mobilize domestic public opinion and political pressure for over 49 years to bring about an end to the occupation and a diplomatic arrangement with the Palestinians. Lapid is right in saying, “They don’t even pretend anymore that their goal is to influence the Israeli public.” When did Lapid try to influence the Israeli public into protesting the settlement and occupation enterprise? He even fled like one possessed from the recent “March of Hope” organized by “Women Wage Peace,” a protest march that drew participants from across the political spectrum. El-Ad, on the other hand, jumped into the fire feet first.
Most of the facts presented by El-Ad were not new to his listeners. B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Peace Now and other peace and human rights organizations regularly issue a wealth of data and facts about the occupation. They rely on — among other things — information made public by the Israeli military’s Civil Administration and the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. The US Consulate and European representative offices in Jerusalem, along with the UN agencies operating in the territories, report to world capitals and the UN headquarters about the situation in the territories. The July 2016 report of the Middle East Quartet includes harsh criticism of Israel’s policy of building Jewish settlements and demolishing Palestinian homes. Five days after El-Ad’s UN appearance, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, reported on new construction in the settlements and the contribution of the diplomatic stalemate to the strengthening of radicals on both sides of the conflict.
What is more legitimate, wise and just: brainwashing domestic audiences with fear and hatred of the other side in order to perpetuate the status quo and distance peace, or mobilizing external help to break free of the paralysis and save the peace process? The answer depends, of course, on who you ask.
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