Obama, Kerry and the UN: as­sess­ing the fall­out

Four Jews, four views on U.s.-is­rael ties.

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Front Page - Mira Sucharov

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry’s Dec. 28 speech fol­low­ing the Amer­i­can ab­sten­tion on the re­cent UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing Is­raeli set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity (along with Pales­tinian ter­ror­ism and in­cite­ment) pro­vides at least three ma­jor take­aways.

First, the re­ac­tion by the Cen­tre for Is­rael and Jewish Af­fairs gives us rea­son to be sus­pi­cious of the way the self-de­scribed Is­rael lobby for Canada’s Jewish com­mu­nity rea­sons through po­lit­i­cal mat­ters. “No Pales­tinian leader has af­firmed the right of the Jewish Peo­ple to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and a state in the Mid­dle East,” CIJA head Shi­mon Kof­fler Fo­gel said in a state­ment re­spond­ing to Kerry’s speech. Ca­sual ob­servers will likely take this to mean that the Pales­tinian lead­er­ship has not ac­knowl­edged Is­rael’s right to ex­ist. But that is patently false. For­mer Is­raeli prime min­is­ter Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat ex­changed mu­tual let­ters of recog­ni­tion as part of the 1993 Oslo agree­ment. Arafat’s let­ter could not have been clearer: “The PLO rec­og­nizes the right of the State of Is­rael to ex­ist in peace and se­cu­rity.”

It is true that the Pales­tinian lead­er­ship has not af­firmed Is­rael’s iden­tity as a “Jewish” state, some­thing Fo­gel de­mands when he says that “None of these ges­tures [i.e., res­o­lu­tions, speeches or an­other “re­cy­cled for­mula for peace” from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity] will re­solve the con­flict with­out Pales­tinian will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate di­rectly and rec­og­nize the le­git­i­macy of a Jewish state.”

But it is not up to other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to af­firm an­other state’s self-de­clared eth­nic or re­li­gious iden­tity. The de­mand that the Pales­tini­ans rec­og­nize Is­rael as a “Jewish state” is a way to by­pass a ma­jor is­sue for ne­go­ti­a­tion – the refugee is­sue –and to po­ten­tially set back the strug­gle for le­gal and struc­tural equal­ity be­tween Jewish and non-jewish cit­i­zens in Is­rael. CIJA’S lead­er­ship must know this as well as any­one. Ob­scur­ing, rather than clar­i­fy­ing, helps no one.

Sec­ond, Kerry’s speech was his­toric in men­tion­ing the Nakba and out­lin­ing some of the spe­cific hard­ships of life un­der oc­cu­pa­tion. Still, while Kerry men­tioned that the Pales­tini­ans “suf­fered ter­ri­bly in the 1948 war,” the po­lit­i­cal en­tity per­pe­trat­ing the Nakba against the Pales­tini­ans – the se­ries of acts of dis­pos­ses­sion, vi­o­lence and ex­ile – was left un­named. Just as CIJA’S de­mand that the Pales­tini­ans rec­og­nize the “Jewish­ness” of Is­rael, this omis­sion re­minds us that the Pales­tinian refugee is­sue looms large as a point of jus­tice-seek­ing and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Fi­nally, the speech raises an un­com­fort­able ques­tion. Kerry claims that forg­ing a two-state so­lu­tion is the only way to “en­sure Is­rael’s fu­ture as a Jewish and demo­cratic state.” But in its cur­rent form – a coun­try run­ning a nearly half-cen­tury long, patently un­demo­cratic oc­cu­pa­tion, where Is­raeli West Bank res­i­dents are gov­erned by civil law and Pales­tinian West Bank res­i­dents are gov­erned by Is­raeli mil­i­tary law – is Is­rael re­ally a democ­racy?

Some democ­racy-watch­dog or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Free­dom House, con­tend with this para­dox by sep­a­rat­ing Is­rael proper from Gaza and the West Bank when it is­sues its an­nual “free­dom in the world” rat­ings.

But nei­ther is “Is­rael proper,” that is, Is­rael within its pre-1967 bor­ders, per­fectly demo­cratic, in a lib­eral sense. Even af­ter Pales­tinian cit­i­zens were freed from the Is­raeli mil­i­tary regime that gov­erned them (and only them) un­til 1966, there re­main many struc­tural in­equal­i­ties be­tween Jewish and Pales­tinian cit­i­zens of Is­rael. For this rea­son, one Is­raeli scholar has coined the term “eth­noc­racy.” Per­haps this is a fair an­swer, one that is nu­anced enough to cap­ture the com­plex­ity.

But when my stu­dents, look­ing to the oc­cu­pa­tion specif­i­cally, ask me this se­mes­ter whether Is­rael is a democ­racy or whether it is a dif­fer­ent kind of regime, an ugly la­bel that cir­cu­lates in ac­tivist cir­cles, I will turn the ques­tion back to them: can a coun­try whose mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion is drag­ging on end­lessly claim the man­tle of democ­racy? I sus­pect their an­swer will stem from whether they see the im­per­a­tive of hu­man rights as be­ing truly uni­ver­sal.

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