Monday, May 10, 2010

Hussein Ibish and Jewish Settlements

If you aren't reading Hussein Ibish, you should be. A leading member of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he is at the center, indeed a driver, of current American policy with regards to the Palestinian Authority and the peace process. Importantly, and uncharacteristically for a Palestinian leader (though he is more thinker than leader), he is consistent, in English and Arabic, in front of a microphone and behind closed doors. To the extent that I understand the internal Palestinian-American struggle over the direction of the Palestinian national movement - a cauldron of Islamists, Marxists, nationalists, tribalists, Baathist fascists, and even a few liberal democrats - Hussein Ibish is the closest to a pragmatic Palestinian moderate a pro-Israel American Jew could conceive of. If I sound like I'm singing his praises, I'm not, though he deserves praise for a variety of reasons I won't elaborate here. I'm afraid this is all the background I'll give you at this time, with an encouragement to read him regularly, as we need to move on to the reason I brought him up to begin with.

Some time ago, I decided to ask Dr. Ibish a series of questions on the matter of Palestinian attitudes towards Jewish settlements in Yesha. The questions reflected what I felt was a good deal of confusion on the subject, the consequence of conflicting statements and actions by Palestinian and Israeli officials. Not only did he respond, but he did so publicly, on his blog, as one of a series of responses to a variety of questions asked of him. They're all worth reading, but my focus remains on my original questions, which were these:
Q: What is the official PA posture on existing Jewish villages in Yesha? On the one hand, the diplomatic track has anticipated their dismantlement. On the other hand, high ranking individuals within the PA - including Salam Fayaad - have indicated the villages will be incorporated into a Palestinian state. Still, on other days you'll find the same Salam Fayaad burning economic products produced in the settlements. Please shed some light on Palestinians expectations and intentions in with regard to settlements outside the three or four major settlement blocks near the green line.

This Dr. Ibish did, and you can read his response on his site (scroll down about 3/4ths). To paraphrase his response, though you should read it in full, the Israeli government wishes to evacuate the settlements in order to prevent settlers from drawing it back into the West Bank during or after a final status deal with the Palestinians. The logic goes that radical settlers would attack Palestinians, inviting retaliatory violence against Jewish communities, and then demand that the Government of Israel protect Jews by invading the new Palestinian state. At the very least, a preemptive evacuation of remote Jewish settlements would take any such possibilities out of the equation, freeing the Government of Israel from such messy contingencies.

Moreover, and what is vital, is that Dr. Ibish views the dismantlement of Jewish settlements as an Israeli imperative(!), not a Palestinian one. He's not advising Israel what is in its best interests, but describing how the Israelis themselves present their interests to him.

The following is a letter I wrote him in response. I don't believe there is an expectation of privacy in my exchange with him, so I'm publishing the letter, and may publish his response, if he offers one.
Hello Dr. Ibish,

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Immediately after I first submitted my comments, I went through a good portion of the material you've published on Ibishblog and, feeling quite foolish, found many of the answers I sought, though your present response is more comprehensive.

Your insight into the Israeli leadership thinking behind large-scale settlement evacuation was novel to me, and it certainly has a logical heft to it. On the matter of settler violence being a motivator for settlement destruction, the sequence of events would appear to be in reverse. The vast majority of Jewish residents in the West Bank are peaceful - even the residents of Kyriat Arba, which you mentioned in your response, have been behaving themselves of late - and Israel currently exercises controls through detentions, restricting entry and deporting troublemakers; controls that could be expanded and coordinated with Palestinian security forces and international peacekeepers. Indeed, international peacekeepers can serve as a buffer to ensure the Jewish residents of a Palestinian state are served equitably by Palestinian security forces, while being justly held to the law of the land. Settler violence against Palestinians, and vice versa, is a problem with reasonably manageable solutions, in the context of a final settlement.

Furthermore, the potential violence you foresee being instigated by a small group of extremist settlers to scupper the peace process, in my experience, is not so much a consequence of them rejecting residing in a Palestinian state, as resisting being forcibly removed from their homes. The very outcome the Israeli government is seeking to avoid - settler violence - and which you describe, it is enabling by pursuing settlement dismantlement. As you rightly note, there is no legitimate reason why Jews should not also have a right to live in a Palestinian state, which itself is centered in a historical heartland of ancient Israel. Whatever one's personal religious or political beliefs, it's axiomatic that a majority of Jews have a real emotional and religious attachment to this land. To the extent that any Jewish settlers harbor notions of a political Great Israel, the divestment of Likud from this ideology, a process now complete, renders them devoid of political, and thus material support. The Jewish residents of Shiloh are in no position to start building a political Greater Israel without support from the Knesset, and they are under no illusions about this. While many settlers are religiously inclined, and indeed there is such a positive commandment for Jews to inhabit the land, this has no bearing on the geopolitical ownership of the land. So, individuals and communities of Jews have sought to settle and work the land throughout two millennia, with no antipathy or resentment towards the political power in control at the time.

In summation, Jewish settlers are not incompatible with a Palestinian state, and it is the very process of threatening the destruction of their communities which may direct them to attempt a sabotage of the peace process - an outcome Israelis and Palestinians seek to avoid. It may be emotionally satisfying, but not factually correct to portray settlers as irreversibly committed to irridentist ideology. Indeed, the most potent way to neutralize whatever threat extremist settlers pose to the peace process is by welcoming Jewish communities of the West Bank into a Palestinian state with open arms, perhaps quietly and privately at first, to negate blowback among Palestinian constituencies. Nor is this an exercise in generosity, as Jewish communities in the West Bank feature highly developed infrastructures, diversified economies, strong familial and business links to the largest economy in the region and foreign markets, and already engage in various social, environmental and economic cooperative ventures with nearby Palestinian villages. Peaceful Jewish communities in the West Bank are a tremendous and obvious national asset to a nascent Palestinian state.

On the one hand, you state that Palestinians are not opposed to integrating Jewish communities in a Palestinian state, and indeed some Palestinian leaders even welcome this. On the other hand, you dismiss this outcome outright as not in the interests of the Israeli government and not even mildly likely, despite Palestinian acquiescence. One is left with the impression that you actually do wish the dismantlement of the settlements, but have created a self-serving narrative by which Israel is held responsible for the policy. If I am overly sensitive on this point, it is because you make a leap of policy without substantiation. After all, if Palestinians are so accommodating in welcoming Jewish settlements into a Palestinian state, as PM Fayaad says, then let them convince the Israeli government not to dismantle the settlements. Can we imagine such a conversation between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators? Or, do Palestinians make such remarks, as you do, knowing that the Israelis won't call them on it? This is the one point of confusion in your statements I have not been able to resolve.

Finally, and perhaps this is more abstract than my previous remarks, as a liberal individual committed to the development of a democratic society that respects the rule of law, it's actually quite reasonable to support retaining Jewish communities in the West Bank as allies against conservative and Islamist threats to liberal Palestinian society. As someone who has spent a good part of my 20s engaging with western-educated Palestinian marxist-nationalists, I don't feel I'm going off on a limb by stating that many Palestinians are ardently fighting for a one-state solution precisely because they fear the conservative and religious forces, highly illiberal forces, within Palestinian society, and are ironically counting on six million Israeli Jews to aid them in holding these forces in check. In other words, their goal is still the dismantlement of Israel and, in the final analysis, a Palestinian Arab state, but one that leverages a large constituency of mostly liberally-minded Jews and liberally-minded Arabs to maintain democratic rule.

In working towards a two state solution, a similar analysis can apply. The past century is replete with experiments in democracy gone tragically wrong, with numerous examples in Arab lands. No matter the good intentions and respectable backgrounds of those who presently give their lives for a just Palestinian state to emerge, experience has proven that a cultural commitment to pluralism can take decades to form, hold and resist subversion. To supporters of a liberal, democratic Palestinian state, a substantial Jewish minority with an interest in preventing its own political disempowerment, which would be a natural first target for illiberal conservative forces, could serve not merely as an ally in confronting those forces by democratic means, but as the proverbial "canary in the coalmine'. Threats against Jewish communities could then be seen as precursors to threats against other politically vulnerable groups, and against the democratic system itself, enabling corrective action to take place sooner. I believe multiple studies of the role of Jews in European history can be useful in this regard, considering, of course, that such grim scenarios are possible in a Palestinian state. Certainly, many Palestinian supporters of the one-state solution believe this to be the case.

Once again, thank you for responding to my questions. I appreciate and value your perspective on the Palestinian approach to Israel and the peace process. ATFP has come a long ways since that early feud with Ali Abunimah, when some of my Palestinian marxist friends dismissed you as Israeli collaborator quislings. I don't know to what extent this is true for you, but I also think you take on a certain personal risk in making the sorts of coherent, unequivocal policy statements that you do in support of the two state solution and the peace process, and I respect you as an individual and a Palestinian committed to peace for doing so.

Best regards,
-Victor Shikhman


  1. OT but urgent i.e. Didi Remez has a translation from Maariv with a picture of your "adored" one ;-))))))))
    good luck maybe you find a reason to write to her in there

  2. Silke, I've actually considered writing to her. We're "facebook friends". I have been following the Rivlin proposal for annexation, though I haven't commented on it. Anyone can say anything, as you know. If there is real support for this, then let them commission a think tank to bring out a real, detailed proposal. Until then, it's just showmanship.

  3. I personally think that the most worrying thing about Ibish'es post is his response to the question about Palestinian Arab towns that are located in Israel, but adjacent to the green line, to be incorporated into a future Palestinian state.
    I think that's the single most important topic, and I was disappointed that this point wasn't challenged.

    I'm a typical centralist moderate Israeli. As most Israelis, for years now I was more than willing to go with the two state solution. I was willing to go back to nearly all of pre-67 lines, and live peacefully with an independent Palestinian state.
    However, as most Israelis, I believe that the problem is that while WE are willing to go with this solution, the other side doesn't really seek out this solution, but rather uses it as a stage in its "final solution" strategy.

    And this question touches this very issue. Any reasonable person in his right mind would assume that the Palestinians would have been thrilled at the idea of Israel willingly giving up '48 lines in order for Palestine to get territories that have as many of their Arab brethren as possible. That's the whole point of the 2-state solution, isn't it?
    Israeli Arabs are considered Palestinians by themselves and the PA. They strive to create an independent Palestine. Why the hell wouldn't they want their villages to be part of Palestine?
    They don't have to give up a single thing. They get their own land to be part of Palestine. Any reasonable person would think so, right? Can someone please explain to me how is that against their interests?

    Ibishe's answer is very very worrying. He doesn't even try to explain why he's against that. He just calls it an "extremely dangerous idea". WHY? He doesn't explain why he thinks this idea is so dangerous.
    Isn't that the whole idea of the 2 state solution? An independent Jewish state living peacefully side-by-side next to an independent Palestine?
    He continues to note that this idea is "dear to the heart of the current Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman". So? That's his pretext? If Lieberman think it's a good idea than it's probably bad?
    Where's the rationale here?!

    He even goes on to say that this problems will emerge if "the Israelis try to offload some significantly populated areas, in which case I think the Palestinians would do well to insist that this is not acceptable".
    WHY?! He doesn't explain, and that worries me.
    And it worries me because the only reasonable conclusion from that is that it's yet one more proof that the Palestinians want a Palestinian state next to Israel as phase 1 AND a large Palestinian minority inside Israel that within a few short years will again lead to Jewish-Arab problem that will lead to the destruction of Israel as the final solution.

    I think this question is the single most important one to be answered. PLEASE try and get a reasonable straight answer to this question.
    Thank you.

  4. Victor
    you have so many intelligent and worthwhile to be considered things to say you should be able to come up with a beautiful letter that doesn't make you seem to be a politics nuts with no wishes for a personal life - after all she neither fluffs her hair nor does she wear extensions ;-)

    so get going and it doesn't have to be a now or never break-through thing, feel your way and use your penmanship to get closer to your very personal wishes. Don't patronize her for being a woman and don't put her on a pedestal but make it clear that you enjoy being in the company of women
    come on with your keyboard prowess that's an easy one for you and don't forget to make it so that you leave the door open for you for a follow-up and another one and another one even if she shouldn't answer i.e. woe her, become a suitor, if she isn't what she looks like to be you can always back down.

  5. Isn't the greatest concern that when (I wish it was "if") the Jewish settlers are attacked that Israel will feel obligated by its historical mission to intervene to rescue Jewish lives? That military intervention will be seen as, take your pick, colonialism, a violation of sovereignty, an act of war, etc.

  6. mrein,

    First, why should it be accepted that Jewish residents of Palestine would be attacked? Are you saying that the Palestinians are not expected to enforce law and order in their country? Why are you holding them to such low standards? It should be the opposite. If they can't protect a tiny Jewish minority in their midst, in the best tradition of a pluralistic, liberal democracy, then they have no right to statehood. If we're going to create a Palestinian state, then let's hold that state to the responsibilities of every civilized country in the world.

    If they choose not to enforce law and order, then what's the point of creating a Palestinian state? Do you think that Palestinians would stop their attacks with the Jewish residents of Palestine, and not continue by shooting across the border into Jewish Jerusalem or mortar bombing Ben Gurion Airport?

    Again, I reject the notion that the two state solution was designed to create a modern, civil society on on side, and a barbaric terrorist entity on the other. That's not an acceptable outcome for me, and it shouldn't be for you. Either the Palestinians enforce law and order, and allow for a pluralistic, democratic society, or they don't get a state, period.

  7. Anonymous,

    The reason why Hussein Ibish and others are concerned about plans by Lieberman to transfer Israeli-Arab villages on the 67 border to a Palestinian state, is the precedent that Israel can strip citizenship from large groups of Israeli Arabs. At least, that's my perception.

    I agree with you that it is logical for Israeli Arab villages to want to be part of a Palestinian state. At the same time, if you were them, would you want to give up all those Israeli welfare payments, free first world healthcare, access to the largest regional economy, best universities, etc.?

    Israeli Arabs don't think in black and white. Maybe they support Palestinian nationalism but prefer the bread and butter benefits of Israel. Who wouldn't? It's easy to be a nationalist. It's another thing to build a country from nothing.

    That's my understanding of it. I'll try to get something more substantive on this than my understanding.

  8. Silke, I don't even know the poor woman! I'm sure she's holding her breath, waiting on a letter from an American Jew she doesn't know. You make it sound like you want me to craft a love sonnet! Did I mention she doesn't know that I exist? I'll write something substantive. Sheesh.

  9. Victor
    Why are the guys with the biggest potential for being interesting always the first to underestimate women's longing for romance?
    a political soulmate in the US with a powerful pen, a future peditrician - it should be easy to make that intriguing

  10. I forgot
    I listened to some of Ibish - my gut reaction the guy isn't worth bothering about
    insofar as the commentariat moons about him that's another story of course
    but it is going to be difficult the guy talks on auto-pilot so he will need a lot of fisking

  11. Three years ago, Silke, I would have agreed with you. ATFP started out as an irrelevant clique put together by Secretary Rice and the Bush White House. There was a lot of confusion in the Palestinian activist community if they were serving Ramallah's interests in Washington, or Washington's interests in Ramallah.

    Today, Ibish is part of a Palestinian policy elite - the Palestinian lobby that serves as a bridge between Ramallah and Washington. Obama's pushing on settlements is ATFP's doing. Fayaad's state-building without negotiations is ATFP's doing. The global delegitimization campaign against Israel is ATFP's doing.

    Not even in the sense that ATFP originated all these ideas. No, many of these ideas have been around for decades. However, ATFP brings them all together, coherently, under one umbrella, using moderate language without Islamist or Arabist undertones, and created a real strategy for pulling the ear of the American president.

    If Hamas takes over the West Bank tomorrow, Ibish will share the fate of Fayaad and Abbas. His life is tied to the 2-state solution being pursued. He has as much to lose as anyone, which is why so very few Palestinian-Americans are willing to walk the line that he does.

    You've been around Yaacov's site to know that things can get testy between Jews on politics. Between Palestinians, they get violent, quickly. Ibish is part of the Abbas-Fayaad gambit. He's a traitor to many Palestinians, including within Fatah - if more knew his role, many more would hate him - and his physical safety, in Washington or Ramallah, is not assured by any means.

    He wrote me back, btw. I'm concerned about publishing his response out of concern for his credibility and safety, quite frankly. If he meant what he wrote, then he's the biggest supporter of keeping the Jewish settlements intact in America, and that includes every 2-state supporting Jew I can think of. He basically confirmed everything that I wrote in the email; everything about the benefits of Jewish settlements to a Palestinian state; everything about the necessity of a Jewish minority to maintain a pluralistic society. Seriously.

    I'll ask him if I can publicize his response. It's one thing for me to relate what he said, and another thing to quote him. Quite frankly, I've never dealt with a Palestinian who was willing to talk this honestly about compromising "final status" issues, and I dated one for 5 years!

  12. Victor
    all the luck in the world to you but these days I am remembered again and again of somebody I heard (Ibn Warraq?) who said that the one thing you should listen for is when "they" condemn this or that or the other (same applies to speaking out for something( is if they actually name a name - all the rest he said is just pulling the wool over the "westerner's" eyes while doing a wink-wink to the community that it isn't meant that way.

    After that I watched out for that "indicator" for a while and found quite some plausibility in his claim. (it reminded me also of the extremely complicated and to a foreigner opaque rules what would make an insult an insult on "my" Greek island - as an outsider you couldn't tell neither from the words nor the tone nor the body language anything before the insulted reacted - but I was told that to all the locals it was perfectly clear what was an insult and what was harmless teasing)

    And again as long as the commentariat moons about Ibish he is important even though the man himself is to my ears not trustworthy.



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