Roni Ben-Efrat is editor of Challenge magazine, a critical, left analysis of Israeli and Palestinian politics. She is a veteran activist for Palestinian rights inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories, and a founding member of the Organization for Democratic Action (ODA), a Marxist party with Jewish and Palestinian Israeli constituents. Since the outset of the second intifada and the election of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Jewish Israeli society has moved ever further to the right. With its numbers radically diminished, the Jewish left finds itself as isolated and vilified as it has been at any time in its history. In the absence of a just or viable internationally sponsored peace process, the small numbers of radical Jewish activists who continue to work against the occupation increasingly find themselves in a conceptual and political quandary. What form should their activism take in the wake of the reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the collapse of the secular Palestinian left? What kind of political solution can be imagined? How might the Israeli left work with the broader global justice movement? How does any Israeli struggle for regional peace and justice address the radical changes within Israel’s borders over the course of the last decade? In June 2003, Rebecca L. Stein, an assistant professor at Duke University and an editor of Middle East Report, spoke with Ben-Efrat about these pressing questions in Tel Aviv.
Since the fall of 2000, much has been written about the collapse of the Israeli peace camp. Does the history of the Israeli Zionist and anti-Zionist left over the course of the 1990s help in understanding this collapse?
It is quite clear that the 1991 Gulf war and the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1994 were turning points for the Israeli peace camp, or the left. After two waves of anti-war and pro-Palestinian activism in the 1980s, much of the Israeli Zionist left and also the more radical left was coopted by the whole idea of Oslo, American triumph and the collapse of the Soviet Union — believing that Oslo was “the only game in town.” The problem was not just that many people misunderstood the Labor Party’s interest in the Oslo process. The real problem was the left’s inability to see the tragedy of what was happening to the world as a whole: that it was now dominated by one power, and that instead of being coopted by this one power, we have to start building a political alternative even faster, and even more thoroughly, than before. Another very sad development was that, on the Palestinian side as well as on the Israeli side, politics became a bad word. Many political parties dissolved into NGOs, which may do good work but do it in a very atomized fashion. There was no one there to think big.
Can you be more specific about the trends that you noted?
The problem with the Israeli left at this time was linked to the problem with Palestinian organizations, because the Israeli left never emerged as a force on its own. It was always a reaction to what went on with the other side. The collapse of the Palestinian opposition — the fact that Fatah went over to the whole Oslo system — created a situation where many on the Israeli left said, “Well, we can’t be more Catholic than the Pope. We’re the occupying force, and if the Palestinians accept [Oslo], then why should we be against it?” The left failed to look beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Looking at the wider circle — the Arab world, the industrialized countries, the United States — one could see that the Oslo agreement could not be sustained because it was based on a lie. This was not merely the lie of a “real solution” to the Palestinian problem, but the lie of a “new world order,” the lie of globalization: that everyone will gain from this new world and opportunities are open to everyone and there are no borders now and technology will solve all our problems. Meanwhile, as the Israeli left was happily meeting Palestinian activists and academics all over the world, Palestinians on the ground were suffering terribly. They were not able to move anywhere, they were not able to go to work. They were suffering now under a double oppression of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the territories, newspapers were closed, political activists were arrested. Whoever spoke against PA Chairman Yasser Arafat was put in jail immediately.
How did the Israeli left respond to Arafat’s regime?
Except for the human rights organization B’tselem and us, nobody wanted to criticize the PA. They all shared in this kind of patronizing forgiveness: “Well, you know they’re just starting. We can’t change everything in a day.” When B’tselem published a report on PA human rights violations in the late 1990s, there were voices on the Israeli radical left who said, “It’s none of our business.” Here was another betrayal of basic human rights, a failure to really confront the reality in the West Bank and Gaza.
Much of the peace camp’s disappointment with the failed Camp David summit of July 2000 came from the notion that they “lost a partner for peace in Arafat.” When the second intifada arrived, it was deemed another and more serious incidence of that betrayal. Did the radicals in the Israeli peace camp participate in this narrative?
If Oslo was one turning point, then Camp David was the second. The Israeli left misread the map. Camp David, with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at its head, was supposed to be the culmination of the Oslo process. But there was absolutely no basis for that hope at all, and people didn’t want to see it. Arafat was just a minor player in this story. The force that didn’t allow Arafat to sign [at Camp David] was the Palestinian people. Arafat knew that he was in absolutely no position to sign the agreement. The peace camp and the left had business with the Palestinian people, not with Arafat. If they had to blame someone [for the failure of Camp David and the intifada], then they had to blame the Palestinian people. This raises larger questions: if you reach the point where you are against the same people you want to “liberate,” then where are you? Most of the Israeli left were unable and unwilling to understand the Palestinian frustration and pain and humiliation of the Oslo years, and that was the main problem vis-à-vis the second intifada. Suddenly, the left was disappointed with the Palestinian people. What were they so disappointed with? Didn’t they understand that the Palestinians were the ones disappointed with the Oslo process, with the Israeli left and the way in which the left was blind to the disproportionate division of wealth in the “New Middle East” that the left wanted to build? The Palestinians were disappointed and Israelis were disappointed, and that created mistrust, for sure. The 1990s phenomenon of meetings between internationalist Israeli and Palestinian activists ceased after Camp David. Now you found very important Israeli writers and activists who suddenly became anti-Palestinian and said, “Now we understand your true nature.”
Tell us more about the left and the second intifada.
I’d like to focus on the international left, which misread the second intifada. They believed that this intifada is a national liberation movement — the second wave of the first intifada in the late 1980s. We [the ODA] didn’t support the second intifada. In the beginning, the intifada did reflect serious and genuine popular frustration with Oslo. But, in the absence of any other political alternative, these feelings of frustration were quickly hijacked. So you ended up with an intifada with three heads. One, the PA, didn’t openly support the intifada because they were still bound to the Oslo agreement, but they were feeding it behind the scenes and using it to regain Arafat’s lost prestige. The second force was Fatah which wanted to use the intifada to regain positions that they had been robbed of — so they believed — by the PLO members who returned from exile. I don’t think that Fatah had any real understanding of the situation, or any motivation to fight for a different kind of society in Palestine. They definitely had no possibility of defeating Israel militarily, though they said that was their aim. The third force was of course Hamas, the only organization that didn’t drop the armed struggle after Oslo. This intifada was theirs. Hamas promised the people that within five years — with one suicide action after another — they were going to liberate Palestine. Of course, this was complete nonsense, not to mention its moral and political valence. The Palestinian left was completely coopted by Hamas’ undeveloped discourse, and its numbers shrunk terribly.
Because of the international left’s opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they misread the map, and viewed this intifada as a vehicle for change. I believe it can’t be, because it doesn’t have the message, the strategy or the aim. I’ll give you an example: I don’t think that the infamous and very shocking lynching [of two Israeli soldiers lost] in Ramallah [in October 2000], would have been possible before the intifada. In the absence of a sane secular left leadership that was part of the political dialogue, Palestinian society changed — no doubt about it. In the first intifada, the progressive Palestinian organizations were able to distinguish between the Jews and the Zionists, or at least between the settlers and the peace activists. Today, partly because of economic deterioration but partly because left leadership is gone, everyone has been placed in one basket: “the Jews.”
In your estimation, the Israeli left entirely missed this analysis.
Yes. If they had seen it, they would have seen that the intifada was, first of all, is first of all, a way of saying no to Oslo and everything that led to it. To understand this analysis is to understand that Israelis have to look for an entirely new solution and stop looking at the Middle East through the prism of Zionist and American supremacy. Up to this point, most of the Israeli left hasn’t wanted to see reality except through this prism.
After Camp David and the intifada, you began to pursue new kinds of political strategies but the same was not true for much of the Israeli left. What course did the Israeli left take after Camp David?
One large segment of the Israeli left, mostly people from the Labor Party and Peace Now, focused primarily on the settlements. Politically, they largely retreated and waited for better days, and they have been very disappointed. The other part of the left, which was very small in numbers, began trying to alleviate the suffering caused by the Israeli occupation, especially after the Israeli reoccupation of PA territories in April 2002 — bringing in blankets and flour and the like. The situation in the territories was very bad at this point — a lot of closures and poverty. People couldn’t get access to food and medicine. But the problem is much larger than blankets and flour. The problem has two dimensions: will Palestinian society be able to build from within itself an alternative to the current leadership? It doesn’t matter how many sacks of flour you bring if, in the long run, the Palestinian leadership is willing to sign another agreement like Oslo. And on the Israeli side, will the left continue seeing the Middle East through the prism of superiority? Must Israel always be superior to the Arab world?
Are you saying that solidarity activities might actually sustain the structures of the occupation?
We would do solidarity work — humanitarian missions — on the condition that we would be building a political answer to the vacuum on the other side. If we found a sane left organization in the Occupied Territories today, as we have in the past, and we knew that by bringing supplies we would be helping that group to build a better structure for the society, then we would do it as a tactic. You don’t really think that you’re going to alleviate hunger. You do it because you want to raise international attention. But if parties on the other side are not going to transform this aid into political channels that can change reality, then…I’m sorry, but if the current Palestinian leadership can’t supply its people with blankets and flour, then it has to be changed. But if you’re bringing the blankets and the flour, then how will it change?
Worldwide, only Israeli public opinion joined US public opinion in supporting the Iraq war. How did the Zionist and anti-Zionist left respond to the war drive?
Unfortunately, the Israeli left as a whole didn’t understand the immense danger that this war reflects — again, because they continue to focus on the very narrow prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, we see a semi-fascist leadership emerging in the US. What is truly frightening is Dick Cheney’s document [the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance paper that is widely regarded as the precursor to the 2002 National Security Strategy adopted by the White House]. They’re saying very clearly that they are out there to ensure American domination of the world for as long as possible. Before the war began, we tried to organize an anti-war coalition here, and I have to say that we failed. We did manage to have a few demonstrations in front of the US Embassy. Of course, we didn’t think that demonstrators could stop the war, but we saw that it was very, very important to mount opposition. In the long run, we all know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved within the parameters of Israel and Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians. It will only be solved when the balance of forces in the world changes. The worldwide demonstrations that started before the war were very important signs that there is, within many parts of the world, an understanding of the danger that the Bush administration is posing to the world. Unfortunately, the left in Israel largely failed to confront this danger.
How did you understand the failure of the established, radical left to join in anti-war demonstrations?
This can be explained by the fact that, in the end, they see the US as the peacemaker. Without the US, there will be no “road map,” nobody to “force” Israel into some kind of negotiated peace. They can’t demonstrate against the US as a warmonger and then ask the Americans to come make peace here. If the US is overseeing an occupation in Iraq, then why should the US dissolve another occupation that has lasted for decades? People are waiting for the US to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this will not happen. I should note that we initiated some seven creative and sizable actions and were joined in our protests by a [sizable] community of artists and youth — Israelis without a history of activism, but who were concerned about the war. The Theater Veto event, for example, activated 30 original performers and a crowd of 250. However, I’m talking about largely apolitical people who felt in their guts that the war was not correct and that they needed to speak out against it. While their actions were very important, they didn’t translate into ongoing activity. Once the war stopped, the movement stopped.
Historically, the Jewish Israeli left failed to take seriously the status of Palestinians within the state, yet this is an area where you have been working for decades. How does this Palestinian population fit into the larger regional conflict at this historic moment?
Palestinians have traditionally been discriminated against as a minority inside Israel. This hasn’t changed. When the second intifada broke out, it also inflamed the Palestinians in Israel because it was an intifada from the bottom up. What you saw in Palestinian towns was rage that Israeli society became very rich during the Oslo period; although investment came into Israel, none of this came into Palestinian society inside Israel. The Arabs in Israel thought that they would be the intermediaries between the Arab world and Israel, but they were pushed aside.
We, in the ODA, started tackling the problem of unemployment [among Palestinians in Israel]. Unemployment in the Arab areas rose to 20 percent, while Israeli unemployment overall was 10 percent. The post-Oslo structure of the economy was one of the causes of unrest in October 2000. All the light industry vanished and Israel went into hi-tech — a sector from which Arabs were banned because of “security” issues. Palestinians from Israel and the Occupied Territories had always been the dominant labor force in the construction industry but when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared the closure policy in 1993, Palestinians from the territories were shut out. Israel started to import foreign labor and it became very convenient to throw out the Arab Israeli workers. From 1995 until 2000, 35,000 Palestinian Israeli workers in the building industry found themselves unemployed. Foreign workers were economically beneficial to the state. Between 2001 and 2002, we started to look for ways to solve the problem of unemployment on the ground, by negotiating places for Arab builders in big Israeli companies. Within a year we had 600 negotiated workplaces. Of course, we don’t support the expulsion of foreign laborers, but we are definitely in favor of an end to their importation.
At present, the established Israeli left is beginning to raise new questions about the viability of the two-state solution. How have you, and the organizations with which you work, approached this issue as of late? Is the one-state solution still a viable alternative?
After the first intifada, and during the course of the 1980s, we were very much for the two-state solution. But it was clear, after Oslo, that Israel doesn’t want a two-state solution. It envisions Israel as a sovereign state with a Palestinian entity existing under its influence. Even within the context of the “road map,” Israel never talks about a sovereign Palestinian state. What Oslo did was to make clear that the two-state solution is no longer viable. In the international context, who is going to bring it about, or enforce it? There are some intellectuals, both Israeli and Palestinian, who still talk about a one-state solution, but I think this is an intellectual game of sorts. If you can’t even reach a two-state solution, how could you reach a one-state solution?
The bottom line is this: in order for there to be a just and equitable solution in the Middle East, the global picture has to change. Ultimately, global change will have to come, from the industrialized countries. The Third World is exhausted. It was possible to lean on the Third World when the Soviet Union was around, but today the US is the only superpower, and if there is no counter-force, there is not going to be a solution in the near future. Therefore, we are looking very carefully at the anti-globalization movement and the anti-war movement, and hope that a global counter-force might emerge from these sectors. Thus far, these movements have not been willing to form themselves into real political forces. Protest is good, but it is not enough. If you want to change the system, you have to change the regime. You don’t change the regime by shying away from power.
In your estimation, then, the Israeli left has misunderstood the larger global framework of the conflict. It continues to focus its efforts on solidarity work and the binary on which it is premised: Israel and Palestine, occupier and occupied. They are still operating in a 1980s paradigm.
Absolutely. The left is burned out — they’re tired. They don’t see the global perspective. This conflict is huge, but there is one that is much larger: the world conflict. It is this conflict that needs to be addressed if we can hope for a just solution in the Middle East.