For anyone who tries to imagine a life of meaning amid inhumane circumstances, Jeff Halper is a hero. The Minnesota-born founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Halper has for decades now dedicated himself to Palestinian human rights, resisting the occupation by helping Palestinians try to defy Israeli power. Above, he drinks tea in a Palestinian friend’s house that has been destroyed by settlers five times– and that he has five times helped rebuild.
In West Jerusalem last week, Halper bought salami and rolls at a corner store and then walked me back to his house, whose crowded bookshelves and humble furnishings are a reminder that he has been both a rabbinical student and an academic and author. Over lunch, I asked him about the politics of the conflict. What is the answer?
“I go with the flow, except there is no flow today.” Halper said that he personally favors the one-state solution but he is respectful of the fact that world consensus has long supported two states.
“It’s not hard to do actually. But you’d have to put massive pressure on Israel to do it. And that’s where I think we’re stuck. The United States cannot bring pressure because of the Congress, and that is the absolute necessary condition, pressure.
“But I will tell you my formula for peace. You say to Israel three things. Obama and the international community have to say it.
“One, We love you. Israelis love to hear that. That’s where Sadat succeeded. He hugged Golda [Meir] and the Israelis melted. They just melted.” That is why Israel yielded the Sinai so easily in the end after a lot of bluster. “Obama would come and speak at the Knesset, Abu Mazen would go to Yad Vashem.
“Two, we will guarantee your security. Israelis are not committed to the occupation for ideological reasons, most Israelis aren’t, but because they don’t trust Arabs. If you can allay their fears that withdrawal won’t lead to Sderot, then they will do it… There are security arrangements that could be found to satisfy the Israeli public.
“Three, you say the occupation’s over. Period. You’re out of every square inch… Maybe parts of Gush Etzion would be swapped, but we’re back to the 1967 borders. And the Jewish Quarter in a shared Jerusalem, not a divided Jerusalem. The only resource Jerusalem has is its religious symbolism, and you want to give all the stakeholders a feeling of ownership.
“If that scenario were followed, you’d have dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv. This is what Israelis want. They want security. They don’t want to see Palestinians. This is what Ehud Barak ran on in 1999, for Labor. ‘Us here, them there.’ That’s what Israelis want, and that’s what the two state solution would do.”
And the likelihood of this coming to pass?
“Maybe 1-1/2 percent of Israelis are ideological settlers. But in the Knesset, the settlers have two or three parties. So this 1-1/2 percent controls the government. If you had a referendum on the two state solution the vast majority of Jews would agree. But this is so unlikely, that you go back to the one state solution. Which is equally unlikely.”
Of course Halper would be happy living in a democracy with Palestinians. I asked him why so many Israelis don’t feel that way.
“There is a principle inculcated in Israelis and Jews from before 1948, by all politicians, newscasters, teachers, journalists, any official, and that is that the Arabs are our permanent enemies. And that’s it! And if you take that as an unchanging premise, then it doesn’t matter what is being done to Palestinians.They brought it on themselves.
“You can’t trust the Arabs. That makes everything else a non-issue… Yitzhak Shamir said, ‘The Jews are still the Jews, the Arabs are still the Arabs, and the sea is still the sea.’ Which means, it’s just the way it is, it’s nature. Arabs are what they are, and we are what we are, and nothing’s going to change that….”
But are Israelis even aware of the tapestry of suffering that is the occupation, and what this does to Palestinian lives?
“Israelis don’t care. Because they’re living the good life. Polls show that peace is the 8th issue in priority for Israelis. It’s like that cover ot Time magazine, Israel doesn’t want peace. I’ve been saying that for years…. And the Israeli government thinks it’s sustainable, they think they can keep this going for another 40 years. They have no idea that we’re living on borrowed time.
“And Israel is not going to cooperate and is not going to negotiate in good faith. Because of the Congress. The only way to go to some kind of peace is by exerting pressure on Israel, which the U.S. could do easily, but the president can’t do. And Israel feels completely protected. The U.S. can’t do anything to Israel, and it won’t let anyone else do anything to Israel. We start building settlements, and it’s, ‘So what?’”
I said that the status quo will bring on violence. Halper said he doubts it.
“It’s too sewn up. Israel is too much in control. Israeli soldiers are every ten feet in the West Bank… Israel is knocking off Palestinian leaders all the time.” And the natural source of Palestinian leadership is all in Israeli jails, 12,000 Palestinians– “I use the term warehousing”– and Palestinian society is rife with collaborators, from the Palestinian Authority on down.
Where’s the hope?
“I don’t use the word hope, I use the word struggle. There’s a struggle going on…”
The good news is that now it’s globalized: the United States is becoming more and more isolated on this issue.
“I don’t think Americans appreciate how isolated they are internationally. This is now a global conflict, and so you have the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. The irresistible force is– the EU can make things hard on Israel economically, and the whole Muslim world can be up in arms, and you have BDS, Turkey, isolating Israel, and the international community saying that this is too costly to accept forever. But then the immovable object is the U.S. Congress.”
What about the Arab dictatorships, aren’t they implicated in the arrangement?
“Mubarak and Asad have no support from their people on this, but they’re kept going because of the conflict. Syria once had a vibrant constitutional process. It got all messed up because of the occupation and the refugees. Nationalism, the right to return….
“This conflict is the bone in the throat of the world. It’s not the biggest thing, but it’s the most immediate thing, and it could kill you. You can’t deal with the cancer and the other diseases till you deal with the bone in your throat.
“And rather than [complain about] the repressiveness of the Arab countries, we should get rid of this occupation and I think you will see a whole new dynamic in the Middle East…. My allies, my brothers and sisters, are civil society groups in the Arab world. In Syria, they’re fighting the good fight. In Libya, in Tunisia, it’s not that easy in autocracies, but in all these societies, you have democratic liberal progressive people… It’s not us against them. The clash of civilizations is an essentialist argument, and it’s not true… Within a week of [an end to the conflict] that would all dissipate and there would be plans to develop this whole area.”
Finally I asked Halper about Zionism, the growing battle in the U.S. between non-Zionist and Zionist Jews. He laughed.
“Arguing about Zionism is like the battle in the United States 200 years ago between having a Hamiltonian democracy and a Jeffersonian democracy. Who cares any more? This is a a real country called Israel.”
Then he told American Jews to bug out. He goes back to the States a lot, and talks to American Jews. “They don’t care about Israel. If you actually tell them what is happening here [in rightwing Israeli politics], their eyes glaze over. It’s not a real place to these people, it’s there to meet their needs. They need this idealized Leon Uris Israel to maintain their identity. If they came here, they wouldn’t like it.
“Well this is a real country. It’s not some projection of what you want it to be, and it has a right to evolve and change…. [American Jews] can’t have an Israel at peace because that doesn’t do it for them. They need an Israel at war, so they can galvanize their sense of Jewishness around it…”
Lunch was over. Halper walked me down the hill and pointed me to the walkways leading to the Israel Museum.