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Henry Seigman on Israel and Palestine

Henry Seigman on Israel and Palestine, Democracy Now!, 7-30 and -31-14

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: Henry Siegman is the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s “big three” Jewish organizations, along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. His father, a leader of the European Zionist movement, had to find refuge for his family from the Nazis, eventually settling in the United States. Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Henry Siegman later became head of the Synagogue Council of America. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the years, Henry Siegman has become a vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories and has urged Israel to engage with Hamas. He has called the Palestinian struggle for a state, quote, “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. He recently wrote a piece for Politico called “Israel Provoked This War.” Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with him on Tuesday. I started by asking him if he could characterize the situation in Gaza at the moment.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, it’s disastrous in humanitarian terms, and can’t conceivably, at least in the short run, lead to any positive results for either Israelis or Palestinians. If this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, if the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on the scale we’re witnessing, should create a crisis in the thinking of everyone who was committed to the establishment of the state and its success.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you believe the objectives of Israel are in this present assault on Gaza?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, they have several objectives, although I’m not sure that each of them is specifically responsible for the carnage we’re seeing now. It has what seems on the surface a justifiable objective of ending the rocket attacks, though they never seem to land anywhere that causes serious damage, but that’s their purpose. So, on the face of it, Israel has a right to do what it’s doing now, and, of course, it’s been affirmed by the president of the United States, repeatedly, that no country should have to live with that kind of a threat repeatedly hanging over it. But what he doesn’t add is that no country and no people should have to live the way Gazans have been made to live. Our media rarely points out that these are people who have a right to live a decent, normal life, too. And they, too, must think, “What can we do to put an end to this?”

Couldn’t Israel do something to prevent the disaster that’s playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human lives? Couldn’t they have done something that didn’t require that cost? Sure. They could have ended the occupation. The risks of doing that certainly aren’t greater than the price being paid now.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say that Israel could end the violence by ending the occupation, Israel says it doesn’t occupy Gaza, that it left eight years ago.

HENRY SIEGMAN: That’s utter nonsense for several reasons. First of all, Gaza is controlled completely, like the West Bank, because it’s totally surrounded by Israel. Israel couldn’t be imposing the kind of chokehold it has on Gaza if its military weren’t surrounding it on land, in the air, and on the sea. No one I’ve ever encountered, who’s involved with international law, has ever suggested to me that in international law Gaza isn’t considered occupied.

Here’s another point. The Israeli propaganda machine and their official spokespeople always disparage the people of Gaza for not building up the area, making it a model government and model economy. They act as if they offered Palestinians a mini state, and they didn’t take advantage of it.

What if the situation was reversed, and the Jewish population was told, “Here, you have less than 2% of Palestine, so now behave. No more resistance.” Is there any Jew who would have said this is a reasonable proposition, that we cease our resistance, we cease our effort to establish a Jewish state, at least on one-half of Palestine, which is authorized by the UN? Nobody would agree to that. I’m speaking now about resistance as a concept; I’m not talking about rockets, whether they’re justified or not. They’re not. I think that sending rockets that are going to kill civilians is a crime. But for Palestinians to try, in any way they can, to end this state of affairs, and to expect of them to end their struggle and try to build a country on less than 2% of the land, and that 2% fragmented, is absurd.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that’s repeated most often is, the problem with the Palestinian unity government is, of course, that Hamas is now part of it, and Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and also by the United States. I’d just like to read you a short quote from an article that you wrote in 2009 in the London Review of Books. You said, “Hamas is no more a ‘terror organization’ than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties within the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic reasons.” Could you elaborate on that?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. In its pre-state stage, Israel had several terrorist groups that did exactly what Hamas does today. They didn’t use rockets, but they killed innocent people in an even more targeted way. In his book Righteous Victims, Israeli historian Benny Morris also writes that Israeli generals received direct instructions from Ben-Gurion during the War of Independence to kill civilians, to line them up against the wall and shoot them, in order to help to encourage the exodus that in fact resulted of 700,000 Palestinians, who were driven out of their their homes, after which their towns and villages were taken over by Israelis or destroyed. This was terror. In My Promised Land Ari Shavit also describes this, and talks about an interview with Benny Morris in which he said this ethnic cleansing was “justified,” because otherwise Israel couldn’t have become a state. Shavit did not follow up and say, “Well, if that is a justification, why can’t Palestinians do that? Why is Hamas demonized for doing what we did?”

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed to punish those responsible for the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teen who was burned alive following the murders of three Israeli teens. But in doing so, he drew a distinction between Israel and its neighbors in how it deals with, quote, “murderers.”

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I know that in our society, the society of Israel, there is no place for such murderers. And that’s the difference between us and our neighbors. They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t. We condemn them, and we put them on trial, and we’ll put them in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, can you respond?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, the only difference I can think of is that in Israel they made the heads of the two major pre-state terrorist groups prime ministers. So this distinction he’s drawing is simply false; it’s not true. In Righteous Victims, Benny Morris also writes that before Israel was a state the targeting of civilians was started by the Jewish terrorist groups, and the Arab groups followed.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Irgun and the Stern Gang.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. And the head of the Irgun – Begin – and the head of the Stern Gang – Shamir – became prime ministers of the state of Israel. And, contrary to Netanyahu, public highways and streets are named after them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, recently said on the Charlie Rose show that Hamas was willing to coexist with Jews, but not “with a state of occupiers.”

KHALED MESHAAL: [translated] I am ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians, and with the Arabs and non-Arabs, and with those who agree with my ideas and also disagree with them; however, I do not coexist with the occupiers, with the settlers and those who put a siege on us.

CHARLIE ROSE: It’s one thing to say you want to coexist with the Jews. It’s another thing to coexist with the state of Israel. Do you want to coexist with the state of Israel? Do you want to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

KHALED MESHAAL: [translated] No. I said I do not want to live with a state of occupiers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Henry Siegman, could you respond to that, and specifically the claim made by Israelis repeatedly that they can’t negotiate with a political organization that refuses the state of Israel’s right to exist in its present form?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. It so happens that in both international custom and international law, political parties like Hamas aren’t required or even ever asked whether they recognize a state or not. The question is whether the government of which they are a part and that makes policy and executes policy, whether that government is prepared to recognize other states. I’ve discussed this with Meshaal several times, asking him whether he would be part of a government that recognizes the state of Israel, and he said, “Yes, provided that the Palestinian public approves that policy. We don’t recognize the state of Israel or affirm that it’s legitimately a Jewish state, but we’ve never said that we won’t serve in a government that has public support for that position.” But a more important point to be made here – and this is why these distinctions are so dishonest – the state of Israel doesn’t recognize a Palestinian state. There are parties in Netanyahu’s government – very important parties, not marginal parties, including his own, the Likud, that to this day has an official platform that does not recognize the right of Palestinians to have a state anywhere in Palestine. And, of course, you have Naftali Bennett’s party, the Jewish Home Party, which says this openly, that there will never be a Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine. Why hasn’t our government or anyone said, “Like Hamas, if you have parties like that in your government, you aren’t a peace partner; you’re a terrorist group, if you use violence to implement your policy”? The hypocrisy in the discussion that is taking place publicly is just mind-boggling. The largest parliamentary caucus in the Knesset is dedicated to not permit any government to establish a Palestinian state anywhere in the land of Israel. It’s headed by senior Likud members, Netanyahu’s party. And no one talks about this, no one points this out, and no one says, “How can you take these positions via Hamas if this is what’s going on within your own government?”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What about the argument made by Israel and supporters of Israel that what might be construed as a disproportionate response by Israel to Hamas has to do with the historical experience of the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust?

HENRY SIEGMAN: I don’t accept that at all, because the lesson from the persecutions would seem to me to be that you don’t treat people in that kind of inhumane and cruel way. The hope always was that Israel would be not just a model democracy, but a state that would practice Jewish values, in terms of its humanitarian approach to these issues, its pursuit of justice and so on.

I’ve always felt that the Holocaust experience, which was important to me, since I lived two years under Nazi occupation, most of it running from place to place and in hiding, is not that there are evil people in this world who could do unimaginably cruel things. The great lesson of the Holocaust for me is that decent, cultured people, people we would otherwise consider good people – in this case, the German public – can allow such evil to prevail. I’m not comparing the Israelis with the Nazis, but I’m deeply disappointed that the Israeli public puts people like Netanyahu back into office again and again.

After the ’67 War, I got to know Rabin and others, and senior people in the Israeli government told me that they’d had an initiative from Sadat about peace and withdrawal and so on. And Rabin said, “The Israeli public isn’t prepared for that now.” That hit me like a hammer. I’d had this notion drilled into me that if only the Arabs were to reach out and be willing to live in peace with Israel, that would be the time of the Messiah. And the Messiah came, and the Israeli leadership said, “No, public opinion isn’t ready for it.” I wrote a piece in Moment magazine, and the publisher made it the cover story. The title was, “For the Sake of Zion, I Will Not Remain Silent.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Prior to that, your sense had always been that if the Arabs reached out, there would be two states: Palestine and Israel.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes – according to the partition resolution, quoted in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, but considered null and void by them.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the idea put forward so much in the founding of the state of Israel that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. The Zionist movement was founded on an untruth, on the myth, that Palestine was a country without a people. From its very beginning Zionism failed to confront this profound moral dilemma.

Part 2

AMY GOODMAN: What about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Israel is just responding to the thousands of rockets that Hamas and other groups are firing from Gaza?

HENRY SIEGMAN: They wouldn’t be firing those rockets if Israel didn’t have an occupation in place – one which it denies, in part because it didn’t have a united Palestinian partner to negotiate with. Then when Palestinians establish that kind of a government, bringing Hamas into the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) governmental structure, headed by Abbas, Israel sought to destroy it. It doesn’t want this new government to succeed.


HENRY SIEGMAN: Because they’re intent on preventing the development of a Palestinian state. They want all of Palestine. This is something Netanyahu said openly and without any reservations when he wasn’t in government. He published a book about his belief that Israel couldn’t allow that the establishment of a Palestinian state. He also opposed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Any positive step towards stabilization and a more peaceful region, Netanyahu has been on record as opposing. When he came into office as prime minister, he understood that it wouldn’t be a smart thing to say that Israel’s policy is to maintain the occupation permanently. So, now he pretends that he’d like to see a two-state solution. He made that affirmation in his so-called Bar-Ilan speech several years ago. And some naive people said, “Ah, redemption is at hand,” when, to his own people, he winked and made clear, and his father said, “Of course he didn’t mean it. He will attach conditions that will make it impossible.” His tactic was to say, “We’re in favor of it, but we need a Palestinian partner.” Now the unity government threatens that tactic of pretending to be in support of a Palestinian state.

The difference between Hamas and the state of Israel is that the state of Israel, with its disproportionate power and the support of the United States, is preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. Millions of Palestinians live in a subservient position without rights and without security, without hope, and without a future. International law says if you’re occupying people from outside of your country, you have a responsibility to protect them. But the Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, ostensibly to implement that mandate, watch settlers attack Palestinians and destroy their olive groves without doing a thing to prevent it. They won’t intervene to protect the people they are supposed to protect, and they will tell you, “That’s not our job. Our job is to protect the Jews.” And, obviously, they’re not protecting the Palestinians in Gaza. They’re attacking them, and have subjected them to a punishing economic and physical blockade for eight years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On the question successive U.S. administrations supporting Israel, I’d like to quote from something you said in a 2002 New York Times interview with Chris Hedges. You said, “The support for Israel,” in the United States, “fills a spiritual vacuum. If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment, is in question.” Could you explain what you meant by that and what the implications of that have been, in terms of U.S. governments supporting Israeli government policy?

HENRY SIEGMAN: For many American Jews, perhaps most of them, Israel has become the content of their Jewish religious identification. I’ve rarely have been at a Shabbat service where a rabbi gives a sermon on any other subject. And they’re not in the spirit of an Isaiah, exhorting the congregation to pursue justice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think about what the Obama administration has done? And what do you think he ought to be doing differently, on the question of Israel-Palestine and, in particular, his response to this most recent military assault on Gaza?

HENRY SIEGMAN: It’s quite clear that if Israel is left to its own devices, there will never be a Palestinian state. We may even have gone beyond the point where a Palestinian state is possible. The purpose of the settlement movement was to make it impossible, and I believe that project has achieved its goal. A vast infrastructure has been put in place, such that, even if a so-called leftist government came to power, it wouldn’t be able to create such a state.

There are only two things that could happen that could still, perhaps, produce a Palestinian state. The first one is for the United States to withdraw its support for current Israeli policy, especially in terms of money. And the other is for Palestinians to say, “OK, you win. We’ll give up on our idea of having a state. But we want Israeli citizenship, with full and equal rights.” If Palestinians were to undertake that kind of a struggle in a credible way, where the Israeli public would see that they really mean it and are going to fight for it in a nonviolent way, I’m convinced that they would say to their government, “We can’t allow that. We don’t want a majority Arab population here. We have to have a government that will accept two states.”

AMY GOODMAN: Why would Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has said he supports a two-state solution, create a situation that makes it virtually impossible, since it leads to this second possibility, which is a one-state solution, to the possibility that he does not want, which would be a majority Arab country?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Two weeks ago, Netanyahu had a press conference in which he said, “There will never be a truly sovereign Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine.” What will he do with a majority Arab population? He’ll do what Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, Bennett, has been advocating: allowing enclaves heavily populated by Palestinians in certain parts of the West Bank, surrounded by the Israeli military. In other words, a bunch of Gazas. All the rest of Israel – the Jordan Valley, Area C, which is over 60% of the West Bank – will be annexed unilaterally by Israel. So, Israel will have shed two million Palestinians from Gaza and another million and a half in the West Bank, who will be living, essentially, in bantustans. The 50,000 Palestinians living in Area C will become Israeli citizens. That is the plan of Bibi Netanyahu. He may have to settle for less than 60% of the West Bank, but essentially he thinks he can solve this problem, this demographic bomb, as it’s been described, in this manner.

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, I wanted to ask you about media coverage of the conflict right now in Gaza. In a comment to close the CBS show “Face the Nation” on Sunday, the host, Bob Schieffer, suggested Hamas forces Israel to kill Palestinian children.

BOB SCHIEFFER: In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that is embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause – a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters. Last week I found a quote of many years ago by Golda Meir, one of Israel’s early leaders, which might have been said yesterday: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” she said, “but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was the host, the journalist Bob Schieffer, on Face the Nation. You knew Prime Minister Golda Meir.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, I did. I wasn’t a friend of hers, but I knew her, and I heard her when she made that statement. And I thought then, and think now, that it’s an embarrassingly hypocritical statement, made by a woman who also said “Palestinians? There are no Palestinians! I am a Palestinian.” If you don’t want to kill Palestinians, if that’s what pains you so much, you don’t have to kill them. You can give them their rights, and end the occupation. Putting the blame for the occupation and for the killing of innocents that we are seeing in Gaza now on the Palestinians, because they want a state of their own, what Jews wanted and achieved? I find that, to put it mildly, less than admirable. There is something deeply hypocritical about that original statement and about repeating it on the air over here as a great moral insight.