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Peace in the Aftermath of Lebanon/Israel War

Opportunities for Peace in the Aftermath of the War in Lebanon and Northern Israel
Speech to Oxfam / Umma Trust Fundraiser for Reconstruction
Dave Moskovitz, Auckland, 9 September 2006

Distinguished Guests, Friends, Chevre, Brothers and Sisters - Salaam Aleikum,
Shalom Aleikhem, Peace be with you, I te rangimarie ki a koutou.

Ko Hinai te maunga, Ko Horano te awa,
Ko Hurae te Iwi, Ko Ahekenata te Hapu,
I wehe oko tupuna I waihongia a Iharaira.
Ko Hara toku whaea, Ko Ihaka toku matua
Ko Rawiri, David, Daoud, Dave ahau;
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.

I'm Dave Moskovitz, and I'm Jewish, and have been living in Wellington for over half my life. I was born in Los Angeles, and before that, my grandparents came from Poland and Russia, having been chased halfway around the world by racial hatred over two millennia, and trace their whakapapa back to Israel. I've been actively involved in the Jewish Community in Wellington in leadership roles since the mid 1990's, most recently as President of Temple Sinai - The Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation. I'm involved in a number of Jewish Organisations, and particularly interested in interfaith activities.

I was in Israel a few weeks ago, attending my niece's wedding in Jerusalem, and filming interviews for a documentary with the working title "Pathways to Peace" that explores long-term prospects for lasting peace, from the point of view of people living in Israel.

I maintain great hope for peace, provided that we all have a common and achievable vision. I am here tonight to share my own vision with you, in the hope that together we can work on developing a future in which all peoples of the Middle East can live together in peace. These views are entirely my own and not necessarily representative of any of the organisations in which I'm involved.

But before I get to the future, I'd like to look briefly at the past, not to get bogged down in a cycle of recrimination, but to understand the context for the struggle today and the opportunities going forward.

There are three seemingly intractable problems underlying the conflict in the Middle East. First, there are two peoples with a historical claim to the same small piece of land. When I say small, it's worth reminding ourselves that the land area of the state of Israel is about the size of Northland plus Auckland.

The second problem is that each side has differing and divergent narratives relating to events in 1948 in which Israel was established as a country.

The Palestinian narrative goes something like this: "This land has been ours for centuries. The Jews started arriving in great numbers in the early 1900s, and started taking our land away from us. The UN, an organisation controlled by the Europeans and Americans, formally gave our country to The Jews in 1948 - we had no say in the matter. When they declared the State of Israel, and the Jews started massacring Palestinians in Deir Yassin and elsewhere, many of us fled to relative safety in neighbouring countries and have never been allowed to return to the country that is rightfully ours."

The Israeli narrative goes, "The land of our forefathers was empty and desolate. After enduring two thousand years of persecution without our own country, we purchased land acre by acre from the local Arabs, built it up and made the desert bloom. The Arabs living in Palestine were offered their own state by UN Resolution 181, but they refused, and when the State of Israel was declared, all of Israel's neighbours attacked us. Many Jews were massacred in Kfar Etzion and elsewhere. Many Palestinians fled at the urging of the governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in order to clear the way for the invading Arab armies, with the promise that the Palestinians would be able to return once the Jews had been driven into the sea. We have survived by being strong and not giving in to terror."

Both narratives are so ingrained in the public psyche that there is unlikely ever to be agreement as to what actually happened or why.

The third intractable problem is the toxic cocktail of arms, politics, and religious fervour that characterise the region today. Sponsor states are very happy to supply arms to their clients, politics favours those united against a common enemy, you know you're always right when God is on your side, war's destruction causes you to lose everything, and it's easier to fight when you've got nothing to lose, which makes you want more weapons. These factors form a vicious cycle, and this toxic cocktail provides a heady mix to those in power and drowns out the many voices for peace on both sides of the conflict.

From a Jewish perspective, at the heart of the conflict is the right of the State of Israel to exist.

Hamas and Hezbollah are both organisations dedicated to the obliteration of the state of Israel, and are specifically opposed to any peace negotiations. The Hizbollah Programe, Hizbollah's founding manifesto states,

... [O]ur struggle will end only when [the Zionist] entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.... We vigorously condemn all plans for negotiation with Israel, and regard all negotiators as enemies.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah goes further in targeting all Jews in a worrying way: "if they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide".

Similarly, Hamas's covenant, its founding document, states in its preface: Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it. Article 13 states that "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

These two organisations, their denial of Israel's right to exist, and their stated goal to obliterate Israel are key ongoing drivers for war. Contrast that to Israel's Declaration of Independence of 1948 which says, "We offer peace and unity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples, and invite them to co-operate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all."

But Israel doesn't do itself any favours by continuing the occupation of land captured in the 1967 war. Nearly forty years on, people living in the Occupied Territories lead a life of little hope, state oppression, and constant encroachment on what little they've got. Two generations have been born into conditions amounting to stateless poverty with daily reminders that they are not the masters of their own destiny. Israel justifies the continued occupation on the basis that were Israel to withdraw, attacks on Israel would be stepped up, which is exactly what happened after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Yes, the occupation must end, but realistically this will only happen as part of a lasting and comprehensive peace plan that is agreed and enforced by all parties.

So, whey do they keep fighting? On one level, Hamas and Hezbollah would say that they will keep fighting until the Zionist Entity has been obliterated, yet Israel would say that it keeps fighting because it must, to avoid being obliterated. On another level, they continue fighting because they can - no world powers have stepped in to break it up. External powers supplying arms seem to have a greater interest in their client proxies continuing to fight - down to the last Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese.

At the end of the recent war, both sides claim victory, but in fact everyone lost, especially ordinary people in Lebanon and Northern Israel. Many ordinary people have now denounced the warmongers. Hassan Nasrallah has acknowledged and apologised for triggering the war, and cancelled his scheduled "victory marches". There are serious calls in Israel for the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, and the military Chief of Staff to resign. There is now an understanding amongst all parties willing to negotiate that a regional approach to peace is required.

Yes, there is hope, but a there is also a distinct lack of vision. Without a vision, you'll never get to where you want to be, but will be consigned to struggling for short-term goals. Over the past few years, I've become disillusioned with the lack of long-term thinking on both sides.

When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, I questioned many people from a variety of walks of life about the lack of long-term thinking. People responded that with such a dynamic situation where the rules seem to change on a daily basis, combined with the constant threat to their existence, makes long-term planning practically impossible. I would like to briefly summarise some of the conversations I had with people about the future.

Some were frustrated. Hagai Shagrir, the deputy director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Pacific division told me that at there were two major obstacles to peace: terrorism, and Iran. Terrorism greatly hinders the possibility of cooperation, and the radical fundamentalism funded by Iran only serves to fuel the fires of terrorism.

Some were pessimistic. Johnny Ponger is a New Zealand expatriate who grew up in Auckland, and has been living in Israel since the 1970's. He told me that up until the recent war, he had been hopeful that peace could be achieved, however the war had shown that, in Johnny's words, "they [ie Hezbollah] just want to kill us." He is deeply unhappy about the prospects of living in a constant state of war for the foreseeable future.

Some were hopeful. Rabbis Arik Ascherman and Ma'ayan Turner (another ex-Aucklander) lead the organisation Rabbis for Human Rights. They believe that the most important guiding principle of Judaism is that we are all created in the image of the Divine. We should treat our fellow people with dignity and respect. They are an apolitical organisation, but they envision a future where all peoples can live together in peace and prosperity.

Some were pragmatic. Peretz Kidron is the English-language spokesperson for the organisation Yesh Gvul - There is a Limit, a group of Israeli soldiers that refuse to take part in the oppression of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. He says that it would be politically untenable for any Mid East leader to go to the negotiating table and come back with less than they went with. Such compromise would be the end of any leader's political career, and argues that the only way forward is for the powerful countries to place tremendous pressure on Israel and its neighbours, in a nasty way if required, to make the required concessions. Peretz says that power is the only language that is well understood in the region.

The most compelling long-term vision I heard was expressed by a Jewish man, Jimmy Johnson of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He believes that long-term regional economic integration is possible, and envisions a political structure similar to the European Union operating in the whole of the Middle East. The union would have well-defined and respected international boundaries, equal rights of citizens of member countries, including the right to work and live anywhere within the union. The political and ethnic integrity of each country would be protected by restricting the ability to vote to one's home country no matter where one resided or worked. Israel would withdraw to the 1967 borders, and a Palestinian State would be established in the West Bank and Gaza. Israelis could continue to live in places such as Maale Adumim and Hevron in the West Bank, but would be subject to Palestinian law and unable to vote to change it. Similarly, Palestinians could live and work in Haifa or Tel-Aviv, but would be subject to Israeli law. People, goods, and services could move freely within the union.

There are many variations on this theme, but economic and social integration is a formula that has been proven to work in formally war-torn Europe, and offers prospects for a peaceful, secure, and vibrant future.

Member of Parliament Ran Cohen of the left-ish Meretz party told me that he believed New Zealand could play a part in helping to bring about peace. As we are seen to be a small neutral country without specific vested interests, we could provide a neutral venue for a peace conference, and use our existing good relationships with the great powers to encourage them to place pressure on the parties to the conflict to negotiate.

Hanna Siniora, the Palestinian co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information agrees with this, and supports the efforts of the Arab League to kick off negotiations. He argues that if Israel can achieve peace with the Arab League, then the political posturing of Hamas and Hezbollah would become irrelevant in the face of the economic opportunities that such a peace would create.

Working back from the long-term goal of independent states in an integrated political and economic union, the medium term (say, the next 5-10 years) should focus on building two viable, secure, and independent states in the context of a peace plan that all regional players sign up to. Without the involvement of all local powers in regional negotiations, any solution is doomed to failure. But before any of that can happen, each side must recognise the other's right to exist. Once that's done, it will be possible to build trust and the foundation for a better relationship.

And the short-term must concentrate on education, reconstruction, unofficial dialogue, and diplomacy. Peace always begins with a conversation.

So, what can we do as individuals to help bring this about?

First and most important, we must educate ourselves. We can learn as much as possible about the situation from as many sources as possible. Don't trust the mainstream media. There are many players in the conflict, each with their own agenda. Beware of demonising any group - everyone has their side of the story. The conflict is very complex - see if you can develop empathy with all sides. We must work to undo entrenched hatred, particularly through educating our young people to work for peace.

We can build our own long-term visions for peace, and work toward it.

We can donate our time and money to organisations that are part of the solution, not part of the problem. As an areligious apolitical organisation with a track record of working very effectively, Oxfam is an excellent place to start.

We can put pressure on all parties to the conflict to negotiate, either directly through our own contacts, by writing letters to Mid East leaders, or by lobbying the New Zealand government.

Finally, remember that we're all ambassadors for peace. The opportunity for peace is there, but we must reach out and overcome our own prejudices and our views of history to make it happen. We will be judged by our own actions. Next time you say something about the topic, will your voice be recorded as a voice for peace, or a voice for hatred; a voice for co-existence or a voice for obliteration? Each of us can be part of the solution by doing our own little bit. Peace is possible, but only if we all work towards it, and encourage others to do the same.


ENDS

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