Adorning the 1967 Borders Anew

Adorning the 1967 Borders Anew

By Zvika Brut, Yediot Aharonot 
23.9.2011
via Yediot Aharonot (translated from Hebrew by Geneva Initiative staff)
 
We have translated an article published in Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot's Weekend Magazine last Friday, about our recent seminar for Shas party leaders in Budapest.
 
The meeting in Budapest between Shas senior party members and Palestinian representatives gave birth to what they call 'the alliance of the losers" – In discussions, to the Palestinians amazement, Shas members presented dovish positions: concession of the Temple Mount, territorial compromise and a recognition that 'what we can have today, we may not be able to get tomorrow' – What does Rabbi Ovadia Yosef have to say about this? 'The Rabbi would support an agreement', they determine.
 
Here's a joke: a Haredi, a Muslim and an American gather in Budapest in order to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Wait, don't laugh, because the interesting part of this story is that the sides were actually able to reach consensus without much difficulty. On one side of the table sat an unusual group of senior Shas party officials: a deputy speaker of the Knesset, a mayor, a legal adviser, and a religious council chairman. On the other side sat retired Palestinian ministers, former prisoners in Israeli jails, and an international expert on the refugees issue from the United States – also a Palestinian. "If it were up to them, peace would be within reach", says Zion Abu, a member of the Geneva Initiative, which organized the meeting, "the gaps between the sides are much smaller than they seem".
 
The truth is that it is not very logical to expect Eli Yishai's obedient soldiers to agree to a map sketched by Yossi Beilin. The same goes for former minister Ashraf Al-Ajrami and his Palestinian colleagues, who are not exactly doves who would rush to give up Jerusalem or the right of return. Still, as discussions went on, it appeared that Zion Abu was right: Shas representatives continuously made declarations that would be deemed radical by their party's standards (by the end, some agreed to give up the Temple Mount no less). The Palestinians, in turn, handed them their own surprising gestures.
 
The first day of debate began on a bad note, when the Palestinian representative to the talks in Budapest lost a player before the game even began: one of the leading Palestinians was held up at Ben Gurion International Airport, and asked to report for questioning at the Jerusalem police.
 
"Today there is no longer right and left like there once was", opened the seminar MK Yitzhak Vaknin, Ethics Committee Chairman and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. "Even when Lieberman opens his mouth to speak, it is only in order to gain votes from the right. He is smart and knows that as long as he speaks against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, he will win more votes. So people get carried away by empty demagogy. The people want an agreement and they will take any agreement presented to them. In the moment of truth, there will be more than 80 MK's who will support any agreement".
 
Noah Zadok, Chairman of the Religious Council in Beitar Illit and a membership of Eli Yishai's inner circle, agreed: "Once there was real ideology, but today ideologues are gone. We are in a different place than we were several years ago. We still do not have agreements on everything, but the outline is fairly clear. If we have more meetings like this, all problems can be solved. With that, we must remember that with Shas, the final decision is only in the hands of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef".
 
An Obsession with Peace
 
The Geneva Initiative, which in its early years was synonymous with Yossi Beilin and hardly won support on the political spectrum right of Meretz, is slowly starting to search for strongholds in right-wing parties. Many of the principles in the Accord, once considered too daring even for some on the left, have now become a normal part of the centrist Israeli rhetoric, even on the moderate right. "Geneva does not move, reality moves", says Gadi Baltiansky, Director General of the Geneva Initiative, "the principles that Netanyahu presents today, like the demilitarization of a Palestinian state with security arrangements, a dismissal of the right of return and mutual recognition, are all in line with the Geneva Accord".
 
"It is a strategic decision for us to meet with those who influence decision making in the government. Shas plays an important role, whereby its members are always part of the government, but do not always share that government's opinions. Shas's leadership is open to any dialogue, even when they do not always agree. We also hold meetings with Likud members, but do not officially cooperate with them".
 
As the meeting went on, the core issues of the conflict were slowly put on the table: the Palestinian state, the right of return and the drawing of the borders. On the backdrop is the ever-imminent Palestinian unilateral bid at the United Nations. The Palestinian position is known, but Shas surprises with their flexibility. "I remember when it was not allowed to talk to them and meet with them, and that was the biggest sacrifice", said Vaknin. "I held meetings with officials on the other side, including Marwan Barghouti, and there is significance to that discussion. People may say I'm a dove, but I simply see reality. What we can get today, we might not be able to get tomorrow. The Palestinian Authority youth are extreme, and respect their elders less. In them, it is unclear whether we will have a partner like we have today, but the Israeli leadership does not always understand that. I really believe that a peace agreement will only be reached when Israel will have a Sephardic prime minister. That is the only person who will look at the Palestinians at eye-level, rather than looking down at them from above. Current leaders always think they can tell the Palestinians what is good for them and how to behave. They think they can dictate their lives".
 
"The debate between us is natural", says Moshe Abutbul, mayor of Beit Shemesh. "We have common language and common problems. Some call it 'the alliance of the losers'. Both the Haredi and the Arab sectors often feel like the poor man at the door, needing charity for their communities to survive. We have a trusting relationship between us that allows us to carry a political discussion as well".
 
The Palestinians nod in agreement. The Israelis may have not officially decided, but they know that in this room sits their partner. "When there is an agreement, no one will be able to blame Israel – not Hamas, not Hizbollah and not even Iran", says Abutbul Mustafa Al-Ustaaz, a Palestinian-American attorney specializing in the refugee issue – "that the Palestinians themselves agreed upon the end of the conflict. Shas understands that. I always heard negative things about Shas, but my perception of them has been completely disproved. The men of Shas have their needs and their problems and they want to solve them, and the social issues have implications on the political issues".
 
During their lunch break the Palestinians learn that they will have to eat a kosher meal from the Jewish Quarter in the city. Attorney David Glass, Shas's long-time legal adviser, tries to comfort them with a song: "Mustafa, Ashraf and Sufiyan were hoping for a delicacy in Budapest, but they are with Shas, and they cry – 'how did we get here?'". 
 
The Palestinians smile, but relax when they realize the food is not bad. Glass, a renowned attorney and one of the closest people to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, is a known leftist within the party. "I see it as an addiction, an obsession I have with promoting peace. It is in my soul and it only increases every day, and this is where the frustration stems from. Shas can be a surprise; it can be a deal breaker politically".
 
"Shas today stands in a situation where it will support any decisions with painful concessions that the prime minister will accept. There is no opposition in the party to peace, but that is not enough. These meetings need to take Shas a step forward. Everyone in the party who has influence must contribute to this change. The fact that Shas has been removed from the peace process in recent years is problematic. Just as Shas insists on being part of social issues in this country, so should it be involved in political issues".
 
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, many say, will support a peace agreement, but only if it includes the proper security arrangements. "His famous ruling says that we can return land for peace, meaning for human life", says Glass. "The Rabbi may object to unilateral action, but would definitely support an agreement".
 
"You are trying to present Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as a dove, but that is not true", inserts Haredi journalist Yaakov Rivlin, close to Shas. "I recall a long line of objections against the division of Jerusalem, for example. I don't know if there is a middle line between a dove and a hawk, but that better represents reality". Glass is not perturbed: "A white dove can have black feathers. The Rabbi's position is clear and known".
 
Despite these moderate opinions, the issue of Jerusalem raises difficulties on both sides. The Geneva Initiative already has a written agreement, including maps, but Shas members are hard-pressed accepting Palestinian claims to the capital. 
 
"The only solution is to preserve the reality that exists today", says Vaknin. "The Jews, the Muslim and the Christians live there in peace. Still, we cannot say that we are willing to undergo painful concessions without following through on them. We have a partner today, Abu Mazen, and we cannot miss this opportunity. Once we were against a Palestinian state, and today even Netanyahu supports the two-state solution. The situation on the ground is becoming radicalized, and if we wait we will lose more. Even those who do not believe need to support an agreement: that way, if they break it and support terror, the whole world will support us. If they do not break it, there will be peace".
 
The main problem in Jerusalem is Temple Mount. Vaknin is silent for a few seconds, and then says: "We need to keep what is Jewish for the Jews, and what is Palestinian for the Palestinians. Today, according to Jewish law, I cannot ascend the Temple Mount. We believe that it is ours, and that when God Almighty will want to build a temple it will happen, and the place will return to us. What it says on paper does not matter to us. So if I cannot go there anyway, and I cannot remove them from the Al-Aqsa mosque, we have two possibilities: to leave the situation as is and maintain this war for two hundred more years, or to change the situation and live in peace. The Palestinian neighborhoods need to be theirs".
 
Memories from the Lebanon War
 
One must admit: these opinions are not the mainstream in Shas today. How does MK Vaknin reconcile his views with those of the rest of his party? "Look at what happened in the Likud", he says. "When Netanyahu said, in his speech at Bar Ilan University, 'two states for two people', he also caused a scene, for this is the opposite of the Likud's policy. So why do I, Yitzhak Vaknin from the Shas party, need to give an explanation? Even Ariel Sharon equated the settlements in Gaza to Tel Aviv, and then handed over Gush Katif with nothing in return. I, unlike them, have never changed my mind".
 
Journalist Rivlin spoils a little this show of Shas unity: "I hear from Yitzhak Vaknin criticism over Israeli leadership, but the Palestinians do not criticize like that. I feel as though I am in an internal Palestinian negotiation. Everyone here agrees, why did you only bring the left faction of Shas?"
 
Rivlin is right: these discussions did not include the right-wingers of the party. At the same time, the left faction of Shas is more significant than it may seem, and one cannot ignore the influence of the Rabbi. Even his daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, has participated in Geneva Initiative conferences.
 
"If I did not believe in these types of meetings, I would not continue to hold them", said Fatah official and former Palestinian minister Sufyan Abu-Zaidah. "We try not to talk too much about historical claims and religion, because on those topics each side is right in its own light. In order to leave in peace we need compromise. In the past we would only meet with left-wingers, because only they would meet with us. Each of us has preconceived notions regarding the other, and we definitely were surprised about certain things regarding Shas. They are completely different from their perceived image".
 
Abu-Zaidah even interferes with internal Shas politics. "We have a problem today", he says, "Because we like [Arye] Deri. With Deri we could have made peace". "If you want Deri, you're better off not saying that", reacts Rivlin. "That kind of expression by you only harms us".
 
"The men of Shas surprise us", admits Al-Ajrami. "We imagined extremists, because that is what comes from their leadership. But after sitting with these men, we saw that they are sensitive and open to the needs of the Palestinian people. They come from the Eastern cultures and therefore know what is important to us. I believe that more and more members of Shas are becoming convinced that a peace agreement based on the 1967 borders is necessary, with changes here and there, and that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will ultimately support such a process".
 
Someone chimes in that Al-Ajrami's Hebrew comes from 12 years of imprisonment in an Israeli jail for participating in the Lebanon War – against the IDF. "Wait, I was there for a while", jumps Vaknin. "Maybe we fought one against the other?" The two compare dates and are disappointed to find out that they were not in the same place at the same time.
 
Although according to Shas members, the partner for Israel is Abu Mazen, even Hamas received a good word. "Hamas, more or less, is organizing Gaza", says Vaknin, "and is not allowing unrest. That cannot be ignored. Simultaneously, we must let Abu Mazen act against the extremists, for there is one Palestinian nation and it cannot be divided. The powers there need to be combined if there is to be peace with Israel".
 
Glass smiles: "I doubt he could have said that outside of this room, in a debate in the Knesset, for example".
 
"I am not afraid to say that anywhere", responds Vaknin. "I go with my own truth. Shas voters may lean to the right, but we must lead the people, and not the other way around. Think about how much money we spend on war instead of on social services. It is easy to be an extremist and talk like Lieberman, but that is the easy way out".
 
At the hotel, right before the ride to the airport to return to Israel, the Shas members tried to organize a Minyan for prayer. Four were missing. Smiling, the Palestinians offered their help. "That is one of the only things you can offer", said Vaknin, "which we cannot accept".