Ex-Jerusalem official, in S.F., offers grim prognosis for Israel

The good news is that the Israelis and Palestinians are not engaged in war. The bad news is that what the two peoples are engaged in is intercommunal strife. And that is truly bad news, because in some ways, it is worse.

"War is between armies," said Meron Benvenisti, who served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek from 1971 to 1979. "Intercommunal strife is something different. It is where war is waged with every single person from the cradle to the graveyard."

That's how the journalist and author described the current intifada during a Sunday afternoon discussion that followed a viewing of the documentary "Promises," part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Livia Alexander, a scholar of Middle Eastern film from New York, moderated the discussion.

With both Israelis and Palestinians espousing the same love for the city of Jerusalem, "they draw from it their hatred of the other," said Benvenisti, a regular commentator for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

And with a hatred so deep, he added, the work done by social workers is needed much more than that of soldiers.

Benvenisti, also the author of numerous books including his recent "Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948," is the son of a geographer who had the responsibility of giving Hebrew names to the many Arab villages that Israel eradicated in the 1948 War of Independence.

One of the major downfalls of the 1993 Oslo accords and the ensuing peace process, Benvenisti said, is that it tried to solve all the problems that resulted from the 1948 war and the 1967 Six-Day War. "It was arrogance to think we could solve it all at once," he said, "and that's partially responsible for what's happening today."

Included in this implication was last July's failed Camp David summit. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's greatest mistake, Benvenisti believes, was talking about achieving an "end of conflict" — which was expecting too much too soon.

For one, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was not going to give up on the right of return issue, he said. That it was a sticking point in the negotiations should not have come as a surprise.

"No Palestinian leader can give up on the right of return," he said, because that leader would not have the authority to speak for those refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza. Many of those who fled Israel and the territories now reside in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.

Benvenisti tried to refrain from offering solutions, but did so on a couple of other points of contention.

The only end to the dispute over the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif — with Muslims praying on the top and Jews down below it at the Western Wall — is to share it, he said. Benvenisti also thinks international interference is crucial, although the view makes him unpopular in Israel.

"Without a serious attempt by the United States, there will be no end to the bloodshed," he said.

He also called for an end to measures of collective punishment imposed on the Palestinians. "They are done more for the Israeli psyche," he said, as even with closures, any Palestinian who really wants to penetrate the border will find a way to do so.

Benvenisti bemoaned the fact that Israelis are increasingly shifting to the right, estimating that some 95 percent of them supported some of the more extreme measures carried out against the Palestinians by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In addition, he said, commentary on the conflict is sounding an awful lot like it did in 1967: Old Zionist slogans are being recycled and people speak as if Israel's very existence is at stake.

Benvenisti dismissed it as nonsense.

"This is not a war of survival," he said. "We're not facing annihilation." While this intifada differs from the first one in that the Palestinians have firearms in addition to stones, "there is no need to mobilize all our forces. We have to take a balanced approach."

Several audience members questioned why the United States was continuing to give Israel yearly aid in excess of $3 billion, and Benvenisti said that even if this aid ceased tomorrow, the situation wouldn't change.

The Israeli economy is thriving, he said, and U.S. aid amounts to just 5 percent of the country's entire budget. "It's an old notion that the U.S. government — or that American Jews — are providing for Israel's existence," he said. "People are still thinking of the '60s and '70s."

Despite Benvenisti's rather grim post-Oslo prognosis, he did say one positive result has come out of the negotiations: Each side has acknowledged the other's legitimacy, even if it was as legitimate enemies rather than as legitimate neighbors.

Before Oslo, "Arabs were terrorists and Jews were colonialists," he said. "This was the first time there was understanding that there are two peoples living in Israel and Palestine."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."