Meretz’s peace plan: A challenge to liberal timidity

The party’s new proposal effectively says the unsayable: that on the occupation, Israel is wrong and the Arabs are right.

There are so many people out there, in Israel and overseas, who know that this country has gone wrong and that Netanyahu and the right are leading it to hell. Yet they end up giving their tacit support to the worsening status quo because they don’t have the courage to follow their thoughts to their logical conclusion: that Israel is at fault for the occupation, and that the occupation is at fault for the conflict with the Palestinians. Not Israel and the Palestinians both – Israel alone. Not Netanyahu and Abbas both, if we’re talking about right now – just Netanyahu.

You see it over and over again from Israeli and foreign liberals – they rag the hell out of Netanyahu and the settlements, but then they make sure to add, “But that’s not to say that the Palestinians are blameless, they’ve made plenty of mistakes, Abbas has been much too stubborn …”

And in the end, for all their genuine dismay over the direction this country’s taken, they’re afraid to oppose it head-on, because that would put them in the “Arab camp” against Israel, and they can’t allow themselves to be there – even if the Arab camp happens to be right and Israel wrong.

The Obama administration tried breaking this habit at first, insisting that Israel freeze settlements and accept the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for negotiations – in other words, recognize that the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip rightly belong to the Palestinians. But Obama and Co. had that notion beaten out of them by Netanyahu and the Israel lobby. By now, not only has the administration given up its demands – leaving Abbas out there by himself – it has adopted Netanyahu’s insistence on negotiations “without preconditions.” This, after the offers made to the Palestinians by Barak and Olmert, means going back to square one (actually, square minus-one because Netanyahu, unlike Barak and Olmert, says Israel must retain all of “united Jerusalem”). “Negotiations without preconditions” is an attempt by Netanyahu to negotiate in utterly bad faith, indefinitely, while getting the world off Israel’s back so he can build more settlements. His model here is Shamir at the Madrid talks, where he was in charge of hasbara.

Yet in the face of all this deception, and even though liberals don’t trust Netanyahu at all, I can’t think of one who has said, “No, there must be preconditions, Abbas is right to demand a settlement freeze and the ’67 borders with land swaps.” That would be “one-sided,” that would be “taking the Arab side against Israel.” Indeed it would, but then the occupation, again, is a one-sided affair.

And so we go nowhere. The “loyal opposition,” here and abroad, will urge Israel not to make the situation worse – they will oppose massive settlement expansion – but they will settle, excuse the pun, for a policy of slow growth, or even just slower growth. So in effect the liberals – the Israeli “center-left,” the Democrats, the Tony Blair types – act as a Likud-Beiteinu Lite: they won’t stand in the way of the occupation, they just would like it to spread somewhat less aggressively. This is what Netanyahu, the settlers and their friends call a green light.

That’s the situation, for years now. And that’s what makes the Meretz peace plan, which the party presented in its election campaign this week, an oasis in the desert.

The proposal doesn’t screw around. It calls for Israel’s immediate recognition of Palestine, followed by a settlement freeze, release of prisoners, lifting of roadblacks, and negotiations based on the Arab peace plan with the sponsorship of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – a “Regional Quartet” to accompany the old Quartet of the U.S., EU, UN and Russia. It also calls for scrapping the Oslo Accord – which ex-peace negotiator Dov Weisglass has held up as Israel’s instrument for turning the West Bank into “the only prison in the world where the prisoners have to provide for themselves” – and replacing it with an agreed-upon program for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate on a “fair, equal, government-to government basis.”

Party leader Zahava Gal-On was due to lead a Meretz delegation to Ramallah today to discuss the plan with Abbas.

All of this is so far beyond Israeli or pro-Israeli liberalism. I don’t know if the plan and Gal-On’s presentation of it to Abbas are going to attract Israeli voters or scare them away, but that’s a secondary issue – the important thing is that an Israeli liberal, loyal oppositionist body has dared to say the unsayable: in the matter of the occupation, Israel has had it wrong and the Arabs – Abbas and the Arab League, with their 2002 peace initiative – have had it right.

I hope this becomes a signal to liberal politicians, diplomats, pundits, think tankers and others to come out of the closet – to stop seeking balance where there is none, to stop being afraid of what Israel’s thought police will call them, to forget about how their opinions “position” them on the political spectrum, and to love nuance less and moral clarity more.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote, somewhat warily, in favor of voting for Hatnuah on practical grounds, arguing that the opposition needed a sizeable mainstream voice that Meretz couldn’t provide, but which Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz might. That was my view “pending developments.” Since then, Livni appears much more clearly to want into Netanyahu’s next government, while Meretz has now offered an extremely valuable example of how the Israeli opposition should act – boldly. So I’ve changed my mind, and am now, without qualifications, in favor of voting for Meretz.