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James Wilets

Prof James Wilets at Limmud Winnipeg: Israel runs the risk of becoming the equivalent of what the South Africans were 20 years ago.

by Terry Davis, March 14, 2016





James Wilets, a Professor of Law and International Relations at Nova Southeastern University in Floida, gave a talk at Limmud Winnipeg on March 13, 2016 in which he lamented that while there are willing partners in the Palestinian Arab world for a two state solution (the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas and the Saudi Arabian initiated Arab peace plan), that Israel’s current “right wing government” is not interested in negotiating to bring about a Palestinian state. His talk was titled “What Next? The Factors affecting Israeli/Palestinian Peace.”


Wilets concluded that if Israel kept moving in its present direction, “we run the risk of becoming the equivalent of what the South Africans were 20 years ago.” It would be difficult to argue that it was different from South Africa.  “Numerically and demographically we are getting to that point,” he said, noting that “Eventually we are at a point where people say this is South Africa.”


Wilets described a growing radicalization among Palestinians, which he attributed to a sense of hopelessness, of seeing land lost to settlements, and feeling they had nothing left to gain from negotiations, and nothing left to lose from turning to other tactics such as violence. He lamented that Abas and other moderates are open to a two state solution, that Saudi Arabia has floated the Arab Peace Plan recognizing the 1967 borders (which he described as identical to American descriptions of a solution) but that there was now no one to talk to on the Israeli side. In stating his position that Israel ought to negotiate a two state solution now (with Mahmoud Abbas), Wilets was more to the left of Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Labour party leader who has acknowledged that the two-state solution is not a realistic option in the near future.


From a personal perspective, he described how this places him, as someone who was involved in sanctions against South Africa under apartheid, in “an incredibly awkward situation.”


Further he explained that he worked with many good people in the human rights movement, people who were not anti-Semitic, who were now becoming more open to the idea of sanctions against Israel and products produced in the West Bank. In his opinion, Israel was being placed in an increasingly “isolated and scary” situation,

He emphasized several times that he was still a committed Zionist, loved Israel, had relatives there, and completely supported Israel’s right to defend itself against any aggression.


Wilets initially described how he came to be interested in Israel through the holocaust, and became such an ardent Zionist that he went to Israel to live and study in Grade 10. He further goes on to describe his transformation from an ardent Zionist to someone who came to understand firsthand that the situation between Jews and Arabs, and Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East was complex, and in his own words “not all Jews were good or perfect, and not all Arabs were bad.” He became interested in the idea of a two state solution in the early 1980’s, at which time he was obtaining a BA from the University of Washington, and a JD from Columbia Law School. He subsequently received an MA in International Relations from Yale University in 1994.


He joined what he describes as “a left wing group similar to Shalom Achshav (Peace Now in English)”. After the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla, he and the group met with Arafat to express their condolences on the Palestinian deaths, (although he was careful to emphasis they were not there to admit fault.) At the meeting, he was very affected by comments from the PLO Ambassador to the UN at the time, who praised Israel for marches against the massacres, including up to 200,000 in Tel Aviv. The Ambassador contrasted this to the lack of response in Arab capitals, and stated that because Israel was a democracy, the Palestinians could influence its actions, but they would have to moderate their demands to do so, and accept a two state solution. Wilets embraced this notion of moderates on both sides strengthening each other. He stated that after the intransigence of Menachem Begin, there was a window for a two state solution, that it was very close in the late 80’s and 90’s, but that he (and many Israelis) lost hope after the failure of the Barak-Arafat meeting under Bill Clinton’s auspices at Camp David. Surprisingly, Wilets said nothing of the details regarding the failure of this meeting. Nor was there anything said about a subsequent negotiation between Arafat’s successor, Mahmood Abbas and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.


Instead, Wilets turned to Netanyahu, and described him (fairly in my opinion) as someone who would not have accepted the two state solution being discussed at Camp David. He also pointed out that Netanyahu formed a coalition that is actually to the right of Netanyahu himself, and that there is no current interest in a two state solution by the current government. He explained that parts of the coalition held this view for security reasons, but that a growing segment of the Knesset and the population opposed a two state solution due to religious objections about giving back parts of the Biblical Land of Israel promised to Jews in the Torah. He projected that 500,000 Jews in the West Bank may soon become closer to a million, at which point, there will be no way to remove them and no basis any longer for a two state solution.


Wilets then turned to the audience and opened the floor to suggestions about what could be done about the current situation?


The talk was well attended, with the small classroom filled to capacity, and once the question period began, a flurry of vociferous comments and questions followed. Although polite, virtually all were quite critical of his presentation, and voiced a number of objections. I generally agreed with these criticisms, and will interweave them along with my own thoughts below.


To begin with, for anyone who has any familiarity with J-street in the US, this talk was straight out of their talking points. There was an emphasis on the Palestinians willingness to compromise, and an emphasis on the right wing intransigent nature of Israel’s current government. There were many comments and personal details designed to establish the speaker’s “street cred” as a Zionist, and a number of protestations that Israel had the right to defend itself, and of course there was the haunting spectre of Israel as the new South Africa, which is recognized as anathema to most North American Jews. And during the question and answer period, there was a comment by Wilets that Israel’s behaviour should be judged (critically) by the standards of a western democracy, not by those countries it is surrounded by.


What was absent from his initial 30 minute talk  however was any mention of the following: Arafat’s rejection of Bill Clinton’s Camp David plan, (which was well documented by Clinton and Dennis Ross) and the planned intifada that followed; Abbas’ refusal of the even more generous plan put forward by Ehud Olmert while Israel’s Prime Minister; Abbas’ role in incitement and his intermittent refusal to condemn violence and terrorism; the fact that Hamas controls Gaza, refuses to acknowledge Israel’s long term right to exist as a state, and would likely control the West Bank shortly after Israeli withdrawal (based on Israeli intelligence estimates); the fact that Israel withdrew from all Lebanese territory, but continues to be attacked by Hezbollah; the fact that Syria has disintegrated, ISIS in on Israel’s northern border, and that Palestine would be highly unlikely to remain a peaceful democracy that would respect Israel’s right; to exist within secure borders (not to mention the details of what having a radical Islamic state a few kilometres from Ben Gurion Airport would mean for Israel going forward); and the fact that no western democracy has to deal with the challenges facing Israel, including hostile nations and militias on most of its borders, and a large minority within the country that to a large extent, identifies religiously and ethnically more with Israel’s enemies than with Israel itself.


At various points in the question and answer, many of these points were acknowledged by Wilets. When Hamas came up, for example he described Hamas as “horrible”. Yet he never chose to mention them on his own. And he continued to portray Israel as the main culprit in the descent into intransigence, and hung on desperately to Abas as a moderate you can talk to. When faced with the issue of judging Israel unrealistically by the standards of other western democracies, he replied that they should not then expect to receive such large funding from the US (ignoring the enormous amount of funding that Egypt receives). And he was so focused on Netanyahu’s failings that he bent over backward to criticize him. He scoffed at why Netanyahu should require Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, implying it was simply an obstructionist tactic (which in part it likely is), but failed to acknowledge a long history of the Palestinians attempting to undermine any historical legitimacy to Jewish roots in Palestine, ranging from their dismissing archeological findings, to their denying there ever was a temple in Jerusalem. And at one point, he managed to ridiculously portray Netanyahu as potentially racist (at least in Wilets’ colleague eyes) due to his address to the US congress, since it showed disrespect to Obama (the first African American President). The address was possibly ill-advised, and ultimately largely unproductive; but racist?


To me, his talk summed up all that is unrealistic about the so called “pro-Israel pro Peace” narrative (the belief in true partners in the current Arab word for example), and also how proponents of this perspective play fast and loose with the details of Israeli security within a 2 state framework. They beat their chests defending Israel’s right to defend itself (as did Obama when he visited Sderot, if you recall), but when Israel defends itself against Hamas, all of a sudden the word “proportionate response” begins to be used, with all the implicit criticism of Israeli reaction that it implies.


The truth is that I also would like to see a two state solution in an ideal world. Most Jews are uncomfortable with Israel ruling over millions of Palestinians who do not have the right to choose their own government. The difference is that I am aware of, and acknowledge the large degree of Arab-Palestinian responsibility for this situation, and I accept the present reality that ceding territory to the Palestinians in the current climate of the Middle East would be exceedingly risky, bordering on suicidal, (as does the current Israeli labour party, which is Netanyahu’s main opposition). The answer to the question posed by Wilets, regarding the increasing support for the BDS movement, and other anti-Israel movements, is unclear, and it clearly represents a problem. But however uncomfortable it may make it for left wing academics on North American Campuses, the answer is not a withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian state at this point in time.


Interestingly, Wilets theorized at the end of the question and answer period as to whether, once enough time passes, facts on the ground such as Israel’s control of much of the West Bank may become accepted over time, much like Canada and the United States’’ current control of indigenous lands (which is presumably the not so secret wish of much of Likud, and all of its coalition partners to the right). And although I very much dislike the comparison, to the extent that it attempts to create an analogy between Israel and the European settlement of North America, I was surprised by his openness to entertain this as an acceptable eventuality. However, I do not share any optimism that this scenario will play itself out any time soon. Unfortunately, we will likely be left to “manage the conflict” for many generations to come.


On a final note, although he seemed a very personable, engaging and likable speaker, apart from the specific viewpoint he put forth, I found Wilets's presentation somewhat rambling, unfocussed, and ultimately unconvincing. One cannot argue that his views are beyond the pale; his views came from a legitimate Zionist perspective, however misguided I felt they were. However, in a world where we are constantly bombarded with critical commentary about Israel, and where students are subjected to an overwhelmingly anti-Zionist narrative on campus, I would have prefered a perspective that was more realistic about the challenges facing Israel, and less laudatory of the Palestinian partners.

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