The Problem with Neutrality Between Palestinians and Israel

A friend recently said that she had come to believe the level of Israeli violence against Palestinians is now so great that a balanced approach to the two sides, the middle way promoted by so many peace groups, has become totally untenable. Another friend, an Israeli American just returned from several months in Israel, witnessed such a level of Israeli violence, not only against Palestinians but even against Israeli protesters, that she committed herself to oppose it. She decided she could no longer “protect my own skin” by simply standing by. “I no longer cared about protecting myself”. She put her life in danger on behalf of justice for the Palestinians.

These two friends have recognized and are strongly protesting the sham of taking a neutral position between the two sides in this most unbalanced of conflicts. Neutrality in any conflict in which there is a gross imbalance of power is probably an impossibility and certainly immoral. Treading a middle path between one utterly powerless party and another party with total power, effectively removes all restraints on behavior by the powerful party. Yet this is the posture of those American peace groups that put themselves forward as advocates for Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation. They take no position between the Palestinians and Israel, but only promote peace plans such as the unofficial Geneva Accord. without also taking action or even speaking out forcefully against Israel’s occupation. The consequence is that these groups have given Israel the time and the license to devastate the land, begin its ethnic cleansing, and destroy any prospect for Palestinian independence. Their refusal to take a clear stand against Israel’s oppressive policies is a statement that might makes right, that oppressive policies are acceptable, and most particularly that justice for Palestinians is less important than power for Israel.

But when in history have decent people seriously accepted balance and neutrality as a proper response in moral conflicts or national conflicts that pit one very powerful party against a powerless party?

Consider this analogy: a group of well-meaning activists in late 1850s America hope to bring an end to the horrors of slavery without war. They propose that the two sides strive for reconciliation, that slaves sit down at the negotiating table with slave owners and attempt to work out their differences through negotiation. The activists believe that the institution of slavery is oppressive, a violation of human rights, and that it must end, but they also recognize the property rights of owners to their slaves, as well as the owners’ right to their lives and their livelihoods ­ their right to exist and not be murdered in a slave uprising. The activists propose a middle way between the two sides, recognizing that both are responsible for the conflict (slaves have shown a propensity to rebel, causing the slave owners to tighten their oppressive grip) but believing that both slaves and owners have a right to free, peaceful, and secure lives and that the only way to achieve this is to avoid blaming either side.

Do we think this is absurd? Imagine a similar scenario involving an attempt to mediate in a balanced, blame-free atmosphere between Catholic priests and the children they have sexually abused. The absurdity of neutrality is equally obvious in this situation. What is most absurd in these scenarios and what links them is the notion of treading a middle or supposedly neutral path between two sides when there exists a total imbalance of power. Could anyone seriously suggest that slaves, utterly powerless except for the ability occasionally to rebel, should seek some kind of equitable solution between themselves and their overlords? Could anyone seriously suggest that abused children, utterly powerless except for the ability to kick and scream, should negotiate with their abusers?

Thinking back to some of the colonial conflicts of the twentieth century, is it possible to imagine a scenario in which peacemakers or public commentators and opinion molders ever believed these conflicts could be resolved by simply splitting the difference and pursuing some middle path between the two sides? In Vietnam, Algeria, South Africa, other colonial conflicts in Africa and Asia ­ conflicts that by their very nature involved an overwhelmingly strong power in absolute domination over a virtually powerless civilian population ­ no mediator, no commentator, no activist group ever credibly proposed that the conflict be resolved by working from a neutral position to try “reconciling” the two sides.

Yet this is essentially how virtually everyone ­ public discourse in general, from opportunistic U.S. politicians of both major parties, to mainstream media commentators, to most peace activists ­ proposes to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The notion of holding the middle ground, of being “neutral”, is soothing to most people because it is ostensibly fair, it is optimistic, it is positive, obviating the need for negativity and unpleasantness. But a balanced position in an unbalanced situation inevitably is a miscarriage of justice. In Palestine-Israel, it is a profoundly immoral stance to maintain neutrality between powerless Palestinians (who have the ability occasionally to murder innocent Israelis but no power to regulate or save their own lives) and an overpowering, overbearing Israel possessing all the military power, controlling all the land. Neutrality here is no different from refusing to take a stand between slaves and slave owners, or between children and abusive priests.

The Pleasure of Neutrality

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and founder of a network of grassroots organizations around the country called collectively the “Tikkun Community”, is probably the most prominent of the centrist peace advocates, although there are other organizations that pursue a similar approach. Lerner has enunciated a position, which he calls the “progressive middle path”, that seeks a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation based on scrupulous adherence to the notion that both peoples are responsible for the conflict, that each has acted immorally and inhumanely, and that the only hope for peace lies in not blaming either side and working for peace plans that “provide for the well-being of both sides”. The national president of the Tikkun Community recently wrote in a letter to the editor that Tikkun’s purpose is to recognize that both peoples have legitimate needs, that both “bear responsibility for co-creating the conflict”, and that both must be responsible for solving the outstanding issues between them.

On the surface, all this glowing neutrality sounds positively enlightened. Who could criticize a program asserting that “both peoples’ best chance for lasting security lies in a new spirit of generosity, openhearted reconciliation, and a genuine commitment to nonviolence”? And in fact, Tikkun’s strong support for the Geneva Accord, an unofficial peace plan forged by former Palestinian and Israel cabinet ministers and launched with considerable fanfare last December, is a laudable effort to put something concrete behind the call for reconciliation. There is much that is unfair to the Palestinians in the Geneva Accord, particularly on the issue of the refugees’ right of return, but the plan as drafted at least provides an acceptable starting point for negotiating the particulars of a final peace agreement ­ if there were any hope of its being endorsed by either the government of Israel or the United States. Unfortunately, there is no such hope.
One has the urge to tell these people to get real. It is not historically true that both sides bear equal responsibility for creating the conflict; moreover, in the hopelessly unbalanced situation existing today, the two sides very clearly cannot bear equal responsibility for resolving the conflict. The failure to understand this indicates a wilful failure to acknowledge the actual situation on the ground.

Neutrality and “generosity” toward both sides may sound nice, but they are breathtakingly unrealistic. Imagine urging Ariel Sharon or any of the Israeli leadership ­ or indeed most of the Israeli public these days ­ to exercise a spirit of generosity and openhearted reconciliation. Imagine urging George Bush to work for the well-being of Palestinians as well as Israelis. As a spiritual guide for life, generosity and openhearted reconciliation are fine, but as a political plan of action, they are meaningless. To do nothing beyond issuing pleasant generalities, while Israel proceeds unimpeded with the stunning transformation of the Palestinian landscape, the destruction of Palestinian national expectations, and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, is to make a mockery of any “spirit of generosity”.

Obsessive optimism and adherence to a “middle path” can lead to some skewed thinking. Lerner, for instance, denounces all those who have criticized the Geneva Accord, as well as anyone who criticizes Israel for human rights abuses without denouncing other states for worse abuses, as “lefties” or, in his more unguarded moments ­ as when he recently attacked a long-time Middle East activist and journalist in the Bay Area ­ as “idiots and anti-Semites”. Lerner blames the “lefties” for dividing the peace movement and thereby undermining the movement’s ability to push Bush toward pressuring Sharon to adopt the Geneva Accord, something he claims with a straight face was a real possibility. So angry is Lerner at the failure of the Geneva Accord that he says he would not be surprised if “some of the most militant of the ultra-lefties today who managed to paralyze the progressive forces because of their one-sided hostility to Israel . . . turn out to be conscious and paid agents of the Israeli or American political Right”.

Lerner also has a puzzling tendency ­ puzzling for someone clinging to the middle ­ to refer to the Palestinians as “the Other”. Although he uses the term in a friendly context ­ of having respect for “the Other” for instance ­ the terminology actually gives away the true nature of his neutrality. No matter how conciliatory, Lerner clearly deep down thinks of himself and Israel as residing on “this” side of that imaginary middle path between “us” and “them”, and therefore his first interest is Israel. It cannot be particularly appealing for the majority of Palestinians who seek genuine reconciliation to be held at arm’s length in this way. It is also very distasteful for non-Jewish, non-Palestinian Americans who do not feel a loyalty to Israel to hear any other American refer to Israel as part of “us” while the Palestinians are characterized so openly as alien.

The immorality of the center is that this middle path has helped create a deathly silence about the destruction of lives and property that goes on every day in the occupied territories. Because they refuse to see realities on the ground, centrists cannot even imagine the scale of the oppression that Palestinians face at Israel’s hands. They cannot imagine the grotesque miscarriage of justice represented by taking a middle position between the oppressor and the oppressed. The checkpoints, the roadblocks, the sniper shootings, the aerial bombardments, the assassinations, the settlements and Israeli-only bypass roads, the land confiscations, the bulldozing of olive groves, the demolition of homes and entire residential neighborhoods, the foul labyrinth of walls and fences that have imprisoned entire Palestinian villages, halted all movement, separated farmers from farmland, children from schools, the sick from hospitals, brothers from brothers: all of these separate aspects of Israel’s oppressive system, and the magnitude of their totality, have escaped the rosy view of those who only follow a middle way. Their silence and averted gaze grease the wheels of oppression and are in no way balanced by the occasional suicide bombing.

Their silence clears the way for ever greater Israeli violence, making it easier for Israel to swallow more of Palestine while the world looks elsewhere. Certainly the centrists are not alone responsible for enabling continued Israeli oppression; they are themselves fighting a valiant uphill struggle against vocal mainstream pro-Israeli sentiment on the near right and the far right, among Jewish organizations, Christian fundamentalists, the media, and politicians of both major parties. But the peace movement represents a substantial minority voice that could have a major place in public discourse if only it would speak out against oppression. Its determination merely to be a voice of sweetness and light, rarely criticizing, always accentuating the positive, severely diminishes its own impact and allows Israel to be wanton while the rest of the world is silent.

“Balance” on the Right

Public discourse in general, and many in the vocal pro-Israel community in particular, are tuning in to the public relations benefits of appearing balanced and open to the Palestinians. The rightwing pro-Israel advocacy group The Israel Project, led by Republican consultants Frank Luntz and Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi, has recently been holding seminars to train activists in how to get the Israeli message across most effectively and is emphasizing the importance of being optimistic and not demonizing the Palestinians. It’s hard to distinguish this kind of false, deliberately deceptive appearance of “balance” from the balance advocated by the centrists of the peace movement, and in terms of how the situation on the ground plays out, there is no difference. As it works out in actuality, neutrality is an endorsement, at least implicit and often explicit, of all Israel’s policies; it results in a virtually total obliviousness to how those policies affect Palestinians, their daily lives, and their national prospects. Centrist peace activists have helped make this possible.

In this atmosphere, George Bush continues to spout his inanities about two states living side by side in peace, while Israel seizes the land on which the Palestinian state would sit and ethnically cleanses its inhabitants. The silence induced by the peace movement’s stance in the middle helps make this chicanery possible. The international community goes along, as evidenced by the recent decision by the Quartet, representing the UN, the EU, and Russia along with the U.S., to endorse Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement” plan for Gaza ­ something Israeli activist Uri Avnery has dubbed a “scandalous” step, constituting a confirmation by the international community that the Palestinians have no right to take part in determining their own fate. The Quartet endorsement came with indecent haste just after Israel wound down a weeks-long rampage through the city of Rafah, Gaza, during which it demolished entire residential neighborhoods, left thousands of Palestinians homeless, and fired missiles into crowds of peaceful demonstrators.

Not only did the centrists help make all this possible, but one of the centrist peace organizations, Brit Tzedek, has endorsed the Sharon plan for Gaza, with some skepticism to be sure, but welcoming it as a definite indication that Sharon does intend to get out of Gaza ­ never mind that a withdrawal is doubtful at best, never mind that, even if he does get out, 1.3 million Gazans would remain in what some have called a holding pen, walled in and enclosed under Israeli control, always at Israel’s mercy, without freedom to move, to govern themselves, or even to disagree with their imposed fate. Brit Tzedek believes somehow that it was the Geneva Accord that forced Sharon to come up with a plan and that the plan represents “a major shift away from the extremist right and therefore toward the moderate left”. (One would guess that Brit Tzedek’s moderate left is Tikkun’s progressive middle.) Believing that Sharon acted out of anything but purest opportunism, expecting to gain political points and appear to the gullible like a peacemaker by pledging to withdraw troops and settlers from a small sliver of land that he never particularly wanted to keep in any case, is truly a triumph of hope over realism.

The list of those easily fooled by such deceptions is long. In June, 407 congressmen and 95 senators passed resolutions lauding Sharon’s disengagement plan and seconding Bush’s unilateral endorsement of Israel’s intent to annex occupied territory and deny Palestinian refugees any right of return. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi excused the overwhelmingly one-sided House resolution by noting that she and many other congressmen were concerned about the plight of Palestinians but were satisfied that the resolution urges negotiations between the parties and recognizes the absolute necessity that there be a Palestinian state. Precisely seven Representatives voted against this odious pretense.

The media too have largely been fooled, or fooled themselves, into thinking that the Sharon plan means something. The usually savvy Christian Science Monitor fell into the trap of misplaced optimism with a recent editorial welcoming Sharon’s Gaza plan as something that is “already boosting prospects for peace in the Middle East”. What usually fuels this incongruous optimism, not only in the Monitor but elsewhere in the media and among the doggedly upbeat centrists, are polls that show a large majority of Israelis favoring a Gaza withdrawal and even dismantlement of many West Bank settlements, additional polls that show far more American Jews supporting the Geneva Accord than opposing it, and the widespread belief, spurious but tenacious among peace hopefuls, that not only the Israeli left, but the right as well, recognize that Israel will lose its character as a Jewish state if it does not soon shed control over some Palestinian territories.

In fact, the right is not hesitant about getting rid of the Palestinians by whatever means necessary and therefore is not worried about being able to maintain Israel’s Jewish character. As for the polls, they have shown forthcoming attitudes for some years, but none of this good thinking has induced either the pollees or their governments in Israel and the U.S. to institute changes on the ground. Thus, while the peace movement does nothing, basking in the comforting knowledge that majorities everywhere “want peace”, Israel is swallowing more land and killing more Palestinians without interference.

Much of the optimism prevailing nowadays arises from the fact that there has not been a suicide bombing in Israel for over three months. Rather than take this as a reason for hope, Ha’aretz correspondent Danny Rubinstein, more of a realist than the peace movement centrists, recently observed that, far from inducing an interest among Israelis in moving toward peace, this possibly temporary respite from fear has brought a determined complacency and lack of interest in what is happening to Palestinians. “Israeli public opinion has become deaf to Palestinian suffering”, he says, because a clear equation has been created in the Israeli mind: as long as “they” suffer, we Israelis are not being blown up. The centrists of the peace movement tend to think this way themselves, and in a kind of vicious circle, the silence induced by their insistence on balance and neutrality plays a part in facilitating the Palestinian suffering.

And finally, there is Rafah, where Israel destroyed much of a city while the world, seeking neutrality, sat by.

Neutrality in Rafah

The great appeal of being positive and on the middle path is that it gives one the soothing feeling that something is being done. One is able to avoid confronting the discomfiting realization that not only is nothing positive happening, but things get worse by the day. Neutrality allows one to ignore stories like the following, told to Ha’aretz correspondent Gideon Levy in the aftermath of Israel’s destruction of Rafah in May. Manal Awad is a young architect who lives in Rafah but was working in Gaza City on the day Israeli tanks demolished her family’s home. “I’ll never forget that day”, she told Levy. “My sister called and told me there was a tank next to the house . . . but in our worst dreams we never imagined that our home would be destroyed. . . . It was the first time in my life that I ever heard my mother cry like that. . . . In 1948, the family fled from our village near Ramle to a cave. In 1972, Sharon demolished our house in the Shabura camp, when I was a baby. Now this is the third house. My mother is a strong woman, but now she’s broken. It’s the end for her. She always dreamed about the first house that they fled from, but she was attached to the house in the camp. Now it’s all meaningless. Her life was for nothing. . . . I lost all my memories there. A house isn’t just walls. . . . Photographs of our loved ones and our joys and our sorrows ­ all destroyed. . . . Nothing is left. The house is destroyed. Life is destroyed. . . . It was a simple refugees’ house, but on the inside it was beautiful to me”.

The reaction throughout the United States to Israel’s horrifying brutality in Gaza throughout May and into June demonstrated a concerted, almost obsessive effort by Israeli supporters of all political stripes, including most centrists, to excuse, cover up, divert attention ­ in effect, to encourage ignorance of what actually occurred. But ignorance is not an excuse, just as the Germans’ claim that they did not know about the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust was not an excuse. Mindlessly promoting peace plans in the vacuum of destruction and devastation left in Israel’s wake, without decrying Israel’s actions and U.S. complicity in them, is not enough, just as promoting a peace plan in the midst of the Rwanda massacre, without taking action to end the massacre, would not have been enough.

Yet the devastation in Gaza seems to have left most Americans unfazed. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman got through the entire Israeli rampage without so much as a mention: the killing spree; the helicopter and tank fire on peaceful protesters; the sniper fire on children gathering laundry and buying candy; the massive demolition of homes in Rafah like the one described above; the thousands left homeless; the lines of refugees fleeing bulldozers and carrying away furniture and bedding on donkey carts; the massive destruction of personal property, greenhouses, even petting zoos; the lives ruined.

This is characteristic of Friedman. He also never bothered to take much note of Israel’s murderous siege of Jenin two years ago. Unlike Jenin, there were pictures this time, literally hundreds of them available the world over, on the Internet and even occasionally on the front pages of mainstream newspapers, including Friedman’s own ­ pictures of bleeding children, dead children, adults in morgues, crying women picking through piles of rubble for their possessions. But Friedman ignores such things. Friedman would probably not characterize himself as a follower of Michael Lerner’s middle path, but he is basically a centrist and fancies himself a fair critic of Israel, particularly of its settlements policy. But let Israel commit an unadulterated war crime, something that might truly tax his conscience, and he has nothing to say, as if it never happened.

One should probably not be too hard on Friedman. Few other public people seemed outraged by or even to notice the devastation in Gaza either. At its height, George Bush appeared before Israel’s lobby, AIPAC, and, to rousing cheers, endorsed Israel’s “right to defend itself”; when the destruction reached discomfiting levels even for this White House, all the administration could muster was a few sotto voce words of reproach and a limp abstention on a critical UN Security Council resolution, a sign of mild displeasure with Israel but hardly anything approaching condemnation. (Two years ago, after Israelis had bulldozed a large portion of Jenin, Bush thought the action qualified Ariel Sharon as a “man of peace”.) John Kerry could not find it in his political heart to say anything about Gaza. No congressman said anything. Few peace groups could find outrage anywhere in their peace-loving hearts either. Tikkun did not cry out, or Brit Tzedek, or United for Peace and Justice.

Everyone has been numbed by long years of accumulated perceptions. The thought, for instance, that Israel is after all only “defending itself”, as it has had to do year after year against supposedly hate-filled Arabs, this time against a network of tunnels through which Palestinian “terrorists” smuggle “arms”, helps overcome the unpleasantness of having to look at terrible pictures of innocent people under assault. The fact that an Israeli settler family, including four children, were murdered by Palestinian attackers and that “terrorists” (who would be called resistance fighters or guerrillas in any other context) killed 13 Israeli soldiers who were on their way to invade Rafah relieves most Americans of any obligation to examine proportionality, to wonder whether shooting Palestinian children and leaving thousands of hapless civilians without homes is a proper response. The realities that no more than one or two tunnels were found during this rampage, that the vast majority of Palestinian dead and homeless are innocent civilians, that the Palestinians who killed the settler family and the Israeli soldiers had long since been killed themselves, and that whatever arms are smuggled happen to be quite insignificant, have all gone unnoticed.

The fact that Israel named its demolition derby “Operation Rainbow” also creates a diversion, putting a happy gloss on an atrocity; the fact that this is a grossly hypocritical bit of spin, somewhat akin to dubbing the Nazis’ assault on the Warsaw Ghetto “Operation Sunshine”, can be pushed aside. The naïve but eagerly nourished thought that Ariel Sharon is fighting the good fight to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza, struggling against recalcitrant rightwing ministers, adds to the relief of those who desperately want to believe the best about Israel and find excuses for its actions. Yet another psychological aid is the perception we have all imbibed from our earliest years that Israel is “good” ­ all innocence, always the victim ­ and that one must never judge Israeli actions harshly because it is essentially incapable of doing bad things. All of these perceptions have created a mindset about Israel throughout the United States that produces a knee-jerk, almost electric horror at any strong criticism of Israel. The first reaction of journalists, politicians, friends of Israel, centrist peace groups, most Israelis themselves ­ anyone who does not want to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s atrocities ­ is to turn away from uncomfortable realities, to refuse see, refuse to hear.

Many Israelis are not so dishonest. Ha’aretz correspondents Amira Hass and Gideon Levy have been in Gaza witnessing and graphically reporting what is occurring. Jeff Halper, the Israeli anthropologist and activist whose organization rebuilds demolished Palestinian homes, was among the first to alert the world to the scale of Israel’s brutality in Gaza. Peace activist Uri Avnery calls Israel’s rampage a “rape”, animated by an “evil spirit” abroad in Israel and carried out to gratify “primitive emotions”. Longtime leftist politician and peace activist Shulamit Aloni has also spoken out against the “arrogant and light-hearted way in which we kill and murder Palestinians . . . and then pretend that we are the victims”. Directly comparing Israelis to Germans in the 1940s, she charges that most Israelis, wallowing in a “patriotic hysteria” that induces them to keep quiet, don’t want to know what is going on and refuse to read Hass’s and Levy’s reports from the occupied territories.

One seldom hears this kind of tough talk from Americans, even more rarely from centrist peace activists. In fact, these activists have become adept at undermining this kind of testimony from Israelis on the scene: Levy has a Palestinian girlfriend, it is noted pointedly (obviously meant to be a damning revelation, apparently undermining his objectivity; having a Jewish girlfriend would undoubtedly not be an impediment to objectivity); the criticism of Hass is that she is obsessed and not well balanced (despite her credentials as the daughter of Holocaust survivors and despite ­ or perhaps because of ­ her actual knowledge, gained not merely from reading but from witnessing what Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation); Halper is seen to be too critical of Israelis and too sympathetic toward Palestinians (lack of balance, the unforgivable sin); Avnery allegedly has a shady past (although no one seems to have the details) or he is just getting old; Aloni is a has-been (long experience of the Israeli political scene is of no value). And anyway, these Israelis are all what some would call radical “lefties”.

The true objection to these Israelis is that they speak an uncomfortable truth; they actually know what is going on, they actually know that Israel is committing atrocities, and they are not afraid of saying that the Jewish state pursues immoral policies and commits immoral actions. They cannot be contradicted on the facts. And so the peace groups must devise excuses for not hearing them and not speaking out. The supposed need for balance and neutrality is an excuse. Israelis like this are the most dangerous spokesmen as far as peace activists are concerned, for they challenge the conscience, and they undermine the very centrist basis on which the peace groups rest.

Perhaps a little step to the left, off the middle path, by the country’s peace groups would have induced Bush to call off Sharon’s dogs in Rafah. Or perhaps not. But it would obviously have been worth the effort. The possibility that many innocent Palestinian lives could have been saved if the “progressive middle” had taken a stand is certainly not nearly as fantastic as Lerner’s notion that Bush would have been galvanized to pressure Sharon if only the progressive left had not been quite so leftist.

Centrism as a Salve

One centrist activist recently observed that it is critical always to remain positive. After being made aware of a particularly egregious Israeli action, he said he had to sit back and catch his breath because this new knowledge challenged his centrism. He was concerned that he might end up defending the Palestinians if he did not take some time to restore his positive attitude.

This is astounding. A positive attitude is fine, but if it blinds us to anything negative, it is very bad indeed. Ignoring the negative did not end apartheid in South Africa. Being positive did not expel the French colons from Algeria. Sweetness and light did not get us out of Vietnam. Centrism and a refusal to criticize will not unseat George Bush. Injustice has seldom if ever been ended by refusing to notice and speak out against it. Israel’s absorption and Judaization of the occupied territories are increasingly rendering a two-state solution meaningless and, as the possibility of an equitable resolution moves farther out of reach, the notion of approaching the conflict via the middle becomes more and more a sham. The time has come to emphasize the negative.

Those on the ground know better than the centrist activists and know the reality. Contrast the activist’s attitude above with that of a young Palestinian Lutheran minister in Bethlehem who speaks of hope in a quite different way. Discussing the profound difficulties of ministering in any meaningful way to a congregation under occupation, Reverend Mitri Raheb writes in Bethlehem Besieged that with its talk of peace on earth, Christmas has become particularly difficult for him. The usual emphasis at Christmas is on what he calls a “cheap peace”, which is in fact merely “a bit of wishful thinking [engaged in] when one is not ready to do much”. For Palestinians, “peace talk” often turns out to be simply a formula for managing the conflict rather than resolving it ­ a situation in which “the world continues to talk peace while Israel continues to build the wall”. With the beginning of the peace process, Raheb says, Palestinians had real hope, but in the last few years hope has evaporated. “Our vision of peace became unrealistic, justice was impossible, coexistence nothing but a myth. . . . A hopeful vision cannot be mere words, statements, or resolutions. In fact, people gave up hope because there was a clear discrepancy between what they were seeing and what they were hearing. They were hearing the false prophets say, ‘Peace, peace,’ but on the ground there was no peace. . . . Waiting, being passive, and feeling optimistic about the future ­ these are false hope”.

The world’s obliviousness to Israel’s wanton destruction of property and lives and livelihoods at Rafah, and in general to the obscene oppression that is the occupation, is stupefying. Yet, although minorities of courageous Israelis and American Jews speak out in opposition, most self-defined centrists in the U.S., both within and outside the peace movement, still do not dare confront Israeli governments in any meaningful way. Centrists have clung too long to a misguided reluctance to deviate from what the Palestinian Mitri Raheb cynically calls the false hope of “balance”, passivity, and forced optimism. By their timidity, the centrists vastly strengthen those in the U.S. and Israel whose true goal is to rid Palestine of Palestinians.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON, a former CIA political analyst, has been a freelance writer since resigning from the CIA in 1979, dealing primarily with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Her book Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy was published in 2001. A second book, The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story, was published in 2002. They can be reached at: