In conversation with Uri Zaki, president of the Meretz Governing Assembly

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“Bibi Netanyahu is talented, smart, anxious and truly conservative. He genuinely believes a Palestinian state would mean the end of Israel. He is not a partner for peace.”

Uri Zaki is better qualified than many others to make such an observation, having worked as senior adviser to top peace negotiator Yossi Beilin, the man Zaki calls his “rebbe”, and having himself worked on the Geneva Initiative. He noted that Netanyahu has always blocked the progress that the Oslo Accords were meant to start, instead turning what was meant to be a 5-year interim arrangement into the current 20-year-plus status quo.

Tel Aviv-based Zaki was speaking in conversation with +61J Panel member Uri Windt. The occasion was a +61J Salon event last Monday evening, following the Limmud-Oz Festival of Jewish Ideas weekend, where Zaki had been a guest speaker in several sessions.

Answering Windt’s opening question about his personal history, Zaki revealed that although he had always been passionate about politics, he grew up in a right-wing Israeli family and at an early age became a committed Likud supporter and later, party member. It was his experience in the military, enforcing the occupation in Hebron, that changed his political views. He came to feel that “in this story we were the Greeks, not the Maccabees.”

Most in the room had heard of Meretz (Vigour), but were glad to hear some background and more detail. Zaki explained the origins of the left-wing party. The smallest Zionist party in the current Knesset, with just five seats, it was formed in 1992 from a socialist party (Mapam), a civil rights party (Ratz) and a secular, liberal party (Shinui). What they shared in common was an over-riding desire for peace. Meretz policies are not only about two states and an end to the occupation, but also encompass other issues such as women’s rights, LGBTI rights, religious freedom, the environment, legalisation of cannabis, etc. The power of the party is currently diminished, with Israeli politics moving further and further right. Reactions to the Second Intifada and changes in demography have now for many years taken their toll on support for progressive causes.

Zaki pointed out that the Meretz policy on ending the occupation is not particularly radical, but is shared by many in Israeli society. He referred to the film ‘The Gatekeepers’ (Dror Moreh 2013) in which six former heads of the Shin Bet candidly discuss the occupation. Meretz policy speaks of a two-state solution to be reached in negotiation with the Palestinians, with equal land swaps, two capitals in Jerusalem, strong security and international involvement. By default, right of return for Palestinians would be to the Palestinian state; Israel may accept a small number of returnees, selected at its discretion, and there may be compensation for others.

Asked about Israeli democracy, Zaki stated clearly that it is being eroded, and that in his opinion the continuation of the occupation is chiefly to blame. Time is not working on the side of peace or democracy. As more settlements are built, the prospects for a viable Palestinian state are reducing, along with Palestinian patience and tolerance for the cooperative approach of Abbas as leader. In Zaki’s view, Abbas, both by his words and his deeds, has consistently proved himself to be a partner for peace, not only in his choice of negotiations rather than violence, but also in his delivery of effective cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces, the importance and value of which is acknowledged across the board by Israeli military and security experts. On the other hand, he said, Netanyahu’s interest is to maintain the status quo. The Bar-Ilan speech, in which Netanyahu seemingly accepted a two-state solution, has been allowed to fade into the past. The Palestinian Authority is in fact not an an equal partner, but subject in most important respects to Israeli control, with even the Palestinian Prime Minister needing permission from Israel to travel from Ramallah to Jordan.

So is there any role for concerned Jews in the Diaspora? According to Zaki, blind support by Diaspora Jews for the actions of Israeli governments, especially by the AIPAC-led American Jewish establishment, has contributed to the continuation of the occupation. When asked what we in Australia could do to make a difference, he encouraged our active engagement and spoke about a group he represents. SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation) unites Jewish progressive forces in the Diaspora with Israeli initiatives working to end the occupation. The website of SISO points to a focus on June 2017 as marking “50 years that the Israeli democracy has maintained military rule over millions of Palestinians.” It makes the point that Uri Zaki emphasised throughout his talks in Australia, “This situation is disastrous not just for Palestinians but for Israelis as well.”

This Plus61J article may be republished with this acknowledgement: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au

Related: Progressive Jewish forces around the world need to unite

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Janet Kossy

Janet is a retired educator and counsellor who has been active in Sydney’s Inner West Jewish community. She currently works as a visual artist and group facilitator.

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