Jewish and Palestinian women are holding a hunger strike outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem to call for a renewal of peace negotiations. Members of the group Women Wage Peace have been fasting for the past month in alternating shifts, sitting in an open-air tent and inviting passersby to discuss how best to wage peace.
The group has dubbed their mission "Operation Protective Fast," a twist on "Operation Protective Edge" — Israel's military operation that left 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, dead last summer. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers. The attack destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza. Another 100,000 were damaged. None of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt so far, due in part to the ongoing Israeli blockade. Our guest for the hour suggests the best chance for achieving a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine lies with the United Nations Security Council presenting both parties with clear terms for resumed peace talks. Henry Siegman is the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation's "big three" Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Siegman was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years later, the Nazis came to power. After fleeing Nazi troops in Belgium, his family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. Siegman later became head of the Synagogue Council of America. Henry Siegman now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He spoke with Amy Goodman in late May, shortly after The New York Times published his op-ed, "Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: An alarming new report shows the infant mortality rate in Gaza has risen for the first time in more than 50 years. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees found that until now, the number of babies dying before the age of one has consistently fallen in the past five decades in Gaza.
Meanwhile, the family of an 18-month Palestinian baby and father killed in an arson attack by Jewish settlers reportedly will not be entitled to the same government compensation granted Israeli victims of terror. On Tuesday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the Israeli law governing such compensation applies only to Israeli citizens and residents, as well as West Bank settlers. Palestinian victims must apply to a special interministerial exceptions committee under the Israeli Defense Ministry. Earlier this month, thousands of mourners in the West Bank attended the funeral of the Palestinian father, Saad Dawabsheh, who succumbed to severe burn injuries just eight days after trying to save his son, Ali, from the arson attack. This is Taha Dawabsheh, a relative of the family.
TAHA DAWABSHEH: [translated] First, we condemn this ugly crime, which happened for the first time in history. People were sleeping, and the bats of the night came upon them to burn them. A toddler was killed a week ago, and his father died today. And we hope his mother and brother, Ahmed, recover in the hospital. We ask the community and all the free people of the world to help us and stand with us and our people, and we ask for protection committees for our village against the settlers.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, Jewish and Palestinian women are holding a hunger strike outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem to call for a renewal of peace negotiations. Members of the group Women Wage Peace have been fasting for the past month in alternating shifts, sitting in an open-air tent and inviting passersby to discuss how best to wage peace. The group has dubbed their mission Operation Protective Fast, a twist on Operation Protective Edge, Israel's military operation that left 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, dead last summer. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers. The attack destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza; another 100,000 were damaged. None of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt so far, due in part to the ongoing Israeli blockade. Women Wage Peace are urging Israeli cabinet and Knesset members to prioritize peace talks with Palestinians.
Well, our guest for the hour suggests the best chance for achieving a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine lies not in Netanyahu, but the United Nations Security Council, with the U.S.'s support, presenting both parties with clear terms for resumed peace talks. In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation's "big three" Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Siegman was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years later, the Nazis came to power. After fleeing Nazi troops in Belgium, his family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. He later became head of the Synagogue Council of America. After his time at the American Jewish Congress, Siegman became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project.
Amy Goodman spoke to Siegman in May, shortly after he published a piece in The New York Times called "Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations."
AMY GOODMAN: So, why don't you start off by talking about just what you are suggesting President Obama do?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, what I am suggesting he do, and what many others have suggested, as well, indeed for some time now, is that he finally act on a truth, that he understood for quite some time now—namely, that any government that is headed by Netanyahu not only is disinterested in pursuing a two-state solution, but indeed sees as its primary mission and goal, policy goal, is to prevent a two-state agreement. And he and his various governments have acted on the assumption that there is no occupation, that there may be disputes about how much land Israel has a right to annex to the state of Israel in the West Bank, but Palestinians do not have any particular right, certainly not a right greater than Israel has, to any part of the West Bank. That has been the working assumption of every government headed by Netanyahu. So for that reason, we have said for a long time to the president, in various communications and meetings with the Department of State and other—the White House over the years, that the peace process, the bilateral talks that have taken place, are all bound to fail, unless America's diplomacy is based on a recognition of this fundamental truth, that left to their own devices, Israelis will never agree—an Israeli government will never agree to a two-state solution that is remotely acceptable to the Palestinians. Consequently, it seems clear that the only way a two-state accord can be reached is if the U.N. Security Council, a third party—and of course the most reasonable third party to take the lead is the Security Council, because the various resolutions on a two-state solution adopted by the Security Council are the foundation of any peace process.
AMY GOODMAN: In March, newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to walk back his pre-election vow not to allow a Palestinian state. A day before the election, when asked if he was ruling out establishing a Palestinian state under his tenure, Netanyahu replied, quote, "Indeed." But he later tried to backtrack in an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, after tremendous international outcry.PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I haven't changed my policy. I never retracted my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. What has changed is the reality. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, refuses to recognize the Jewish state, has made a pact with Hamas that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. And every territory that is vacated today in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces. So—ANDREA MITCHELL: But they are saying—PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We want that to change, so we can realize a vision of real, sustained peace. And I don't want a—I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change.
AMY GOODMAN: In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu stressed his right-wing positions. He visited the Har Homa settlement and vowed to ramp up the construction of more settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. And he unequivocally ruled out allowing a Palestinian state, reneging on his nominal 2009 endorsement of a two-state solution. On Election Day, he also railed against Israel's Arab voters.PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in mass to the polling stations. The left-wing nonprofit organizations are bringing them in buses. Go out to the polling station, bring your friends and family, and vote Likud, in order to close the gap between us and the Labor Party. With your help and God's help, we will form a national government and protect the state of Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Prime Minister Netanyahu in his election campaigning. Henry Siegman, on the issue of Arab voters and on the issue of the two-state solution?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. Well, one has to be extremely naïve to have waited for this admission and declaration, proud declaration, by Netanyahu that he never meant it, that when he embraced the two-state solution, he was lying, since it was not true. If one had to wait until then to conclude that he really has never meant to proceed with a two-state peace accord, for the simple reason that every action taken under by his government with respect to Palestinians who live past the '67 border, every action he has taken was consistent with Israel's ultimate permanent control of all of the territories, beginning with, of course, the settlement project. How is it conceivable that a government that is serious about reaching a two-state accord, a viable two-state accord, not just for Israel, but for the Palestinians, one they could conceivably accept, cuts the ground from under that state in the most literal sense, by annexing it to the state of Israel? So, if somebody had to wait until he made that statement, I mean, that's—for diplomats, that's rather pathetic. What it really suggests is that, because they're not stupid—they may be inept, but they're not stupid. And they understood, from the beginning, that they were dealing with a prime minister who had no intention whatever of yielding Israel's control. So they had to pretend that they believed that in order for their diplomacy to go forward. Otherwise, you know, they are unemployed.
AMY GOODMAN: And his call for Jewish voters to come out to counter the Arab vote?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, well, that tells you something about his commitment to a democratic state of Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that he tried to walk—and the fact that he tried to walk back his statement against a two-state solution?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, and he reverted to his earlier diplomacy, as it were, because this has been his strategy from the very beginning, to put—he had to balance, on the one hand, his determination never to yield control over the West Bank with a public posture that enables the United States at least to pretend that a two-state solution is possible if the two parties negotiate successfully. And this, he has done wonderfully. So, the fact that he walked it back is really utterly meaningless.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Netanyahu's formation of a new government and who he has chosen to be his ministers.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Just to follow up on your previous question, the—he has now come out with a new ploy, which is—again, so wonderfully consistent with the totally dishonest approach he has had, from his very first government that he headed—to the issue of a two-state—ultimate two-state agreement. He has now proposed to the Palestinians that they sit down and negotiate the borders of the settlements. Now, on the one hand, that creates the impression that, A, he wants to negotiate—he wants a peace process—and secondly, he is open to some kind of agreement that might ultimately lead to a state, without yielding or in any way walking back his position that there is no '67 border, and consequently, there is no reason why Israel is obliged to withdraw from the territories. Now, I would hope that the Palestinians—quite clearly, they're not going to be taken in by this. But it would be interesting if they were to say, "Fine, it's a wonderful proposal, but let's do this in a fair way. Let us also discuss what we are permitted to do on your side of the '67 border, what settlements we can have there and what the borders of those settlements will be." And it's unfortunate that they have not challenged Netanyahu's government in that way.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think they haven't?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, I think it's just inept. I mean, this whole question of the eptness of Palestinian leadership is a very sad story—or I should say the ineptness of Palestinian leadership. The fact that they agreed, going back to the Olso Accords, or even going back to their—this goes back to 1988, their acceptance of Israel's legitimacy. One would have thought they would have said, at least conditionally, "We will be—we're ready to accept and declare, affirm Israel's legitimacy, if Israel is prepared to affirm the legitimacy of a Palestinian state along the pre-'67 borders." The fact that they did not do that and did not even raise the issue of settlements was a massive, massive blunder, and, I think, prepared—made it possible for Netanyahus, people like him, to play the game that they've played.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman. He's now president of the U.S./Middle East Project. We'll air more of Amy Goodman's interview with him in a minute.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That's "Palestinian Heritage" by Naseer Shamma. This isDemocracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Nermeen Shaikh. We continue our conversation with Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation's "big three" Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. Henry Siegman now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. Amy Goodman sat down with him in late May.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the issue of the ministers that—
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —Prime Minister Netanyahu has now chosen working with him. Earlier this month, he appointed Knesset member Ayelet Shaked as his justice minister. During Israel's summer 2014 attack on Gaza, she approvingly posted an article on her Facebook page that called for the destruction of, quote, "the entire Palestinian people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure."
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. Let me give you the list of appointees, ministerial and deputy ministerial appointees, beginning with Ayelet Shaked.
All of them—and there is Hotovely, who is now the deputy minister for the—of the Foreign Ministry. But since there is no foreign minister, she, in fact, will be running the Foreign Ministry. She has—the very first thing she did after her appointment was send out instructions to ambassadors, Israeli ambassadors across the world, to inform governments to which they have been assigned that the Bible specifically quotes God granting all of Palestine to the Jews, and consequently, the state of Israel will retain all of Palestine, because it follows the word of God. That's Hotovely.
Then there is Shaked, and you have just the minute—this is the minister of justice. This is her concept of justice, how to deal with the Palestinians.
Then there's Miri Regev, who was appointed the minister of culture. And her very first public statement in that capacity was that she just looks forward anxiously to—it's the term she used—to censor the work of the artistic community and to prevent them from creating art that insults the state of Israel. That's the minister of culture.
Then there's the minister—the deputy minister of defense, Eli Dahan. Now, all of these appointments, every single one of them, is on record as opposing a two-state solution, a lifelong record of opposition to a two-state solution. And Dahan is the one who thought, along with his minister, the full minister of defense, both of them thought it's a wonderful idea to have Palestinians limited to separate buses, the ones who live in the West Bank and travel to Israel, and not to permit them to travel in the same buses that Israeli Jews travel in. So that's Dahan.
Then he appointed a Silvan Shalom as the new head of the—the new chief of peace negotiations, should they resume—again, a person who is on record as bitterly opposed to a two-state solution. And on and on. He just—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let's talk about Dore Gold, who is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
HENRY SIEGMAN: And there's Dore Gold, exactly, exactly, who is now the new director of the Foreign Ministry. And he, too, has a lifelong record of total opposition to a Palestinian state.
AMY GOODMAN: And extremely hawkish on Iran.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, when you look at that, you look at a government that is made up of people who are either racists, out-and-out racists, and people who are totally opposed to a two-state agreement, while at the same time being opposed to granting Palestinians in the West Bank Israeli citizenship. You somehow can't avoid this terrible realization that this state of Israel, that the Jewish people has prayed for, has supported, has seen as a historic change in the situation of Jews worldwide, has a government that is a racist government.
On my way down here, I recalled that some years ago—I think about 15 years ago—the Austrian government formed a new government that included the head of a right-wing political party, Haider. And the American Jewish community, as well as every organization in Europe, led a global campaign to convince governments to boycott that government because of that one racist and an extreme nationalist, a xenophobe, who was in that government. And, in fact, Europe, the European Union, decided to boycott him.
Here we have a government that has at least a half a dozen xenophobes, right-wing nationalists and racists....