Viewpoint Article by Zionist Council of Victoria President, Dr Danny Lamm
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel is freezing construction and permits for new settlements in Yehuda and Shomron for a period of ten months, it signalled a huge turnaround for the Likud leader and the undertaking yet again by an Israeli Prime Minister of a major concession for peace.
PM Netanyahu said, “My cabinet authorized this far reaching step because of our deep desire for peace. We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations to reach a historic peace agreement that will finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.”
Not surprisingly, the Palestinian leadership reacted swiftly and negatively to the announcement. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official who also serves as a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, used the development to step up its rhetorical attacks on Israel, accusing Netanyahu’s government of “political maneuvering” and “deception”.
The PA is also furious with the Obama administration for welcoming the decision as a step forward toward resuming the peace process in the Middle East.
So can a halt to settlement construction lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Are Israeli settlements an impediment to the peace process? Those were the questions debated last night, when the Zionist Council of Victoria presented a community debate about how settlements affect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, if at all.
The debaters came from a variety of backgrounds, political affiliations and organisations within our community, reflecting the myriad of opinion that makes up Zionism in Melbourne.
This multitude of opinion in turn reflects the range of opinion within the Zionist Council of Victoria.
Within this broad political spectrum some staunchly believe that on the one hand, settlements are the ultimate obstacle to peace and on the other, that they are just used as a guise for much larger issues.
The issue may seem simple if settlements were just dismantled and the Israelis who live there uprooted, peace would ensue. Experience with the Gaza disengagement has shown that to be a simplistic view. Others say that Israel is a democratic nation state that has the right to inhabit any area of the country it wishes.
Yet the settlement issue is far more complex than the arguments for and against.
The media in particular presents a skewed portrayal and very often, half-truths about settlements and settlers. Just one example was a recent totally biased report on ’60 Minutes’ in which settlers were demonised as hateful, gun-toting extremists.
In our dealings with Israel advocacy, the hype surrounding the stereotyped depiction of the settlement issue has been one sided and utterly biased.
Therefore, it is highly appropriate to have a debate about Israeli settlements. A forum such as a debate can serve to open the issue to discussion and help debunk the myths and misinformation surrounding this complicated and thorny issue.
While some might argue that dissent and disunity portray a weakness within our community, it is important to understand that debate and discussion are its very strengths. They lead to better, more sustainable decisions. They help to build majority support for a proposal. And they are part of how we talk to one another as we search for common ground.
The fact is that the Zionist Council presents a range of opinion, views and approaches to Israel, its politics and the various issues affecting Israeli society. It is part of our mandate to reflect the range of opinion we represent. Moreover, it can be seen as a responsibility we owe the community.
Local Zionism is certainly tough enough and sufficiently secure to undergo the scrutiny of our community’s own questions and criticisms.
Just as in Israeli society and its intense, robust media, massive debate surrounds the settlement issue (not to mention every other issue under the sun) it can only be a positive thing that we pursue that debate here.
Contrary to the repeated publication of letters and articles, the emergence of blogs and websites contending that our Jewish communal leadership stifles pluralist voices and debate, here is a controversial and important topic that presents the perfect opportunity for our community to debate.
Certainly, such debate on the Palestinian side is sorely lacking amongst the Palestinian leadership, in both the Palestinian and Arab media, as well as amongst local pro-Palestinian groups.
Ultimately, Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges that the settlement debate needs to be put to the test.
As Netanyahu said when announcing the freeze: “We have been told by many friends that once Israel takes the first step towards peace, the Palestinians and the Arab world would respond positively with steps of their own to create a virtuous cycle of goodwill. Well, the government of Israel is taking a very big and difficult step toward peace today. I hope that the Palestinians and the Arab world will seize this opportunity to work with us to forge a new beginning and a new future for our children and for their children.”
The Zionist Council of Victoria website is www.zcv.org.au