In Pursuit of Peace in the Middle East

An Israeli peace activist and former politician discusses the conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.


Within the tumultuous world of Israeli politics, Naomi Chazan has been a remarkably steady voice for peace and civil rights throughout her thirty-year career. As a young professor of African Studies in the 1970s, she was one of the first Israelis to denounce her country’s growing alliance with apartheid South Africa. In 2004, she broke ranks with many of her allies in the Israeli peace camp by opposing Ariel Sharon’s policy of acting unilaterally in Gaza and the West Bank. In between, she served in the Israeli Knesset as a member of the leftist Maaretz Party from 1992 and 2003, helped found several women’s organizations, and participated in the drafting the 2003 Geneva Accord, a detailed blueprint for a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

Chazan’s most recent peace initiative is the International Women’s Commission, which she co-founded last year. Like the Israeli and Palestinian activists who drafted the Geneva Accord in 2003, the Israeli and Palestinian women on the IWC are putting forth their own proposed solutions to the conflict that has roiled their region for four generations. Among other things, the IWC has called for Palestinian statehood and a greater role for women in the negotiations process. After the group met with Condoleezza Rice this past May, Chazan explained its significance to a reporter: “In a situation where everyone is claiming there is no partner, you have Palestinian, Israeli and international women working together with one voice.”

Mother Jones recently talked to Chazan to get her take on the current crises in Gaza and Lebanon, on the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and on the beliefs that have kept her firmly rooted in the peace camp for all these years.

Mother Jones: How do the current conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon relate to Israeli domestic politics? Are Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz trying to bolster their own popularity by bearing down so hard on Hezbollah?

Naomi Chazan: I’m not sure that that’s their motive but definitely I think the immediate result—and I stress the immediate result—has been to strengthen support within Israel for both Olmert and Peretz. How long that’s going to last I don’t know: it depends on the outcome of the war.

MJ: A poll from last week showed that roughly 86 percent of Israelis support their country in Lebanon. From your perspective in Israel at the moment, does that seem accurate?

NC: Yes, but that was last weekend. And you know there’s a dynamic to these things. Initially when you’re attacked, there’s solidarity, but that begins to erode as it becomes more difficult to explain what the policy is, what results it’s bringing and why it’s not succeeding.

A week ago on Sunday there was the first demonstration against the war, and maybe 500 people attended. Last night there was another demonstration and you could add another zero to that number. And if this continues much longer, the opposition will gather momentum. We’ve been there before; we know this process quite well. In the first week and ten days you heard almost no criticism; now you’re getting a substantial number of op-eds and even opponents of the war appearing on television. So slowly the solid wall of support is beginning to crack.

MJ: Have you helped organize any of the recent peace protests?

NC: No, but I’ve been in them!

MJ: And the public reception of those protests has been warming?

NC: I think that people are more and more open to stopping, at least, and thinking, because the Israeli military is bombing Lebanon indiscriminately and it’s not leading to anything. When you start to realize that there’s no military solution—and people should have realized that from the start—then the question is how we extricate ourselves from the situation. Some people feel that Israel has to step up military action. I think that’s ridiculous and silly. It’s beyond ridiculous; it’s totally untenable. But if there’s no military solution you have to explore diplomatic options and when you explore diplomatic options, things begin to look different.

MJ: And surely no one wants to see Israel re-occupy Lebanon for long? Israel’s 18 years of occupation there seem a bit like your Vietnam—something no one wants to see repeated.

NC:Yes, that’s right… That’s something that—though it may sound odd—I think is almost a restraining factor, even though the situation doesn’t seem to be very restrained. No, there’s absolutely no desire to re-occupy Lebanon among the public.

MJ: Can you explain what you think the Israeli government is doing in Gaza right now? What are its aims?

NC: I think once again we’re getting this knee-jerk military reaction to try to stop the rocket attacks on southern Israel through the use of military force and not by dealing with the root cause of what’s going on. I actually see the situation in Gaza as much more serious than the one in Lebanon; Lebanon is at least getting attention, but the fighting in Gaza is going on full force.

MJ: You wrote in February of 2005 that unless a “concerted effort” were made to resume negotiations within a few months, “the door will close firmly on a workable two-state option.” Do you think that has happened?

NC: No, but I extend my hope because I keep being active. We established the International Women’s Commission and I actually believe that out of this mess that we’re in now it’s still the only solution; I don’t think that any alternative is viable or feasible. But the situation is getting increasingly complex. We need a much more concerted effort, and as of now, none has been made.

MJ: And you think that the window of opportunity could soon close because of the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements and the dismantling of Palestinian infrastructure?

NC:Yes. Although in a sense, the withdrawal from Gaza and popular support in Israel [for measures such as the construction of the barrier on the West Bank] has already created a de facto separation between Israelis and Palestinians. But that is different from a negotiated solution. The current separation is not on the [pre-1967] boundaries, it’s not agreed upon by both sides, and it doesn’t settle some of the hard issues like Jerusalem.

Still, most Israelis are definitely willing to give up more settlements or even all of the settlements for a negotiated end to the conflict. So somewhere deep down, what’s going on there is, I think, a rational voice, a voice of reason, saying that it’s possible.

MJ: Do you think the principles embodied in the Geneva Accord—including Palestinian statehood within the pre-1967 boundaries, a limited right of return for refugees, and the disbanding of all terrorist organizations—are alive and well and will remain the ones that define a final agreement?

NC: If there is a negotiated agreement, those principles will probably be the model for it.

MJ: The alternative would be a one-state solution—that is, the creation of a single, bi-national Palestinian-Israeli state. And this idea is reportedly gaining popularity among Palestinians. Do you think that it is viable?

NC: No, I don’t see that as being viable. It’s not an immediate solution. It brings no respite. And frankly it’s a way of avoiding figuring out what to do tomorrow morning. What we have to do is find a way out of the conundrum. Finding a way out of the conundrum means giving full and equal sovereign rights to the Palestinians alongside Israel, to be done within a state framework. What happens in 30 years is a different issue.

MJ: What is the status of the peace movement in Israel right now, vis-à-vis the occupation? Does it have any traction, given the present crisis and the Hamas victory before that?

NC: It doesn’t have as much traction as I’d like to see. But I think in a sense, the Lebanese situation, and the Gaza situation before it, has ignited some awakening. [The movement] is still malformed but I’m beginning to feel a momentum which I can’t say that I felt six months ago.

MJ: It seems like the traditional parameters of the Israeli left are shifting these days—some people supported Sharon’s withdrawal even though it was unilateral, now others support the attacks on Lebanon. Have these events changed the composition of the Israeli peace movement?

NC: I think what happened is that initially the disengagement from Gaza actually shrunk the peace camp and put it in a bind. The more mainstream peaceniks supported [Sharon’s plan] and frankly didn’t understand the connection between unilateralism and the perpetuation of occupation and conflict—because unilateralism is by definition coercive and therefore cannot be a mechanism for achieving any kind of resolution. I think that in a sense the Lebanese situation, on top of what’s going on in Gaza, has underlined the fact that unilateralism is not the way to go; one has to sit down to negotiate.

MJ: Now on the other side, what about the Palestinian left? Are you working with the same people now that you did years ago?

NC: Many of the same, though not all, as well as many new ones. On the women’s front, the biggest breakthrough we’ve had is the creation of International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Israeli and Palestinian Peace. This commission is composed of 20 leading Palestinian women, 20 Israeli women, and 20 international women who are really devoted to a negotiated settlement, the end of the occupation and a just two-state solution. This doesn’t include all of the Palestinian women’s leadership but it’s a substantial portion. It doesn’t extend to Hamas. And on the Israeli side it extends to the Labor Party but not much further into the mainstream. But it’s a very hopeful beginning to something much more serious and can maybe offer a different perspective.

MJ: With regard to these commissions, what is it that women can do alone that they can’t in a mixed-gender group?

NC: First, I think it produces a tendency to try to analyze the situation and try to see how it can be resolved without necessarily a resort to the use of force. Number two is to think of the kinds of solutions that will encompass the entire population, over fifty percent of which is women.

MJ: You have seen the light on so many issues over the years that have confused or divided other segments of the left. You were ahead of everyone else on criticizing Israel’s alliance with apartheid South Africa in the 1970s. In hindsight that may seem like an obvious decision, but it wasn’t at the time and nor was the decision not to support unilateralism. What are the principles you have applied to each of these new developments in order to decide where you stand?

NC: It’s always the same principles: The basic right of human beings to live in peace and dignity. That your own freedom cannot come at the expense of others. Tolerance and respect for the other; tolerance and respect of yourself.

As for the Gaza withdrawal, I was really very uncomfortable with unilateral disengagement. I’m for withdrawal from the occupied territories. I’m for dismantling of the settlements. But I felt that any withdrawal that wasn’t a springboard to negotiations was a terrible mistake. It’s still a terrible mistake. If you want a settlement, you have to talk to the other side. The trouble with the disengagement in Gaza is that it made Palestinians invisible; it was coercive, and you cannot make the other side invisible and expect any peace or quiet.

MJ: So you would prefer to see Israel rely much less on military solutions?

NC: I think that in a sense, the key quest should be for some normality—letting people live normal lives. I think that’s what Israelis want, I think that’s ultimately what Palestinians want, and I think it’s what Lebanese want. If we can use that as a guide to the way we act and treat each other, that’s not a bad way to go.

MJ: How do you counter the Israeli government’s claim that it has the right to defend itself?

NC: I don’t argue the point of whether it’s right to defend yourself: the question is how you do it. I believe that the best defense for Israel is to negotiate. You don’t have to argue whether you have the right to defend yourself, the question is how you put yourself into a situation where you have to do so, and what you can do to avoid those situations.

MJ: You’ve spent a lot of time addressing American audiences. Do you find Americans receptive to this idea?

NC: Audiences are sort of self-selected; anyone coming to hear me probably agrees with me already. But I found I was making a dent in the American Jewish community, definitely. And I don’t think what I’m saying is unreasonable or in any way radical.

MJ: Do you find that the Jewish Diaspora in the United States is more hawkish on Israeli foreign policy than the Israeli public?

NC: Yes, but it’s more liberal on domestic issues. And therefore you can sometimes speak to the very progressive strain that exists in the American Jewish community in matters other than Israeli foreign policy. You can then suggest that these same principles and values be extended to the debate over Israel.

MJ: A lot of people here and in the Arab world argue that the United States is losing its influence over Israel. Do you agree with that? And if that’s so, can enough pressure be generated within Israel to broker an agreement with the Palestinians and in Lebanon?

NC: That’s a very good question. There’s an element of American foreign policy now that could be very dangerous because of its implication that the conflict in Lebanon can extend to Syria and other areas and that’s exactly what we don’t want to happen. We don’t want to extend the conflict, we want to contain it and then resolve it. So there are certain dangers. But on the other hand, Condoleezza Rice has in the last few hours been talking almost from the International Women’s Commission talking points and that is go back to the root causes, go back to the negotiations. And that is important. I think Israel cannot afford to be totally isolated; it has to pay attention to the United States.