Shaqued Morag is the executive director of Peace Now, an Israeli organization that says the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own, and that its creation would be in Israel’s best interest in order to increase security and prosperity and also to maintain the Zionist vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The CJN spoke with her on May 17 in Toronto.
Has anything changed in the situation since you took over last July that makes you more or less optimistic?
The right-wing government is working to promote the goals of the settlement movement. If I say I would compromise on some of the land in order to maintain a Jewish and democratic state, I think that the settlers would rather compromise on the democratic characteristic of the state in order to maintain the hold over the land. If we wish to possess all the territories from the Jordan River to the sea, knowing that there are almost three million Palestinians living in the West Bank under our occupation, either we continue occupying them or declare that it’s ours and not give them equal rights, such as voting. This compromises the very basic idea of a democratic state.
Or, if you let them vote, and this is not what most of the settlers intend to do, you might lose the Jewish majority and therefore in the long-term you might lose the Jewish character of the state. Its very definition is a homeland for the Jewish people. So in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, I am willing to give Palestinians the land. At the same time, the settlers don’t want to give them the land, they want to keep the land, and the price will be compromising on the democracy.
Some people dispute the term occupation. Why do you think it’s the right word to use?
I don’t use it all the time, sometimes I use military control or military possession. It’s not debated that Israel is possessing the territory in one way or another. Some people don’t like the word occupation because they say it didn’t belong to another state before. I disagree, but I don’t think this is the right debate to have. The question is, what is the situation of the people who live in that territory, and the legal situation is that they are under a military regime. The high authority in this area is the high commander of the IDF. The civil administration of the Palestinians is controlled by the Israeli Ministry of Defence. They’re not citizens in the full meaning of the word. They are a population under military control. I don’t insist on the terminology, I insist on recognizing the reality that they don’t have the same rights as we do.
What about people who say that every time Israel has given up land or defensive position, it always backfires?
First, it’s not true. We gave huge amounts of land to the Egyptians, who used to be the biggest force in the Middle East. Many opponents said you cannot give them the territory because they will use it against us, they will place their forces all along the new border line and try to gain more land. Even though 40 years have passed, and the army now governs Egypt, they still don’t use the land in order to attack us. They respect the peace treaty and apparently it serves both sides. And that is the key.
If you have an agreement and giving land is done bilaterally, as part of a dia-logue, then you’re more likely not to get attacked afterwards. When we left Leba-non, which was by the way justified in my opinion, but it was not maybe the most practical way to do it, we did not sign anything with anyone. We just withdrew. The same goes for Gaza. How can you expect the other side to respect you if you don’t respect them, you don’t have dialogue with them, you don’t let them be heard in your political decision process?
Do you think there’s Palestinian political will or desire to have that dialogue at the moment?
Last September I was invited by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to lead a delegation of Israeli peace activists to his office and meet with him. This was one of the latest examples of them signaling that they are for peace and they are waiting for a serious attempt from our side, too. He said that he suggested many opportunities for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sit and talk, but Netanyahu wouldn’t respond. That’s what Abbas is saying, I’m not talking in his name, but it sounds quite convincing that if Abbas is making an effort to host us and to let us hear this message then he is willing to actually do it. He said many other statements that were quite encouraging for me, such as he does not wish to have his own army. He says, “I don’t want to buy aircraft and tanks, I’d prefer to have more hospitals and schools.” I believe him, that he prefers a normal life for his people over another chance to attack us.
Do you think there is the political will or desire on the Israeli side?
There are two challenges. One is that the right-wing government and settler movement is campaigning against the chances for peace, portraying the Palestinians as non-partners, talking about the terror and presenting it as an outcome of the Palestinian leadership, while the reality is that the Palestinian leadership is constantly co-ordinating its operations with the Israeli security system in order to prevent terror. When the prime minister talks, he only says the families of terrorists get social security money so terror is encouraged. But in fact many efforts are done in order to prevent terror. So this is misinformation and disinformation.
There is also a lack of knowledge within the younger generation. If you see the school maps, for example, the Green Line is absent. Children are not told that part of the map is not sovereign Israel, was never declared as part of Israel. They are basically shown maps of the entire land and told there are nine million Israelis. There is no mention of the five million Palestinians, in Gaza and the West Bank, that are also part of the picture. Nobody talks about them, so the only times they get to hear about them is terror attacks, even though the head of Shin Bet said only 2,000 out of the almost three million Palestinian people in the West Bank are in some way or another engaged with terrorism.
So there is lots of misinformation, disinformation and lack of knowledge within the Israeli people, and we try to fight that. This is the main challenge and why Israelis don’t feel the urgency to push for peace – because in fact the lives of most Israelis are quite normal. We don’t sense the presence of the Palestinians. They don’t attack us, they don’t fire missiles from the West Bank, we just don’t know they’re there. Peace Now tries to fight that, we try to bring the information to the people and let the people decide the true reality.
How can Jews in the Diaspora meaningfully criticize or have an impact on Israeli policy they disagree with? People say you just need to support Israel, not everything that Israel does, but then they don’t actually change their behaviour based on what Israel does.
You can love Israel and still be critical of it. I have this position living in Israel – my brother served in the army, I served in the army, I am a patriot, I’m a Zionist and I still have lots of criticism of the government’s policies. Why doesn’t the Jewish world try to do the same? If there is criticism, I don’t think it should be silenced.
Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that America loves Israel to death, so much love that it lets Israel do whatever the current leadership wishes. Eventually it might lead to the end of Israel, because in the end it will be either non-democratic or non-Jewish, if it continues on this path. So loving Israel, sometimes you must save it from its own leaders. Supporting political groups in Israel and not only supporting Israel’s chosen elected government is something that Jewish communities must consider more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.