You Can’t Go Home Again

Blame Thomas Wolfe and his problems with his hometown, Asheville, up in the tired mountains of North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains. Those mountains are aptly named. Asheville is that quiet town where they locked up Zelda Fitzgerald in that private hospital after she went quite mad, and Wolfe’s big thing was loss – you go out in the world and learn things, and see things, and do things – and you become what you were meant to be, for better or worse – and sooner or later you can’t go home again. That’s what people remember him saying.

And he had a point. Home, you see, is where everyone is still stuck in the past, nursing old grievances or rehearsing old triumphs and whatnot. Go ahead, go visit. You’ll be sorry. You’ll see these people you once thought you knew for what they really always were, and it will make you so very sad. You had it all wrong all along, and now it doesn’t matter anyway. Yes, Wolfe was probably the kind of guy who never went to high school reunions. What’s the point? And that makes him typical of the American novelists of his time – as with Scott Fitzgerald and his Gatsby, it’s all about the foolishness of trying to hold onto what never was. It’s very American – see the Doobie Brothers singing about What a Fool Believes. Maybe they were singing about Gatsby and his Daisy Buchanan.

But trying to hold onto what never was is what we do – it’s a national trait. It’s not just Republicans – old and angry white men – wishing it were 1958 in America again, and we were all in an episode of Leave It to Beaver, or the Tea Party crowd demanding “their America” back. What America? They can’t exactly say, but they want it back. But it’s also those on the left, stuck in the sixties, perhaps at Woodstock – even if they weren’t there. You do remember Hendricks and Sly and Dylan, when he was pure, of course – and remember Janis Joplin singing Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz and remember smirking. But as Joni Mitchell sang, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Well, they did – it’s down on the corner here. You can’t go home again.

And that brings us to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how we’re dealing with it. No, really. That too is about going home again, and trying to hold onto what never was, only in this case it is East Jerusalem. And there’s some interesting new context, summarized by Time’s Joe Klein:

The passage of health care reform has, rightly, stolen most of the media oxygen this week, but there’s also been a visit from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, despite an eloquent (if wrong-headed) speech to the AIPAC lobbyists, this has not been a very successful week for him. As the Times points out today, Netanyahu has faced setbacks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have refused to bend in their dispute over Israel’s illegal settlements; meanwhile, the British Foreign Minister David Miliband – who is Jewish – announced that Britain had expelled an Israeli diplomat because of the use of false British passports by the assassins – likely Mossad agents – who killed a Hamas operative in Dubai last month. (Add: And, of course, there is the fact that the US military, led by General David Petraeus, has gone public with its belief that Israel’s intransigence on settlements is endangering American troops in the field.)

Netanyahu is getting hammered, and is maintaining that East Jerusalem – and all of Jerusalem – is their land. Everyone knows that. They can build there. They should build there. We want him to freeze the building of settlements for now, to get some sort of peace talks started, and to protect our troops from needlessly pissed off Muslim fanatics. He’s feeling very put-upon.

And Klein is right – the healthcare stuff has taken center stage. But there are other factors that Glenn Greenwald points out here – Wolf Blitzer is Jewish and a former AIPAC official and has frequently “been accused” of pro-Israel bias. And MSNBC’s David Gregory is Jewish and “studies Jewish texts with a top Jewish educator in Washington” and so on. Covering healthcare reform is safer for those two, and many others, as Greenwald explains.

Still you cannot avoid the story, and have to report the unpleasantness between America and Israel. And this Reuters item sums up the issues as of Wednesday, March 24:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was poised to end a troubled U.S. visit on Wednesday without settling a dispute with the White House over Jewish housing construction in occupied East Jerusalem.

In a flurry of meetings throughout the day, U.S. and Israeli officials scrambled to put together a package of goodwill gestures that President Barack Obama hoped could persuade Palestinians to return to peace talks.

But Israeli sources said Netanyahu could not finalize any confidence-building measures until he presented them to his Cabinet. He leads a coalition government dominated by pro-settler parties, including his own.

Palestinians have demanded a complete settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war – or no one will sit down to talk about anything. And Netanyahu, who was due to fly home late on Wednesday, said that accepting those terms for reviving negotiations, the proposed US-mediated, indirect talks, could put everything on hold for another year, or forever. And he has pledged not to slow down building Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem – he has wide public support at home for that, and anyway, all Israeli governments since 1967 have done this sort of thing. It’s just not fair. And you can go home again:

Citing biblical and historical links, Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, a claim that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they hope to create in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And Israel earlier on that Wednesday confirmed plans for a further expansion of the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, with more building approved that day. And it’s not trying to hold onto what never was, unless you read Fred Kaplan and his brief reality check:

It is worth noting, for instance, that every nation or international entity that has taken a position on the issue – except for Israel – regards East Jerusalem, at least formally, as “occupied territory.” Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but no other country recognized the move. U.N. Resolution 478, passed soon after, declared the annexation to be in violation of international law and thus “null and void.” (The Security Council passed the resolution with no dissent; even the United States merely abstained.)

And that bumps up against the Palestinian right of return – the notion “that Palestinian refugees, both first-generation refugees and their descendants, have a right to return to the property they left or which they were forced to leave in the former British Mandate of Palestine (currently Israel and Palestinian territories), as part of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, a result of the 1948 Palestine War and due to the 1967 Six-Day war.”

It has been argued that this is an inalienable and basic human right, generally, and applies specifically to the Palestinians under international law. And it sort of does – and if you choose not to return, or return is not exactly feasible, you should receive compensation of some sort. The government of Israel says nope, that is a political claim to be resolved as part of a final peace settlement, and they might talk about it later, or not.

But in any case, during the Six-Day War there was the Palestinian exodus – 280,000 to 350,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights as a result of that war, and half of them were refugees from the first 1948 war, fleeing a second time. The United Nations UN General Assembly Resolution 194 passed on December 11, 1948 recognized the right of return. But that was under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter – only a recommendation. But Israel wasn’t pleased:

Israel has always contested this reading, pointing out that the text merely states that the refugees “should be permitted” to return to their homes at the “earliest practicable date” and this recommendation applies only to those “wishing to… live at peace with their neighbors”. In particular, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, insisted in an interview with the members of the Conciliations Commission that as long as Israel could not count on the dedication of any Arab refugees to remain “at peace with their neighbors” – a consequence, he contended, of the Arab states’ unwillingness to remain at peace with the state of Israel – resettlement was not an obligation for his country.

The Global Policy Forum says, however, there is international customs and law:

It is a generally recognized principle of international law that when sovereignty … over an area changes hands, there is a concurrent transfer of responsibility for the population of that territory. Therefore it cannot be argued that Palestinians … no longer had any rights with regard to the country in which they had lived simply because of a change in the nature of the … government in that territory.

And of course expulsion or prevention from return results in statelessness, and Article 15 of the UN Declaration stipulates that “everyone has the right to a nationality.” On the other hand there is no formal mechanism in international law to demand repatriation of refugees and their descendants, and no international legislation or binding UN resolutions or agreements between Israel and the Palestinians that require any of this return stuff. It’s just a notion.

Maybe you can’t go home again, or only some people get to go home again. And that leads to Lara Friedman and Daniel Seidemann in Foreign Policy with Jerusalem, Settlements, and the “Everybody Knows” Fallacy:

Throughout the past week the world has heard Israeli government officials and their allies in the US – particularly among the pro-settler crowd – defending construction in East Jerusalem settlements on the grounds that “everybody knows” these areas will always be part of Israel.

The “everybody knows” argument is familiar. Those in the peace camp often say that everybody knows what an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement looks like. Their point being: all that is needed is the political will of courageous leaders to work out the final, hardest details and sign the treaty.

But these two argue that the “everybody knows” meme has been “cynically appropriated” by Netanyahu and his supporters, and they don’t like it much:

“Everybody knows these areas in East Jerusalem will always be Israel,” they say, “so when the Palestinians (and the Americans) make a fuss about new construction plans, it is just for political purposes, not because there is any real issue.”

Those peddling this rubbish are guilty of transparent manipulation. Those buying it are guilty of having short memories and an excess of credulity.

And here’s the history:

In 1993, when the peace process was taking off, the settlement of Ramat Shlomo – which last week caused such a headache for Vice President Biden – didn’t exist. The site was an empty hill in East Jerusalem (not “no man’s land,” as some have asserted), home only to dirt, trees and grazing goats. It was empty because Israel expropriated the land in 1973 from the Palestinian village of Shuafat and made it off-limits to development. Only later, with the onset of the peace process era, was the land zoned for construction and a brand-new settlement called Rehkes Shuafat (later renamed Ramat Shlomo) built.

If in 1993 you had asked what areas “everybody knows” would stay part of Israel under any future agreement, the area that is today Ramat Shlomo – territorially distinct from any other settlement and contiguous with the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat – would not have been mentioned.

But now we have the argument that “everybody knows” this area will forever be part of Israel. That seems to go for any empty land “devoid of Israelis, belonging mainly to Palestinians, and contiguous entirely with Palestinian areas – that anybody drawing a logical border would have placed on the Palestinian side.”

And this does us no good:

American pundits and members of Congress may be unfamiliar with or may have forgotten these inconvenient facts, but the Palestinians – who have watched Israel eat away at East Jerusalem at an increasing pace – have not.

Some will argue that these are the facts on the ground today, and the fact is that Israel will never part with the big East Jerusalem settlements. So regardless of sins of the past, why make a fuss about new construction in them?

But it might be wise to take a closer look at what Netanyahu means when he talks about what “everybody knows.”

Because if he meant that everybody understands what will be Israeli and what will be Palestinian in Jerusalem, this would potentially be great news: it could mean an agreement is possible, at least on Jerusalem, tomorrow. And if that were what he meant, then just as he suggests that Israel can build without restrictions in the areas that “everybody knows” will stay Israeli, he would have no problem with Palestinians building without restrictions in the areas that everyone knows will be Palestinian.

But there’s the catch: for Netanyahu, there is no place in Jerusalem that “everybody knows” will be Palestinian.

What Netanyahu really means is that East Jerusalem land falls into two categories: areas that “everybody knows” Israel will keep and where it can therefore act with impunity, and areas that Israel hopes it can keep, by dint of changing so many facts on the ground before a peace agreement is reached that they move into the first category.

What it comes down to is that the status of Jerusalem and its borders “will be determined by Israeli deeds rather than by negotiations.” They have the land now and the Palestinians can go pound sand, literally, and the idea is “to transform areas of East Jerusalem that have always been overwhelmingly Palestinian into areas that everybody will soon recognize as Israeli, now and forever.”

And this might explain the Obama administration’s position:

The notion that a peace process can survive such an Israeli approach in Jerusalem is not rational. The notion that Israel can be taken seriously as a peace partner while acting this way is farcical. And the notion that the United States can be a credible steward of peace efforts while tolerating such behavior is laughable.

But other than that, we stand behind Israel. Maybe we should hand out copies of Tom Wolfe novels to the Palestinians and copies of the Doobie Brothers singing What a Fool Believes to the Israelis.

But there are views other than that of Netanyahu, like Leon Wieseltier and this meditation on the plight of dispossessed Palestinians living in East Jerusalem:

In the name of justice, one may destroy peace, and forget that peace, too, is an element of justice. The idea of beginning again is often a savage idea. Since the Palestinian right of return, and its premise that restoration is preferable to reconciliation, would undo the Jewish state, Israel is right to deny it. But if, in the name of moral realism, and so that they do not delude themselves with catastrophic fantasies of starting over, Palestinians are not to be granted a right to return to what was theirs before 1948, then neither should such a right be granted to Jews.

Everyone wants to go home, usually to a place that never was:

But the lunatic Jews who insist that a Jew must live anywhere a Jew ever lived do not see that they, too, are re-opening 1948 and the legitimacy of what it established. Why does the Israeli government allow the argument for a unified Jerusalem to be mistaken for the heartless revanchism of these settlers? Whatever arrangements about Jerusalem are eventually made in a peace agreement, and I no longer expect to see one in my lifetime, Jerusalem will remain both the capital of Israel and a demographically mottled city.

It makes no sense to show contempt for the people with whom you are destined to live. It is not only cruel, it is stupid. So the dispossession of the El Ghawis is a disgrace. And a Jewish disgrace, because it was Simon the Just, the legendary leader buried in an ancient cave not far from the El Ghawis’ house, who famously taught that one of the things which supports the world in existence is the practice of kindness.

And see Matthew Yglesias on Sovereignty and Dignity:

This is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that the demand for unequivocal Israeli sovereignty over a unified Jerusalem will, in fact, lead to the continued dispossession and disempowerment of Palestinians. The basic logic of the case shouldn’t be too hard to accept – after all, the point of Zionism is precisely that Jews shouldn’t count on the sufferance of gentiles for their welfare. If the 1967-2010 record did in fact support the proposition that Arabs living in Jerusalem would be well-treated by the Israeli government, then that not only would have been better for the Palestinians but it would also mean that the ideological demand for Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem might not be so problematic. The actual facts of the matter, however, are quite damning – as Wieseltier both knows and details – and they fully explain why Palestinians reasonably demand that predominantly Palestinian areas be made part of Palestine.

But you can’t go home again, only the Israelis can. Or maybe Tom Wolfe was right. No one can go home again, really.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in America and Israel, Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli Settlements, Palestinian Right of Return and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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