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By BERNIE BELLAN Ari Shavit is the kind of speaker that we just don’t get to hear very often in Winnipeg. Although a Sabra by birth, Shavit’s mastery of English is so good that not only was he able to produce mellifluous prose in what is his second language, when he addressed a crowd numbering over 600 at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Sunday, April 19, he spoke without once hesitating, even though he barely referred to his notes.


A long-time columnist for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, one might have expected that Shavit would deliver a “leftist” speech at the 10th Kanee lecture, which is produced by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. By “leftist” I mean something calling for complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (and by West Bank I’m referring to “Judea and Samaria” - if you’re a right-winger, or the “occupied territories”-  if you’re a left-winger, which is where I’d put myself on this issue.)
Instead, Shavit had what I think anyone would regard as a very moderate and reasoned approach to the issue of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Further, when it comes to his position on Iran, Shavit admitted that he is almost totally aligned with Binyamin Netanyahu’s position. Is he a hawk on Iran? I rather suppose that he would call himself a total realist.
Shavit’s talk was billed as “Is peace dead?” That may have been an eye-catching title for his talk, but it would be far too simplistic to try to report on what Shavit had to say by concluding that he came down either one side or the other in answering that question. What he did do so brilliantly, however, was place Israel as it exists in 2015 in some sort of larger historical context, explaining how the “miracle” of Israel has been to overcome huge challenges throughout its history. Shavit did make clear though that, while Israel has been able to deal successfully with past challenges, the issues confronting it today are by no means certain to be resolved equally successfully.


He began his address by referring to the affection with which he holds Canada: “I have a soft spot for Canada,” he said. “Canada has everything Israel doesn’t have - space, water, and calm.”
“The challenges facing our people,” Shavit suggested, “are almost as dramatic as ever.” But, he continued, when he contemplates the story of Israel thus far, Shavit asks himself three questions: “Why Israel? What Israel? Will Israel?”
Here is how he answered those three questions:
Why Israel? Shavit referred to the story of his great-grandfather’s coming to Israel in the 1870s (a story, by the way, that forms the first chapter of My Promised Land). Shavit’s ancestor was a well-to-do Englishman who certainly had no need to make aliyah, but who was very prescient about the coming catastrophe that was about to befall European Jewry. (And here, Shavit made clear that he was not suggesting that his great-grandfather anticipated the Holocaust; rather, he could see the darkening clouds of antijSemitism swirling over Europe and knew that things were only going to get much worse for the Jews there.)
The early Zionists, Shavit explained, had two insights: “Europe was becoming a death trap for the Jews” and “the new ‘race-based’ antiSemitism was more dangerous than the ‘religion-based’ antiSemitism.”
As far as the Zionist impulse that may have imbued people like Shavit’s great-grandfather went, however, Shavit noted that even as august a statesman as Chaim Weizmann remarked that “You don’t have to be crazy to be a Zionist – but it helps!”
Shavit went on to ask rhetorically: “Why was Israel needed, is needed, and will be needed?”
“When people today say Zionism is colonial and racist, nothing could be further from the truth,” he claimed. The Zionist project, he explained, was in no way either of those two things in its early years (although later he was careful not to deny that, more recently, Israel has taken on much more of a racist tinge in its treatment of Palestinians).
The impetus for the creation of Israel was and always will be to provide a safe haven for Jews under the threat of persecution – especially in Europe, he insisted.

Yet, turning again to the question he posed previously - “Why Israel?” - Shavit observed that “once antiSemitism subsides, Israel’s survival would be in jeopardy in a different way.” He referred to what he described as the two “G’s” that have pervaded Jewish life: Jews’ “intimate relationship with ‘God’ and the walls of the ‘ghetto’.”
Once those two elements “are gone”, Shavit predicted, “we are facing a different kind of challenge…In order to guarantee our future, we need a home for a modern, liberal Jewish identity – an Israel that is relevant and inspiring.” Yet, Shavit said, “I’m not sure Israel has been a beacon for young Jews” in recent times.
All the same, Shavit returned to his theme of the amazing success story that Israel has been. “When you look at the past 100 years you are astonished by the way walls are closing in on us, but we turn this condition of ‘living on the edge’ into an angry celebration of life.” What Israel has shown the world, he insisted, is a “vitality against all odds!”
Israel though, despite all its successes, is now confronting challenges on a series of different levels, which Shavit categorized as “internal” and “external”.
On the internal level, he observed, the most recent election “proved that one of the main problems facing Israel is how to integrate” two major outcast elements that form a large part of the Israeli population into Israeli society: “Arabs and the ultrareligious.”
At the same time, Shavit continued, there is also the issue of “social justice” – or the lack thereof, that affects the entire Israeli society. While “we have problems facing the middle class that affect all OECD (Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation) countries, we are not just another OECD country.” By this Shavit explained that he was referring to the particular plight of young people in having to deal with Israel’s extremely expensive cost of living.
“Israel has been so successful economically, but we must be worthy of their (young people’s) sacrifice,” he argued.
Another challenge facing Israel, Shavit remarked, is its “dysfunctional political system”.
“At the top is a terrible vacuum of leadership,” he claimed. Linked to that failed political system, Shavit suggested, is a lack of a “sense of purpose” in Israeli society.

Turning to the external challenges confronting Israel, above all else Shavit emphasized the threat posed by Iran: “I’ve been a proud Iran alarmist for 12 years. Iran is a great challenge to our civilization. I say give Netanyahu credit for his diagnosis.” Where Netanyahu has gone wrong though, Shavit claimed, is in making the Iranian nuclear threat an “Israel issue.”
“If Iran goes nuclear, within weeks other countries will go nuclear,” he warned. “It will change life in Europe and everywhere else…The chance of a nuclear Armageddon will have increased dramatically…The Lausanne deal does not defuse the bomb,” Shavit said. “It does set the clock back, but it also sets back the ability of the West to deal with the situation by years.”
As far as launching an attack on Iran is concerned, however, Shavit suggested there is “no need to send bombs. We have to be focused and determined.”

The other external challenge facing Israel, Shavit noted, is the “Arab chaos.”
“I’m an Israeli,” he remarked, “but I care about my Arab neighbours. I see a horrific human catastrophe in Syria, but it’s very bad also in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.”
What’s happening within the Arab world is a “mixed bag for Israel,” Shavit observed. There is “no prospect for peace with any Arab country” amidst the current upheaval yet, at the same time, “there is no Syrian army to threaten Israel.”
As far as the Palestinian issue is concerned, Shavit was emphatic that Israel has been headed down the wrong path. “My firm conviction,” he insisted, “is that the status quo is a silent killer – killing us demographically, politically, and morally.”
Nonetheless, Shavit was not willing to lay all the blame for the failure to reach a solution with the Palestinians at the feet of Israeli leaders. He pointed to the series of outbreaks of violence unleashed by Palestinian leaders following supposed breakthroughs in the peace process: In 2000, following upon the Camp David accords, Yasser Arafat triggered the most violent intifadeh to date; in 2005, following Ariel Sharon’s decision to evacuate Gaza, Hamas assumed power and we’ve seen the results of that. “All previous attempts to change the dynamic have failed,” Shavit concluded.
Later in his speech though, without getting specific, Shavit did say that “We need a new concept. We need to launch some sort of dynamic that will lead to two states. We have to work on mutual interests, such as gas pipes and water.”
“What we need is a JFK approach to Iran” (i.e. how John Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis) “and a Kissingerian approach to the Arabs” (referring to Henry Kissinger’s very realistic view of diplomacy. Ed. Note: Remember, it was Kissinger who once said that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”)

Where Netanyahu has made a serious mistake, however, was in alienating the West, Shavit suggested. “Zionism was based on the principle of ‘always capturing the moral high ground’, he noted. “We need alliances with the great powers. We are eroding that. It’s not all our fault, but we made mistakes.”
Similarly, Israel’s relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora has also eroded, Shavit said.  He admitted that “he’s amazed by your great success stories” (in the Diaspora), but there is a generational divide. People in their 30s are in a different world. They are totally torn and totally confused” (when it comes to identifying with and supporting Israel).
“The Jewish future,” Shavit predicted, “will be determined on the campuses of North America. We are risking our very existence with Israel’s present policies, which are driving away too many young Jews, who are either indifferent or hostile” to Israel.

Yet, in his closing remarks, Shavit said that he’s still an “optimist” when it comes both to the future of Israel and the future of world Jewry.
“I really believe in Jews,” he said. Yet, “we need new idea and a new spirit…We need a new Zionism; we need a renewed narrative.
“In my mind when I look at modern Jewish history,” Shavit concluded, “the Jewish story of the last 70 years is a miracle…now we need to continue making a miracle of Israel and a miracle of a perfect Diaspora.”

 

Questions and answers from
Ari Shavit’s Kanee lecture

Before Ari Shavit launched into his wide-ranging talk he told the audience that “for me the important part of the evening is the second part – listening to the people”, referring to the question and answer session that was scheduled to take place following his address. “I hope we can engage in a meaningful dialogue,” Shavit said.
The questions that followed his approximately 45-minute speech were all very well thought out and, mindful of co-host Anita Neville’s warning to any questioner not to engage in “speech” making – surprisingly direct and succinct. (That alone set this Kanee lecture apart from any other I have ever attended. As anyone who has attended a Jewish event that allows questions from the audience, there are usually at least a few questioners who insist on delivering a speech themselves.)

The first question posed to Shavit was about the threat posed by Iran and why the Obama administration seems intent on appeasing Iran rather than confronting it.
Shavit responded that “the main problem was the Iraq war”, which “wasted all America’s resources: “The knives of ISIS are horrific and barbaric,” Shavit noted, “but the (Iranian) centrifuges are a thousand times worse.”
Turning to Israel’s position regarding Iran, Shavit suggested that “up to 2009 the leadership didn’t acknowledge the problem; it made the mistake in thinking that the Mossad was the solution to the problem.”
However, he continued, “Netanyahu gets it – but he made two major mistakes: He made it an Israel issue – I would have tried to convince liberals (around the world) that it is an issue that unites them.”
Secondly, Shavit insisted that there is a linkage between the Iranian nuclear threat and “the Palestinian issue…Netanyahu was told that he must pay in a limited way. Settlement building has caused terrible damage.
“Netanyahu likes to think about Churchill,” Shavit noted, (and fashions himself in many ways as a latter-day Churchill with his lofty rhetoric and catchy turns-of-phrase). But, Shavit observed: “Churchill went to Washington and seduced the American president. Part of the price” though, “was to give up a good part of the British Empire.”
Netanyahu, in contrast, has not been willing to make similar concessions. “If you (Netanyahu) are so serious about Iran, why not rise to the challenge?” Shavit asked.
“But I’m not into the blame game,” he added.

Shavit was asked about the missile threats from Hamas and Hizbollah.
In answering, Shavit referred to his earlier assessment that “some of the old threats are gone – there is no Syrian army and the Egyptian army is too busy suppressing its own people” to loom as a threat to Israel, he observed.

As for the missile threat, Shavit was relatively sanguine. “Missiles can’t destroy Israel. In 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014 we had four asymmetrical wars. If, God forbid, there’s a third Lebanon war, it will be horrific. Tel Aviv will be hit in a big way,” but Israel will still survive.

Yet Shavit blamed Israeli policy makers for leading Israel into isolation. “We are endangering ourselves by not having enough credibility in the world,” he suggested. One of the problems Israel has is that many of the countries in the West “have such deep guilt feelings over their colonial pasts” that they can’t “address the real evils in the world”, such as Hamas.
But, in order to deal with this reality, Israel needs “to have an inspiring peace initiative so that Israel can fight a war (with Hizbollah) without immediately bringing the world’s condemnation upon it. (He referred to the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Israel had to refrain from launching a first strike and, as a result, sustained terrible casualties, all the while working to avoid alienating the American support that Israeli leaders knew would be decisive in the coming war.)
Further developing this theme, Shavit warned that “our F15s and F16s will not be able to take off when they’re needed because Israel is a pariah.”
(I might note that I’ve been making the same point for years. Israel should be engaged in “Realpolitik” rather than asserting its position on settlement building as legitimate and irrelevant to the peace process. I don’t care whether someone can find some legal justification for settlements. All that matters is how those settlements are perceived by the vast majority of nations. It’s nice to score debating points, but ultimately perception becomes reality.)

Shavit went on to analyze the types of peace Israel has enjoyed with its erstwhile adversaries, noting that actual signed peace agreements have sometimes been of less value than tacit understandings that may have preceded those signed peace agreements.
He noted, for instance, that “we need something like what Israel had with Jordan between 1970 and 1994: full cooperation but no embassies – an 85% peace…but it was more intimate than the real peace… We should try to establish the same kind of relationship with the Saudis and Morocco. It can incorporate an economic element to help Egypt, for example, use Israeli expertise to make better use of the Nile River – but none of this can happen without some movement on the Palestinian issue.”

Further expanding upon Israel’s tenuous relationship with Jordan, Shavit noted that “Jerusalem can go ballistic at any moment”, i.e. Palestinians rioting, “in which case peace with Jordan is in danger.”
Again, Shavit returned to a note that he had struck several times earlier – the importance of dealing with the Palestinians so that it can improve Israel’s stance in other areas, especially with regard to Iran. “We need to give the Palestinians more space,” he urged. “We need to contribute with minor concessions that don’t endanger Israel’s security.”

The role of certain commentators who are generally respected for their fairness, but have been critical of Israel for its criticism of the Lausanne deal, came up when someone in the audience brought up Fareed Zakaria’s criticism of Netanyahu’s stance on Iran . Shavit described Zakria’s position as an example of “brilliant people talking nonsense.”
In Shavit’s view, there “is a potential for an alliance of powers in the Middle East,” including Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, “but they feel threatened not necessarily by Obama but by intellectuals…The Middle East is a politically incorrect region,” much to the chagrin of many of those intellectuals who don’t view the region realistically, he observed.
“Egypt is the key,” he suggested. “Let’s make Egypt the pivot of the Middle East. We could make the Egyptian army the local ‘decent cop’ “ in the region, using Saudi money. “The Saudis now get it but Israel has to become more generous” (toward the Palestinians).

Someone asked Shavit about America’s turning toward China at the same time as it wants to reduce its role in the Middle East.
Shavit predicted that “if the U.S. loses the Middle East it has no chance with China. If the perception is that the U.S. gave the Middle East to Iran by abandoning its traditional alliances there, those allies will go to China and Russia” for alliances, rather than the U.S.

Turning to the difficulty Israel has had negotiating with the Palestinians, Shavit had this to say: “We must demand Israel end the occupation but, at the same time, it is time to talk to the Palestinians in a serious way.” We should say to the Palestinians: “Don’t compete with the Jews in the victimhood game…It’s time to acknowledge that there is another people on the land. We belong and we have a right.” (At this point the audience burst into applause.) “We must see them and they must see us. It’s time for the Palestinians to grow up. If they grow up we’ll finally have the peace we need.”

Someone asked Shavit about the U.N. and about Canada’s relationship with Israel.
Shavit said: “I have a lot of respect for the U.N. but more for Canada. Coalitions of the like-minded have a great role” to play, he observed.
As far as past peace efforts go, starting with the Camp David accords, Shavit had this sarcastic observation: “For the past 20 years we’ve seen attempts to impose a Scandinavian peace on the Middle East through Jeffersonian democracy.”

Shavit was asked whether he’s ever considered going into politics.
His answer:  “As for my going into politics, my beautiful, marvelous second wife says I can go into politics with my third wife!”

In his final remarks to the audience, Shavit had this to say: “We have to look at the fact that as Jews we’ve never had it so good. This is how I want to end the evening. We need to redefine ourselves and re-energize ourselves in order to define our future.”