Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2005, pages 49, 51

Northwest News

Brit Tzedek’s Marcia Freedman Discusses Role of American Jewish Community

By Sister Elaine Kelley

Marcia Freedman (c) with Doug and Sue Willbanks of Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights (AUPHR) at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon (staff photo E. Kelley).

FORMER ISRAELI Knesset member Marcia Freedman, now president of the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, spoke Nov. 18 at Portland’s Congregation Beth Israel on “The Road to Peace in Israel: The Role of the American Jewish Community.” Freedman, who served in the Knesset from 1973 to 1977, has been an active member of the Israeli peace movement for over 30 years. Considered a pioneer for women’s rights in Israel, she was a co-founder of the Women’s Party there. Freedman returned to the U.S. in 1981, and currently divides her time between Berkeley and Jerusalem.

“We are in a rare moment of opportunity,” Freedman began, citing the death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush. She saw new possibilities for negotiations as a result of these two events, combined with what she described as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “revolution” against his own Likud Party. According to Freedman, this revolution began when Sharon became the first member of Israel’s right wing to use the word “occupation” and state that “the occupation of people cannot go on indefinitely.” Sharon, known as the architect of Israel’s illegal settlement movement, “got a little religion,” said Freedman, and persisted in his Gaza disengagement plan despite widespread party opposition that resulted in the loss of a third of his cabinet and half his party members.

Hailed in the mainstream Israeli and American pressas a positive step toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, Sharon’s controversial plan has been exposed elsewhere as a unilateral move to annex large settlements on the West Bank and create a permanent separation between Israel and Palestinians without a negotiated agreement. Indeed, in early October Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s top policy adviser, described the plan to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as a “maneuver” to “freeze” the peace process.

Freedman is a strong proponent of the Geneva Initiative, a “virtual final-status agreement” signed Dec. 1, 2003 by former Israeli and Palestinian officials, which accepts Israel’s annexation of these West Bank settlements. Like the failed Oslo accords that preceded it, the initiative has been severely criticized by others as offering “false hope” (see January/February 2004 Washington Report, p. 14).

According to the Brit Tzedek Web site, Freedman’s organization is “working to actively engage the hearts and minds of the American Jewish community in support of the principles of a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Spirit of Geneva through comprehensive outreach to individuals, synagogues and Jewish community organizations throughout the country.” A kind of alternative to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, Brit Tzedek gains access to U.S. senators and representatives, and seeks to effect change in foreign policy.

On the subject of the recent presidential election, Freedman noted that, of all the explosive issues raised during the campaign, the burning Palestinian-Israeli issue was totally ignored. “They agreed not to talk about it,” she stated, “but now it is back on the front burner.”

The U.S. administration, she said, is “going to have to take a stand on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” because in the eyes of the Arab world the U.S. has never appeared more negative, or more supportive of Israeli will in the Middle East. She cited an article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote that when Iraqis want to say something negative about Americans they call them Jews. (See “Thomas L. Friedman Deconstructed,” December 2004 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 24.)

The view, Freedman said, is that the U.S. cares only about Israel, and Israel cares only about itself. “The [U.S.] administration is aware of that,” she continued, “and whoever won the election would have to do what Bush has done—re-commit himself on resolving the conflict with the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of his presidency.

“I think he will be moving on this issue very strongly,” she added.

When challenged by an audience member as to how President Bush would define a Palestinian state—as a viable contiguous state within 1967 borders, or as a Bantustan state—Freedman insisted that the problem is Sharon, not Bush. Admitting that she does not know what Bush has in mind for a Palestinian state, she said Bush’s statements indicate that he envisions a contiguous state alongside Israel. “He [Bush] has given Israel assurances there will be no right of return and that not all settlements will have to be evacuated,” she acknowledged.

Noting that Sharon has always said he would favor a Palestinian state on 42 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, all cut off from Jerusalem, Freedman said, “I think Sharon understands he cannot have that, that there is no political will for that, and it’s unacceptable to the Palestinians. But I think he’s trying to hold on to 50 percent of the West Bank.”

Freedman described President Arafat’s death as the “end of an era,” in which Palestinians “must give up the idea of a strong charismatic leader” and instead make the transition to “strong democratic institutions and the rule of law.” The winds of reform have been building for a very long time, she said, and Palestinians—who are highly educated—know what democracy is, and want it. The Geneva Initiative, she argued, as a model for any peace agreement, will lead to that democratic Palestinian state. “But it’s not going to happen without the American Jewish community,” she said.

Freedman was on the receiving end of a few hostile comments from members of the predominantly Jewish audience. A local AIPAC representative commented that he saw parallels between AIPAC and Brit Tzedek’s views on the establishment of a Palestinian state, but was skeptical of the omission in the Geneva Initiative of any resolution on the right of return. Rather than elaborating on that aspect of the initiative, Freedman said she was “glad to hear we have agreement on the end point,” and that her organization was getting “feelers from AIPAC in the Bay Area.”

Freedman’s speaking tour in the Pacific Northwest was sponsored by the Portland, Seattle, and Olympia Chapters of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. For more information visit the organization’s Web site at <www.btvshalom.org>.

Sister Elaine Kelley, based in Portland, Oregon, is administrative director of Friends of Sabeel”“North America.