Conferring

So our brilliant program facilitators somehow scored us tickets to the Haaretz Israel Conference on Peace, which was held in Tel Aviv last Thursday. The conference was a full-day convergence of the important (Tony Blair, Reuven Rivlin, and Martin Indyk were probably the biggest names there from an American perspective) and the self-important (me) in the convention center of a swanky Tel Aviv hotel. Catered buffets were raided (to the point of nausea), NGO logo-festooned swag was acquired, panels and speeches were attended (also to the point of nausea), and thoughts were provoked. Here are some of them.

During the course of one of the countless and mind-numbing debates about political correctness and free speech on college campuses to occur in the past few years (I think I said this after the Ray Kelly incident at Brown, but who even knows at this point), I once made the argument that the heckling of speakers, far from being an anti-liberal impulse by the heckler, is itself an expression of free speech, and that the so-called heckler's veto should be considered an instance of two competing expressions of free speech coming into conflict rather than one party engaging in free speech while the other party tries to stifle it.

This event, and Israeli political culture more broadly, proves me correct. Heckling (or "impromptu debate" as it could euphemistically be called) seems to be pretty ubiquitous in political culture here. It happened throughout the day-primarily when hard-core right-wingers spoke, given the audience (Haaretz, the newspaper that sponsored the conference, is sort of the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times-the paper of the left-wing intelligentsia), but really throughout the day. No one walked off the stage, no one got arrested, no one wrote any obnoxious thinkpieces for the Israeli equivalent of the Atlantic. Speakers engaged, or they turned up the volume on the microphone and moved on. It's hard to say that Israel doesn't have a thriving culture of free speech (putting aside the territories for a moment, and even though it's threatened in some respects). So heckling, or aggressive protest more broadly, clearly isn't incompatible with free speech-it's just more speech. I've long said that people who act all concerned about free speech when some noxious right-winger gets booed off a stage have ulterior motives, and I think the Israeli example proves it. There's a lot wrong with this country, but at least it's free of stupid concern trolling about free speech, which is reason enough to move here at this point.

So, as the above discussion of the booing of right-wingers implies, some right-wing types spoke at the conference. A couple of Likud MKs spoke, and a representative of the settler movement participated in a panel.  This was the first time I'd ever seriously listened to a political speech by an Israeli right-wing politicians, as far as I know. Of course, I've gotten the right-wing line plenty of times from American sources, but I've never actually listened to the source before. I have to admit: I understand the appeal.

I understand the appeal not because their premises of the policy arguments were good (denying that the Palestinian people exist, etc) or because their logic was sound (the settler movement rep wanted to fully annex the territories and grant full equal rights to the Palestinians, but somehow expand the role of Judaism in Israeli law, presumably through magic), but because of the presentation. The right-wingers exuded confidence, presenting a very simple, dualistic vision of the world as good and evil without a hint of equivocation. By contrast, the center-left speakers for the most part explored the issues in all their complexity, but seemed by contrast weak, seemingly pathologically committed to equivocating whenever challenged on their progressive views.

This seems to be a core difference between liberals and conservatives. I'm a policy wonk with strongly held progressive values, but I can understand how someone without much information or who wasn't all that invested in the political process would find the right-wing narrative very compelling. It's really a challenge for the left, I think. Worldwide, even. Democrats face the same problem. In a political arena that seems ever more focused on superficial impressions, how do you overcome the structural advantage that conservatives have in that area?

The few Israeli leftists who didn't seem to fall into this trap were the Arab MKs-Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. Both offered a clear vision of a future society, a vision that subordinated the goal of national rights in the form of a two-state solution to the goal of securing civic and social equality for Arabs. Tibi had a great line when he criticized the liberal Zionist defense of the two-state solution as a means of avoiding the "demographic problem" of Arab population growth that would leave Jews in the minority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, saying something to the effect of "if the French ever based policy on the fear that the Jewish population would become a majority in France, we would rightly condemn it as racist." This is right, I think-it is fundamentally racist to talk about "demographic problems," we would condemn that reasoning in any other context, and there are good arguments for the two-state solution that don't require these arguments. Odeh was very impressive, offering a stirring defense of equal rights for Arabs and condemning the occupation as harmful to both Jews and Palestinians. How could you disagree with the idea of equal rights? I think this is a very productive rhetorical frame for Palestinians, one that could put the defenders of Israel on their heels in a new way. It'll be interesting to see how this unfolds in the coming years.

It's interesting what they left out, though. They didn't talk much about whether they preferred equal rights to come in the form of a two-state solution or a secular binational state. Their reasoning could seemingly lead you to either place, and I think, given the degree to which the settlements are entrenched in the West Bank, an individual rights-based Palestinian liberation movement (as opposed to a national rights-based Palestinian liberation movement) seems more likely to lead you to secular binationalism. I think that liberal Zionists are right when they express skepticism of secular binationalism. After 70 years in which both sides have instilled hatred of the other, it's impossible to imagine how it works. This is a challenge for liberal Zionists, I think-to offer a defense of the two-state solution that includes equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and which isn't rhetorically premised on the racist concept of the demographic problem, especially as a new generation of Palestinian leaders like Ayman Odeh begin to offer a different framing of the issues that more logically leads to binationalism. 

Otherwise, more of the usual. It still amazes me how Israelis are willing to talk very openly about the issues at stake here, while other Westerners aren't. Ari Shavit, the esteemed Haaretz columnist, interviewed Tony Blair during the conference, and he began the conference by asking Blair "if the occupation poses an existential threat to Israel." Blair dodged the question, and was seemingly unwilling to even accept the term "occupation." It made me quite sad, actually-American Jews know all about how hard-liners have basically taken over the discourse around Israel within both the American Jewish community and within American politics, but Blair's reluctance to talk about the issues directly seemed to imply that the same phenomenon's occurring overseas.

The one happy exception was Martin Indyk. I'd always assumed he was a centrist, maybe even center-right, but he got the mostly left-wing crowd fired up by talking about how Israel needs to recognize its status as a world power and needs to stop thinking of itself as the perpetual victim. He definitely doesn't want to enter Hillary's administration, I guess-could you imagine if AIPAC got a hold of that?