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Henry Siegman, Leading U.S. Jewish Voice for Peace: "Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations"

StoryAugust 13, 2015
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Jewish and Palestinian women are holding a hunger strike outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem to call for a renewal of peace negotiations. Members of the group Women Wage Peace have been fasting for the past month in alternating shifts, sitting in an open-air tent and inviting passersby to discuss how best to wage peace. The group has dubbed their mission "Operation Protective Fast," a twist on "Operation Protective Edge" — Israel’s military operation that left 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, dead last summer. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers. The attack destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza. Another 100,000 were damaged. None of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt so far, due in part to the ongoing Israeli blockade. Our guest for the hour suggests the best chance for achieving a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine lies with the United Nations Security Council presenting both parties with clear terms for resumed peace talks. Henry Siegman is the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s "big three" Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Siegman was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years later, the Nazis came to power. After fleeing Nazi troops in Belgium, his family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. Siegman later became head of the Synagogue Council of America. Henry Siegman now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He spoke with Amy Goodman in late May, shortly after The New York Times published his op-ed, "Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: An alarming new report shows the infant mortality rate in Gaza has risen for the first time in more than 50 years. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees found that until now, the number of babies dying before the age of one has consistently fallen in the past five decades in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the family of an 18-month Palestinian baby and father killed in an arson attack by Jewish settlers reportedly will not be entitled to the same government compensation granted Israeli victims of terror. On Tuesday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the Israeli law governing such compensation applies only to Israeli citizens and residents, as well as West Bank settlers. Palestinian victims must apply to a special interministerial exceptions committee under the Israeli Defense Ministry. Earlier this month, thousands of mourners in the West Bank attended the funeral of the Palestinian father, Saad Dawabsheh, who succumbed to severe burn injuries just eight days after trying to save his son, Ali, from the arson attack. This is Taha Dawabsheh, a relative of the family.

TAHA DAWABSHEH: [translated] First, we condemn this ugly crime, which happened for the first time in history. People were sleeping, and the bats of the night came upon them to burn them. A toddler was killed a week ago, and his father died today. And we hope his mother and brother, Ahmed, recover in the hospital. We ask the community and all the free people of the world to help us and stand with us and our people, and we ask for protection committees for our village against the settlers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, Jewish and Palestinian women are holding a hunger strike outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem to call for a renewal of peace negotiations. Members of the group Women Wage Peace have been fasting for the past month in alternating shifts, sitting in an open-air tent and inviting passersby to discuss how best to wage peace. The group has dubbed their mission Operation Protective Fast, a twist on Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation that left 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, dead last summer. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers. The attack destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza; another 100,000 were damaged. None of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt so far, due in part to the ongoing Israeli blockade. Women Wage Peace are urging Israeli cabinet and Knesset members to prioritize peace talks with Palestinians.

Well, our guest for the hour suggests the best chance for achieving a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine lies not in Netanyahu, but the United Nations Security Council, with the U.S.'s support, presenting both parties with clear terms for resumed peace talks. In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation's "big three" Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Siegman was born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years later, the Nazis came to power. After fleeing Nazi troops in Belgium, his family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. He later became head of the Synagogue Council of America. After his time at the American Jewish Congress, Siegman became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project.

Amy Goodman spoke to Siegman in May, shortly after he published a piece in The New York Times called "Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations."

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you start off by talking about just what you are suggesting President Obama do?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, what I am suggesting he do, and what many others have suggested, as well, indeed for some time now, is that he finally act on a truth, that he understood for quite some time now—namely, that any government that is headed by Netanyahu not only is disinterested in pursuing a two-state solution, but indeed sees as its primary mission and goal, policy goal, is to prevent a two-state agreement. And he and his various governments have acted on the assumption that there is no occupation, that there may be disputes about how much land Israel has a right to annex to the state of Israel in the West Bank, but Palestinians do not have any particular right, certainly not a right greater than Israel has, to any part of the West Bank. That has been the working assumption of every government headed by Netanyahu. So for that reason, we have said for a long time to the president, in various communications and meetings with the Department of State and other—the White House over the years, that the peace process, the bilateral talks that have taken place, are all bound to fail, unless America’s diplomacy is based on a recognition of this fundamental truth, that left to their own devices, Israelis will never agree—an Israeli government will never agree to a two-state solution that is remotely acceptable to the Palestinians. Consequently, it seems clear that the only way a two-state accord can be reached is if the U.N. Security Council, a third party—and of course the most reasonable third party to take the lead is the Security Council, because the various resolutions on a two-state solution adopted by the Security Council are the foundation of any peace process.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to walk back his pre-election vow not to allow a Palestinian state. A day before the election, when asked if he was ruling out establishing a Palestinian state under his tenure, Netanyahu replied, quote, "Indeed." But he later tried to backtrack in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, after tremendous international outcry.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I haven’t changed my policy. I never retracted my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. What has changed is the reality. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, refuses to recognize the Jewish state, has made a pact with Hamas that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. And every territory that is vacated today in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces. So—

ANDREA MITCHELL: But they are saying—

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We want that to change, so we can realize a vision of real, sustained peace. And I don’t want a—I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change.

AMY GOODMAN: In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu stressed his right-wing positions. He visited the Har Homa settlement and vowed to ramp up the construction of more settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. And he unequivocally ruled out allowing a Palestinian state, reneging on his nominal 2009 endorsement of a two-state solution. On Election Day, he also railed against Israel’s Arab voters.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in mass to the polling stations. The left-wing nonprofit organizations are bringing them in buses. Go out to the polling station, bring your friends and family, and vote Likud, in order to close the gap between us and the Labor Party. With your help and God’s help, we will form a national government and protect the state of Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Prime Minister Netanyahu in his election campaigning. Henry Siegman, on the issue of Arab voters and on the issue of the two-state solution?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. Well, one has to be extremely naïve to have waited for this admission and declaration, proud declaration, by Netanyahu that he never meant it, that when he embraced the two-state solution, he was lying, since it was not true. If one had to wait until then to conclude that he really has never meant to proceed with a two-state peace accord, for the simple reason that every action taken under by his government with respect to Palestinians who live past the '67 border, every action he has taken was consistent with Israel's ultimate permanent control of all of the territories, beginning with, of course, the settlement project. How is it conceivable that a government that is serious about reaching a two-state accord, a viable two-state accord, not just for Israel, but for the Palestinians, one they could conceivably accept, cuts the ground from under that state in the most literal sense, by annexing it to the state of Israel? So, if somebody had to wait until he made that statement, I mean, that’s—for diplomats, that’s rather pathetic. What it really suggests is that, because they’re not stupid—they may be inept, but they’re not stupid. And they understood, from the beginning, that they were dealing with a prime minister who had no intention whatever of yielding Israel’s control. So they had to pretend that they believed that in order for their diplomacy to go forward. Otherwise, you know, they are unemployed.

AMY GOODMAN: And his call for Jewish voters to come out to counter the Arab vote?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, well, that tells you something about his commitment to a democratic state of Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that he tried to walk—and the fact that he tried to walk back his statement against a two-state solution?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, and he reverted to his earlier diplomacy, as it were, because this has been his strategy from the very beginning, to put—he had to balance, on the one hand, his determination never to yield control over the West Bank with a public posture that enables the United States at least to pretend that a two-state solution is possible if the two parties negotiate successfully. And this, he has done wonderfully. So, the fact that he walked it back is really utterly meaningless.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Netanyahu’s formation of a new government and who he has chosen to be his ministers.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Just to follow up on your previous question, the—he has now come out with a new ploy, which is—again, so wonderfully consistent with the totally dishonest approach he has had, from his very first government that he headed—to the issue of a two-state—ultimate two-state agreement. He has now proposed to the Palestinians that they sit down and negotiate the borders of the settlements. Now, on the one hand, that creates the impression that, A, he wants to negotiate—he wants a peace process—and secondly, he is open to some kind of agreement that might ultimately lead to a state, without yielding or in any way walking back his position that there is no '67 border, and consequently, there is no reason why Israel is obliged to withdraw from the territories. Now, I would hope that the Palestinians—quite clearly, they're not going to be taken in by this. But it would be interesting if they were to say, "Fine, it’s a wonderful proposal, but let’s do this in a fair way. Let us also discuss what we are permitted to do on your side of the ’67 border, what settlements we can have there and what the borders of those settlements will be." And it’s unfortunate that they have not challenged Netanyahu’s government in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think they haven’t?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, I think it’s just inept. I mean, this whole question of the eptness of Palestinian leadership is a very sad story—or I should say the ineptness of Palestinian leadership. The fact that they agreed, going back to the Olso Accords, or even going back to their—this goes back to 1988, their acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy. One would have thought they would have said, at least conditionally, "We will be—we’re ready to accept and declare, affirm Israel’s legitimacy, if Israel is prepared to affirm the legitimacy of a Palestinian state along the pre-’67 borders." The fact that they did not do that and did not even raise the issue of settlements was a massive, massive blunder, and, I think, prepared—made it possible for Netanyahus, people like him, to play the game that they’ve played.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman. He’s now president of the U.S./Middle East Project. We’ll air more of Amy Goodman’s interview with him in a minute.

[break]

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s "Palestinian Heritage" by Naseer Shamma. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh. We continue our conversation with Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s "big three" Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. Henry Siegman now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. Amy Goodman sat down with him in late May.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the issue of the ministers that—

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —Prime Minister Netanyahu has now chosen working with him. Earlier this month, he appointed Knesset member Ayelet Shaked as his justice minister. During Israel’s summer 2014 attack on Gaza, she approvingly posted an article on her Facebook page that called for the destruction of, quote, "the entire Palestinian people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure."

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. Let me give you the list of appointees, ministerial and deputy ministerial appointees, beginning with Ayelet Shaked.

All of them—and there is Hotovely, who is now the deputy minister for the—of the Foreign Ministry. But since there is no foreign minister, she, in fact, will be running the Foreign Ministry. She has—the very first thing she did after her appointment was send out instructions to ambassadors, Israeli ambassadors across the world, to inform governments to which they have been assigned that the Bible specifically quotes God granting all of Palestine to the Jews, and consequently, the state of Israel will retain all of Palestine, because it follows the word of God. That’s Hotovely.

Then there is Shaked, and you have just the minute—this is the minister of justice. This is her concept of justice, how to deal with the Palestinians.

Then there’s Miri Regev, who was appointed the minister of culture. And her very first public statement in that capacity was that she just looks forward anxiously to—it’s the term she used—to censor the work of the artistic community and to prevent them from creating art that insults the state of Israel. That’s the minister of culture.

Then there’s the minister—the deputy minister of defense, Eli Dahan. Now, all of these appointments, every single one of them, is on record as opposing a two-state solution, a lifelong record of opposition to a two-state solution. And Dahan is the one who thought, along with his minister, the full minister of defense, both of them thought it’s a wonderful idea to have Palestinians limited to separate buses, the ones who live in the West Bank and travel to Israel, and not to permit them to travel in the same buses that Israeli Jews travel in. So that’s Dahan.

Then he appointed a Silvan Shalom as the new head of the—the new chief of peace negotiations, should they resume—again, a person who is on record as bitterly opposed to a two-state solution. And on and on. He just—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about Dore Gold, who is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

HENRY SIEGMAN: And there’s Dore Gold, exactly, exactly, who is now the new director of the Foreign Ministry. And he, too, has a lifelong record of total opposition to a Palestinian state.

AMY GOODMAN: And extremely hawkish on Iran.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, when you look at that, you look at a government that is made up of people who are either racists, out-and-out racists, and people who are totally opposed to a two-state agreement, while at the same time being opposed to granting Palestinians in the West Bank Israeli citizenship. You somehow can’t avoid this terrible realization that this state of Israel, that the Jewish people has prayed for, has supported, has seen as a historic change in the situation of Jews worldwide, has a government that is a racist government.

On my way down here, I recalled that some years ago—I think about 15 years ago—the Austrian government formed a new government that included the head of a right-wing political party, Haider. And the American Jewish community, as well as every organization in Europe, led a global campaign to convince governments to boycott that government because of that one racist and an extreme nationalist, a xenophobe, who was in that government. And, in fact, Europe, the European Union, decided to boycott him.

Here we have a government that has at least a half a dozen xenophobes, right-wing nationalists and racists.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! recently spoke to John Dugard, the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories. He’s now professor emeritus of international law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He was born in South Africa. We spoke to him at The Hague, and he compared Israel to apartheid South Africa.

JOHN DUGARD: I’m a South African who lived through apartheid. I have no hesitation in saying that Israel’s crimes are infinitely worse than those committed by the apartheid regime of South Africa. ... For seven years, I visited the Palestinian territory twice a year. I also conducted a fact-finding mission after the Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, 2009. So I am familiar with the situation, and I am familiar with the apartheid situation. I was a human rights lawyer in apartheid South Africa. And I, like virtually every South African who visits the occupied territory, has a terrible sense of déjà vu. We’ve seen it all before, except that it is infinitely worse. And what has happened in the West Bank is that the creation of a settlement enterprise has resulted in a situation that closely resembles that of apartheid, in which the settlers are the equivalent of white South Africans. They enjoy superior rights over Palestinians, and they do oppress Palestinians. So, one does have a system of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territory. And I might mention that apartheid is also a crime within the competence of the International Criminal Court.

AMY GOODMAN: So those are the words of John Dugard, the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, originally from South Africa. Henry Siegman?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, even before he made the statement, several years ago, an Israeli prime minister said that.

AMY GOODMAN: Who?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Olmert said that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ehud Olmert.

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. He said specifically that. He said that if we are not prepared to return virtually all, if not all—and this is a direct quote—"if not all of the territories" beyond the '67 border to the Palestinians, and to share Jerusalem, he said, we are not serious about wanting peace. And he said the consequence of this will be that Israel, while we can—while we can have disagreements about the border, but if we do not follow through on what is necessary for a peace accord, we will be seen as an apartheid state, because we will be an apartheid state. Now, he said that. And he said this is the great danger, if we delay reaching an agreement with the Palestinian that gives them a state of their own along the ’67 borders. And he said, if we don't do that, then we may lose the support of American Jews, because apartheid is something that they cannot accept.

I recall telling him at the time, "You are right about apartheid, but I’m afraid you probably are not right about American Jews, because, in fact, apartheid, you don’t have to wait until there is a majority of Palestinians, when you add the Palestinians who live—Arab citizens of Israel to the ones in the West Bank and in Gaza—you don’t have to wait until they are a majority and they are totally disenfranchised or are second-class citizens. Even as a minority, a minority that has to live under these conditions, you have apartheid today. It exists now. It’s not a future danger. And the problem is, if you keep identifying as a future danger instead of recognizing that it’s a present reality, you will never reach that future, you will never recognize the truth of the system that you have there."

AMY GOODMAN: So what did then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert respond to you?

HENRY SIEGMAN: He did not disagree very violently.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why didn’t something change then?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, he claims that he—he said that this is why he has—why he negotiated with Abbas. And he claims—he has claimed ever since—that if it were not for the war in Gaza, for which he was also in large part responsible, if it were not for the war in Gaza, those negotiations would have produced a two-state accord. And Abbas has confirmed this. He has said—he confirmed what Ehud Olmert has claimed ever since, namely that they had—that Abbas never walked away from those negotiations. Because Abbas was accused by the Israeli right to have turned down the most generous terms ever offered him by Prime Minister Olmert. And he said that this is not true. Olmert has said, in fact, he never walked away. What happened was that the Gaza war interrupted the negotiations, and they never were able to resume it, because at that point he came under—you may recall, he came under very severe criticism for some of his dealings with the paper bags filled with cash that were being handed to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, can you talk about what you call the center-left opposition to Netanyahu, the Zionist Union of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, Tzipi Livni and Herzog can be counted on to spearhead an opposition, specifically on the issues of Israel’s democratic character, to oppose efforts that will be undertaken from the word go by this new government. We talked earlier about Ayelet Shaked. She declared that her—one of her main missions will be to undermine Israel’s Supreme Court and its ability to pass judgment on the constitutionality of laws passed by the Knesset that deprive the minority of its rights. So, I have no doubt that Herzog and Tzipi Livni will put up a very good fight and seek to prevent Shaked from achieving her goal, although there is a great deal of support within the Israeli Knesset today to do that to the Supreme Court.

But on the issue of the peace process, they are—the Labor Party and those affiliated with it, the other parties affiliated with it, are as incapable of reaching a two-state agreement without outside interference, without the Security Council or the United States taking a strong position, not very likely, but at least allowing the United States, allowing the Security Council to define very clear—a very clear framework for a permanent status agreement and not leave that up to the parties themselves. Without that, it’s not going to happen, because they have now—take this last election, this recent election. Despite the fact that different people, particularly in the media, tried to get a clear statement from Herzog and Livni about a two-state accord that is based on the '67 lines, they refused to commit the party to that. So, there's just no way that they will produce an agreement that is conceivably acceptable to even the most moderate Palestinian leader without resort to the Security Council.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress. We’ll be back with more in a minute.

[break]

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was "String Quintet Number 4 in G Minor," composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh. We continue our conversation with Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress. Over the years, Siegman has become a vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories and has urged Israel to engage with Hamas. He has called the Palestinian struggle for a state, quote, "the mirror image of the Zionist movement" that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. Amy Goodman interviewed Siegman in May right after he published an op-ed in The New York Times.

AMY GOODMAN: So lay out, once again, as you did in The New York Times op-ed piece, "Give Up on Netanyahu, Go to the United Nations," what you think the steps need to be right now.

HENRY SIEGMAN: The steps that need to be taken first is for the United States to develop a framework terms of reference for a permanent status agreement, based on the '67 lines, the sharing of Jerusalem and so on. If it is not prepared to do that itself, then it should at least ask the Security Council to do that. For that—for those terms of reference, either American terms of reference or Security Council terms of reference are to be presented to the parties and to say, "We would like you to reach an accord directly, in direct negotiations, without our interference. But here is a timeframe, not just terms of reference, but a timeframe within which you much reach such an agreement. If you can't, then we, the Security Council, will resume the process, and we will come up with a formula for the resolution of each of the permanent status issues that will be obligatory and will have to be implemented by the parties." And the Security Council, of course, under Chapter VII, has the authority to take measures, sanctions, to see that this is implemented.

AMY GOODMAN: And realistically, do you see President Obama doing this, in a sense, ceding power to the United Nations?

HENRY SIEGMAN: I cannot tell you that I have great—I have great expectations that he will do that. I think that he has at least the possibility—or there exists the possibility, since he, himself, has called for a reassessment of U.S. policy, of U.S.-Middle East peace policy, of allowing the Security Council to deal with it.

In this New York Times piece, I argued that the United States has two commitments that it made to the state of Israel. One commitment is to have Israel’s back diplomatically, that when other countries try through diplomacy to press Israel to go to the U.N., or whatever, to take certain measures, that the U.S. will support the state of Israel. The other commitment is a security commitment, that the United States will always do what it takes to protect Israel’s existence, in terms of supplying it with military hardware, specifically in case it is existentially threatened with violence from the outside. That’s a commitment that I hope the U.S. will always adhere to and never abandon and never compromise.

But I pointed out that it can do that only if it at the same time does what it needs to do to bring about a two-state solution diplomatically, because if it fails to do that, then its military support, when Israel is threatened, will be seen by the world as the United States collaborating with Israel in the oppression and occupation and disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people. And that is something the U.S. cannot afford. So, consequently, a condition for the United States meeting its commitment to Israel’s security is that it must be free to do the right thing diplomatically.

AMY GOODMAN: I’ve talked about President Obama, but, of course, now the presidential election is heating up. Do you see any change in policy coming from the potential or already the declared presidential candidates, the Democrats or Republicans?

HENRY SIEGMAN: The answer is no. I do not see it.

AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state, certainly involved deeply in the foreign policy the U.S. pushed for Israel and Palestine?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes. Well, I wish I could believe that she might—she might, in fact, bring about the kind of a change, but I think that’s an unrealistic expectation. In fact, you will recall that early in his presidency, when President Obama succeeded partially in getting Netanyahu to freeze the settlements—as it turned out, in the end, they produced—they constructed more enlargement of settlements than they had done before. But at least there was a pro forma freeze. And there were some question—the Israelis insisted that they have a right to continue building for the next generation, for kids who were being born, for natural growth.

It was Hillary Clinton, as foreign minister, said at the time, "No natural growth. Not even a single brick is permissible." So, that might suggest, to some, that she’s a—that she’s really tough and that she may in fact adopt a different approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t believe that to be the case. I don’t think that she is about to do that. And certainly, during the course of the election campaign, she is likely to say things to satisfy what the party believes it must say in order to retain Jewish support. She is likely to say things that would make it, even if she were inclined to change that policy, that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to change once she’s in office.

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Siegman, you said you don’t hold out hope for American Jews putting pressure on a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. But hasn’t American public—American Jewish public opinion changed significantly even since you were head of the American Jewish Congress, especially among young Jews and college students?

HENRY SIEGMAN: Yes, there has been a change. And that change, with this younger generation, is exacting a very serious cost, which is to say that these younger people, many of them, are not joining counter-lobbies that are in a position to challenge AIPAC and the Jewish establishment that is part of the AIPAC operation, but they just—they leave the scene. They just disaffiliate. They just go on to other concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: But when polled, state a different opinion.

HENRY SIEGMAN: They state a different opinion. But it doesn’t lead—for most of them, it does not lead. Some of them have gone to J Street. But J Street, while it has done, considering the resources at its disposal, I think, a wonderful job, but J Street is in no position, and I’m afraid will never be in a position, not in the coming decade or two, to challenge AIPAC. AIPAC has a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress and will continue to have that stranglehold.

AMY GOODMAN: You were the head of two major Jewish organizations. You were the head of the Synagogue Council of America, as well as the American Jewish Congress. Your father was a leader in European Zionism. That is the way you grew up. Why have you changed your position over time?

HENRY SIEGMAN: I’ve changed my position basically for two reasons. First, because the Zionism that I was raised with is essentially the Zionism of the founders. The Zionist movement, from its very inception, was not a right-wing religious movement, not a religious/nationalistic movement. It was essentially a secular movement. The founders of the movement were socialists. They were left-wingers. They were people committed to democracy. Many of the Zionist founders did not even think in terms of a Jewish state. In fact, as someone pointed out to me recently, the title of Herzl’s founding document in German was not "The Jewish State," but rather, "A State for the Jews," a state in which Jews could live and develop their culture. And the assumption was—and incidentally, what few people are aware of today—is that overwhelmingly the religious community, the Jewish religious community in Europe and in—such as it was at the time in the United States, overwhelmingly rejected Zionism because of its democratic secular character, primarily its secular character.

The Agudat Yisrael was the organization with which I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the Orthodox community in Europe identified with, and it was bitterly opposed to the Zionist movement and saw it as a heresy, as a Jewish heresy. I recall going to a school, a yeshiva, where ultimately I received ordination. I went to that school, and my teachers there regularly referred to the leaders of the Zionist movement—to Ben-Gurion, to Chaim Weizmann and the others—whenever they mentioned their name, they would say, "Yemach shemam vezichram," "May their name and their memory be wiped out." And that is what they said when they referred to Hitler, as well, "Yemach shemo vezichro." That was the Orthodox community at the time.

The Zionism that I identified with totally rejected that Orthodox Jewish sensibility when it comes to the Zionist movement. But that Zionism has been wiped out. It is not the—and perhaps even the memory of its leaders has been wiped out. And the kind of Zionism that exists today, as a Jew, I rejected completely, the one that’s exemplified by—it’s my Jewishness that leads me to reject it, to abandon it, to see it as shameful and as a betrayal of the very best and most important values of my religious and ethnic identity.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is it that you reject?

HENRY SIEGMAN: I reject the racism. I reject the sensibilities that these people, whose names we mentioned in the program, who are now all ministers, the anti-democratic sensibilities, the extreme—let me give you one example. Can you imagine—can you imagine if here in the United States we had two tracks for citizenship? One track to citizenship would be what our laws are today, but then there will be a fast track, run by the White House, which would be running—the White House, under the White House’s jurisdiction, would be running a conversion program with priests, Catholic priests or Protestant ministers, and who would give—who would give citizenship on a fast-track basis to people who convert to Catholicism or to Christianity. The Jewish community would be outraged. That would be just inconceivable. But that’s the situation in Israel today. There is a conversion office in the prime minister’s office, that works with people who want to fast-track their citizenship, but they can do it only by converting to Judaism. Had you suggested that to the founders of the Zionist organization in Basel when they first met, everyone would have walked out through the doors. Who would have accepted that?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on the issue of the Israeli military assaults on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, which is what the Israeli military called it, the Israeli assault on Gaza, 2008 to '09, when President Obama was first elected, at that time, and then this past summer, what they called Operation Protective Edge—when you total the number of Palestinians killed, we're talking about thousands of them, many of them children. Do you expect to see another such assault?

HENRY SIEGMAN: It is very difficult for me to say that I can’t imagine that they will repeat this. But I can’t say—I can’t say that. I must be able to imagine that they will repeat it, because when this last Gaza war was playing out, and as you pointed out, over 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed, and something like 500 Palestinian children were wiped out, the vast majority of Israelis not only supported it, but were critical of Netanyahu when he decided finally to bring it to an end. That, to me, was the most appalling thing I ever heard. I thought that there would be a sense of deep relief that this butchering, this turning of Gaza into a human abattoir, is coming to an end, even by those who felt it was necessary, but at least thank God it’s coming to an end. Instead, they turned against Netanyahu for ending it—Netanyahu, of all people, and the military. So, in light of that, how can anyone say, "No, it will never happen again"?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. Henry Siegman now serves as president of U.S./Middle East Project. Amy Goodman sat down with him in late May. And that does it for the show. Amy Goodman will be back on the show tomorrow.

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