November 21, 2018

Bring Bill Clinton back to the Israeli-Palestinian peace table

Monday night in Beverly Hills, a dozen Israeli and American Jews gathered for a night of luxurious despair over the Middle East.

We were at the sprawling midcentury-modern home of Aviv Giladi, the Israeli-born serial entertainment entrepreneur. Good wines and a bottle of 12-year-old MacCallan greeted us, and, because this was a mostly Israeli gathering, a table spread with hummus, falafel, shwarma and fresh pita stood in for the requisite crackers, cheeses and grapes. 

Giladi and his business partner, producer Lawrence Bender, made some last-minute invites to gather a group to hear Alon Ben-David. Ben-David is the defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, which Giladi and billionaire Len Blavatnik just purchased.

Ben-David is a handsome, commanding 47-year-old with a deep anchorman voice made even richer by cigarettes, Scotch and a slight cold. He gave an overview of a Middle East that is completely and irreparably breaking apart. Syria and Iraq are finished, Ben-David said, Iran is triumphant, and Israel is dealing with Palestinian violence that is neither an intifada nor a passing wave.

“I don’t like the term ‘wave,’ ” Ben-David said, “because wave is something that washes over you and goes away. I don’t think this is going to go away. We are located in a sea of violence.”

The violence wracking Israel is not a widespread organized revolt. But it does reflect a sense of despair, injustice and rage among Palestinians.

Of the 1.8 million Gazans, for instance, Ben-David pointed out that 800,000 are on United Nations food aid, which means they live on less than $2 day. Gazan boys have been sneaking into Israel hoping to get arrested, just so they can get three meals a day in prison. When the Israel Defense Forces stopped arresting the kids and just sent them back, the boys would return carrying a grenade, just to make sure they’d end up in prison.

For now, Hamas has no interest in resuming attacks, but Ben-David wondered how long that would last.

Among West Bank Palestinians, there is a similar sense of despair.

“They thought [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas was going to go to the U.N. and declare a Palestinian state,” Ben-David said. “Instead, he declared defeat. He said he failed.”

As borders throughout the Middle East get erased, Ben-David sees no clear solution for Israel besides drawing a border.

Sixty-seven years after the founding of the state, he said, and 48 years after the Six-Day War, it’s time for Israel to grow up and declare where Israel stops and a Palestinian entity starts.

“We have been telling ourselves a story about united Jerusalem forever and ever,” Ben-David said. “This city is not united. It’s completely divided.”

Unfortunately, Ben-David sees no movement on that front coming from the current government, and no serious leadership that can mount an opposition.

“A leader who tells us he can maintain the status quo is not telling the truth,” he said.

Given this situation, someone asked Ben-David, a former Middle East correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, what he perceives as Israel’s biggest immediate threat.

“BDS,” he said, without hesitation, indicating that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement can turn Israel into an international pariah. “If the European Union says tomorrow we are not going to do business with any Israeli bank that has a branch over the 1967 borderline, boom, it’s game over.” 

(As if on cue, in the next day’s Guardian newspaper, 343 English academics from 72 institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge universities, published a signed pledge to boycott Israeli academic institutions.) 

Someone mentioned how ironic it was to be having such a bleak talk 20 years after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Ben-David said his host had requested he not be as unrelentingly hopeless as the Middle East itself. So he ended on the good news: Israel has no enemies surrounding it who can destroy it. In fact, many of its Sunni neighbors would be eager to make common cause with Israel against Iran and the Sunni extremist groups such as ISIS.

“We can work together with them to shape the region,” Ben-David said. 

The problem, of course, is that as long as there is no forward movement on the Palestinian issue, these powerful potential allies have to keep everything mum. “We have a mistress-like relationship with them,” Ben-David said, “relations only take place behind closed doors.”

The group of producers, media moguls and a stray academic adjourned for dessert by the pool on the warm October evening. I sat wondering how Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world, with no leadership in sight, could find their way back to the hope that Rabin personified. My mind wandered to that famous photo of Yasser Arafat, Rabin and Bill Clinton on the White House lawn during the signing of the Oslo Accords. Arafat is thankfully long gone, Rabin murdered — but Bill very much alive.

That’s when it hit me: Bill  is one of the few living figures who can unite the moderate Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states. He can offer a pragmatic, credible plan that will ensure Israel can remain a vibrant Jewish state, Palestinians can build a decent future, and the region can regain some chance of stability.  

Memo to whomever is the next president:  Send Bill back. The last man standing is the best man for the job.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.