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How the director of Peace Now saved Bibi and the peace process

Avi Buskila, the new director general of Peace Now, may come as an outsider to the world of peace organizations but there’s one unique item on his resume nobody else can lay claim to.

Twenty years ago I was a deputy company commander in the West Bank city of Hebron. The first Netanyahu government was about to transfer control of three-quarters of the city to the Palestinian Authority. The settlers were furious — the tension in the occupied city was palpable.

After Rabin’s assassination, the Hebron Agreement was seen as vital for demonstrating progress in the Oslo process under the new Israeli prime minister, who had so ardently opposed any withdrawals just a few months earlier. It was considered a significant achievement and if it were to fall apart, the world feared, so would the entire peace process.

One morning I was sent for some reason or another to Gross Square, known by Palestinians as Vegetable Market Square, which was still bustling and lively at the time — before the army shut down most of the Palestinian shops and banished the grocers and store owners.

We were standing near the entrance to one of the settler compounds when suddenly we heard a burst or two of automatic gunfire coming from another side of the square. I was able to see an Israeli soldier shooting (from a sitting position, no less) toward the crowds of Palestinians, and then I saw two other soldiers jumping on him.

It turned out that a setter (not a settler in the city of Hebron itself) who opposed the Hebron Agreement had decided to mimic Baruch Goldstein and commit a mass murder hoping to set the city alight and prevent the withdrawal of Israeli troops from it. His plan was foiled, however, by an officer from our battalion who happened to be standing behind the shooter, pounced on him, and arrested him without anybody getting seriously hurt — not the shooter and not any of the Palestinians in the square (six Palestinians were lightly wounded). The only thing left for us to do was to deal the crowd that had formed to see what happened.

The Goldstein Massacre (or the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre) sparked a series of Palestinian revenge attacks and irreparably challenged the Oslo peace process. The incident that I witnessed only held public significance for a few days at most. The officer who stopped...

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We don't have the privilege of being Islamophobic

Israelis tend to warn of the ‘Islamization’ of Europe in the wake of attacks like those in Brussels. But the fear of Muslims in a country where Jews and Muslims must live together is simply not an option.

After events like the terrorist attacks in Brussels or Paris, it has become common to hear Israelis say that “Europe is finished” or that it is being “conquered by Muslims.” In fact, people say these things even when there are no attacks. Regardless of inherent racism, I do not really understand the logic behind such statements. In France, seven percent of the population is Muslim. In Belgium it is six percent. In Britain — less than five percent.

In Israel, on the other hand, more than 20 percent of the population is Arab, the majority of whom are Muslim. Add to that 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Even if we don’t count Gaza, Jews and Arabs live side by side in every part of this country — in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere in Europe.

They say Israel may become a bi-national state sometime in the future, but the truth is we are already living in a bi-national reality — we are just in denial about it. If there are Israelis who believe we cannot live alongside Arabs or Muslims, then the only logical step for them is to run away from here as fast as they can. Any imaginable future scenario here will necessarily include more Arabs and Muslims in Israel than in those areas of Europe with large Arab populations.

Many years ago I saw Professor Aviezer Revitzki speak on a televised political discussion which devolved into generalizations about how Israel would spearhead a clash of civilizations. This was more or less the consensus in the study, from both left and right. “I don’t want to be the spearhead,” Revitzki announced (I am quoting from memory), “since that the part that is eroded and destroyed first.” Wise words.

If the world is moving toward all out war, Israel is probably the worst place to be. I’m happy to say that I don’t think that is the direction we’re headed. I do not have a simple solution to the current wave of nihilistic terrorism, and I don’t know anyone who does. Regardless, the numbers show that Jews and Arabs have to learn to live in this...

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The rise of the pro-censorship journalist

The latest right-wing sting operation against Israeli human rights groups made it to primetime this week. Israeli journalists, once again, played a central role in shaming those who criticize the occupation.

A Channel 2 report that aired Thursday night accused Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence of gathering confidential information on Israeli military operations through its interviews with former soldiers. The report was based on hidden camera footage recorded by right-wing group “Ad Kan,” which infiltrates and gathers information in order to shame anti-occupation organizations. The footage shows Breaking the Silence activists collecting testimonies from several former soldiers, which include questions on Gaza tunnels as well as military equipment and positions.

By Friday morning, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had already ordered an investigation into the activities of the organization, accusing it of attempting to collect state secrets. Others went as for as talking about espionage. The following is a translation of a Hebrew piece I wrote.


Ronen Bergman, Yedioth Ahronoth‘s excellent defense correspondent, often describes the immense powers of Israeli secrecy as follows: imagine that you write down the following sentence on a piece of paper: “The State of Israel has X atomic bombs,” and then place that piece of paper into your pocket. From this moment on, you are guilty of “possessing state secrets,” and can be sentenced to prison.

All journalists are exposed to classified material. Since all army information is classified, every article on security-related matters begins with gathering classified materials — even those PR items organized by the IDF Spokesperson. In other countries, professional ethics guide journalists when they decide what to publish. The idea is that the responsibility for keeping secret rests with the authorities, and whatever they cannot or wouldn’t keep secret could be published. In Israel, the situation is the exact opposite: nothing related to state security can be published without prior approval from the IDF Censor. This is a drastic, unprecedented restriction on the ability to have a serious conversation on Israeli politics and history. Much of the public is completely ignorant when it comes to critical actions and policies.

Over the years, some of Israel’s leading journalists tried to challenge the Censor. They turned to the courts in order to gain approval to publish material, and at times even risked prison time for publishing materials that were in the public’s interest. Hadashot, a defunct Israeli daily newspaper, was shut down for...

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Why do we only listen to violence?

Two intifadas increased Israeli willingness to make territorial withdrawals. Wars in Lebanon and Egypt led Israel to withdrawals from those territories. Despite all that, the Palestinian Authority is trying to maintain quiet and security for Israelis but receives nothing in return. If I were Palestinian I might come to a disturbing conclusion.

One axiom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Palestinian violence pushes the Jewish public rightward. Due to violence, common wisdom goes, the willingness of Israeli Jews to make concessions or compromise decreases, and Palestinian independence or equality becomes more of a pipe dream. Only refraining from violence will bring Palestinians closer to their goal. This has become a truism across political camps: you hear it from the Right, Left, and center, as well as from various international actors. Reality, however, is much more complex, and sometimes the exact opposite. As Israelis and Palestinians seem headed into another prolonged and bloody escalation, it’s important to face the facts.

From a simple historical perspective, the claim that “quiet” brings us closer to peace is simply untrue. In the first 20 years following the Six-Day War, when Israel held onto the occupied territories with relative ease, the idea of withdrawal or establishing a Palestinian state was completely taboo. Israel gave up on the Peres-Hussein London Agreement in 1987, which would have transferred partial responsibility for the occupied Palestinian territories back to Jordan’s King Hussein, leaving the PLO out of the process. Only six years later, Israel recognized the PLO and accepted Arafat back to historic Palestine. It was the First Intifada that made the difference. At the beginning of the uprising, the Israeli public shifted to the right, but after four years it elected Rabin on a peace platform.

A similar process took place after the Second Intifada: Israelis broke right and chose Ariel Sharon, but the Israeli government then disengaged from Gaza; Sharon’s successor presented the Palestinians with the most far-reaching proposal to date. Under Netanyahu, however, when the number of Israeli casualties decreased significantly, the Israeli public drifted to the right and became far less willing to make compromises.

The logic that violence pushed Israel to agree to things it had previously rejected applies on other fronts, too. Take, for example, the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, or the peace agreement with Egypt, which was the direct result of the 1973 War. Israel rejected the pre-war peace offers that were...

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The Israeli Left needs to step up its game

Herzog’s new diplomatic plan goes against the real interests of all those who live between the river and the sea — Jews and Arabs alike. Now it’s up to the Left to come up with a new vision based on real coexistence. 

The Labor Party committee decided last week that it was officially parting with the two-state solution. The decision was not preceded by passionate discussions, nor was it extensively covered by the media. Had Prime Minister Netanyahu and Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog not traded barbs a few days later, I highly doubt anyone would have noticed. Even more than the decision itself, the general apathy with which it was received is worth paying attention to.

I do not know if the two-state solution is dead, like everyone is so quick to declare these days. There is no real “point of no return” in politics. What is clear is that the political process that was supposed to bring us there has come to an end. The formula was based on U.S.-mediated negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Israel is not interested, the PLO represents only a portion of the Palestinian people, and the Americans are slowly disengaging from the Middle East. The carrots Israel was supposed to receive — most important among them was legitimacy and normalization with Arab countries — seem less relevant in the face of the changes taking place in the Middle East. On the other hand, many Palestinians do not believe that a demilitarized half-state on 22 percent of historical Palestine is such a great deal — and even that much seems out of reach.

We are in the first stages of a new phase in the political relations between Jews and Palestinians. On this Herzog is correct: the Israeli Left needs new thinking, the kind that will take into account both regional and global developments. The problem is that most of the major players on the left (political parties, think tanks, journalists, intellectuals) prefer believing in stagnant ideas from the 80s and 90s. Either that or they just join the Right. That is precisely what the Labor Party’s discussion looked like — a struggle between the romantics of Oslo and “Rabin’s legacy,” and those who propose outflanking Netanyahu from the right.

Thus the Labor Party adopted a plan full of internal contradictions: on the one...

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Why the Israeli debate on the occupation misses the point

In the eyes of most Israelis, democracy consists of two Jews arguing over the fate of the Palestinian.

Natan Sharansky, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, used his experiences as a prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union in a recent op-ed in order to attack the activists of Israeli anti-occupation organization, Breaking the Silence, who do not shy from criticizing Israel’s policies in the occupied territories outside the country. Let me be clear: there are no similarities between what Jewish political activists in Israel go through and the persecution of dissidents in the USSR, and Sharansky’s contributions to human rights must never be forgotten, regardless of his current views.

But his article, which was published last week in Haaretz, includes one sentence that captures everything that is wrong with the Israeli public discussion on the occupation:

Who is missing from the picture? The Palestinians, of course. The entire idea of democracy is that everyone gets to participate in the discussion. But in Sharansky’s eyes, as in the eyes of most Israelis, democracy consists of two Jews arguing over the fate of the Palestinian. If the Jews don’t want Palestinians to have rights, they won’t have them.

Israelis do not have the right to endlessly deny Palestinians their freedom, and it doesn’t matter if that decision is made “democratically” or not. Sharansky is wrong — Breaking the Silence is right: there is nothing wrong with turning to the international community to put pressure on Israel to change its policies, since those policies are illegitimate to begin with.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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It's open season on anyone opposing the occupation

There is a campaign being carried out against anyone actively opposing the occupation in Israel, and it doesn’t matter if you’re an activist in the field, a human rights attorney or a former soldier talking about what you were ordered to do.

“Activists from the shady organization, “Ta’ayush,” who we tracked from within and outside, behind closed doors and during clashes on Saturdays, are going to fall one by one. Don’t worry friends. We will finish off Ezra Nawi and move on to Guy Butavia… and many others.”

That message was published and quickly spread on Facebook following the arrest of Ezra Nawi, and before the arrest of Guy Butavia, another activist in Ta’ayush, and B’Tselem field worker Nasser Nawajah. The three were arrested after a right-wing group, “Ad Kan,” gave allegedly incriminating materials to the police and primetime investigative news show, “Uvda.”

A month earlier, far-right group Im Tirzu marked other anti-occupation activists as targets: B’Tselem Executive-Director Haggai El-Ad; executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Yishai Menuchin; a prominent member of Breaking the Silence; and an attorney who protects Palestinians in Israeli courts on behalf of Hamoked — Center for the Defense of the Individual. This week it was revealed that right-wing group “Regavim” hired a private investigator to track human rights attorney Michael Sfard and Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din. There is a connection between each of these, of course.

The past few days have seen politicians and pundits comparing the “extreme left” to the “extreme right,” between the Ta’yush activists to the suspects in the Duma murders. Alon Idan wrote brilliantly about the mainstream’s tendency to create this kind of symmetry — replacing principled, moral judgment with statistics. But there is a different, more fundamental point that does not get the attention it deserves. In the case of Duma, the police went and looked for the perpetrators only after the crime was committed. The same goes for all the recent hate crimes by right-wing extremists, which were investigated by the state (the vast majority of so-called “price tag attacks” end with no indictment).

But in the case of the Ta’ayush activists, the process was reversed: “Ad Kan” did not go to the South Hebron Hills to investigate the harassment of land sellers. They went in search of ways to bring down Ta’ayush. To infiltrate the organization...

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Is religion an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Pew publishes surprising new data on religion in Israel, Palestine and the region.

We often hear that Israelis and Palestinians are more religious than other national groups, or at the very least are becoming more religious. This, they claim, makes any solution to the conflict more difficult to reach. A new Pew Research Center report reveals some rather surprising results vis-a-vis religion in Israel and Palestine.

Thirty-four percent of Israelis said that religion is “very important” in their lives, placing them at the top of the bottom one-third of countries listed, and — unsurprisingly — the lowest in the Middle East.

Pew Research Center report on importance of religion by country.

Meanwhile, 74 percent of Palestinians said that religious is very important in their lives. On the face of it, this is a very high statistic, but the poll also finds that there is an inverse correlation between wealth and religiosity. Put simply, people in poorer nations tend to place more importance on religion than those in wealthier nations, and Palestinians are significantly poorer than Israelis.

When placed on a wealth/religion curve, both the Israelis and Palestinians are very close to the curve. Israelis are slightly more religious than what one would expect when taking into account their level of income, while the Palestinians are slightly less religious in relation to their level of income. Among both nations, however, religion plays a fairly standard role in people’s lives relative to the rest of the world.

Pew Research Center report on importance of religion by country.

According to the report, the United States — the wealthiest nation included in the 2015 global survey based on gross domestic product per capita — is a notable exception to this trend. Americans are much more likely than their counterparts in other economically advanced nations to say religion is very important.

In my opinion, these findings support the hypothesis according to which religion is not some great barrier to Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and that control of resources (in other words: a struggle over land) is far...

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When Israel tortures Jewish terror suspects

The Right is furious over the alleged use of torture against the suspects in the murder of a Palestinian family. But is it any surprise that the tools used against Palestinians would eventually be used against Jews too?

“Torture in Israel? The Shin Bet’s actions in the Duma case may turn out to be the secret service’s new ‘Bus 300 Affair,’ wrote Yehuda Yifrach, the legal expert for the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon and the NRG news site, on his personal Facebook page.

Well, of course there is torture in Israel — it has been used here on a regular basis for decades. There was even an investigatory committee that dealt with the issue and the High Court even established a legal framework for the use of torture. There are also many testimonies that show how the Shin Bet regularly strays from that framework, using interrogation techniques that can be categorized as torture in order to force prisoners to confess, and not only in cases of a “ticking bomb.”

The Israeli Right has been accusing the Shin Bet of using violent interrogation methods against the suspects in the murder of three members of the Dawabshe family in Duma this past July. The suspects were allegedly prevented from seeing a lawyer until last Wednesday, prompting a large right-wing demonstration outside the home of Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen Saturday night.

Yirach’s bewilderment, as well as that of many on the Right, is not really about “torture in Israel,” but rather about the “torture of Jews.” This is a different question entirely. The attitude underlying Yifrach’s message is that Palestinians are not actually part of the Israeli system, despite having to obey its orders. They do not have the same civil rights as Jews, which makes admissible in court a confession extracted from a Palestinian minor, while a confession by a Jewish minor using the same techniques is inadmissible.

In truth, this is not the attitude of the Right, but of the Israeli mainstream, which is convinced that the occupied territories are part of Israel (or, at the very least, are disputed), while millions of people who live in this territory are not part of Israel, and they are not entitled to the same civil and human rights as Israelis. But the reality is that both the people and the land are under Israeli control and are subject to Israeli law...

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The real danger of outlawing Palestinian political movements

Banning and persecuting political groups like the Islamic Movement and Balad has the effect of disengaging Palestinian citizens of Israel from the state and its political system. That is very, very dangerous.

The Israeli government has done very few things that worry me more than its ongoing assault on the country’s Palestinian citizens’ political representation. In the latest such move, the government outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and seized assets and properties belonging to 17 affiliated organizations on Tuesday.

One of the things that enables Jews and Arabs to live together in this country, which despite everything is still happening, is that both sides participate in civil society and politics (Arab society’s political and economic grievances are debated in the Knesset and the court system, and religious and civil institutions operate under the laws of the state and with its acceptance of them).

There is no love lost: the Jews don’t share power with the Arabs, and the Palestinians clearly don’t identify with the idea of a Jewish state, and even boycott some of its institutions. Yet system works, more or less. That is no small accomplishment, especially considering both the internal and external pressures at play here, like the fact that Israel keeps millions of Palestinians under military rule.

The Jewish side decided in the past few years that it has had enough. If its red line used to be aiding the enemy (a line only a very small number of people actually crossed), today, rejecting the idea of the State of Israel has become cause for delegitimizing Palestinian political parties and movements. That is a very dangerous development.

The decision to outlaw the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and efforts to disqualify the Balad political party from running in elections do not stem from incitement or support for terrorism — those are crimes that already exist in the law books and are regularly enforced — but rather because both movements represent radical schools of thought. The accusations suggesting Sheikh Raed Salah and Haneen Zoabi are somehow responsible for the wave of stabbing attacks are ludicrous. Most of the attackers have come from areas like Hebron and East Jerusalem, where the influence of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and Balad are marginal compared to, say, Hamas (which won the last Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem). It takes a special kind of crazy to think that...

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Plenty of talk about 'peace,' little commitment

When leaders from center-left aren’t willing to deepen the struggle against the occupation, it’s hard not to feel that they, too, prefer the status quo. Notes from the Haaretz Conference for Peace.

The most genuine moments at Thursday’s Haaretz Conference on Peace came from two right-wing speakers — Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin, both ministers in Netanyahu’s government — who unequivocally called the two state-solution a “hallucination,” which they have no plans of ever implementing. Since neither of them have any intention of granting citizenship to Palestinians under occupation, they view the current situation as the solution.

Around the same time Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted that despite what he may have said during his recent trip to the United States, he has no intention of unilaterally evacuating West Bank settlements:

(Translation: I have no intention of evacuating or uprooting settlements, this mistake will not be repeated) 

And just as Netanyahu is not willing on signing an agreement that any sane Palestinian leadership could live with, he also believes that the status quo is the solution — at least in the near future.

I spent a good part of the day at Haaretz’s conference (I did not stay until the end), and the incredible thing is that these declarations — which did not come from the fringes of the right, but from the Israeli government and its spokespeople — did not seem to make an impression on anyone there. Very few of the speakers or panelists referred to them, and those who did — such as Joint List head Ayman Odeh or Amir Peretz of the Zionist Union — argued with Elkin and Levin, rather than dealing with the significance of their statements. As if Levin and Elkin were two internet trolls who happened upon the conference and decided to disrupt us while we were busy drawing up maps and tried to restart negotiations.

Martin Indyk, who was interviewed onstage by Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn, implored the crowd not to give up hope, saying that the problem between the two sides has been a “lack of trust.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair believes that Netanyahu is not interested in maintaining the current situation, and that if we only create...

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Another Netanyahu lie at CAP

Netanyahu claims that more Arabs voted for him than Labor in the last election. That’s simply false.

Think Progress, the internet news arm of the Center for American Progress, fact-checked Netanyahu’s talk at the influential Democratic think-tank yesterday. They found no less than 10 problematic statements on “the big issues.” As many observers were quick to point out, the problem was that nobody at the event knew enough to directly challenge Netanyahu on his statements — many of them inaccurate, out of context, or completely false.

Here is a little something Think Progress missed: Netanyahu was asked about his infamous “Arabs on buses” remarks on election day, in which he tried — and succeeded — in scaring right-wing voters to go the polls. Netanyahu admitted the comments should never had been made in the first place, but only before he went on to celebrate his government record on advancing Palestinian citizens, noting that more Arabs voted for his Likud party than Labor, his primary contender in the elections.

“First of all you should know that Arabs voted for me, and I welcome that. In fact, you may check this but I think they voted for me in considerably larger numbers than they voted for the Labor Party,” Netanyahu told CAP President and event moderator Neera Tanden.

(Watch from 7:30 for Netanyahu’s comments on Arab voters)

This statement, however, is simply not true. While it’s impossible to know the exact numbers (some polls in the mixed cities have both Jewish and Palestinian voters), a survey of the Arab cities and villages in Israel shows Labor getting more than three times as many votes as Likud. In the two biggest Palestinian cities, Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth, for example, Labor got 869 and 69 votes,respectively, while Likud only got 343 and 21. According to this count by Neer Ilin, Labor got more votes than Likud in 117 out of 132 Arab towns and villages in Israel. While this doesn’t include mixed cities, we can assume that the votes follow a very similar pattern.

The following is a table of the 24 largest Arab towns or villages. Labor outperformed Likud in them all except one, which ended in a tie (if the Facebook embedding doesn’t work, use this link).

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The side of Rabin's legacy Israelis love to forget

Over 20 years later, the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO teaches us one thing: despite the hatred, we have no choice but to live together.

From year to year, the memory of Yitzhak Rabin goes from a political issue to a nostalgic one. Twenty years after his assassination, the Israeli public is inundated with memories of Rabin the IDF chief of staff, Rabin the smoker, Rabin the straight-talker, etc. The films and articles memorializing him usually obscure (and often do not even include) one specific image: Rabin shaking hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. This photo, of course, shows Rabin’s greatest achievement. If anything is worth remembering over the next dozen or hundreds of years, it is this.

This image, as well as the Oslo Accords, was made possible through the mutual letters of recognition between Israel and the PLO (Rabin was once again elected prime minister in 1992, when contact with the PLO were still illegal according to Israeli law) that Arafat and Rabin exchanged just days prior. In the letter to the prime minister, Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, while Rabin recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Beyond Oslo, these letters were momentous in and of themselves. Many agreements followed, but the moment of mutual recognition was singular in the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it reverberates until this very day — despite all the blood that has been shed.

Oslo was problematic — it perpetuated unequal relations between the two sides, left fundamental problems for the future, gave its opponents the time and opportunity to try and undermine it, and became a platform to continue the occupation, rather than end it. The mutual recognition, however, towers above the agreement and its many failures. It was a pragmatic recognition: Israel did not recognize the Palestinian people’s rights to the land, and the Palestinians did not recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” But throughout Israeli/Palestinian history, it has proven to be the most profound and significant expression for the understanding that both peoples live in this land, and that the only chance for a better future is if they live side by side as equals.

Most Israelis hate this image. I assume that many Palestinians also deplore it. Rabin, after all, was responsible for one of...

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