A West Bank rabbi, friend of the Palestinians, against the US plan

Shaul David Judelman founded a peace group, Shorashim-Judur (Friends of roots), with Palestinian Khaled Abou Awad. The forces pushing for annexation will not succeed, but the underlying cause of division remain. Differences separate Gantz from Netanyahu whilst Fatah and Hamas remain apart. The US plan missed an opportunity to revive negotiations.


Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Shaul David Judelman, an Israeli rabbi who lives in a Jewish West Bank settlement, is the founder, with Palestinian Khaled Abou Awad, of Shorashim-Judur (Friends of Roots), a group that promotes dialogue and coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that true "reconciliation" is a basis for "political initiatives" that can heal past “pain and suffering”. For him, this includes not ignoring the “identities of vast swaths of our populations,” both settlers and refugees, as well as promoting "investment in grass-roots programs", from education to religion, that must involve leaders.

Shaul David Judelman left Seattle for Bat Ayin, a religious settlement in the Occupied West Bank. Together with a Palestinian, with whom he developed a close bond of friendship over the years, he has tried to promote coexistence in one or two states.

This is more relevant than ever, at a time of renewed tensions over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex part of the Jordan valley. Under the plan, which follows Trump’s controversial “deal of the century,” Israel would annex 30 per cent of the land of the future Palestinian state. For the rabbi, the plan is bound to fail, but it mirrors the conflict between the parties and their inability to have real dialogue and a frank discussion to find a solution.

Here is the interview (edited for clarity and length) with Shaul David Judelman: 

Do you think that in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and despite appeals by the international community, except for the US and few others, the Israeli government will go ahead with the annexation plan?

I don't think the forces pushing for annexation will go ahead with it in the end. There are complex reasons for this, based on whether the annexation can bring about a real paradigm shift in future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the international discourse. I think that is out of reach. 

Benny Gantz can play some role in limiting Netanyahu policies. How can this evolve?

Benny Gantz has a large role because the Americans want the decision about annexation to come from a unified Israeli coalition. But here lies the big difference between Gantz's perspective and Bibi’s. Gantz probably isn't looking for a unilateral step that will close the gate on a Palestinian state (maximalist annexation) but probably sees it as a way to acknowledge (albeit unilaterally) things that Israel consider as de jure like the settlement blocks that were largely agreed upon for land swaps in previous negotiations.

The question of the Jordan Valley is the real breaker for the Palestinian Authority (PA). I don't know for sure how Gantz sees it. There was a very insightful article by Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel that spoke about aspects of what annexation means from a geo-political perspective. (The article sees US disengagement from the Mideast as the drive behind the annexation.)

What should the PA do?

I don't know. It would have been a masterful move for them to have accepted some parts of Trump’s plan as a basis to negotiation. Bibi would have been caught by surprise. They [the Palestinians] would have had tremendous world and Arab support. But that didn't happen. We ended up where we are today because of actions from both sides, but had the PA agreed to recognise the Jewish-Israeli heritage in the West Bank, even offered a real recognition of that in a form of proposed settlements, that would have taken a lot of wind out of Israeli sails. But they seem to have become "national red-lines" that the PA or the PLO wouldn't allow. 

I think the PA should probably face its questionable legitimacy (lack of elections) with some kind of democratic PLO-based process of hearing what the Palestinian people want, and acting on its behalf. [. . .] But the split between Fatah and Hamas has been the real catastrophe for the Palestinian cause over the last ten years.  As much as I'm glad I’m not Bibi, and I'm even more grateful that I am not Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas).  

For many years, the international community seems to have forgotten the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is it too late to try to find a suitable agreement and revive dialogue?

I don't think the problem is with the international community. The problem is within both societies and the lack of a partner on either side. Some political voices in both nations, that claim to have the truth, have had their way. 

The role of the international community in this conflict is very tricky. If you think it can just force an agreement upon the Israelis, like the pro-Palestinian camp wants, you overlook a lot of realpolitik in the world and Israel's successes. If you think (like Trump) that you can force the Palestinians, you overlook the principled perspectives and pride of the Palestinian cause. 

I think the question should be: Is it too late to empower the moderate camps to start building trust and hence a voter base that could support leaders looking for a suitable agreement? It's not too late, but everyone’s focus seems to be on the wrong factors.

In your website you seem to focus on two major points: building trust and understanding. Are they still possible between leaders and ordinary people?

As a civil society initiative, we believe that this is our role. There is a paradox between reconciliation work and political rights. I think that, at this stage of the conflict, it is not just over ideas, but deep about "fight or flight' emotions that charge many people’s perspectives. Without reconciliation, there is no will to try political initiatives to overcome past pain and suffering in our societies.

On the ground, there is so much that can be done. Last week, an Israeli man jumped into a lake to save a Bedouin family of four. He died while saving them. An ordinary Israeli did that. But if you ask in a Palestinian Facebook page "who are the Israelis?" you can imagine what kind of answer you'll get. Likewise, there are many stories of Palestinians helping Israeli motorists after accidents. But those are stories about ordinary people. If there was a little more political will, and a framework to advance the common good in the policies that really affect people – like water access and building rights, condemning of attacks against civilians and recognition of Jewish heritage even in the West Bank/Judea-Samaria – these would be real steps that can reset things.

What mistakes of the past must not be repeated?

Ignoring the identities of vast swaths of our populations in the political design. Be they refugees or settlers, theirs are core stories to the Palestinian and Israeli identity that cannot be ignored.

Without investment in grass-roots programs, from the education system and regional planning to the involvement of religious leaders, we will remain victims of the calls and actions of the extremists.  The late Rabbi Menachem Froman once said, "religion in this land is not just some dust you can sweep under the carpet and carry on. It's like a tiger, and if you do that, it will rise and bite." We would be foolish to ignore this again.

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