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Netanyahu's "Shibboleths" Scuttle Peace Talks

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Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu
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"No partner for peace" is one of several "shibboleths" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (above, left) and his cabinet are now using to scuttle any peace agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas, no matter how often U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Tel Aviv.

As readers of Judges 12:6 are well aware, pronunciation of the word "shibboleth" is used to separate friends from enemies.

In episode eight of the second season of the television series West Wing, for example, President Josiah Bartlett used "shibboleth" to determine that Chinese immigrants were truly Christian and therefore deserved admission to the U.S. To assert that Israel "has no partner for peace" is a verbal signal, a "shibboleth," which quickly certifies that the speaker is "with Israel," without reservations.

When John Kerry returned last week to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for his 10th visit, he brought with him a proposal to discuss "four core issues" with the peace negotiators. Because he is a master diplomat (another reason to regret his failure to defeat incumbent President George W. Bush in 2004) Kerry knew Netanyahu would find ways to defer progress toward peace.

Kerry's "four core issues" were quickly expanded by Netanyahu and members of his cabinet, to "six core issues." Added to the negotiation table were two tried and true Israeli "shibboleths" -- "Israel must be acknowledged as a Jewish state" and Israel must maintain military control over the Palestinian Jordan Valley.

Both are what negotiators refer to as "poison pills," demands certain to be rejected by President Abbas. "No partner for peace" is used to add icing on the cake, since negotiations are simply not a part of Israeli leaders' DNA.

The Zionists who planned the Nakba, village by village, prior to the outbreak of war in 1947, were there as colonial conquerers. The intent was to move steadily from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east. Thanks in large measure to the horrors of the Holocaust, the world both tolerated and encouraging this march to the east."

There were always signs that this march would be unrelenting and not subject to negotiations. This has been obvious in subsequent Israeli governments that employed "peace talks" as diversions for expansion and additional military control. Even when Israel pretended to move in a positive manner, it was for its own security purposes, as was the case of its "withdrawal" to the Israeli-controlled borders of Gaza.

Early in President Jimmy Carter's term in office, I traveled with President Carter to the United Nations where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachen Begin. When I was very briefly introduced to Began, I knew he had been briefed by his American aides who assumed, correctly, that because I was with President Carter, I would behave.

"Oh yes," he said to me, "You are with us." I mumbled an answer that I hoped was both diplomatic and accurate. Since I was not whisked away, I must have passed the "you are with us" test.

It was not a proud moment for me, having by that time made enough visits to the occupied areas to know this was an grossly uneven struggle between the occupier and the occupied. But knowing President Carter, I knew he would say "there is a time to be silent and a time to speak," I responded to Begin in polite no-speak platitudes.

The encounter, however, was revealing to me of the Israel leader's strong "us against them" mindset. After that,  I responded often to the prime minister and his successors, through whatever avenue of communication I was able to commandeer.

I have no idea how Israel identifies frequent visitors who are either "with us" or "against us," but I do know that all my subsequent arrivals and departures in Tel Aviv have not been greeted with warm smiles. Maybe the Israeli border computer records have a "smiley face" that stands for "with us" and a "frowny face" for those who are "against us."

I do know that one attempt I made to travel to Tel Aviv hit a snag when I flew from Chicago on American Airlines and changed planes in Rome to fly on El Al to Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials had their own little corner security operation in the airport basement in Rome. Because the Israelis felt I had not given them sufficient time to have all my bags (including my laptop) thoroughly examined, I was required to spend a night in the Rome airport hotel. That cost me some money and it may also have earned me two "frowny faces."

In Jerusalem the next day, I complained about this experience to a American Jewish Committee staffer who spoke to the group I was leading. His "with us" or "against us" answer was blunt. He told me that earlier (I knew it was at least several years earlier) a Catholic or maybe it was an Orthodox priest, had been apprehended driving into Israel with a trunk load of rifles.

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James Wall served as a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois, from 1999 through 2017. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Many sources have influenced (more...)

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