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Tel Aviv U's Radical Hire By: Joel Amitai
Israel Academia Monitor | Thursday, January 03, 2008


Polls show that a majority of Israelis aren’t too ideologically attached to the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and don’t oppose a Palestinian state there in principle, but are pessimistic about the chances that such a state would be peaceful and stop waging war on what would be left of Israel. To some of us this looks like a dangerous tiredness—“Take it, just give me peace, or even take it without giving me peace.” In this region unprincipled tiredness can get translated as weakness and lead to further aggression. But, in any case—for reasons not difficult to understand after the past fifteen years of Israeli concessions followed by radically increased Palestinian terror—security concerns and a perception of the other side’s hostility remain prevalent among Israelis.

For those and other reasons the recent appointment of Dr. Gary Sussman as vice-president for external relations of Tel Aviv University looks like a strange choice. Sussman, formerly director of research and program development at TAU’s Hartog School of Government and Policy, is a native South African who in his writings frequently makes connections between Israel and apartheid South Africa and stands well outside the mainstream Israeli perception of being under attack by people who reject Israel in principle and are not seeking peace.

Gary Sussman is also a member of the tiny “Courage to Refuse” group of soldiers who openly refuse to engage in lifesaving security work against terrorist organizations anywhere beyond the armistice borders of 1949—that is, precisely where the terror organizations are concentrated and the work has to be done if the Israeli population is to be protected from murderous attacks.

On February 8, 2006, Sussman was one of the commentators in The Guardian on a previous Guardian article by Chris McGeal accusing Israel of apartheid. Sussman wrote: “I grew up on a farm in rural and conservative South Africa . The whites in the nearby village and its surrounds were very racist. Farmers beat their labourers. Blacks could not enter a white person’s house through the front door.… Hence, the comparison makes me feel very queasy…. I think the analogy is too harsh.”

Sound all right so far? Read on: “…Chris McGeal…is merely the messenger.... McGeal holds up a mirror to Israeli society. He says this is what you look like to me, to many in the international community and to the Palestinians.... I remain optimistic that we can defy this analogy and save ourselves from becoming another South Africa .”

Except that: “There is one thing that makes me less optimistic. Israelis have fallen in love with unilateral disengagement…. When I hear the high priests of unilateralism speak, I am troubled by their smugness, their supreme confidence that the Palestinians will behave in whatever way we Israelis want them to. It’s a chilling reminder of the white South African constitutional engineers and leaders who spoke about imposing solutions, drawing lines and maps and engineering the country….”

Oops—so the analogy is “too harsh,” except when Sussman makes it himself. Back in February 2006 one could make arguments for and against Israeli unilateral disengagement from parts of the territories (ca. December 2007, with the objectively disastrous results of the Gaza disengagement having emerged clearly, no one makes “pro” arguments anymore). But to liken the disengagement idea to apartheid is astounding.

After fifteen years in which attempts to gradually transfer control of territories to the Palestinians, according to carefully negotiated agreements, resulted in slaughter and mayhem in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and many other places in Israel, Israelis latched on to the notion of giving up the gradualism and handing over territory lock, stock, and barrel. The idea was that if the hated “occupiers” were totally removed from Gaza, the Palestinians there would at long last set about peacefully building their own society—an idea that exploded in a rain of rockets on the Gaza-belt Israeli communities that continues to this day.

Yet Sussman wrote of “the white South African constitutional engineers and leaders who spoke about imposing solutions, drawing lines and maps and engineering the country”—when the Israeli impulse was the precise opposite: to remove every vestige of Israeli control over Gaza, every soldier and settler and even every last Israeli cemetery (they were all dug up and transferred), and leave the Palestinians there entirely free to pursue their own destiny. Many Israelis hated doing military service in Gaza , hated patrolling Palestinian towns, imposing roadblocks, and so on. If the Gaza experiment had worked well, Israelis would have been quite willing to negotiate with the Palestinians the disposition of the remaining lands in the West Bank .

But Sussman, rather than writing about these issues like someone who is part of Israeli society and shares its experiences, its hopes, aversions, and fears, instead sounds like a hostile foreign observer. So it is hard to be sanguine about his new role as vice-president for external relations of Israel 's largest university.

In the winter 2005/06 issue of Jewish Quarterly, Sussman reviewed Natan Sharansky’s (with Ron Dermer) well-known book The Case for Democracy. In the review, among other things, Sussman—like Israel ’s bitterest enemies—took aim at Israel ’s security fence: “How a [Jerusalem-based] NGO like Miftah…can bring about a Palestinian democracy when a wall physically divides it from the people it is supposed to serve is a question that Sharansky does not address.” But nowhere in the review does Sussman address the fact that Israel only started building the security fence in 2002 after 850 Israelis had been killed and thousands wounded in Palestinian terror attacks beginning in September 2000.

Again, the efficacy and ultimate wisdom of the fence can be debated. What is absent from Sussman’s scornful reference is any mention of the fact that many Israelis, including not a few security experts, believe that it saves hundreds of lives, or any sympathy with the horrendous Israeli death and suffering that finally led to the decision to construct the fence—death and suffering that followed directly upon Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s offer of statehood to the Palestinians at Camp David in summer 2000.

Sussman’s main beef with Sharansky is that he would first want the Palestinians to prove that they’re democratic and peaceful before handing them a sovereign state. Again, this—at least regarding peacefulness if not democracy—is a mainstream view and is now voiced regularly by Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni. These leaders speak more about their desire for a Palestinian state than about Israeli aspirations, but still with a few stipulations—such as that the Palestinian state should preferably not be a terror-entity that would continue to instill hatred of Jews and perpetrate constant attacks on Israeli civilians.

Sussman, though, takes the view—found in Israel only among the radical Left—that this is backwards: “Although it is true that Israel committed a sin of omission during the Oslo process by underestimating the importance of Arafat’s shenanigans, denial of Palestinian sovereignty was a more serious hindrance to progress.” In other words, sovereignty first, then “progress” (progress toward what?). And again: “Sharansky’s basic instinct is that more freedom [for the Palestinians] is required. This is a healthy intuition. [But an] essential precondition is ending the occupation. In doing so, Israel will also empower Palestinian democrats.”

In making such an assertion, Sussman does not say who these Palestinian democrats are nor why it can be assumed that removing Israel ’s presence would “empower” them. His sovereign Palestinian state would be the twenty-second Muslim-Arab state, and not in a single one of the first twenty-one are democrats in power ( Lebanon , with its considerable Christian population, comes closest but its partial democracy is now hanging by a thread). Today’s Arab states were, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, territories occupied by European countries that eventually left; was those countries’ departure followed by democratic empowerment? Since the French left Algeria , has it blossomed as a democracy? Did the end of the British occupation of Iraq usher in a Jeffersonian wonderland?

Sussman’s optimism—empirically baseless—about the Palestinians is no doubt tied to the sympathy and admiration he feels toward them; at one point in the review he refers to them as “the plucky Palestinians.” “Plucky” is a remarkably admiring adjective for any Israeli to use regarding the Palestinians ca. 2005/06, after so much savage aggression on the Palestinians’ part. It is, as always, a case of drastically unrequited love; when was the last time you saw a Palestinian write that “the plucky Israelis show great resolve in withstanding our waves of terror and continuing to maintain a democracy and strive to make peace with us….”?

Sussman also criticizes Sharansky because “there seems little to indicate that he could accept Palestinians enjoying full control over their airspace, territorial waters and borders.… And if Israel were to prevent the Palestinian entity from forming diplomatic relations with… Iran for example, it would violate that entity’s external sovereignty….”

True, the sovereignty of such a Palestinian state would be imperfect; it would be nice to live in a world, and a Middle East , of fully sovereign, peaceful countries benignly existing side by side. But if almost all Israelis have concerns about a future Palestinian state’s “full control over [its] airspace, territorial waters and borders,” or its ability to form alliances with the likes of Iran , it is not because Israelis are sadists who want to set the Palestinians up with a state and then humiliate them. It is because these dangers are glaringly real and, if not attended to, could spell catastrophe for Israel . It does not take too much imagination to grasp, say, the dangers of a Palestinian state that has full control over its airspace and is allied with Iran .

And for these worries Sussman, who has lived in Israel since 1992, shows a striking lack of sympathy or even acknowledgment of their rationality.

Instead he pontificates that: “Sharansky is, at best, willing to agree to an entity that falls well below a state. Earlier this year he was hosted by the South African Jewish community—one hopes that they informed him that a project of a similar nature ultimately failed in that country.”

For one thing, “well below a state” is a description that suits Sussman’s aim of total Palestinian empowerment; what the Palestinians have even now in the West Bank and Gaza already meets many of the criteria of a state (or two states). Second . . . there’s that comparison with South Africa again!

And it comes up again in “Ariel Sharon and the Jordanian Option,” a speculation about former prime minister Sharon’s strategy that Sussman published in March 2005 in Middle East Report Online. Charging Sharon with misjudging the Palestinians, Sussman admonished that “misguided assumptions about one’s opponents are an inherent flaw of unilateral games—as [former South African prime minister] F. W. de Klerk can testify.”

And again in “The Challenge to the Two-State Solution,” which Sussman published on the same site in summer 2004 (reprinted in 2006 in a book coedited by Joel Beinin, known as one of Israel’s harshest critics): “Skeptics submit that far from enhancing the two-state solution, the Sharon government has effectively hijacked “separation”…to serve its own political agenda, namely, a state of bantustans on some 42 percent of the West Bank.”

And there are still other instances of these comparisons in the four Sussman works I’ve quoted from, but you get the idea. Sussman cannot long discuss Israel , a democracy that gives full rights to its Arab minority and makes drastic, dangerous concessions to its neighbors in striving to make peace with them—without comparing it to the South African regime where a white minority ruled over a vastly larger black majority while perpetrating blatantly racist policies.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Sussman also has been a member—and appears to have been as late as 2006—of the “Courage to Refuse” group of Israeli soldiers who have signed a declaration of refusal to serve in the territories. The group consists of a few hundred generally radical-Left soldiers out of an army of a few hundred thousand that encompasses all shades of political opinion in the population. Many who serve support the “two-state solution,” but also know that at present the West Bank is teeming with irredentist terrorists who work night and day to resume subjecting Israel to suicide bombings and, in addition, rocket attacks.

Indeed, the loyal Israeli population with its diverse views knows that the main factor (along, possibly, with the fence), since Operation Defense Shield began late in March 2002, that has made life in pre-1967 Israel livable again—instead of a slaughterhouse—is the difficult, dangerous, round-the-clock security work of Israeli soldiers and intelligence operatives in the territories. It is here that the real, patriotic, self-sacrificing courage lies, not among those who proudly flaunt the “courage to refuse.”

Yet the name of “Gary Sussman, sergeant, infantry” appears several times over the years on the refuseniks’ signed statement, including one from as recently as January 2004 (Sussman is no. 133 on the list). The statement, among other things, proclaims: “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people”—again, the kind of slanderous rhetoric found only among Israel ’s bitterest enemies.

Sussman, indeed, appears to play a major role in the group, since one of its solicitations for funds states that “cheques (made out to [group leader] David Zonshein) can be posted [to] Gary Sussman” and then gives Sussman’s Tel Aviv address. And as late as 2006, a film on the refuseniks listed Sussman among those to whom “Special thanks” were due.

Jews and non-Jewish supporters of Israel have been up in arms about the views expressed by the likes of Jimmy Carter, or Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer: likening Israel to apartheid South Africa, condemning the security fence, showing invincible sympathy for the Palestinians and endorsement of their claims no matter how many crimes they commit, ignoring or belittling Israel’s very real security concerns and the terrible price in blood it has paid for its attempts at peacemaking.

Perhaps one should be even more up in arms that someone who not only propagates such views, but “acts” on them by refusing to participate in his country’s life-and-death struggle against terrorist organizations, is now vice-president for external relations of Tel Aviv University.


Joel Amitai is an independent researcher and filmmaker. Reach him at jamitai40@gmail.com.


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