The ‘foreign minister’ of the settler community discusses relations with his Palestinian neighbors and points to unexpected obstacles to peace.
REPRINTS FROM THE JERUSALEM POST; BY GOL KALEV, MAY 3, 2018
Oded Revivi meets foreign ambassadors and officials regularly and hosts about 30 foreign delegations a month in his dual role as head of foreign relations of the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization representing communities in Judea and Samaria) and as the mayor of Efrat, a settlement in Gush Etzion.
Having such exposure, he is convinced that core to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fundamental misunderstanding of both the Palestinians and of the settlers.
Revivi was invited to brief Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s representative for international negotiations, on several occasions. “I told him that throughout the years, we have been pulled by two major vectors,” Revivi reflects. “One is the question of who has a better title and the other is the debate over one state vs. two states.”
Revivi believes that both of those vectors are irrelevant and it is time for a new direction.
“We have always tried to resolve the conflict in a top-down way,” he says. “This did not work, no matter who the negotiators were. I suggest changing the attitude and trying to initiate a process that is bottom-up.”
Relying on his familiarity with Palestinians, settlers and the broader Israeli public, Revivi believes there is an opportunity today to “build as many bridges and take down as many walls as possible.” This is in contrast to prevailing Israeli views of building walls and fences.
“Fences provide only a sense of security, not real security,” he states.
REVIVI MAINTAINS that building bottom-up bridges is realistic, since such bridges were there in the recent past. He reminisces about the time before 1993 Oslo Accords – before the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the massive intervention by European and international organizations.
“I can still remember the smells of the market in Hebron, where we shopped,” he reflects. “If we went to a restaurant in Tel Aviv, the waiter was often from Gaza. Look how far away we went from that.”
Revivi believes that before arriving at a solution, one needs to rebuild the trust that was lost in the last decades.
“What I say to our Jewish fellows in Judea and Samaria is that we need to find ways to get along with our neighbors, because if we do not, we will be building more barriers.”
He believes that the Palestinians are ready.
“I have absolutely no doubt that Palestinians want normalization. You see it in the Rami Levy supermarket [in Gush Etzion settlement bloc] where Jews and Arabs shop together and in other places of interaction.”
But Revivi stresses that the building of such bridges needs to be done quietly and latently, learning from mistakes of the past.
When he took office as mayor of Efrat in 2008, he visited the neighboring Palestinian community and met with its leader, suggesting cooperation on a range of issues. He said his proposals were met with enthusiasm, “but the village leader said that he could not do that, because if he agreed, he would not be here tomorrow.”
This, he argues, is symptomatic of the wide gap that between the sentiments of the Palestinians and the debilitating narrative imposed on them by the outside.
“The following day, Al Jazeera recounted the meeting word for word and complemented the village leader for not falling into the temptation of cooperation with the Zionist entity,” Revivi recalls.
But this did not deter the quiet cooperation between settlements like Efrat and surrounding Palestinian villages.
“We try to help them and they try to help us in every matter we can think of, but everything needs to be under the table,” he emphasizes.
He describes not just cooperation between settlers and Palestinians, but actual friendship. Two years ago, the leaders of a neighboring village invited him to celebrations for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
This was in the same week when terrorist attacks claimed the lives of Rabbi Michael Mark and 13-yearold Hallel Yaffa Ariel. Revivi recounts sharing with his Palestinian hosts that it was difficult for him to celebrate having just come from condolence calls.
“The crowd greeted me warmly. Halfway through the festivities, people start taking out their cellphones to take pictures. They posted our photos on Facebook writing alongside them, ‘We believe in peace, we are against violence.’” Two weeks later, on Sukkot, Revivi reciprocated by inviting a handful of people from Palestinian villages to his home.
“I invited 10 Palestinians and 10 residents of Efrat,” he recalls. “Thirty Palestinians and 80 residents of Efrat showed up. Shortly thereafter, local military commanders joined the festivities. The Palestinians were so excited about seeing senior Israeli officers and were queuing to take selfies with the generals.” The Palestinians subsequently posted those photos on their Facebook pages.
“The following day we got a call from one of the Palestinians saying that they had been summoned by the Palestinian police for interrogation,” Revivi recalls. “They were told they were suspected of negotiating a peace agreement with the Israelis.”
With photos posted on Facebook, there was no way to deny their presence in the Jewish festivities.
“It took us four days, three US Congressmen that we called, and other means,” he reflects. “After tense days and buckets of tears from the wives and families, we got the news that the Palestinians were finally on way back home.”
A year went by and this past Sukkot Revivi jokingly asked his Palestinians neighbors if they were coming again this year. To his surprise, the Palestinians did not think it was a joke.
“They said that tradition is tradition, but this time they imposed a strict condition: nobody is to take any photos.”
An even bigger crowd showed up this year and a band of joint Israeli and Palestinian musicians volunteered to play.
“Every other statement was no pictures, no pictures.” But as the night progressed, some Palestinians took photos of the Arab violinist and posted them.
“It took the Palestinian Authority only three hours to find the violinist,” Revivi recalls. “They brought him for interrogation.” This time, they let him go without American and Israeli intervention. Such stories are a clear indication to Revivi that bridges need to connect to the Palestinian public and not to the Palestinian Authority, Europeans or other external actors.
Oded Revivi pauses for a photo during a meeting with former US secreatary of state Henry Kissinger and Itai Ofir, legal counsel for security systems with the Defnese Ministry. (photo credit: Oded Revivi).
“There is enormous distance between people on the ground level and those who claim to be their leaders and represent their interests.”
Revivi empathizes with the plight of his Palestinian neighbors who are subjected to a narrative that is dictated to them not only by the Palestinian Authority, but by the EU, international organizations, and mostly by extremist groups.
“They do not have a choice. They cannot express their own wishes and desires because of the small extreme loud violent minority. There are people who have an interest in having the conflict go on.”
In identifying barriers to peace, Revivi lists the European Union’s boycott of settlements as “one of greatest examples of how people who dictate policy do not understand the reality.”
He points to the damage Europeans inflict on the Palestinians.
“There was a call to boycott SodaStream. The owner closed down the factory and moved it inside Israel.
He did not have any loss in sales, but hundreds of Palestinians have lost their jobs.”
LIKE REVIVI, others have been complaining about the hardship European boycotts cause to Palestinians, but what is less known is how much the European boycott helps those Jewish-owned businesses they are attempting to hurt. This is due not only to a subtle “not in my name” counter-movement of righteous Europeans that seek to end Europe’s obsession with Israel, but apparently also due to support for the boycotted businesses outside of Europe. Revivi points to the Israeli wine industry as an example.
“In South America there are no requirements to label the Jewish-made products like you have in Europe, but they have been asking to get bottles with the labeling because they found this raises their sales.
It is perceived as a sign of high quality.”
Such examples underscore the notion that boycotts and BDS are not just anti-Israeli, but also anti-Palestinian movements, often tainted with Islamophobia.
However, Palestinian objections to European boycotts and to BDS also need to be voiced quietly.
Revivi recounts the experience of a Palestinian contractor who employs 150 Palestinians working in Efrat and other settlements: “He spoke on TV against BDS and the following day he got summoned by the Palestinian Authority for interrogation.”
The contractor was released, but the fear among Palestinians remains, leading to what some describe as the triple occupation of Palestine: by the Israelis, the European narrative and the Palestinian Authority.
“There are people who are afraid to go to Israel for social services,” he says.
He is hoping that this will change.
“My message to the EU and international community is let’s invest in people, let’s invest in jobs, let’s take acts that encourage cooperation, because this is where the future lies,” but this message is far from reaching receptive ears.
“Some of the European money is invested not due to economic motivations or logical reasons,” Revivi explains. “It is to create facts on the ground.”
IS EUROPEAN taxpayers’ money being used to perpetuate the conflict? He gives an example.
“They build in areas that were never developed in the past and are not going to be developed in the future, and then they put out a sign – built by the European community.”
The sign is likely designed for Europeans to score favors with Palestinians or perhaps to cater to constituents at home, but such wasteful funding is not just taking money that could be deployed in programs or in Europe, but it is doubling down on the European dictation of divisiveness.
“They try to come closer to settlements to limit the amount of land it could expand on,” Revivi explains.
“For example, a vineyard is being built with no access to water. There too, a big sign was put up – built by the European Community.”
He elaborates, “When I have meetings with European diplomats, it is clear that they have not sufficiently studied the needs of private Palestinian individuals.
They go through the Palestinian Authority.”
He underscores the fault of such an approach.
“There have been no elections in the Palestinian territories for more than 12 years. You do not know who those people are representing and you do not know where your money goes to.”
He believes it is time for a change in European and international behavior.
“Foreign aid is important, but it needs to be diverted to peace initiatives and not just in preparation for the next round of violence.”
Revivi emphasizes that he is against pending proposals to stop funding to the Palestinian Authority and to Palestinian causes. He had the opportunity to argue his views to US congressmen who are contemplating such moves: “I told them that if you stop funding the Palestinians, more extreme money would be coming in. What you need is to be sure that there is more accountability.
There needs to be a better understanding of what is done with the funds. This is doable.”
In assessing the external barriers to peace, he believes that the media also play a role in contributing to the lack of understanding. He recounts an interview he had a with a prominent European TV channel.
“For some reason, they wanted to take footage of me staring at my aquarium. I did not realize I was falling into a trap.” When it was aired, he learned the shot was included in a story about water shortage in Bethlehem.
Sewage is pouring in the streets of Bethlehem, while the settlers across the road are enjoying their fishtanks.
But he took it stride and believes it highlights an important issue.
“The starting point was the same. When we signed the Oslo Accords, Israel had severe water shortages, too, but we solved them creatively. We basically interfered with an act of God by creating water.”
REVIVI STATES that cooperation agreements were signed with the Palestinians, who were meant to benefit from Israeli water technology, but such cooperation never materialized.
“The EU funded water projects in Bethlehem and elsewhere, but the funds never reached their final destination. Like in other cases, they ended up in the Swiss bank accounts of Palestinian leaders.”
Given such realities, both organic and externally imposed, Revivi thinks a shift in necessary.
“The mental situation of both population these days is one of division,” he states. “There is lack of trust, there is fear and there are wide barriers. There is no way of reaching an agreement under these circumstances.”
He is calling to abandon a current mantra that exists on both sides. “Who is to blame is irrelevant. What went wrong is irrelevant.” He believes misperceptions must be shed in order to move forward. “People are not addressing the difficult questions on the table. We need to change the discussion – In Israel and in the international community.”
One such misperception, according to Revivi, is the notion that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.
“The PLO was established in 1963, before there were any settlements,” he reminds us, and adds that the settlements are just 1.6% of the footprint of the West Bank.
Another misperception is the idolizing of the two-state solution.
“The majority of Palestinians have no trust in leadership,” he says. “Who are you going to build this imaginary second state with?” Revivi points to research by Palestinian academics showing unbridgeable disconnects between the Palestinian people and the so-called “Tunisians” who control them – a reference to the PLO leadership that was brought into the West Bank by the Israelis as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Given the lack of accountability, one can argue that a two-state solution might merely amount to Palestinians switching from one occupier to yet another: From the Turkish to the British to the Jordanians to the Israelis to the “Tunisians.”
ANOTHER MISPERCEPTION that needs to be shed relates to the legal status of the settlements and the land on which they are built.
“Most people do not even know the fact that the previous possessor of the land was an Arab country, [Jordan], that [in 1988] signed a waiver, stating they have no claim to this land,” he says. “Once they did that, it changed the status from occupied to disputed territories.”
Revivi stresses that this does not refute a third-party claim to the same territories – that of the Palestinians – but states that it reduces the international law implications.
He also thinks that it is time to abandon misperceptions and old frameworks about refugees, pointing out that there were more Jewish refugees forced out of their home in Arab countries than there were Palestinian refugees.
“I am a third-generation refugee,” he states. “We in Israel do not use this terminology, but the starting point was the same.”
So what can be done? Revivi encourages recognition of the sophisticated nature of the situation and not digression to simplistic frameworks.
“We cannot solve things by drawing a line,” he says.
“The reality is much more complex.”
Building bottom-up bridges can be a long a process in the quest for peace, but as a starting point, Revivi urges all to finally internalize and fully embrace a fundamental reality, “Neither they nor we are going away.”