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Ira Chernus | Hamas and Israel Trade Hannukah Gifts

As Israeli Jews were preparing to light their first Hanukkah candle, the Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, told a press conference: “We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees.”

As Israeli Jews were preparing to light their first Hanukkah candle, the Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, told a press conference: “We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees.”

Speaking for his Hamas party, he added that if a referendum of all Palestinians — in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora — agreed to a peace deal with Israel, “Hamas will respect the results, regardless of whether it differs with [Hamas] ideology and principles.” Haniyeh also said that “a priority of his government was to avoid a military escalation with Israel by persuading other militant factions to preserve a de facto ceasefire.”

Was it just coincidence that Haniyeh, who rarely holds press conferences, chose the eve of Hanukkah to repeat what Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal has already said several times? Perhaps Haniyeh has studied history and knows that the common story of Hannukah — brave Jewish warriors, led by the Maccabees, defeating a foreign tyrant — is a vast oversimplification. Perhaps he knows that the Jews of the Maccabeean era were caught up in a bitter cultural civil war, one that is mirrored in the Israeli Jewish cultural split today.

Many ancient Jews did resist the Hellenistic king Antiochus Epiphanes, not merely because he was a foreigner, but because he represented new and discomforting ideas: national borders didn’t mean so much any more, people and goods and ideas should move freely around the world, what the people of the world share in common is more valuable than what divides them. Other Jews embraced these ideas, and so they embraced the foreign ruler, or at least found his entry into Jerusalem acceptable.

Even if Ismael Haniyeh does not know this history, he knows that he faces an Israeli Jewish public divided by similar differences in values today.

Many Jews keep alive the spirit of the Maccabees. They see the Jews as a group set apart from all others. They prize that separation as a mark of their distinctiveness. At the same time, though, they complain that they are forced to be set apart because they’re unjustly besieged, victims of undeserved enmity. So they respond by separating themselves even more. They build an what they call an “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, even though it will do little to protect them from missiles.

They build an enormous wall between themselves and their neighbors, the West Bank Palestinians, for the sake of security, they say. Israeli columnist Bradley Burston calls them “the Jews of the Wall.” Yet the longer the wall grows, the more they feel like victims. Indeed, “they want to be told that they are eternal victims,” as Israeli pundit and peace activist Uri Avnery has written. “People here are so eager for words and images that tell them … that they’re still one step from Auschwitz, that their backs are to the wall.”

These Jews must have a threatening enemy on the other side of the wall. Their worldview requires it. Once that enemy was “the Arabs.” Then it was “the Palestinians.” Now that their leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has declared his commitment to a two-state solution, it can no longer be all Palestinians who are framed as the great threat. So Hamas must play that role.

Hence the Jews of the Wall in Israel — and their many allies in the U.S. and around the world — must simply refuse to listen to Ismael Haniyeh’s words of reconciliation. So they perpetuate the fiction, so eagerly swallowed by most of the U.S. mass media, that Hamas is adamantly committed to destroying the Jewish state. Only occasionally do those media allow Hamas leader Meshaal to speak for himself, holding out the very same peace offer that Haniyeh gave the Israelis as a Hanukkah gift.

Nevertheless, when Meshaal and Haniyeh reach a hand of peace across the border to deliver such a gift there are Jews in Israel and around the world willing to receive it. These are the moral descendants of those other Jews of ancient times, the ones who looked for what they shared in common with others and prized what they found, their common humanity, above anything that set them apart.

Burston calls them “the Jews of the Gate,” because they insist on finding ways to reach across borders and make connections with values, cultures, and lives of their neighbors in other lands. And they ready to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors, even if those neighbors democratically elect a parliament with a Hamas majority.

Touring the United States, Burston found that “the voices of young American Jews of the Gate have never been stronger.” Like all Israelis, though, he knows that in his own land the Jews of the Wall are in the ascendant.

To show their strength, they responded to the conciliatory Hamas gesture with yet another show of aggression in the place that Palestinians as well as Jews hold most sacred: Jerusalem. Within hours of Haniyeh’s press conference, Haaretz reported that “the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee announced Wednesday its plan to build 625 new housing units in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The move comes despite wide international opposition to Israel’s construction in East Jerusalem, with U.S. President Barack Obama calling it ‘unhelpful’ to peace efforts.”

“Unhelpful” is, of course, a massive understatement. The Israelis know full well that the more they build in East Jerusalem the harder it will be for the Palestinians ever to use their side of the city as their capital. And no Palestinian leader will ever sign a peace agreement that denies his people a capital in Jerusalem. It would be political suicide. Jewish building in East Jerusalem is thus a way of bringing even the most distant possibility of a negotiated peace to a screeching halt. That was the Israeli government’s Hanukkah gift to the Palestinians — and to the Obama administration.

It was surely a most unwelcome gift in Washington. According to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, “continued construction in Jerusalem is a central issue in Israel’s negotiations with the US. … Sources close to the negotiations said the two nations have reached an impasse on the deal.”

This leaves a looming question: What Hanukkah gift will Barack Obama deliver to the Israelis and Palestinians? If he wants to, he can deliver an insistence that the Israelis cease new construction in East Jerusalem. He’s done it before with significant success.

For most of the past spring and summer Israel observed what The Independent called “an undeclared freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.” Bowing to U.S. pressure, “Netanyahu had restrained settlement building,” with only a few exceptions.

Even when Netanyahu OK’d some new building in East Jerusalem, in October, Yedioth Aharanoth confirmed that he “was apparently forced to give up plans to market another 600 apartments after the US Administration made it clear that this would put an immediate end to peace talks with the Palestinians.” Construction of another 1,300 homes in Jerusalem were “frozen in practice,” the paper added.

As the Israeli government allows the latest building projects to begin, no one knows how many they may be refusing. Netanyahu scores no political points at home for refusing. He scores points only in Washington and around the diplomatic world.

The Obama administration has lots of carrots and sticks it can hold out in front of the Israelis during this Hanukkah season. It might even announce that, if the negotiations remain stalled, the U.S. will present its own plan for borders that will “create the new Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100 percent of the land beyond the 1967 Green Line with one-to-one land swaps” and demand that Israelis as well as Palestinians simply give that plan a yes or no — an idea now being promoted by J Street, the biggest and most moderate group representing American “Jews of the Gate.” Though J Street may hesitate to come out and say it, everyone knows that any American plan will include East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

This is an idea that strikes fear into the hearts of the “Jews of the Wall,” because they know that when the U.S. speaks firmly even right-wing Israeli politicians must listen. And they suspect that, when forced to say yea or nay to a concrete plan for peace, most Israelis will choose the Gate over the Wall.

As Israeli Jews light the rest of their Hanukkah candles, they should keep in mind that the plan they may one day receive from Washington and be forced to decide on is very much the same plan Hamas has offered to them as a Hanukkah gift. What do they gain by waiting? Why shouldn’t they accept the gift of peace now?