Q&A With Bradley Burston

Senior Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston answered readers' questions. Check out his answers on everything from BDS and peace to California and recreational marijuana.

Haaretz's award-winning columnist and senior editor Bradley Burston answered readers' questions in a live Q&A session.

As always, time was too short to answer all the questions, but thanks to everyone who wrote in.

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Q: Do you think that J Street has a role to play in shaping the character of American Jewry - or is its influence limited strictly to the Israeli element of Jewish life?

A: I believe that over time, J Street has found itself facing much more of a role in shaping the character of American Jewry than it could ever have anticipated when it began as a liberal Zionist counter-balance to the increasingly right-wing AIPAC.

J Street's potential role is particularly evident where it comes to Jewish young people. There's an entire generation for whom an attachment to Israel is an entry point for questions of identity and belonging. They are looking for exactly the kind of middle ground position which J Street voices.

For many young Jews and other young people concerned for and by Israel, some campus and community organizations take a far too polarized and polarizing position on the issue. Israel is portrayed by some avowedly anti-Zionist hard left groups as a bloodthirsty, illegitimate entity that deserves to be dismembered. At the same time, Arabs are portrayed by hard right pro-Israel groups as bloodthirsty, irreparably brainwashed agents of hatred, constitutionally incapable of making peace.

As a result, I believe, J Street has become a kind of rallying ground for young Jews with a liberal world view and strong feelings for and about Israel. The result, in many cases, is a new connection to a community. And American Jewry needs that very much at this point.

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Q: If not BDS, then what will end the occupation? And how long do we have to be partners in this awful situation?

A: I believe that the occupation will end only when Israel elects a leader who has the nearly impossible set of qualities to be able to end it. Not only strength, creativity, sense of history, organizational genius, breadth of vision, and charisma. More than anything else, that leader, in the mold of Rabin, Sadat and others, will need to be willing to gamble his or her very life, to sacrifice their very life, to ending the occupation. Because if experience is a guide, no one will be able to end the occupation and come out of that alive. There are too many guns out there, and too many crazies.

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Q: Why doesn't Israel annex all of Palestine and declare a single state for all, giving the Palestinians Israeli citizenship with equal rights? I believe that Palestinians will be happy to see the end to their oppression and suffering and live a normal life in peace with the Jews. At the end of the day, history tells us that Palestinians are also Semites.

A: The idea of granting Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem full voting rights, has been advanced by a few leaders on the Israeli right, notably then-cabinet minister Menachem Begin in 1967, and, more recently, in a somewhat different form, by Israel's new president, Reuven Rivlin.

It's definitely a more honorable and honest approach than Israel's been practicing for years, which is to put off a decision indefinitely and hope that the situation will somehow resolve itself.

But it's gained no traction, and in the extremism of the Israeli New Right, it's losing what little traction it had. Where the Old right valued democracy as a supreme value, the New Right of Miri Regev, Zeev Elkin, David Rotem and many others, values democracy not at all.The body of legislation they have sponsored is shocking in its proud disregard for the rights of minorities, due process of law, and basic freedoms.

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Q: What's the one thing you miss most about California?

A: Family and friends. I'm a huge California patriot, and I could go on and on and on, but I'll leave it at that.

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Q: How long do you think Israel can survive before the occupation causes its inevitable demise? And if the occupation ends, how long before global anti-Zionism leads to the dismantling of the racist Jewish state?

A: I'd like to raise a point that I think is often overlooked in discussions of whether Israel can survive, and whether it should. I realize that the debate is rendered even more extreme by the huge resources of energy and air time which Israel's current government spends promoting - with a definite air of desperation - the idea of Israel as a specifically, legally, nearly exclusively and increasingly exclusivist Jewish State.

But here's what's lost in all that bluster: There are two things that keep Israel from going under - despite the Israeli government's best efforts to destroy Israel socio-economically, morally, and morale-wise. Israelis no longer believe in the government. They believe in family, and they believe in something related, something intangible and difficult to define, which goes roughly by the name Israeliness.

Israeliness is not, repeat, not confined to Jews. The positive elements of Israeli culture and mores and language and relationships are appreciated and expressed by Arab citizens of Israel whom the government discriminates against at every turn, and by African asylum seekers the government wants to expel to danger zones abroad. Israeliness, notwithstanding the undeniable racism and the unavoidable racists we suffer from here, is not a matter of religion, race, or ethnicity.

They're not lying, these Arab Israelis and stateless, hounded, refugee Israelis and their very sabra (but non-Jewish) children, who actually love this place, who love something essential about Israeliness, and embody it. What they've seen is that there is something about being an Israeli - not a Jew, and certainly not a Jew by the narrow, politicized, corrupt, self-serving, frequently insulting, often unsubtly racist definitions of the professional Jews of the Rabbinate - that is stronger than anyone abroad can imagine. That is why this place doesn't fall apart.

If there's one thing that WILL kill Israel, it is the occupation. But I believe that given the choice, either Israel without occupation or occupation as the end of Israel, Israelis will value Israeliness in a smaller state of their own, next to a place where Palestinians can further develop what it means to be Palestinian.

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Q: With your experience, do you see Israel-Diaspora relations as reaching an unprecedented rupture - on the peace process, or issues of religion and state? Or is this one wave amongst may that have subsided in the past?

A: On the contrary, I think that, paradoxically, precisely because of the wide gulf in positions over religion and state and on the peace process, Diaspora Jews are finally finding their voice in speaking with Israelis as fellow Jews and fellow human beings. Until recently, the conversation was often between stereotypes, and unhealthy ones at that (Sabra Knows Best vs. Adoring Nerd is but one unfortunate dyad). The points of contact between Israelis and Diaspora Jews have grown tremendously, a compound of a number of factors, including Israelis living and studying abroad, Birthright, post-IDF clear-the-head treks), and a certain disillusionment and reality-check on both sides, brought on by a so-far unfortunate 21st century. The conversations may be somewhat less pleasant than they once were, but there's something much more real to them these days.

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Q: Bradley, do you believe that the majority of Israelis are ready for a peace agreement based (hypothetically let's suggest) to the parameters of those conceptualized by former PM Ehud Olmert and PA President Abbas in 2008 - but with further improvements in certain areas where Palestinians challenged ? What's your take about the actual possibility of agreement on the core issues? Thanks for your analytical coverage and continued efforts in shaping the dream of peace between Israel and its neighbors.

A: Thanks for your kind comment. As to your question: Yes. Polls have shown that most Israelis, as many as two out of three, want to see a two state solution. They want to see independent, internationally recognized states of Israel and Palestine coexisting side by side, and an end to occupation. I believe that the sides can come to agreement over the core issues, given some of the solutions proposed in the past. The crux of the current impasse, I think, has more to do with an even more difficult question of leadership, which I'll be returning to and expanding on, in response to another of the questions.

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Q: According to the left, the so-called occupation started in 1967 when the Israeli army attacked the innocent state of Palestine driving the locals to the exile. Since then, Israel has repeatedly refused to negotiate the return of the occupied territories. Now, you and your friends on the left know that this is absolutely not true but do nothing to stop these lies. Is everything kosher to promote your agenda?

A: The occupation is real. No quotation marks necessary. No "so-called" required. I can tell you this with some assurance, because along with most of the leftist, rightist, and centrist Israelis I've gotten to know in this country, I've had direct, personal, hands-on, uniformed, I'm-responsible contact with the occupation. They, and I, are the people who did, and do, what the occupation entails. The occupation is the central fact of life for millions of Palestinians, and a direct and/or indirect burden on millions of Israelis. As to refusal to negotiate, we have a current Israeli government which has proven itself committed to doing absolutely anything to avoid progress toward returning one square centimeter of the occupied territories. If your point is that the 1967 war is misrepresented by some on the left, or that there was never in the past a sovereign state of Palestine, I'll grant your point. As for present realities, though, if there is anything about the occupation that is kosher, I've yet to see it.

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Q: Do you think Israel has any political leadership that can set Israel back on the path towards a progressive, peaceful, and democratic society, which can truly advance a two-state solution? I fear that we are quite lost, and don't see a politician who can bring about an awakening among the Zionist center-left (i.e. the numb majority). I view the only chance is the creation of a super-party that would include Labor, Hatnuah, maybe parts of Yesh Atid, and maybe Meretz. The only problem is that it isn't clear who could lead such a party, and doubtful that certain people would swallow their egos and be "number 2 or 3" for the greater good. What are your thoughts? Elie Friedman

A: I certainly identify with your feeling. There are some really fine people starting out in politics these days, along with the inevitable egos. Being the baseless optimist I tend to be, I expect to see a number of new faces soon on the left. The right is showing signs of fatigue and an itch for infighting. I think we'll soon see a resurgence of activism in Labor and Meretz, and even Hadash, plus a new party yet to be formed.

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Q: If you'd known when you made aliyah where Israel would be politically in June 2014, would you have still moved here? Would you have still raised a family here? And remember - only politicians refuse to answer hypothetical questions.

A: The question's not as hypothetical as it may seem. Because, to one extent or other, the decision to live here or leave here keeps getting remade, over and over. Sometimes it's when terrible things happen. Sometimes, very good things. Or sometimes, when I meet young people who've decided to live here, now, and I find myself amazed anew.

I'll cut to the chase (do bear in mind that there's no way I could possibly know the answer). The answer's Yes. This place has a hold over me that I do not pretend to understand. And, judging by some of the new arrivals, I think it would have that hold over me if I were young as well. The question of raising a family is a tough one, because Israel's educational, social-welfare, and especially health systems, which were enviable when I got here, are crumbling under privatization and Bibinomics. I'm thankful we raised our kids here, but I'm worried about what's going to happen if things continue in their present slide down, politics and government certainly included.

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Q: There are some 2.5 million refugees from Syria. Do you think that all these people were expelled by any of the warring parties in order to settle some other people in their place, or they simply escaped to avoid being hurt?

A: I must tell you that I don't feel that I know enough about what is happening inside Syria to be able to comment.

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Q: There's been plenty of coverage of the three Israeli teenagers' kidnapping.
Why isn't there similar coverage of the poor kid killed on the Golan Heights?
I ask this as a Jew, wondering whether the fact that he wasn't Jewish impacts the reporting? Somehow it reminds me of that racist French minister after a Paris bombing in which he claimed no French people were killed, leaving out that indeed French citizens were killed but they were Jews. Why wasn't this kid given a more human face among the Israeli populace and its supporters? Jonathan Field

A: Yes. The fact that he wasn't Jewish impacts the reporting. That is not to say that people didn't care, or that he wasn't given a human face. Reporters spoke at length with family members and neighbors, and much of this was broadcast. The place where the Israeli press falls way short, is in giving a modicum of attention to Palestinian kids, teens and unarmed adults killed by IDF fire. Routinely, the reporting casts doubt on the possibility that such an incident took place, the army is quoted as saying nothing more definitive than that it is investigating, there is no face, no name, no verified age, and it is as though nothing at all happened.

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Q: How is it that liberal/leftists/academics on US campuses SUPPORTED the view the US government murdered JFK whereas in Israel the left bashes anyone who proposes the same for the Rabin assassination. For example, in my day, anyone who said Oswald shot Kennedy was a dope. Is everyone in Israel a dope that Amir shot Rabin?

A: No. Many people across the political spectrum have good reason to believe that Amir was the assassin. Some of them believe it because it happened right in front of their eyes.

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Q: Even if it turns out Hamas was not behind the recent events, can Israel still deal with a Fatah-Hamas government after Hamas' remarks yesterday concerning the legitimacy of the kidnappings?

A: The answer is No and Yes. The No part is that the current Netanyahu government was unwilling to deal with Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah/PA before the unity deal, saying that with Hamas in charge in Gaza, Abbas couldn't speak for the Palestinians. When the unity deal was struck, the PA alliance with Hamas became the deal-breaker for talks. The bottom line is that if the current government were truly interested in advancing peace, it would. If Netanyahu were truly interested in doing so, he would. As it stands, however, the government acts as the pleasure of the settlement movement, big business, and little else.

As for the Yes part, at any time he chose – and this might ironically be a good time - the prime minister could strike a bold move for peace, have the White House, the EU, China and Russia at his back, and reshuffle a coalition of 65-70 members of the 120-seat Knesset to support him. But as Dr. Phil says, the best predictor of future performance is past performance. I'd say, keep your betting change in your pocket. 

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Q: I find it disconcerting that almost no one talks about what a Palestinian state would look like. There are issues such as: type of political system (e.g. democracy, oligarchy, military rule, dictatorship, caliphate), freedom of the press, human rights (treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, women), freedom to unionize, changing demography and its impact, economy, return of various political factions, relationship with Israel, etc. Would you please comment on what you think a Palestinian state would look like? Irwin Rodin

A: If we're speaking of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, with a capital in some part of East Jerusalem, and ruled at least initially by the Palestinian Authority, I think we would be likely to see a nominal democracy, nominally secular, one dominated by influential West Bank Palestinian families. Freedom of the press would be limited, judging by the state of affairs that obtains under present PA control. I would expect to see an initial influx of investment and foreign aid, some of which would spur rapid economic growth, the remainder of which would grease corruption. I would expect to see Palestinians now living abroad, visit in large numbers, perhaps buying second homes there. I would expect to see a Palestinian version of Birthright for Diaspora Palestinians aged 18-26, some of whom will choose to study there and perhaps move there. If the state is created, relations with Israel could well be good, depending on what a peace agreement decides regarding settlers living within Palestine. One possible arrangement could have Palestinians within Israel have Palestinian citizenship, and Israelis within Palestine retain Israeli citizenship. I would expect that freedom to unionize would be limited, as would freedom of organization by Hamas and more radical groups.

If a Palestinian state were declared in Gaza and ruled by Hamas, the nation would likely be influenced by Islamic law, and religious freedom would be limited, though I don't believe the application of Islamic law would take the extreme forms we see in other avowedly Islamic nations. If the Gaza state were to thrive, Hamas would need to mend fences with Egypt, and encourage tourism, a step it would take with some trepidation.

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Q: Based on your experience as an Israeli and a journalist, can you explain how the average citizen perceives U.S. Jews? It seems that they welcome monies but ignore their views. Most Americans are opposed to the settlements and feel uncomfortable with Jews viewed as oppressors. We want to see change.

A: I hesitate to speak about the average Israeli, as the population here is about as heterogeneous as you can imagine. That said, I think Israelis have only the barest conception of what American Jews are like. In fact, they barely have well-developed misconceptions. One of the reasons for this is that of all the Diaspora Jewish communities, America, the largest of them, by far, has sent one of the smallest percentages of its total here to live – barely 1 percent.

As to welcoming monies but ignoring views, I think they try to avoid thinking about the foreign aid and donations as much as possible. You often hear "We can get along without it," though no one makes a serious effort to advise Washington or the Jewish Federations that we're ready to go it alone.

If I were an American Jew, which, if you ask any Israeli, I still am, and I were interested in change in Israel, I would take a leaf from right-wing Americans of means, and go out of my way to support center-left political parties in Israel. A few more leftist Israelis motivated to vote on election day could make a huge difference in Israel's future. Netanyahu knows that. The first time he was elected, about 27,000 left-leaning voters stayed home on election day, and he was in.

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Q: Do you think the PA-Hamas will ever stop claiming all of Israel as Arab land and inciting violence?

A: I think it's time to look carefully at Natan Sharansky's 3-D test for when political criticism spills over into bigotry. For years now, and certainly from the moment Operation Brother's Keeper went into effect, the right and the government has done everything it could to de-legitimize, demonize and apply a double standard to Mahmoud Abbas and his PA. Neither claims all of Israel as Arab land. As for incitement to violence, the double standard is fully in effect – what do you call price tag attacks this week in which right-wing Jews paint "Every Arab is the enemy" and "Revenge" on cars in east Jerusalem, or paint "Death to Arabs" on the walls of an Arab Israeli school in Haifa?

As for Hamas, I do not believe that it will stop claiming all of Israel as Arab land. Nor do I believe that hard right political parties in Israel will ever stop claiming all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as exclusively Jewish.

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Q: What do you think of Finkelstein's claim that BDS real aim is to destroy Israel?

A: There's no question that many of those who founded and are leaders in BDS want to see an end to Israel. Not necessarily a violent end, but they make no bones about the idea that Israel cannot continue as a state.
I would strongly suggest, though, taking a close look at the text of the divestment resolution just passed by the Presbyterian Church USA. The resolution says as much about major changes in boycott efforts, as much as it does about Israel and those who benefit from the occupation. Here's the text.

Not only does the text begin with an explicit and extended affirmation of Israel's right to exist, and a strong endorsement of a two-state solution, it even specifically disassociates the church from the global BDS movement:
"This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Movement."

Contrast this with the 2005 founding manifesto of BDS, which specifically and repeatedly targets Israel as a whole, describes its action as punitive, and can be interpreted to suggest that all of Israel is occupied and colonized Arab land.

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Q: Is there any political party left in Israel which can truly call itself a pro-peace liberal party?

A: Welcome to the mess that is Israeli politics. I think the answer is complicated by the fact that there are excellent, pro-peace liberals sprinkled through a number of parties – some of them even hiding in the bowels of the ruling coalition. The closest you can get at this point to a coherent pro-peace, liberal party would be Meretz, though an honorable mention certainly goes to a number of members of Labor, among them Merav Michaeli, and Dov Khenin of the, let us say, complicated Hadash party.

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Q: Do you think that Bibi Netanyahu is capable of making peace – ideologically, politically or emotionally?

A: No.

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Q: Do you ever get despondent?

A: Yes.

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Q: Apart from your colleagues at Haaretz, who is your favorite Israeli journalist – even if you disagree with his/her politics?

A: Akiva Eldar

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Q: Who do you think will win the World Cup?

A: I don't know much at all about soccer. Doesn't keep me from loving it, though. I'd like Iran to win, unlikely as that is, 'cause that could be good for world peace.

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Q: Did the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin derail the peace process forever?

A: I want to say no, but we may look back on it years from now and realize the answer was yes.

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Q: I understand that Haaretz is organizing a Conference for Peace. What do you hope to achieve by pinning your colors to a cause that nobody else seems interested in? Also, do you really think conferences are the right way to bring peace?

A: I'm beginning to believe that peace will have to be a Do-It-Yourself affair, composed of people talking with one another instead of fearing each other and lying about each other and killing each other. What do we have to lose, that we haven't lost already?

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Q: Can you in all good conscience advise an 18-year-old American Jew to come live in Israel?

A: I don't think I ever would have done that. When I came – and this was to a much better Israel – I said to myself, "I'll give it a year, we'll see what happens." When the year was up, in October, I said to myself, "Maybe I'll give it another year." Every October I say the same thing. Still.

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Q: Will Israel ever legalize recreational marijuana?

A: They might. This place is capable of anything. There is only one rule here – everything is always either much better or much worse than it was intended to be. It's never what it was supposed to be.

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Q: It is now or never for peace between Israel and the Arabs?

A: Always.

Here's the thing – some of the Jews will tell you that we've been here forever, we're never leaving, the Arabs are interlopers, and eventually they'll give up and give in. There are Palestinians who will tell you the exact same thing, except that they've been here forever, and the Jews are interlopers who will give up and give in.

Ain't gonna happen. These two peoples are all about never quitting. Oddly enough, though, given their – our – behavior, these two peoples are not stupid. Eventually they'll come up with a peace agreement with something in it to disappoint and anger everyone, and we'll have leaders smart enough to finally agree to it. And we'll be so tired of ourselves and the other by that time, that we'll – grudgingly and with infinite kvetch – go along.