The Oslo years now seem as improbable as a dream, outside of time, headlines from messianic to murder, answered prayers turning to screams. But when Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun, the leading Jewish leftist journal, sat on the sun-drenched White House lawn, Sept. 13, 1993, invited by the president to witness the signing of the Oslo Accords and the epic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization – it was vindication, not just for Lerner but for all the peaceniks who for years were mocked for their naiveté.
Before there was J Street, before Peter Beinart, back in the days before there was any serious Jewish “pro-peace” lobby, at a time when Jewish peace groups rose and fell like colts finding their legs, there was Tikkun, founded in 1986, critical of the right and what Lerner calls “the religio-phobic” secular left. In 1988, then-Gov. Bill Clinton wrote a complimentary letter to Lerner about Tikkun. In 1993, the Washington Post described Lerner as Hillary Clinton’s “guru.” The first lady gave a speech invoking the “politics of meaning,” Lerner’s creed that statecraft had to be soulcraft, addressing “ethical and spiritual needs.”
That Lerner, a grizzled Berkeley-San Francisco veteran of the radical SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, should find himself sitting on the White House lawn … well, what wasn’t possible on a day when Rabin and Arafat were shaking hands as if the previous 50 years were a game of tennis?
Lerner, frequently aligned with Israel’s own left-wingers, had declared that Israel’s response to the first intifada was “morally incorrect,” underlined by then-defense minister Rabin’s famous order to Israeli soldiers to “break their bones.” Lerner, ordained as a Jewish Renewal rabbi by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and leading a Renewal synagogue “without walls” in Berkeley, says that several congregants once told him, “We Jews have become Pharaoh to the Palestinian people — so we would be hypocrites to sit around our Passover table celebrating our own freedom, rejoicing at the way the Egyptians were stricken… while ignoring what Israel is doing today in the name of the Jewish people.” Lerner told them, “This is precisely the kind of discussion that is appropriate for the seder table.”
After the Rabin-Arafat handshake, Lerner found himself shmoozing with Rabin in the Israeli embassy. Lerner, now 73, recalls telling Rabin, “If you want to make this peace a real peace, go back and tell our brothers and sisters to learn Arabic; embrace the Palestinians with warmth; see them as created in the image of God…”
Lerner remembers, “When I said ‘God’ he rolled his eyes,” and Lerner laughs at the memory. Rabin was ultra-secular, perhaps the most secular leader Israel ever had.
“I urged him to make it a warm peace, not a cold peace,” says Lerner. “He went back to Israel and did exactly the opposite. Instead of saying, ‘Here is a chance for a new reality,’ he said, ‘I don’t trust them, I’m not going to implement this too quickly.’ He didn’t challenge the fear, he played to it. The peace movement in Israel was very critical of him.”
What could Rabin have done? “He should have stopped the building of any settlements,” says Lerner, “offering significant benefits and incentives for settlers moving back from the West Bank.”
But the Oslo Accords didn’t say one word about settlements being illegal, or settlers having to leave. According to Oslo, the matter of settlements was to be negotiated down an unmapped, unpaved road. “That’s right,” says Lerner, “Oslo didn’t deal with it. Of course, settlers should be able to stay. No country in the world should have a policy of ‘no Jews allowed.’ Arabs live in Israel according to the laws of Israel, so Jews should have every right to live on the West Bank, by the laws of Palestine.” It can work “if both sides really want peace.”
In the early 1990s, Lerner was commuting between the United States and Israel, where his son was in the army, with Lerner’s blessing, “a manifestation of my love for Israel. I was in Israel at least twice a month because I wanted to give my son a place to go on Shabbos, if he had leave. I washed his clothes on Friday afternoons, and made Shabbos meals for him.”
Lerner would sometimes find himself in the Knesset dining room, visiting political friends. He’d see Rabin there. “I knew him before he was prime minister. Rabin was always alone. Everybody else was sitting with other people. Nobody came to talk to him. Why? Because he was impossible to talk to. He was arrogant to everyone. We had several conversations but he had a commander’s perspective. Rabin was a general with a military consciousness. He thought if had a plan, people should follow.”
Lerner says, “When I tried to speak to him about the spiritual needs of the people, Rabin was just deaf to that. He didn’t know what I was talking about. He had very little capacity to communicate in a caring way to those who disagreed with him, whether on the left or the right.”
Few politicians were as contemptuous of a constituency as Rabin was of the settlers. As far back as 1979, Rabin in his memoirs, “Pinkas Sherut,” called settlers “a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy.” In the agreement known as Oslo II, Rabin placed Rachel’s Tomb (the second most visited holy site) under complete Palestinian civil and military control.
Two Orthodox Knesset members pleaded with him, would Rabin give away Ben-Gurion’s grave? MK Menachem Porush reportedly stood up and embraced Rabin, saying through tears, “Reb Yitzchak … You are planning to give away Mama Ruchl’s grave. The Jewish people will never forgive you if you abandon Mama’s kever [tomb].’”
Rabin relented. Nevertheless, Dan Ephron, author of “Killing A King” (Norton), a new book about the assassination, writes, “By late 1993,” Rabin already “had enough of the settlers. … Rabin had virtually no skills in diplomacy — he couldn’t hide his contempt. … Rabin had no religious sentiment at all.”
Are all settlers guilty? Yigal Amir wasn’t a settler but a Modern Orthodox law student from Herzliya.
“Not all settlers,” says Lerner, “but I would assume it was at least 10,000-20,000,” out of more than 100,000 settlers. “A minority that was very articulate and active in attempting to prevent the implementation of the policy of the State of Israel. Like other criminals they should have been arrested, tried and put into prison — like I was!” Lerner laughs, admitting that he was arrested for anti-Vietnam war activity that, like settler protests, shut the roads, demeaned the president, and tried preventing the implementation of American policy.
Twenty years later, the dream has faded, if it hasn’t died. Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. that the Palestinians were no longer bound by Oslo. In fact, wrote Scott Anderson in The New York Times, “The Palestinians, seeing themselves as the aggrieved party, have never taken the initiative in offering up peace terms, and whatever the Israelis have offered has never been enough.”
As for the broken shards of Oslo, Lerner suggests, “the only way to speak about this conflict is to speak in a compassionate tone to both peoples. You have to speak with compassion to everyone involved in this,” from the settlers to Shuafat, a Palestinian village. Both peoples are still in the image of God. “That’s why I feel a lot of compassion to the settlers,” first one makes peace with his own, “not the violent among them but the overwhelming majority of the settlers are good and decent people.”
Does he ever hear from Hillary anymore? “All I can tell you is that in the last conversation we had I promised I would never answer that question.”