Lift the blockade on us all
Instead of focusing on just a prisoner exchange deal, Israel should seek to reach a broader understanding with Hamas.
Instead of insisting for years on the number and identity of the Hamas prisoners who will go free in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit − prisoners whom Israel will release in the end in any case, in one agreement or another − perhaps Israel should now turn to Hamas with a far broader and more daring offer. An offer of a memorandum of understanding that will include a total cease-fire, an end to all terror activities from Gaza and a lifting of the siege. An agreement in which the issue of Gilad Shalit and the Hamas prisoners will only be one clause among many, one that will be implemented first, immediately upon the start of negotiations.
It is clear that in the familiar situation − in other words, the situation as we are accustomed to seeing it − such an idea sounds unrealistic, but is it really so unrealistic? With the help of foreign mediators, are the State of Israel and the Hamas government really incapable of reaching a partial but effective agreement of this type? Would such an agreement be “legitimizing a terror organization,” as the opponents of any contact with Hamas claim, or would it actually be the realistic act of a country that tries with daring and flexibility to improve its difficult situation? In any event, aren’t the negotiations now being conducted with Hamas “legitimizing a terror organization” in a way?
And why make do only with the (greatly desired) release of Gilad Shalit, when it’s possible − at a price that in the end will not be much higher than what Israel will eventually pay − to create a situation in which the advantages and achievements for Israel will be far greater?
Israel will not be able to achieve a full and genuine peace with Hamas in the foreseeable future, and who knows if it will be achieved in the distant future either. Hamas does not recognize Israel and conditions a peace agreement with it on an acceptance of the principle of the “right of return” and full withdrawal to the 1967 lines. There is no chance Israel will agree to these conditions. But why shouldn’t Israel try to achieve at least what it is possible to achieve at this stage, in the difficult situation between it and Hamas? Maybe it will turn out that even Hamas is ripe − and even longs for − some movement within the straitjacket with which it has cloaked itself in its inflexible refusal?
It is embarrassing to observe the behavior pattern to which Israel is repeatedly doomed, like the total rejection for decades of the Palestine Liberation Organization as an interlocutor, the evacuation of the settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and the flotilla affair, which led to the lifting of the siege on Gaza. For years Israel has presented an inflexible, tightfisted and unilateral position. It has increasingly flexed its muscles and declared that it will not concede an inch until suddenly, sometimes within a day, the situation is completely reversed. The ground − or the sea − shifts under its feet, and Israel is forced to concede totally, far more than it would have conceded in negotiations (and of course then it also receives a smaller return for its concessions).
And even in the painful and frustrating issue of Gilad Shalit it looks as though things are heading that way. But maybe this time, with both sides trapped in their positions and no solution on the horizon, we will dare to expand our point of view, to release ourselves from the usual conditions and determine the momentum and its scale on our own initiative (ha, a forgotten word!).
Hamas won’t agree? It’s possible. Let’s challenge it, maybe we’ll be surprised? Hamas really is a fanatic government that often works in abominable and inhuman ways, even vis-a-vis the Palestinians themselves. But can that be a justification for the total Israeli paralysis when confronting it? This paralysis, actually, is not a paralysis at all, because in the end it includes a process in which Israel is increasingly being forced to withdraw from its positions without receiving anything in return, as in the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and in the flotilla affair.
Nobody is trying to move anything in the ossified situation; to bring about a process that is likely to force Hamas to make some change in its method of operation − I’m not talking about its attitude − vis-a-vis Israel. Nobody is doing anything to improve Israel’s situation. Saying “no” is not a policy, it’s a mental fixation. In the end it’s a rejection of our own freedom of action.
The familiar arguments that are presented to the Israeli public as a sacred axiom − that negotiations with Hamas will undermine the more moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank − must also undergo a reexamination. Perhaps here too − as in the siege of Gaza − it will turn out that for years we have been fed cliches that do not conform to all the nuances and possibilities of the situation. And perhaps it will turn out that negotiations with Hamas toward some kind of agreement will actually spur the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to hasten the peace process with Israel. And perhaps there will be a dynamic that will set into motion a process of reconciliation between the two mutually hostile parts of the Palestinian people, a process without which no stable peace agreement will be achieved, not even with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his people.
It is not unrealistic to assume that the most effective way to reduce the power and influence of Hamas in Gaza and to gradually restore it to its natural dimensions will be to create conditions of peace, prosperity and nation-building among the Palestinians in the West Bank. If even some Gazans will have some hope about their future, the attraction of fundamentalism and religious and nationalist fanaticism will decline on its own. We can go further and sketch a situation in which even the return to Gaza of all the Hamas prisoners, up to the last one, would not immediately and unavoidably create a situation in which they would all resume their involvement in terror. And there is even a chance that in the new situation that will be created, terror and violence will not be their default choice.
All these are thoughts that one can agree with or dismiss, or simply close one’s eyes. More than the suggestions themselves, I would like to direct attention to what motivates them: the sense that for several years Israel has been trapped in a paralysis that is gradually slowing it down, to the point where anyone with eyes in his head identifies apathy and helplessness and even a dwindling of the healthy life instinct. That is the real danger to Israel, and it is far more destructive than all the dangers of Hamas.
Israel’s prime minister should long ago have taken the fixed and ossified mosaic of the conflict in his hands to try to create a new picture from those same familiar pieces, depressing as they may be. After all, that is precisely the role of a leader. It is hard to understand why Israel − the strongest country in the region − does not try to take control of its fate once again by setting processes into motion instead of leaving its future time after time in the hands of others. Why does it insist on bargaining for decades over petty details that are important but not crucial, instead of trying to bring about a fundamental change in the big picture?
In the end, the traditional tendency of Israeli leaders to find reasons and excuses for inactivity and their inability to distinguish between real and imagined problems and real and imagined dangers cause Israel to say an absolute and sweeping “no” to all of reality, and to the very small opportunities that crop up occasionally. This stubborn refusal is already beyond our means. In simple terms of survival we cannot afford it. And what else has to happen to shake us up and lift the siege that we have been imposing on ourselves for so many years?