Strenger Than Fiction / Israel must admit its mistakes
Like Abbas admitted that the second intifada was one of the worst Palestinian mistakes, Israel needs to admit to its worst mistake: the settlement enterprise.
A few days ago I leafed through David Grossman’s collection of essays Death as a Way of Life. It was published in 2003, in the midst of the second intifada, after the failure of the Camp David Summit. The most unsettling paragraph in the book is right at the beginning, in which Grossman writes of the silence that everybody here feels, somewhere, within the deafening noise of the media, political slogans, gun and mortar-fire:
“This is the empty space in which every person, Israeli or Palestinian, knows with piercing certainty. All that he does not want or does not dare to know. There, within himself, he understands - even if he denies it at the top of his lungs, with shouts, even gunshots – that his life is being dissipated, squandered in a pointless struggle, and that his identity and self-respect and the one life he has to live are being endlessly expropriated from him in a conflict that could have been resolved long ago.”
Since 2003 the sense of pointlessness has only increased, and so has the pain over the waste of human potential and human lives. Grossman’s words reverberated in my soul as I witnessed Israel gradually giving up on the blockade on Gaza. Another instance of pointless, and in this case, inhuman struggle. Experts agree that, if anything, the blockade only strengthened Hamas by allowing the Islamist organization to take virtual control of all goods smuggled through the flourishing tunnel system, and thus gain a stranglehold over all of Gaza.
Now Israel is letting go, and yet no one is asking why our governments keep making wrong decisions. Public "wisdom" is that this is not a time for criticism; we must be patriotic because we are under attack. The problem, it is said, are not Israel’s misguided policies, but the external delegitimization campaign against Israel. Hence, here in Israel, we need to support the government, no matter what. This erects a barrier against critical thinking that can generate alternatives, and hence the same mistakes are bound to be repeated.
What can be done to break the chain of wrong decisions? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently gave an interesting example for this. A number of weeks ago he said in an interview on Egyptian TV that the second intifada was the greatest mistake in Palestinian history. This admission is significant because it is one of the first times that a Palestinian leader, instead of harping exclusively on Palestinian victimhood, assigned Palestinians some responsibility for their own fate.
The second intifada was indeed a terrible mistake. Two years of carnage wiped out Israel’s peace camp and built a case for the right wing: If Israel gives up territory to the Palestinians, the result is a wave of terror. The ongoing rocket fire into Southern Israel after the disengagement from Gaza ruined the little that was left of the peace camp. The Palestinians are indeed quite directly responsible for the move of Israel’s electorate to the right. If Abbas were to repeat his statement on Israeli TV, he would do much to build a case for the leftovers of the peace camp, possibly convincing them that it was worth taking a risk again for peace.
What admission of responsibility would be of use for Israel, both internally and externally? Israel would have to admit that the most terrible mistake it has made over the last thirty six years is to allow the building of settlements in the West-Bank. It is easy to point the finger only at the settlers and at the right-wing, but we shouldn’t forget that the Rabin and Barak governments expanded settlements more than any other government, as Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal have shown in their book Lords of the Land.
The ongoing settlement activity eroded moderate Palestinians' belief that Israel really intended to allow the establishment of a dignified, contiguous Palestinian state. At best, most Palestinians felt, Israel would allow some kind of Bantustan.
The settlements are also the reason why Israel now finds itself so deeply internationally isolated. The argument that "the world condemns us no matter what" is based on a dangerous simplification. It doesn’t distinguish between those who would love to see Israel dismantled and look for any justification to delegitimize Israel, and between Western States who are basically friendly toward Israel, but demand that it behaves according to the standards of the West. The West has come to see colonization as illegitimate. And while the West accepts and supports Israel’s existence in pre-1967 borders, it is constantly taken aback and infuriated by the settlements, because they cannot be justified by Israel’s security concerns and are indeed a colonial enterprise.
I cannot see any Israeli leader who would make this admission clearly. He or she would instantly become unelectable. It would be too heavy a burden for Israel’s collective psyche to truly say, with Grossman, that so many lives have been squandered in a pointless project, based on a combination of messianic beliefs and misguided power-politics. To say that Israel has wasted enormous human, financial, political, moral and military resources in the Byzantine structure of double road systems and settlements. To admit that it has caused enormous human suffering for Palestinians over the last decades.
There is no alternative but to learn to live with the pain that, as David Grossman wrote in 2003, all this suffering was for absolutely nothing; now we are adding another seven years of horrible mistakes. Only when we are able to face this pain, will Israel finally be able to stop making the same mistakes time and again. And then, gradually, a dialogue with Palestinians may emerge in which both sides will be able to admit that, far from just being victims, both Israelis and Palestinians have simply been wrong, countless times.