The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the non-fulfillment of the Oslo Accords, the failure of the Camp David summit, the outbreak of the second intifada, the turn to violence by some of the Palestinians who had supported Oslo, the death of Yasser Arafat, the selection of a less authoritative leader, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, the defeat of Fatah in the Gaza Strip - all of these throw into question the possibility of signing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement now.
The Israeli right, which is not prepared to arrive at any territorial compromise - either because it is post-Zionist and is prepared to relinquish Israel's Jewish and democratic identity, or because it "does not believe the Arabs" - will always find excuses for not working for peace. The weakness of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is currently the hottest excuse on the market. But the Israeli center, which would like to come to an agreement with its neighbors, even though it does not necessarily "trust" them, is not looking for excuses. It is looking for answers.
The threats from Al-Qaida and Iran mean Israel is not the Arabs' main enemy, and therefore the Arab countries - all of them - joined the Arab initiative offering Israel peace and normalization in exchange for making peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians. This is a historic opportunity of security and strategic importance, and it will transform us from a foreign body into an integral part of the region where we have chosen to live.
Syria is ruled by a tyrant who is not perceived as pragmatic, whereas the Palestinians have a pragmatic leader who is perceived as weak. Both are prepared to negotiate without preconditions, and their goals are clear to us up front. Peace agreements with both will ensure us the support of the Arab world, and a democratic state with a Jewish majority. A change in the situation, or in the leaders, might well distance us from this rare opportunity.
There is no doubt that United States President George W. Bush is not enthusiastic about Israeli-Syrian negotiations, but he has stated publicly that he will not demand Israel refrain from such an option. In any case, we must not surrender to an American interest that runs counter to Israel's diplomatic and security interests. We must embark on negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad, because peace with Syria will also affect its relations with Iran and will end the aid Syria is giving Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror organizations.
As for the Palestinians, anyone prepared to reach a peace agreement with them only if he is convinced that such an agreement will bring about total quiet - will never accept an agreement. A full peace agreement that includes a solution to the refugee problem and enables the Palestinians to establish their capital in East Jerusalem will strengthen Abbas, will be very beneficial to the inhabitants of the new state, and will decrease considerably the chances of their using force against Israel. However, we must also take into account the possibility of our reaching an agreement and the Palestinian side not being able to prevent security violations.
From the right's perspective, the Palestinians have proven they are killing each other and are not "worthy" of a state of their own. However, anyone who does not see an agreement as a gift to the Palestinians but rather as advantageous to Israel, understands that the demographic clock is not ticking in our favor and that a two-state solution is losing altitude. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon realized this belatedly and initiated the problematic idea of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, because he did not want to pay the price of a peace agreement. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said a year ago that he is prepared to withdraw from 90 percent of the territories of the West Bank, unilaterally. The significance of this statement is that he is prepared to relinquish any security arrangements with the Palestinians in the West Bank, just as Sharon did in the Gaza Strip.
What will we gain from an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the next few months? The division of East Jerusalem will give us, for the first time in history, a recognized capital. All the embassies will move to Jerusalem, including those of the 22 Arab countries and most of the Muslim world. The border that will be agreed upon will be Israel's permanent border and, at long last, we will have an undisputed map recognized around the world. The solution of the refugee problem will once and for all lift the burden from our shoulders, the heaviest burden that generations of Israelis have been bearing for the past 60 years. The occupation - with or without quotation marks - that has been going on for the past 40 years and has transformed us into different people, will end, as will the fear that Israel will turn its back on the Zionist vision and lose the Jewish character the world agreed to grant it in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan.
And what about the risks? There are always risks, but the real question is whether the current situation is not the greatest risk of all. One risk is entailed in entering negotiations that do not turn out well. If the Olmert government is not prepared to leave the Golan Heights in return for peace and is not prepared to reach an agreement with the Palestinians based on the pre-1967 borders, talks have no chance of succeeding, and we should not hide behind various and strange excuses about the other side's unsuitability and should admit we are not prepared to pay the price for peace understood by the entire international community. This position is both legitimate and irresponsible, and it must be revealed.
If Israel is prepared in principle to pay the price, then there is no real reason for negotiations to fail. If nevertheless they do fail, then we should note there already have been three failed talks with the Syrians, and that none of these led to violence. With the Palestinians one failure led to an outburst, and we must try to ensure that if talks on a comprehensive agreement fail, we reach another interim agreement and not repeat former prime minister (and current Labor Party chairman) Ehud Barak's terrible mistake of an "all or nothing" situation.
If an agreement is signed with Damascus, then Syria presumably will implement it, just as it has implemented other interim agreements over the past 30 years. The Palestinian side is much more problematic. Israel has to be interested in changing Hamas or weakening it militarily, publicly and politically. This goal cannot be achieved via an economic siege and targeted killings, which will yield the opposite result. The most effective means is giving tools - above all, a Palestinian state - to Hamas' adversaries, so can present an alternative that justifies popular support.
Presumably, Hamas knows an agreement signed by the PLO does not obligate it. If Hamas still controls Gaza when we sign an agreement with the PLO, we will have to arrive at a long truce with it, but any such agreement is preferable to the current situation in Gaza. If we do not succeed in doing this, or if we do this and Hamas behaves violently, we will be free to act against those who harm us, just as we are free to do so today. If the regime in Gaza accepts the peace agreement with the PLO, Gaza will be connected to the West Bank and will be part of the Palestinian state.
This also applies to violations of the agreement in the West Bank. If the weakness of the Palestinian leadership means it cannot stop an attack in Israel, we will have to act ourselves and use force. However, in this case, we would be doing so with full legitimacy.
In the best case, we will reach a historic agreement with the PLO. In the worst case, the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will be a kind of unilateral Israeli withdrawal like the one that led to the election of Kadima, but with Palestinian agreement that enables our full acceptance of the Arab initiative. We will withdraw from almost all of the West Bank, and the Palestinians will be attacking us both from the state established in the West Bank and the undefined entity in Gaza. This is a risk Israel can take upon itself, because it is a far smaller risk than that of a unilateral withdrawal.
Presumably, reality will be less clear than the two possibilities described above. It is reasonable to assume Abbas can sign a final status agreement; it is reasonable to assume that most Palestinians will support such an agreement, even though it will be greatly criticized; it is reasonable to assume that the Arab world will support such an agreement and that the world will make an effort to aid both sides financially; it is reasonable to assume that there will be Palestinian elements who try to harm us; it is reasonable to assume that the Palestinian government will make an effort to neutralize these elements; and it is reasonable to assume that Israel will from time to time have to strike at them, out of self-defense. But this will happen in an entirely different chapter of our life. A chapter in which we will be living in peace with the whole Arab world and in which the Jewish-democratic state will be a firm, agreed-upon fact and not an object of questions that are posed at home and abroad if we do not reach the desired agreement.
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