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The chronicles of stupidity are as follows: In the first decade after the Six-Day War, Israel decided not to decide. It did not heed the warnings of the likes of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Amos Oz, Uri Avnery and former Labor Party leaders Aryeh Eliav and Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, all of whom immediately understood that the occupation was a trap. Israel believed that the territories were bargaining chips, and that it would be best to hold on to those chips so they could be exchanged for peace. The Israel of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir did not understand that the temporary situation it created in Judea, Samaria and Gaza was a permanent trap from which it would be very difficult to get out.

In the second decade after the Six-Day War, Israel decided. After the electoral upheaval of 1977, the right-wing governments built around 150 settlements, which were designed to make the occupation irreversible. Even after Likud withdrew from Sinai, the party was determined to prevent an additional evacuation. In an unprecedented display of arrogance, trepidation, and obliviousness to reality, Likudist Israel tried to consolidate its control over the territories, de facto. By employing anachronistic and illegitimate colonialist methods, the Israel of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon defied international law and the demographic realities on the ground to swallow large swaths of land it was incapable of digesting. Intoxicated by power and tinged by messianic fervor, it tried to stop Palestinian sovereignty at any price, but in so doing undermined Jewish sovereignty.

In the third decade, Israel underwent a period of sobering up. The first intifada compelled a majority of Israelis to understand that it would be best to leave the territories. Yet Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres chose Oslo as the avenue for trying to leave the territories, an avenue that led to a dead end. Why? Because Oslo relied on the baseless assumption that Yasser Arafat was a partner and that peace was attainable. As a result, the peace process was not rigorous enough with the Palestinians, nor did it take a hard enough line against the settlements. The result was total chaos: On the one hand, we had an armed, hostile and irresponsible Palestinian entity, on the other we had a terrifying settlement enterprise. Instead of the diplomatic process freeing Israel from the noose, it only tightened it further around its neck.

The fourth decade of the occupation saw Israel sober up from its sobriety. After the failure of Camp David and the eruption of the second intifada, the Israeli majority understood that the occupation and peace were two separate issues. It understood that Israel had to carefully leave the territories, even though such a withdrawal would not end the conflict.

The Israel of Sharon and Ehud Olmert believed in unilateralism. Yet after unilateralism was tried during the disengagement, it became clear that the latest magical solution was an illusory solution. The ascent of Hamas, the Qassam attacks, Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone report taught us what happens when Israel seeks to disengage: Palestinian extremism strengthens, violence is renewed, and when Israel tries to defend itself, it is singled out. At this late stage of the necrosis, a simplistic unilateral withdrawal does not revive Israeli legitimacy, it erodes it to the bone.

The fifth decade of occupation is the last decade. There is no chance the international community will grant Israel another respite. If we do not quickly find the right way to deal with the occupation, the occupation will bury us. Justly or unjustly, Israel's back is against the wall. Justly or unjustly, the world is showing Israel zero tolerance and giving the country no quarter. If we are once again compelled to employ force, we will be denounced. If we do not seriously deal with the settlements, we will become South Africa.

So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have no time. They must act quickly. The option of the first decade (status quo) is not an option. The option of the second decade (settlements) was never an option. The option of the third decade (peace) is an illusion. The option of the fourth decade (unilateralism) is a recipe for disaster.

Thus it is vital to produce within a short time the (sober) option of the fifth decade. Perhaps a limited withdrawal from Samaria. Perhaps a limited withdrawal in exchange for international recognition of an Israeli line of defense and an Israeli right to defend itself within that line. Perhaps a limited withdrawal on condition that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states assume temporary responsibility for the evacuated territories and their development. However it is done, Netanyahu and Barak must act. They must prove that they are not sitting in their offices to enjoy the trappings of power, but to end four decades of foolishness by ushering in a fifth decade of hope.