Amos Oz Has a Recipe for Saving Israel

To prevent the emergence of a dictatorship of fanatic Jews, or of an Arab state in Israel, we must stop trying to 'manage the conflict' and create two states here. Now. Excerpts from two recent talks by Oz.

Amos Oz
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Jerusalem's Old City, October 2014.
Jerusalem's Old City, October 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Oz

We’ll begin with the most important thing, with a matter of life-and-death for the State of Israel: If there will not be two states here, and fast, there will be one state here. If there will be one state here, it will be an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan River. If there will be an Arab state here, I don’t envy my children and my grandchildren.

I said an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan River. I did not say a binational state: With the exception of Switzerland, all the existing binational and multinational states are creaking badly (Belgium, Spain) or have already collapsed into a bloodbath (Lebanon, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union).

If there are not two states here, and fast, it’s very possible that, in order to avert the emergence of an Arab state from the sea to the Jordan River, a dictatorship of fanatic Jews will rule here temporarily, a dictatorship with racist features, a dictatorship that will suppress both the Arabs and its own Jewish opponents with an iron hand.

Such a dictatorship will be short-lived. Hardly any dictatorship of a minority that suppresses the majority has survived long in the modern era. At the end of that road, too, an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan River awaits us, and before that perhaps also an international boycott, or a bloodbath, or both.

There are all kinds of wise guys here who tell us that there is no solution to the conflict, and who therefore preach the idea of “managing” it. “Managing the conflict” will look exactly the way last summer looked. “Managing the conflict” means a succession of the second, third, fourth and fifth Lebanon wars. And of Operations Cast Lead, and Pillar of Defense, and Protective Edge, and Drawn Bow, and Iron Boots, and Beat them to a Pulp. And maybe also an intifada or two in Jerusalem and the territories. Until the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the rise of Hamas, or a more extreme and more fanatic group than Hamas. That’s what “managing the conflict” means.

Now let’s talk for a moment about the resolution of the conflict. For a century and more (a period that can be called “one hundred years of solitude”), we haven’t had a more propitious moment to end the conflict. Not because the Arabs have suddenly become Zionists, and not because they are now ready to recognize our historic right to this land, but because Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates and the Maghreb countries – and even Bashar Assad’s Syria – have, in the present and for the foreseeable future, a far more immediate, more destructive and more dangerous enemy than the State of Israel.

Thirteen years ago, the Saudi peace initiative, which was actually a proposal of the Arab League, was placed on our table. I don’t recommend that Israel rush to sign on the dotted line at the bottom of the proposal, but it definitely deserves to be negotiated and bargained over by us. We should have done that already 13 years ago; maybe we would be in a completely different place today. If a similar proposal had been put to us in the days of Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, in the period of the noes of the Arab summit meeting at Khartoum – almost all of us would have gone out to dance in the streets.

I will now say something controversial: Since at least the 1967 Six-Day War, we have not won a war. Including the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A war is not a basketball game, in which the side that scores more points wins the trophy and gets a handshake. In a war, even if we burned more tanks than the enemy did, and downed more planes, and conquered enemy territory – that does not mean we won. The victor in a war is the side that achieves its goals, and the loser is the side that does not achieve its goals.

In the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s goal was to break the status quo that was created in 1967, and he succeeded. We were defeated, because we did not achieve our goal, and the reason we did not achieve it was that we did not have a goal, nor could we have had a goal that was attainable by military force.

Does what I just said imply that military force is superfluous? Absolutely not. At any given moment in the past 70 years, our military force has stood unceasingly between us and destruction and annihilation. But we must always remember: When it comes to Israel and its neighbors, our military force can only be preventive. To prevent a disaster. To prevent annihilation. To prevent a mass attack on our population. But we will not be able to win wars, simply because we have no goals that are achievable by military force. And because of this, as I said, I view “managing the conflict” as a recipe for one problem after another – not to mention one defeat after another.

Israel’s big stick

A great many Israelis, too many Israelis, believe – or are being brainwashed into believing – that if we only take a very big stick and beat the Arabs with it just one more time, very hard, they will take fright and once and for all let us be, and everything will be fine. For almost one hundred years the Arabs haven’t let us be, despite our big stick.

And in the meantime, our rule of oppression in the occupied territories is eroding the Palestinian Authority. When it falls, we will find ourselves facing Hamas, if not worse, in the West Bank, too. Millions of subjugated Palestinians without rights. Israel has already plundered about a third of the land in the West Bank, and the plunder continues.

The right wing and the settlers tell us that we have a right to the whole Land of Israel. That we have a right to the Temple Mount. But what, actually, do they mean by the word “right”? A right is not what I want badly and also feel very strongly that I deserve: It is what others recognize as my right. If others do not recognize my right, or if only some of them recognize my right, then what I have is not a right but a demand.

That is precisely the difference between Ramle and Ramallah, between Haifa and Nablus, between Be’er Sheva and Hebron: The whole world, including most of the Arab and Muslim world (apart from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran), recognizes today that Haifa and Be’er Sheva are ours. But no one in the world, other than the settlers and their supporters in the American far right, recognizes that Nablus and Ramallah belong to us. And that is the difference between a right and a demand.

The settlers and their supporters say, “We have a right to the whole Land of Israel.” But in fact what they mean is something completely different: not that we have a right, but that we have a religious duty to hold on to every inch of land. When I stand at a pedestrian crossing, I certainly have a right to cross the road. But if I see a truck hurtling toward me at 100 kilometers an hour, I also have a full right not to exercise my right and not to cross the road.

I am talking about the Temple Mount, for example. Why should Jews not have the right to pray on the Temple Mount? And yet we also have a right not to exercise that right, in this generation. For some among us, the conflict with 200 million Arabs is already small potatoes; they’re tired of it, it’s starting to bore them, they want action. They want to lead us into a war with all of Islam. With Indonesia and with Malaysia, with Turkey and with nuclearized Pakistan.

And I ask: to die for the sake of prayers on the Temple Mount? That is not written anywhere in the Jewish sources. It is not an unconditional imperative. Whoever wants to spark a world war in honor of the Temple Mount – do it without me, please, and without my children, without my grandchildren.

Continued fearmongering

Nor is a war against all of Islam enough for them. Some of them are leading us into a war against the whole world. About 40 years ago, after the political upset of 1977, when Likud came to power, one newspaper editor was so delighted with the turn of events that he opened his editorial with the unforgettable words: “Likud’s victory in the elections in Israel restores America to its true dimensions.”

Today, too, there is apparently an Israeli attempt to restore America to its true dimensions. To destroy the alliance between America and Israel in favor of an alliance between our far right and the far right in America. What we’re now being told is more or less this: “The leader of the free world is fighting alone against the Iranian nuclear project. Why is President Barack Obama constantly interfering?”

We must never forget that at least twice in our history we found ourselves embroiled in a war against almost the whole world, and on those previous occasions it ended very badly.

I envision a time that is not far off when workers in Amsterdam, in Dublin or in Madrid will refuse to service El Al planes. Customers will boycott Israeli products, leaving them on the shelves. Investors and tourists will shun Israel. The Israeli economy will collapse. We are already at least halfway there.

David Ben-Gurion taught us that Israel will not be viable without the support of at least one great power. Which power? It varies. Once it was England, once even Stalin’s Russia, once it was England and France, and in recent decades it’s been America. But the alliance with America is definitely not part of the natural order of things. That alliance is a variable element, not a permanent one. One of the most important distinctions between the life of an individual and the life of nations is between what is permanent, and what is variable and transient.

For decades, we were frightened into believing that if we returned the territories, “a Soviet army will appear next to Kfar Sava.” I can’t tell you for certain that if we give back all the territories, everything will be wonderful. But it can be said with certainty that there will not be a Soviet army next to Kfar Sava.

The same fearmongers who frightened us with the Soviet army at the gates of Kfar Sava are now scaring us again, saying that if we withdraw from the territories, missiles will strike Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion International Airport and Kfar Sava. I don’t know for certain whether that is true, but I can tell you, with the full authority of a staff sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces: It is already possible today to strike the airport, Tel Aviv and Kfar Sava with missiles, not only from Qalqilyah but also from Iraq, from Pakistan and maybe even from Indonesia.

Once again, as in the matter of the Soviet army in Kfar Sava, we have a case of an unfortunate lack of distinction between the variable and the permanent. If not today, then tomorrow or the next day, it will be possible to launch deadly, precise missile strikes from every point in the world against every other point in the world. Will we dispatch the IDF to conquer the whole planet?

The fact that the United States is our ally is a variable. It could change. The fact that the Palestinians are our neighbors and the fact that we are living in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, is permanent. Even the danger of the Iranian nuclear project is variable and not permanent, because even if we or others bomb the nuclear facilities in Iran, we will not be able to bomb the knowhow. Because nuclearized Pakistan is liable tomorrow to become an Islamist state even more extreme than Iran; because no one can prevent our wealthy enemies from buying off-the-shelf nuclear weapons and aiming them at us; and above all, because in another few years, everyone who wants weapons of mass destruction will be able to obtain them – here, too, the permanent element must be Israel’s power of deterrence. By contrast, the capabilities of our enemies – whether nuclear capabilities or others – are a variable that, ultimately, does not depend on us.

Justice vs. justice

I have said that in contrast to some of my friends in the dovish left, I cannot guarantee that if we leave the territories with a peace treaty, everything will be wonderful. But I am certain that if we stay in the territories, things will get worse. If we stay in the territories, in the end there will be an Arab state from the sea to the Jordan River.

On this point I want to take issue with myself and with some of my friends in the dovish left. There are millions of Israelis who might forgo the territories in return for peace, but who don’t believe the Arabs. They don’t want to be suckers. They are afraid. One must never make light of fear or mock it. One can try, perhaps, to allay the fear. To temper it. It also might not hurt the dovish left to share in that fear a little. There is something to be afraid of. A person who is afraid, rightly or wrongly, never deserves contempt or ridicule, or scorn either. We have to debate the idea of peace for land not with ridicule or scorn, but as people who weigh one danger against another danger.

And another mistake made by some of my friends in the dovish left: Sometimes they think that peace is lying on a high shelf in a toy store. Stretch your hand out and touch it. Daddy Rabin almost touched it in the Oslo Accords, but was too stingy to pay the full price and didn’t bring us the toy. Daddy Ehud Barak almost touched it at Camp David, but was too stingy to pay the price and returned without peace. And the same with Ehud Olmert – a stingy dad, a dad who didn’t love us enough. Because otherwise he would have paid the full price and brought us the coveted peace long ago.

I don’t accept any of that. I believe that peace has more than one partner. The Arab proverb says, “You can’t clap with one hand.” But today we have a partner for negotiations. For years, the brainwashers told us that the PLO’s Yasser Arafat was too strong and too evil; now they tell us that the PA’s Abu Mazen is too weak. We’re told that when the Palestinians kill us, it’s impossible to make peace with them, and when they stop killing us, there is no reason to make peace with them.

My decades-long Zionist point of departure is simple: We are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem. I tell my Palestinian friends the same thing. You are not alone in this land. There is no choice but to divide this small house into two even smaller apartments. Yes. A two-family home. And good fences make good neighbors, as the poet Robert Frost wrote.

The idea of a binational state that we hear about these days from both the extreme left and the lunatic right is, I believe, a sad joke. After one hundred years of blood, tears and disasters, it is impossible to expect Israelis and Palestinians to jump suddenly into a double bed and begin a honeymoon.

In 1945, if someone had suggested uniting Poland and Germany into one binational state, he would probably have been locked up in an insane asylum.

I was apparently the first to write, shortly after the great victory in the Six-Day War, that “the occupation will corrupt us.” In that article I wrote that the occupation would also corrupt the occupied.

No, we and the Palestinians will not be able to become “one happy family” tomorrow. We need a fair divorce. After a time, perhaps cooperation will come, a common market, a federation. But in the initial stage, the country must be a two-family home, because we are not going anywhere. We have no place to go. Nor are the Palestinians going anywhere. They too have nowhere else.

At bottom, the altercation between us and the Palestinians is not a Hollywood western of good guys versus bad guys, it is a tragedy of justice versus justice – so I wrote almost 50 years ago, and so I continue to believe today. Justice versus justice. And frequently, I regret to say, injustice versus injustice.

A surgeon in the emergency ward, when faced with someone suffering from system-wide injuries, will ask himself: What comes first? What’s urgent? What is liable to kill the patient? In Israel’s case, it is not religious coercion, it is not even affordable housing, not even the price of a Milky pudding – it is the continuation of the conflict with the Arabs, which is turning into a war against the whole world. A war of that kind endangers our very existence.

Perhaps this is the place to reveal Israel’s deepest secret, which is that we are actually weaker, and have always been weaker, than all our enemies together. For decades, our enemies have been awash in wild rhetoric about Israel’s annihilation and about throwing the Jews into the sea. They could easily have sent a million fighters against us, or two million, or three million. They never sent more than several tens of thousands, because despite the murderous rhetoric, Israel’s existence or destruction was never a life-and-death question, not for Syria, not for Libya, not for Egypt and not even for Iran. Maybe it has been for the Palestinians – but fortunately for us, they are too small to overcome us.

The sum total of our enemies could have long since overcome us, if they possessed true motivation and not only rhetorical and propagandistic motivation. Adventurism by us on the Temple Mount is liable, heaven forbid, to imbue them with that motivation.

I am not sure that the altercation with the Arabs can be ended overnight. But it’s possible to try. I believe that it was possible long ago to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an Israeli-Gazan conflict.

It’s difficult to be a prophet in the land of the prophets. There’s too much competition. But my life experience has taught me that in the Middle East, the words “for all time,” “never” or “at any price” mean something between six months and 30 years.

If I’d been told, when I was called up in the reserves to Sinai during the Six-Day War, and to the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War, that one day I would be able to visit Egypt and Jordan with an Egyptian visa and a Jordanian visa stamped in my Israeli passport, I, the dove, the peace-monger, would have said: Don’t exaggerate – maybe my children or my grandchildren, but not me.

To conclude, I want to direct our attention to the fact that for decades this country has been experiencing a cultural golden age. In literature, cinema, the arts. In high-tech, in philosophical thought, in science and technology. Generally, people talk with yearning about a “golden age” only after it has passed. But Israel has been in the throes of a creative golden age for a few decades.

For me, for example, the city of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, is our collective creation and is no less important, and perhaps more important, than the rabbinical literature that was written in the Diaspora, or the Jewish poetry composed in Spain. Tel Aviv is possibly even no less marvelous than the Babylonian Talmud. And it is just one of our collective creations here in the Land of Israel.

There are some who assail this act of creation, too, because they see Hebrew culture as too leftist. There were and still are regimes that habitually incite against culture, due to the fact that almost always, in every time and every place, many of the creators of culture harbor oppositionist leanings.

Now for a small confession: I love Israel even when I cannot tolerate it. If I am fated to fall in the street one day, I want to fall on a street in Israel. Not in London, not in Paris, not in Berlin and not in New York. Here, people will pick me up. When I am back on my feet there will undoubtedly be quite a few who will want to see me fall again, but if I fall again I will be picked up again.

I am very anxious about the future. I am afraid of the government’s policy and I am ashamed of it. I am afraid of the fanaticism and the violence that are spreading here, and I am ashamed of that, too. But I feel good being an Israeli. I feel good being a citizen of a country that has eight million prime ministers, eight million prophets, eight million messiahs. Each with his personal formula for redemption. Everyone is shouting, only a few are listening. It’s not boring here. And sometimes it’s even intellectually and emotionally riveting.

What I have seen here in my lifetime is both a great deal less and a great deal more than what my parents and my parents’ parents dreamed of.

Based on a talk delivered at a symposium in memory of Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, on February 1, and an address to a February 17 conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv.

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