Peace Between Israel and Palestine Must Start With Jerusalem

The essential key to any future settlement lies in starting to consolidate trust between the two sides in the present.

Reuven Rivlin
Reuven Rivlin
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Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin visits the Western Wall in the Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2014.
Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin visits the Western Wall in the Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2014.Credit: AFP
Reuven Rivlin
Reuven Rivlin

Many words have been written on the geopolitical discourse between the right and the left in Israel. At times, it seems as though the arguments of both sides can be encapsulated in the words: “We told you so.” I do not wish to elaborate on this debate – as president of Israel, I do not have a mandate to decide it – but instead I wish to address the geopolitical consensus between right and left; more precisely, to consider its missing elements.

I dwell among my own people, and I am obliged to say that a realistic, mature people lives here. A people that, even amid a complex, cruel reality, is not drawn to messianism, violence and racism. A people that understands the limitations of the old “land for peace” formula. A courageous people, which justly lays claim to its right and obligation to defend itself, and not to fall into fateful mistakes in the name of a naive yearning for instant solutions to end the conflict. Anyone with eyes in their head who sees what is happening in our region – the waves of hatred and terror that are lashing us on our streets, the fundamentalist Islamic zeal that dispatches children to murder their peers – understands that it will take time before we are able to release the doves.

Indeed, in the past two decades, broad agreement has developed in the mainstream of Israeli society about essential basic principles in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A healthy, vital clarity has emerged among us about the tough neighborhood in which we live, together with understanding the necessity to preserve our underlying values, even in a complex situation. However, that realism and broad agreement today lack an additional, equally essential layer. It is not enough that we look hard and unflinchingly at the complex reality in which we live; we must also recognize where and how we can take action within that reality, even at this difficult time.

Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that envelops us does not have clear timetables, we are duty-bound today to bolster our broad national consensus with another element: A determined, proactive investment to improve the prospect that we will one day be able to live here together, Jews and Arabs, and let the political constellation be what it may. On both the right and left, we are not exempt from asking ourselves even now: What is the positive legacy we will bequeath to future generations in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

I regret to say it does not appear that we will be able to bequeath them peace – but we can leave them breakthroughs. Even if they are local, even if they are embryonic. Even if not at the level of ending the conflict, then in building trust between the two peoples and leaderships. So that they will not begin, like us today, at zero.

In the heat of the tempestuous geopolitical debate (even if imaginary at times) between right and left, both sides of the political divide appear to have neglected one simple truth that ought to constitute the underlying assumption of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The geopolitical left – in the name of the “separation” paradigm – and the geopolitical right – in the name of the Greater Israel ideology – have both neglected the fact that the Arabs of the Land of Israel, the Palestinians, are already here, now, by our side and in our midst, and they are not going anywhere. Separation does not “disappear” them, just as Greater Israel will not “swallow” them. Separation will not render them “invisible” or “nonhostile” when they are by our side and in our midst, and Greater Israel will not make them fond of us or make them our friends.

The essential key to any future settlement lies in starting to consolidate trust between the sides in the present. This understanding must be the starting point of the debate, both in Tel Aviv and in Samaria.

At the core, left-wing and right-wing governments alike – all of us – are ignoring the need to forge or manage the relations between Jews and Arabs, in Israel and elsewhere. From this point of view, we are all behaving like ostriches today, in the name of an unknown future.

Blindness from left and right

The eastern part of Jerusalem, that burning area, is both the fable and moral of the blindness on the right and left. The eastern part of Jerusalem has been under Israeli sovereignty for almost 50 years. The left, in the name of “separation,” refused to invest in its neighborhoods, citing the supposed “transience” hovering over the issue of a unified Jerusalem. Accordingly, the left did not see fit to realize our sovereignty there or strive to equalize the living conditions between the city’s eastern and western areas. The right, for its part, for reasons of ideological struggle and electoral unpopularity, also did not deem it proper to invest in the eastern part and thereby to unify the city in practice.

Thus, in the name of a debate over future solutions, we froze and repressed dealing with eastern Jerusalem in the present – and thereby literally abandoned the security of its Jewish inhabitants and the welfare of its Arab inhabitants.

Is there really anyone, on the right or left, who thinks that if the eastern section of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, resembles a Third World state, if more than 70 percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line, that this advances Israel’s interests or the security of the city’s Jewish inhabitants? Does anyone think it is best to put off dealing with the sewage that flows in the streets of eastern Jerusalem until the “end of the conflict,” or that putting it off draws us closer to that point? Is there anyone who thinks the consequences of these abysmal economic disparities will stop at a genuine or fictitious political border?

In the heat of our internal controversy over the country’s borders, the character of our neighbors and the nature of the final settlement or its feasibility, we are prone to become addicted to the dispute over the end of the conflict and the need to manage it, and to ignore the necessity of managing relations between Arabs and Jews in the present – in the here-and-now, in which people, children, youth, Jews and Arabs actually live. The present in which their consciousness is formed and crystallizes their course of life.

Forging trust

The consensus we require today, from the right and left, lies in the need to map out the steps we should have begun to take yesterday. I refer to steps that improve our relative situation independently of the geopolitical territorial debate. These are steps that every sensible person understands serve Israel’s utilitarian and moral interests. Thus, without resorting to the question of whether there is or is not a partner, it is self-evident that the building of the Palestinian city Rawabi is in Israel’s interest. Does anyone think that cultivating channels of communication between the Israeli side and the Palestinian side – besides the channels of security cooperation – is in Israel’s interest? That cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian businessmen, educators and cultural figures improves our relative situation? Is there anyone who does not see the value and importance of the majority of the Jewish population, and not just a tiny minority among it, being able to speak Arabic?

When it comes to increasing knowledge of the language and cultural assets, intensifying dialogue and joint channels of communication, improving the quality of life by investing in infrastructures and creating a foundation of economic and other cooperative projects between Arabs and Jews in Israel and elsewhere – when it comes to all these possibilities, we should have started yesterday and we are not exempt from doing so today, all of us, in the present.

It is our obligation to isolate the geopolitical dispute over Israel’s future borders and its character from necessary actions that every sensible person understands are clear Israeli interests. We must strive for broad agreement, not only about what we will apparently not be able to achieve today, but also about what can be achieved. We must not allow our harsh feelings, however justified they may be – and they are indeed justified – to get the better of our common sense, to derail a determined, uncompromising thrust to break through where the potential exists, in the present.

This generation’s mission is to forge trust between Arabs and Jews. The relevant breakthrough for this generation lies in the realm of the present, based on acceptance of the simple equation that a close connection exists between the welfare of the Arabs of this country, between our understanding their culture, their religion and their language, and our own image and welfare.

The promotional material for the Israel Conference on Peace shows the dove of peace trapped in a block of ice. I fear that the day is still far off when we see that dove take flight with an olive branch in its beak. But it is essential we at least start to melt the ice.

The writer is president of the State of Israel.

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