Hats Off to Whoever Believes Peace Is Possible

While we should never lose hope, the collapse of stability in the Middle East requires Israel to adopt a cautious and conservative risk-management approach in the region.

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Islamic Jihad militants firing rockets from Gaza, 2008.
Masked Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad placing homemade rockets before later firing them into Israel on the outskirts of Gaza City. Credit: AP

There will be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians until a “brave compromise” is adopted by both sides. It seems that the most “painful” compromise of all in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a territorial one, but rather a historic one that primarily entails mutual recognition of the legitimate rights of the two peoples to self-determination – i.e., mutual willingness to accept the existence of two nation-states, in which the majority group in each has the exclusive right to realize its national aspirations within the defined territory.

There will be no peace in the foreseeable future because a fundamental “historic compromise” of this nature has become conceivable to the Israeli public and in Israeli politics, but remains completely unacceptable to the Palestinian side. The internal Israeli ideological clash over an irreversible historic concession of territories that are formative in Jewish culture and Jewish identity has long been replaced by a tactical political clash over the way to manage the security risks entailed by this peace formula. Meanwhile, the Palestinian side fluctuates between Islamist ideology that sanctifies the use of violence to win the conflict, and supposed political realism, which is prepared, under certain circumstances, to recognize the existence of a binational “Israeli” entity alongside the Palestinian nation-state. The binational formula for Israel represents the total sum of the ideological flexibility that Palestinian pragmatism has attained after a quarter-century of negotiations.

There will be no peace as long as the Palestinians continue to nurture the false hope that, alongside the Palestinian nation-state, a binational state will be established in which not only will every individual enjoy full human and civil rights, but there will also be full equal group rights for two communities – Jewish and Palestinian – with the collective rights of Arab citizens of Israel becoming part of the fabric of Palestinian national rights.

There will be no peace as long as the Palestinians refuse to recognize the fact that the “Jewish” aspect of the majority community in Israel is not only a component of religious identity but also of national, civilizational and cultural identity, and that Jews also have the right to self-determination and the right to realize this in the form of a state within the territory where their collective identity was shaped.

There will be no peace as long as radical false hopes are nurtured with the idea that the Jewish people’s national aspirations can be “reengineered” and diverted into the creation of a joint Jewish-Palestinian nationality. A 3,000-year-old civilization does not alter its genetic code due to an aggressive campaign to promote a “multicultural civil society” as an appropriate substitute for the realization of a “natural and historic right” to national sovereignty. This is even truer in light of the blood-soaked “success stories” of multicultural, multi-tribal and multiethnic countries in the Middle East like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen.

There will be no peace as long as the Palestinian vision of reconciliation is based upon the key idea of a population evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. The vision of a Palestinian territory that has no tolerance for the presence of the “other” is not in tune with 21st-century reality and practice. There is no other ethnic conflict in the world today whose solution requires a population evacuation of communities that have been living for three or four generations in a permanent habitat. The overriding moral principle of “You don’t correct an injustice with another injustice” and not uprooting communities from the landscape of their homeland doesn’t just apply to the resolution of the conflict in Northern Cyprus, but should also be applied in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Creative, modern political definitions should serve as a substitute for the violent formula they seek to impose upon the tens of thousands of Israelis who live just a short drive from Israel’s border. All of us were created “in God’s image.” Including the settlers.

There will be no peace as long as Palestinian society remains split into two hostile political entities, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority. As Israelis see it, the Gaza experiment does not bode well. Rather than the promised Singapore, what has been built in Gaza is a belligerent blend of Somalia, Lebanon and Iran. There is no prospect of peace as long as Gaza continues to be treated as the Palestinian “missile silo,” with rockets ready to be fired round after round at the Israeli civilian population. The demilitarization of Gaza and removal of missiles from there is not a tactical Israeli demand; it’s a critical element for the reconciliation process.

There will be no peace until the face of the Middle East is changed and the region converges around a new point of balance. The collapse of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the concomitant collapse of stability in the Middle East require Israel to adopt a cautious and conservative risk-management approach. Compromises and the taking of risks that might have seemed reasonable up to five years ago are now no longer possible. The strategic mistake that almost occurred, of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, could have placed Israel in an untenable situation today in which Iranian forces would be battling Islamic State or Nusra Front forces for control on the banks of Lake Kinneret. This strategic shortsightedness should serve as a warning from which to draw lessons regarding the possibility or impossibility of a “road map” in future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Hats off to whoever believes that, amid the collapse of states, the civil wars and bloodshed ravaging the Middle East, the Palestinian leadership will develop the desire and ability to spearhead moves of reconciliation and compromise with Israel – something they have not done in the past.

True, we cannot “lose hope.” We must manage the conflict wisely and not only justly, we must fight for the moral character of Israeli society, make every effort to preserve our international standing, to enhance internal solidarity and encourage reconciliation. But at the same time, we mustn’t confuse what we want with what there is. We mustn’t confuse what is true and what is not. There are historic moments in which the public yearns for an authentic discussion, even if this entails “blood, sweat and tears” – moments when the grief of realism is preferable to the recurrent mistakes of false hopes.

The writer was cabinet secretary from 2009-2013.

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