Is Israel Embarrassed by Its Peace Treaties?

Israel would prefer to revel in the glory of military victories than celebrate the peace treaties that have proved its biggest strategic gain.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House March 26, 1979.
AP

During the bizarre visit that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to the south of the country on the first day of the new school year, he made a point of telling the children who had just entered the gates of the primary education system, “The first lesson in first grade was Shalom kita aleph [“Hello, first grade”], with the emphasis on peace [shalom]. We educate our children to peace. A few kilometers from here, Hamas teaches its children the opposite of peace and sometimes tries to shoot at us, at you.”

Netanyahu went on to heap praise on Israel’s war against terrorism under his leadership. But the thoughts of an adult listener might have wandered to different realms and given rise to a particularly trenchant question: Are we truly educating our children to peace?

The sad answer is, this has not been the case for a long time. And it’s not only the children who are not being taught about peace – it’s the adults, too. In other words, us. This is one of the most dramatic ideological upheavals Israeli society has undergone in the past 20 years. Peace has become a dirty word, a joke, a symbol of detachment and delusion.

One can criticize to the heavens the historic Israeli yearning for peace, in whose warm light I grew up here with the rest of my generation. You can ask whether it was realistic or, alternatively, authentic, and if it was backed by actions or merely by words as empty as they were polished. You can wonder whether our hand was truly extended for peace, and how far, and whether there was, is or will be anyone to talk peace with.

But one thing is hard to dispute: Education about peace and the hope for peace used to be vividly present – in the public discourse, in culture, in textbooks and prayers. The white dove hovered above everything, carrying an olive branch in its beak.

Embodiment of Zionism

To understand how truly absent this is from the current picture, we can do no better than examine one seminal event – the peace with Egypt – which has long since become non-formative. It’s now faded and peeling, almost muted.

Amos Ben Gershom

That peace, with the bitterest and most dangerous of the adversaries on our borders, is perhaps the most important and most brilliant strategic act undertaken by Israel in its history. It is the very embodiment of Zionism (securing national existence within recognized borders).

True, it was accompanied by apprehension and suspicion until the final moment of its implementation, and its low intensity has disappointed those who long for true peace between nations and not just between governments. Nonetheless, its importance and implications can hardly be overstated.

Now consider the dimensions of its (non-)presence in Israeli life, and how little it is talked and thought about. Its primary and secondary protagonists are gone and forgotten, their glory faded.

We are constantly being given thrill-packed documentaries about the Sabena and Entebbe plane hijack rescues and their ilk. The level of detail to which the Israeli public is exposed with regard to these heroic exploits is nothing short of intimate: Woe betide those who don’t remember who covered Bibi on the left wing of the plane as he dealt with his pistol jamming while backing Muki, who rushed in from the right dressed in white overalls next to Ehud, who was disguised as a blonde.

The creative wellsprings also never run dry when it comes to suicidal battles such as Chinese Farm in Sinai or the intelligence failure in the Yom Kippur War that led to that 1973 battle. And yet no films are made about the most heroic strategic act of all, which sought to repair, as far as possible and without bloodshed, the true failure and blindness – that of the politicians – that brought that war upon us.

Few articles and books are written about it. The day of the treaty signing is not engraved in gold letters on the calendar; those who took the lead in securing it – most of whom have now passed away – are not singled out for praise thanks to the peace they brought.

Sometimes, it almost feels as though Israel is ashamed of it – certainly it is indifferent to its fruits. The same is true of the “smaller” peace, the one made with Jordan.

If this is the Israeli attitude toward durable peace agreements that have already been achieved, and that have successfully survived quite a few crises and dangers, it’s obvious what its attitude will be to a future peace option.

The white dove is too old, Yehonatan Geffen once wrote. Maybe. Mostly, though, it doesn’t interest anyone anymore. It won’t die of old age, it will die of loneliness.

The writer is a journalist at Haaretz and has been an active journalist for the past 16 years.