When Has Pragmatism Ever Had Anything to Do With Mideast Peace? Now

Gruff-talking, self-adoring pipe-dreamers have failed to find any solutions for any of our problems. A different experiment is in order

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in Jerusalem during Trump's visit to Israel, May 22, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in Jerusalem during Trump's visit to Israel, May 22, 2017.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

What would happen, you might ask, if one of these days, a decidedly centrist, encyclopedically knowledgeable and indefatigably rational Israeli security analyst suggested that the current reality of the Middle East meant that, of all things, a peace process was now the pragmatic course of action to pursue?

It happened Tuesday morning.

It happened while Israeli leaders were waiting for Donald Trump to hold talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

It happened while Israeli rightists, particularly settlement activists, showed growing concern about their government not doing enough to head off, wave off, choke off, kill off this little-understood current American and regional push for peace. This talk of a peace process, which, as rightist leaders have taken pains to reassure us will surely go nowhere.

The analyst was former commander of Israeli Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin.

“We’re squandering an opportunity here,” Yadlin declared.

According to Yadlin, a veteran wartime combat pilot who flew one of the eight fighter-bombers that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, President Trump will be unable to achieve his stated goal of a peace agreement because the bedrock positions of the two sides are currently much too far apart.

But, he added in an interview with Channel 10, the current alignment of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and others, driven by an administration committed to such a process, means that a significant Israeli-Palestinian peace arrangement could be forged.

“We must do something which is connected to our best interests, as Israelis, as Jews, as Zionists," he said. "With this president, we have an opportunity to reach a historic achievement. It will not solve all of the problems, but it will change the direction in which we are heading."

In Yadlin’s view, Israel is headed toward a single state comprising both Israel and the West Bank, “a state which would either be no longer Jewish, or no longer democratic.”

So far, instead of committing to the process, he said, the Netanyahu government has done nothing but make “third-rate gestures.”

This is not the case of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, when Arab nations promised normalization of relations with Israel at the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Yadlin continued. “Now the Arabs surrounding us are prepared to come in order to jump-start the process, to come while the process is proceeding.”

“We must carry out this experiment,” Yadlin concluded.

There was a time when Israel was led by realists who succeeded, in part, because they were under the illusion that they were dreamers.

Now, however, we have another set of leaders. Gruff-talking, self-adoring pipe-dreamers who fail to have any solutions for any of our problems, in part because they are so convinced of the illusion – as they will boast to us a thousand times a day – that they are realists.

So Yadlin’s answer was not long in coming. It was a no.

It came from another Channel 10 panelist, senior Likud cabinet minister and Netanyahu-whisperer Ze’ev Elkin, a settler who, though he has never risen above the rank of private, often enunciates hard-right government policy on matters of war, peace and the ill-advisability of diplomacy with Palestinians.

“When you’re speaking of our relations with Palestinians, that system of ‘C’mon, let’s try an experiment,’ has cost us a very steep price," said Elkin. "Therefore, most of the Israeli public simply is no longer willing to engage in experiments.”

Elkin acknowledged that alignments in the region had changed dramatically. But there was no change in his answer.

“There is a new and different situation in the Middle East. I would say that only the blind could fail to see this,” he told Channel 10.

“On the other hand, whoever looks at the present Palestinian leadership,” Elkin said, “understands that it has no interest in peace.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not far behind. Breaking from the guarded language of unity and non-conflict which had characterized the brief Trump visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Netanyahu, speaking ahead of Trump’s closing address at the Israel Museum Jerusalem, opened fire on Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu accused them of “rewarding terrorists” and “glorifying murderers” instead of exhibiting a true desire for peace.

Trump, sticking to script, said that he had concluded from his meeting with Abbas hours earlier that “the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace.”

With Netanyahu standing alongside, Trump added that his “good friend Benjamin" also “wants peace.”

We’ve come to know our good friend Benjamin as well. We’ve come to know his cabinet. We’ve come to know the people who run this country.

And now Trump’s peace team, whatever its level of seriousness, is about to get to know them as well.

Our leaders are the pipe-dreamers who for generations now have tried to persuade Israelis that occupation is not occupation, that peace treaties are dangerous, that settlements are not intended to obstruct and foil peace negotiations, that the Palestinians should never have a state of their own alongside Israel and that we can keep millions of them under a permanent state of apartheid.

Polls show we don’t buy it, that a clear majority of Israelis would prefer to have a two-state solution. But our leaders keep selling it. Because we take it. Because we’re broken and bereaved and overwhelmed and insecure and mistrusting and know only that we have no real leaders.

We know our leaders as people whose job is to scare us – if not to death, then into submission.

Has it ever happened that pragmatism had anything at all to do with Mideast peace? Yes. Has it ever happened that people who once met all the conditions to be called terrorists sincerely made peace with their worst enemies?

We’ve seen it. It was two former arch-terrorists who signed the peace agreements under which Israel made peace with the enemy that had cost it by far the largest toll of casualties. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, in agreeing to uproot thousands of settlers and cede all of the occupied Sinai to Egypt, saved their nation untold bloodshed.

Asked if Israel should then say no to Trump, Elkin laughed, “No, there’s no need to say no to him. The Palestinians will say no to him.”

Elkin’s laughing now. But what happens if the Palestinians, in a fit of pragmatism, should decide to say yes?