Back to Square One

We need a realistic idea that will let us leave the territories carefully, without being liable to the Palestinian leadership’s deceptions.

Ari Shavit
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Palestinian President Abbas speaking in Ramallah about setting up a fund for East Jerusalem residents. Credit: AP
Ari Shavit

I learned again this week something that I learned long ago: Liberal Israel is not liberal toward those who question its basic assumptions. One may write that the prime minister is a warmonger, a war criminal and a racist. One may never write that the head of the Palestinian Authority is a serial peace-rejectionist.

Why? Because. Because political correctness negates the idea that all human beings are equal in rights and responsibilities, and are equally subject to criticism. It grants sweeping immunity to any Palestinian leader, whoever he may be. That is the reason why the Israeli media did not tell the truth about Yasser Arafat in real time, and why, even now, several of my friends have a hard time telling the whole truth about Mahmoud Abbas. What may be written about any statesman on earth may never be written about a statesman who works in Ramallah or Gaza. Any substantial debate about Palestinian national leadership is tantamount to sacrilege.

The storm of emotions that befell my colleagues this week reminded me of a different time. The first intifada broke out in the winter of 1987. Tens of thousands of Palestinians went out into the streets, justifiably, to demand their liberty. But I noticed that many of the people who had risen up were not demanding only the end of the occupation, but the land as well. They had not forgotten Lod or given it up. That being the case, I concluded that the Israeli left needed to redefine itself. It had to distinguish between the question of the occupation and that of peace, and try to end the occupation even in the absence of peace. Withdrawing from the territories might not bring peace; the conflict might continue even afterward, but this large withdrawal was necessary to ensure the State of Israel’s moral, demographic and political future.

I presented this new insight in the form of an opinion piece, which was the first comprehensive article I ever published. “The day after the withdrawal” in Koteret Rashit, February 1988, caused a storm of emotions that was very like the storm that took place this week. Many people gave me high praise, but many people also attacked and criticized me. They could not bear the fact that someone who shared their values and world view saw the situation differently and suggested a different way to deal with the occupation and the settlements. But I stuck by my opinion, and I still do.

We all have a moral obligation to try to reach peace every single year. I could be wrong. Maybe the floodwaters have subsided; maybe the dove bearing an olive branch has perched on the windowsill. But at the same time, we all have an obligation not to make the end of the occupation subject to the end of the conflict. We must not perpetuate the cycle that makes us wait again and again for a permanent agreement this spring, and get another 30,000 settlers next winter. We must clear a third path between all and nothing. We need a creative and realistic idea that will enable us to leave the territories gradually and carefully, without being dependent on the deceptions of the Palestinian leadership.

When I read “The day after the withdrawal” today, I am filled with pride and sadness: pride that I was one of the first to see the writing on the wall and came up with an insight that many people accept today, and sadness that waiting for the Palestinian Godot caused us to lose precious time. The fact that we did not set a border on our own 10 or 20 years ago allowed the occupation to grow even deeper, settlements to be built and the two-state solution to slip between our fingers.

So as we face the terrible ideological and emotional crisis of the peace process’ collapse, we should not content ourselves with cursing the right wing. True, the right wing was wrong and the right wing rejected peace too, and the right wing brought disaster upon Israel. But now we need to grow up, wake up and take responsibility. We need to replace the permanent agreement that will never be with the most important Zionist enterprise of the 21st century: dividing the land.