In the Current Climate, Herzog's Proposal of Interim Measures Is Right

Staying stuck in the old leftist rhetoric will advance neither the solution of the conflict nor the chance of replacing the current government.

Shlomo Avineri
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Isaac Herzog speaking in front of a portrait of his father, Chaim, November 11, 2015. The United Nations and the Israeli Mission to the United Nations marked 40 years since Herzog's historic speech against a resolution classifying Zionism as racism. In front of some 400 guests, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon offered remarks, as did Isaac Herzog.
Isaac Herzog speaking in front of a portrait of his father, Chaim, November 11, 2015.Credit: Leo Sorel
Shlomo Avineri

It isn’t necessary to agree with all the ideas proposed recently by opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) to acknowledge that he is leading a correct and reasonable move – at no little political risk to himself. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist government is leading Israel into a dead-end, unwilling to tell the country's population or the world how it sees the country’s character and its borders. Even though the government speaks equivocally, it is clear that its aim is to perpetuate the status quo indefinitely, thereby preventing the obvious solution: Two states for two peoples.

The moderate public in Israel clings to the slogan “We must return to the negotiating table,” as though the very fact of returning to the table will ensure achievement of an agreed-upon solution. And on the left there are those who expect international pressure to compel the Netanyahu government to take steps to which it does not agree. It is an absurd idea, which ignores the fact that no national conflict – not in Cyprus not in Kosovo, not in Bosnia, not in Kashmir – has ever been solved by means of external pressure when the sides themselves are not prepared, or not able, to reach a solution.

The understandable opposition to the prime minister’s policy of “sit and do nothing” has in effect led the center and the left into stagnation. It is easy, of course, to blame Netanyahu but previous governments headed by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, which were prepared to make far-reaching concessions, also came up against Palestinian refusal.

Let us imagine for a moment that tomorrow the government of Israel – even one headed by Herzog – goes back to negotiating with the Palestinians. Will it be able to offer them more than what Olmert offered in his dozens of meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, when every proposal was rejected and served only as the basis for further demands? After 20 years of limping and failed negotiations, it is necessary to admit that the Oslo agreements were a significant breakthrough but did not achieve their aim: A final peace agreement between the two national movements.

Herzog is now proposing a move on two levels: On one level, to see the vision of two states as an ultimate goal to which to aspire. And on the other level – since it is difficult to see how it is possible to achieve this vision now, and in order to avoid stagnation – Israel must take some unilateral measures that will bring the possibility of its achievement closer.

It is clear why the right will object to any unilateral move. It is also clear that it will bring the example of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip as proof that such moves are destined to fail. This of course is incorrect – it is easy enough to imagine what Israel’s situation would be if the settlements in Gaza were still in existence and their inhabitants, along with the entire Israel Defense Forces, were still exposed to terror attacks every day the way they were before the disengagement.

It is much less easy to understand the attacks on Herzog from some parts of the left. What are the people who are criticizing his ideas thinking? Do they believe that if Meretz and the Labor Party recite the mantra “It is necessary to go back to the negotiating table” three times a day it will lead to an agreement? Does anyone among them have a practical idea about what to do with the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank? Or about how to establish capitals for two states in Jerusalem? Or about how to solve the problem of the holy places in the Old City?

It is possible to play with all kinds of wonderful ideals and invent beautiful expressions like “the sacred basin” (sacred to whom? The secular left?) at an academic seminar. But in the current difficult circumstances, there is no chance of realizing these beautiful ideas in reality. Does Meretz know how to evacuate the settlers or where the border in Jerusalem will be? Is anyone on the left prepared for a peace agreement when Abbas declares that no Palestinian organization will ever be willing to give up the right of return, which is an individual right of every refugee or his descendants?

These difficult problems can be solved in the future, it is to be hoped, but certainly not in the current situation, even if a different government arises and even if the Palestinians succeed in establishing a legitimate national authority that will overcome the gaps between positions and prevent a civil war between Fatah and Hamas.

What Herzog is proposing now is not to accept the double veto by Netanyahu and Abbas, but rather to initiate unilateral moves aimed at minimizing the significance of the occupation, affording the Palestinians a larger measure of control in their areas and lowering the flames. Every peace-seeking person on the left must support such moves and not attack the individual who is proposing them. At this stage, a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is a utopia and the left is making itself irrelevant when it clings to it only because it is politically correct and enables the left to burnish its conscience by means of beautiful but hollow rhetoric.

In the debate that will no doubt be conducted in the Labor Party, it is worth considering the ideas Herzog is proposing (and also refraining from gutter expression like “f---king”,) with three additional proposals:

Putting an end to the remnants of the blockade on Gaza and finally relinquishing the status of occupying power there. If the Gaza Strip is not another Israeli occupied territory, the border between it and Israel has to be closed, like the border in the Golan Heights. To ease the situation of the inhabitants of Gaza, help should be sought from the European Union in establishing a framework of transit and border control arrangements. They will not be 100 percent effective (even in the current situation, Hamas manages to produce rockets,) but they will relieve us of responsibility for what happens in Gaza. Gaza is abroad – this must be internalized. After all, no sane Israeli wants to return to the Gaza Strip.

The Labor Party should adopt a voluntary evacuation-compensation plan for settlers in the West Bank who want to return to Israel proper. It is not easy to carry out such a plan but if one is proposed, presumably even in the current reality there will be those who will want to move back to within the Green Line and will put pressure on the government – yes, on Netanyahu’s government – to find a suitable solution for them. The Labor Party has to declare that will be its first move if it heads a new government. It will also pose a serious challenge to the Yesh Atid party, which has never expressed its real position regarding the settlements and their future.

Finally, the Labor Party must commit explicitly to removing the illegal outposts.

All this necessitates bold thinking outside the box. I am aware of the difficulty in shedding slogans that the moderate camp has upheld for decades but if 20 years later it has become clear that the Oslo agreements are not leading to a final peace agreement, it is necessary to examine the alternatives. It is possible to get stuck in the old rhetoric and only attack the deeds and failures of the rightist government, but that will advance neither the solution of the conflict nor the chance of replacing the current government.

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