In the Haaretz magazine for its Israel Conference on Peace, Aluf Benn raises an important question about the reasons for the failed process that began 21 years ago in Oslo. There’s no doubt that those who launched the process truly believed it would lead to a historic compromise between us and the Palestinians.
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Oslo’s sponsors saw the conflict as one between two national movements and believed – as did I – that direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO could find a solution to the territorial and strategic issues that were the cornerstones of the dispute. It wasn’t easy to convince Israelis, even those in the Labor Party, that the other side was a national movement – one that admittedly had terrorist facets but was fundamentally entitled, just like the Zionist movement, to exercise national self-determination.
We were wrong.
The Palestinians don’t think this is a conflict between two national movements. From their perspective, this is a conflict between a single national movement – the Palestinian one – and a colonialist, imperialist entity that is destined to vanish from the world. Therefore, the analogy that appears in Palestinian textbooks is Algeria: not the West Bank as Algeria, but all of Israel as Algeria. And the Israelis will disappear one way or another, just as the French settlers in Algeria did.
The Israeli position talks about “two states for two peoples.” But in the Palestinian version, the phrase “two peoples” doesn’t appear; it only talks about “two states.” If anyone thinks this is hairsplitting, let him ask a Palestinian interlocutor for his opinion on the “two states for two peoples” formula. Sooner or later, he’ll get the answer that there is no Jewish people. This is also why the Palestinians rejected the formula proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that spoke of an agreement between “two nation-states.”
The truth is that in the Palestinian narrative, the Jews are neither a people nor a nation, but merely a religious community; therefore they aren’t entitled to a state. This is also the reason for the sweeping, uncompromising Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state.
This is the root of the conflict – not borders, not the settlements, not even Jerusalem. And of course, the Palestinian refusal to give up the principle of the “right of return” is tied into this. There are good reasons to criticize the Netanyahu government’s conduct during Kerry’s attempts to revive the talks, but to deny these deeper reasons is intellectual dishonesty.
Zionism in 1948, when it accepted the principle of partition, believed, just as the people behind Oslo did, that the Palestinian national movement was a mirror image of what Zionism thought – that this was a conflict between two national movements. In such a conflict, compromise is possible. But if you view your movement as fighting against a colonialist, imperialist movement, there is no chance of compromise and no moral justification for it.
What can be done? Even in the current difficult atmosphere, it’s necessary to think ahead.
Nothing can be expected from the United States or the Netanyahu government. The Obama administration has failed in every foreign-policy challenge – Crimea and Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, the Iranian nuclear issue, the delusional flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Obama’s declarations of personal friendship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is revealing himself more and more as an autocrat. The Netanyahu government is focused solely – and unsuccessfully – on public diplomacy enabling it to continue the status quo, which anyone with eyes in his head understands is disastrous.
This presents an opportunity for the opposition, headed by the Labor Party, to propose an alternative. There’s no reason to keep reiterating the mantra that we must resume peace talks, because even if we do, it’s clear that, just as in the past, they won’t bear fruit.
Without retreating from the principle of “two states for two peoples,” the opposition must propose interim steps right now – not as an alternative to a permanent solution, but as a gradual way to move toward it. The opposition must demand a complete halt to construction in the settlements, the evacuation of illegal outposts, a reexamination – once the current tension has ebbed – of the Israel Defense Forces’ deployment in the West Bank, and the removal of what remains of the Gaza blockade (possibly in coordination with Egypt after the current fighting ends). Finally, it must propose an initiative to reduce Israel’s civilian presence in the West Bank by developing an evacuation-compensation plan.
Most Israeli settlers in the West Bank came there not for ideological, nationalist or religious reasons, but for the economic vistas opened by government subsidies for spacious, comfortable housing. The Israeli left must recognize that for tens of thousands of families, the possibility of moving to subsidized housing in the West Bank, in the absence of meaningful public housing in Israel proper, was a lever for social mobility and a significant improvement in their lives.
Therefore, they must be offered an alternative: Anyone who wishes to return to Israel will receive generous government support. This is likely to create a rift between some settlers and the right-wing government. The idea is also likely to find supporters among those who voted for the centrist Yesh Atid and Hatnuah parties, as well as their representatives in government.
Those of us who supported Oslo – and who still think it was the right step – must recognize that salvation won’t come from the Palestinians. They’re genuinely uninterested in a solution of two states for two peoples because they’re unwilling to grant legitimacy to the Jewish right of self-determination. We can rely only on ourselves – not in the sense of our military power, but of our wisdom, our desire to maintain a Jewish nation-state here, and our ability to realize this desire, even under difficult conditions of deep-seated rejection by the other side.