Once upon a time, ages and ages ago, when a new young prime minister came to power, a right-wing American research institute composed a policy paper for him, laying out a new strategic approach that sought to shatter the formative principle of “territory for peace.”
A brief paragraph from that document is most illustrative of its spirit and intent: “We cannot make peace unilaterally, no matter how many concessions we make. Only the Arabs’ unconditional acceptance of our rights, particularly in their territorial dimension – ‘peace for peace’ – offers a solid basis for the future.”
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Nearly a quarter-century has passed and Netanyahu has not changed his policy. Denial of the occupation, total blindness to the needs and rights of the neighboring people subject to our rule, total rejection of the two-state principle, placing all the responsibility on the other side and demanding that it surrender “unconditionally” – all of this was at the basis of Netanyahu’s outlook and actions in 1996 when the above text was written, and it is all now being realized today with the signing of the accords with the UAE and Bahrain.
Therefore Aluf Benn is wrong when he calls the criticism of the accords from the left “achingly pathetic.” Israel’s control of the territories and its inhabitants and ending the conflict with them are not just the litmus test by which the accords that Israel has signed must be judged – it is the heart of the matter. Benn knows full well that despite the accords, tomorrow a Palestinian will stand humiliated at a checkpoint and when the next Jewish holiday comes around we’ll impose a closure on our neighbors.
Thus, “the ruler by which relations with the Gulf states should be measured” is not the strategic benefit Israel will gain “for bolstering its security and normalizing its regional and international standing,” as Benn says, but rather the question of how much closer or farther away it takes us to ending the occupation and the conflict. This is what Netanyahu is referring to when he labels the normalization accord “peace” and therefore his insistence on talking about “peace for peace” – even though the accords will not avert a single drop of blood in our region.
Thus it is not really a peace agreement, an agreement that ends a conflict, but an agreement that ends an economic boycott. In this sense, the accord with the UAE is another step in Netanyahu’s strategy to “rise above the conflict,” and it’s no coincidence that in the document such terminology replaced the aspiration to end the occupation and the conflict.
Netanyahu remains focused on his objective. The new agreements are not a diversion from his course but rather a path to achieving the right’s vision of normalizing the situation of an ongoing occupation, something that is fundamentally not normal. The diplomatic objectives they seek to reject as well as those they seek to advance, are characterized by belligerence and cynicism: unprecedented legitimacy for perpetuating control over the Palestinians, based entirely on thwarting the possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
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Ultimately, it’s a matter of values and goals; a question of where we as people and a society want to go, based on the question of who we want to be and how we want to live. What sort of Israel is being shaped for us and the generations to come – a country whose foreign relations are primarily aimed at perpetuating an immoral and pointless project of military control over another people, or a country that aims to loosen its grip and to foster an egalitarian and democratic society?
An ethical left determines its attitude toward foreign policy moves by the way in which they affect the ethical basis of the society it wishes to live in, and is certainly not required to produce a sentimental Pavlovian response to any accord between Israel and an Arab country. It must recognize that the chorus of praise it is being pushed to join is meant to make people forget the context and the price of the new alliance. Most of all, the ideological left must reject the Moloch of the primacy of interests and emphasize that the “cost” is not just an economic one to be measured by the bottom line of defense export companies, but also – and primarily – a moral one.
The real test is in the field, and there is one choice we cannot ignore: Do we wish to live in a society that ties its future to the aggressive control of our neighbors, or to be a free nation, prospering beside them? This is a stark choice and a very simple one. Israel’s prime minister did not fly to Washington at the height of a pandemic, right before the lockdown, to sign an accord that will give Israelis the right to fly to the UAE sometime. He flew there because for him, the accord relates first of all to the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and this is how he is selling it to the right too.
The normalization accords were designed to create a crack in Arab opposition to the continuation of the occupation, and to sell the Israel public not just the fairy tale of a conflict without a cost, but also a much more escapist fantasy – that such a peace is possible with the Palestinians too, that one day they will agree to give up their aspirations and their rights. We just need to wait. The left must also keep its eyes on the ball at all times and remember the goal: to be a free people in our land – free of oppression and bloodshed. That, and not the business opportunities in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, was and remains the fundamental national interest.