In Midst of Gaza Strife, Now's the Time for Israel to Seek a Treaty With the Palestinians

We must fight the prevailing notion that all Israel can do is either wait for the next crisis or reoccupy the Gaza Strip.

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Ministe Moshe Ya'alon watching a Golani Brigade exercise.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, who did well in the primary. Credit: GPO
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

Since the beginning of Zionism, Israeli society has found it difficult to see the other nation that lives in this land. Prior to independence, this blindness was a source of strength. But after 1949, and especially after 1967, the inability – or unwillingness – to understand the other has been the cause of disastrous moral and political paralysis. On this point there was never much difference between the right and the center or the center-left. Few members of the large conformist camp, part of which is inside the coalition and part of which supports it from outside by remaining silent, have the will and the ability to understand the Palestinians.

It should be said at once that it is very doubtful there are many Palestinians who are capable of seeing and understanding the Israelis, but because the Israelis are the strong ones, who control the lives of the Palestinians, we should demand much more of ourselves than we do of them, the occupied.

And so, despite the mortal danger, the suffering and the anxiety that are battering Israelis in the south, now is precisely the right time to make an effort to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. Now is the time to think both deeply and for the long term, and to come out against the prevailing opinion that all we can do is to either wait for the next crisis or reoccupy parts of the Gaza Strip.

This is also the moment of truth for Israeli democracy. Democracy means accepting the decisions of the majority in the Knesset, it does not require that we accept its opinions. The democratic system is designed for mature, rational citizens who think for themselves and who recognize that whatever human rights they demand for themselves are also the rights of the other. The test of a strong democracy is whether its citizens are free to express their opinions in public even in times of crisis without running the risk of being assaulted by right-wing thugs, under the sympathetic eye of the police.

The citizen who refuses to follow the majority has the right to say wholeheartedly that the present situation is not a war of survival for Israel. Meanwhile, the military asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians allows us to make do with air power in order to “etch the consciousness of the Palestinians,” as then-Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon put it in 2002, in accordance with the cynical “map of pain” drawn up by the Israel Defense Forces General Staff. Therefore the individual citizen has not only the right, but the duty, to openly support negotiations toward a comprehensive agreement.

It is unlikely that the punitive measures taken by Israel, from the retaliations of the 1950s to the tactics in the first Lebanon war and to the present, have ever brought any real benefit beyond a temporary calm, if that; but official Israel refuses to understand that. For the people in power it is easier to send the air force, one of the most advanced in the world, to strike the operational infrastructure of Hamas and the homes of its operatives, knowing that the collateral damage to civilians will be tremendous, than it is to address the fundamental issues of the relations between the two peoples.

The entire past year was wasted on the refusal of the right-wing government to hold serious talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and on pointless demands for Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state. We have been doing the same thing for years. The tommy gun of legendary Israeli warrior Meir Har-Zion has long since been replaced by the F-16, but the principle remains the same. Doesn’t common sense demand that we try a different method?

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