Between the Destruction of the Third Temple and a Realistic Policy

Shlomo Avineri's observation of 'a fundamental difference in the terms in which each side views the conflict' is an essential condition for choosing a new national strategy, setting realistic goals and working resolutely to achieve them.

Shlomo Gazit
Shlomo Gazit
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives on the podium to address attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, October 1, 2015
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives on the podium to address attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, October 1, 2015Credit: Reuters
Shlomo Gazit
Shlomo Gazit

In his latest article, Prof. Shlomo Avineri held up a mirror before our eyes and reached a frighteningly pessimistic conclusion: Israel and the Zionist movement seek a “historic compromise” and are willing to accept one, but the Palestinians reject any compromise. They reject the very existence of a Zionist/Israeli entity; they see Zionism as just another doomed colonialist movement; and they don’t recognize any Jewish/Israeli right to even a foothold in what they see as their land – Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Zionist movement and, since 1948, the State of Israel, with which the vast majority of Israeli Jews affiliate, are willing to divide the land and set permanent borders that will be mutually recognized and agreed on by the two nation-states (or as we term it, “two states for two peoples”). Even the radical right has long since abandoned the goal expressed in its former anthem: “Two banks has the Jordan – this is ours and that one as well.”

The argument we make – that the life of a Palestinian Arab in Israel is immeasurably better and safer than the lives of those living in sovereign Arab territory – doesn’t influence the Palestinians. This is the yawning gulf between personal interests and national ones.

Avineri opens his analysis by posing a question: Today, 20 years after the festive signing of the Oslo Accords, we must ask why they didn’t yield the historic compromise and reconciliation for which their progenitors (at least on the Israeli side) hoped. His unequivocal answer is that the Oslo Accords didn’t succeed because of “a fundamental difference in the terms in which each side views the conflict.”

We must thank Prof. Avineri for depicting the situation so sharply and clearly, difficult and pessimistic though his picture is. Recognizing this picture is an essential condition for choosing what to do next – adopting a new national strategy, setting realistic goals and working resolutely to achieve them.

We don’t know whether Israel can survive given the existing conditions in the Middle East and the changing regional reality.

I’m not a believing Jew; I’m not one of those people who explain every act and every move as an act of God and His will, which is also the source of their absolute faith that it doesn’t matter what any individual thinks and does. As a Jew who doesn’t believe, I think that full responsibility for my actions rests on my own shoulders. From this worldview derives the responsibility to analyze the situation clear-sightedly and set strategic national goals. We are obligated to choose a path and take practical action to achieve it.

The key to solving the current situation is to set the historic compromise as a national goal, in the belief that if we demonstrate a willingness for concessions and compromise, the other side will demonstrate a similar willingness. The path of historic compromise was based on the belief that both sides – Israel and the Palestinians – were seeking the same goal: dividing the land as fairly as possible between the two parties, “two nation-states for two peoples.” This is precisely the historic solution that the Palestinians utterly reject.

Israel had a territorial dispute with Egypt. This dispute was resolved via a historic compromise whose principles were laid down in the Camp David talks and the subsequent peace treaty. Israel withdrew from the entire Sinai peninsula and asserts no claim whatsoever to any Egyptian land. The Egyptians received the piece of land they wanted and accepted Israel’s counter-demands. From their perspective, the historic compromise was achieved. True, there is still a long list of unresolved problems between Israel and Egypt, but they are outside the bounds defined by the historic compromise.

We had a similar problem with the Kingdom of Jordan, in which it was actually the party that had to make concessions. It accepted that the Jordanian state would exist on the east bank of the River Jordan only. It severed itself from the West Bank and the fate of the Palestinian people.

In retrospect, it’s possible that this was Israel’s great strategic mistake. If the Kingdom of Jordan still encompassed both banks, as it did prior to June 1967, it might have been possible to realize a true diplomatic compromise, in the spirit of the demand for “two states for two peoples.” But this opportunity apparently no longer exists, and we must reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

The Israeli leadership must choose between two strategies. One is to continue the policy of settling and ruling over the entire western part of the Land of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This is the strategy being implemented by the current leadership, regardless of what Israel tells the world. This strategy is leading Israel to destruction, unless a miracle occurs in the form of an unexpected divine intervention that will enable us to continue down this path without creating an irreparable rift between Israel and the world.

The second strategy is to take immediate steps, without delay and without any additional rounds of attempted dialogue, to establish two national political entities – one Israeli and one Palestinian. We can accomplish this by means of a unilateral Israeli action. And we must do so in the clear knowledge that this is not a “historic compromise” that’s accepted by the Palestinians as well.

The goal in this case is to achieve a long-term interim agreement, while making it clear to both sides that this is not a permanent solution.

This path should be implemented immediately, without negotiations and without wasting another unnecessary day. The most important conclusion – let’s not delude either ourselves or the world – is that there’s no chance today of reaching an agreement via bilateral talks.

We must force the immediate establishment of an independent Palestinian state. We must take the initiative by taking steps that will leave the Palestinians no choice. We took a similar step when we implemented the disengagement from Gaza 10 years ago, but this time, we must avoid the mistakes we made then.

We must set the Green Line, the 1949 armistice line, as the point of departure for future negotiations. Indeed, even this line is unacceptable to the Palestinians, because it would require them to accept the existence of a Zionist political entity on what they see as Palestinian land, but setting this line as the point of departure for discussions would enable Israel to regain international acceptance. This would be the antithesis of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

At the same time, we must reiterate and underscore our absolute refusal to allow the return of the Palestinian refugees. Israel must insist on their being rehabilitated in their host countries, assisted by an offer of appropriate compensation that Israel will participate in financing, and Israel should organize an international coalition to deal with this issue.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the current Israeli government adopting this path. But it’s only a matter of time – and we’re getting close to the point at which we’ll face the need for a painful choice between the destruction of the Third Temple and the adoption of a realistic policy. This policy also won’t be the historic compromise, but perhaps it will be a step that will lead to it in the future.

If we do this, if we set up an independent, sovereign Palestinian state that will become better and better established as the years pass, the total Palestinian rejection of a historic compromise agreement might gradually melt away. And thus we might yet be able to see the conflict end.

The author, a major general in the reserves, is a former head of Military Intelligence.

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