How 'Peace' Gradually Lost Its Meaning in Israel

Despite what many people claim, the idea of dividing the country did not weaken significantly during the last election; it happened earlier.

Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram
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File photo: Netanyahu and Sharon in the Knesset.
File photo: Netanyahu and Sharon in the Knesset. Credit: Lior Mizrachi / Baubau
Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

For several years now, in spite of endless discussion of the subject, the two-state solution is only becoming more distant. An agreement based on a division of the land still receives sweeping international support, but in Israel the number of advocates of this idea is steadily declining. The process began in the 1990s and reached a peak after the tenure of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Ten years have passed since Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, but its influence on the political discourse is clearly in evidence to this day. An examination of the terminology used by the Israeli public to discuss the conflict reflects the dramatic change that has taken place.

When the Oslo Accords came into being in 1993, the expression “peace agreement” was common among the public and the media. Although support for the agreement was not assured, there were definitely many who favored peace along with its price. Over a decade later, and in light of the failure of Oslo and the Camp David summit, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke about a peace agreement, the idea was still shared by many, but was no longer the same solid majority of the Oslo period.

In the following years the word “peace” was removed entirely from the public discourse. Everyone spoke about an “arrangement,” and nobody asked whether it included elements of a permanent peace. An arrangement is a vague term that denotes a temporary situation – its purpose is to foster calm, but it is not peace.

Shortly afterwards even the word “arrangement” became too pretentious, because the government promoted the argument that there was nobody with whom to achieve such a thing. Therefore the word “arrangement” was replaced by “steps toward an arrangement.” The government conveyed the message to its supporters that these steps had no chance to succeed, but at the same time the illusion of progress was maintained. The change in terminology did not affect the ultranationalist right; in the opinion of its members, an “arrangement” is no different from a “peace agreement,” a piece of paper that does not guarantee security.

In the 1990s, before this change took place, Israel was divided between a large group that was interested in a peace agreement and willing to pay a certain price for it, and those who didn’t believe in peace and fought it with all their might. Since then, willingness for rapprochement with the other side has steadily declined. The parties that led the Oslo Accords also began to talk about arrangements of some kind or other and stammered when the subject of peace came up.

Despite what many people claim, the idea of dividing the country did not weaken significantly during the last election; it happened earlier. The seeds of detachment from an arrangement with the Palestinians were planted during the period of the disengagement. But Sharon never believed in peace, and therefore the disengagement was carried out without any coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and as part of a future unilateral arrangement.

In the eyes of the Gush Katif evacuees and their supporters, the only thing disengagement achieved was to uproot people from their homes. The evacuation could not prevent terror attacks from the Gaza Strip, and in their opinion it is responsible for three bloody campaigns against Hamas that came as a reaction to that same terror.

The disengagement therefore only strengthened the narrative of the hard-core right, which told itself and the world that this was how an agreement with our neighbors was liable to look. At present, even though the government has a majority of only one Knesset seat, it reflects a broad sentiment among the public, which has lost its trust in agreements and in the two-state solution, and tends to see the situation in religious, apocalyptic terms.

The Israeli public is not as right-wing as its government, but as a result of developments in the past 20 years, most Israelis believe that the idea of dividing the country is no longer relevant. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the fear instilled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s citizens is being reinforced by the cruelty and bloodshed raging around us, and by the effects of the refugee crisis on the European countries.

Still, it is also important to recall that things are likely to change. For example, in the early 1990s nobody predicted an end to apartheid in South Africa, which came in 1994, and at the start of 1973 nobody anticipated the Yom Kippur War with all its horrors. Change is possible, but it will come only if the opposition unites and offers attractive leadership accompanied by a message of hope.

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