Shifting Terminology: Israelis No Longer Talk About Peace

Over the past two decades, as support for a peace agreement declined, the term itself has been dropped from public discourse. Can it ever return?

Nir Kafri

The idea of dividing the country is fading away. Expectation of a settlement based on two states continues to attract sweeping international support, but it has not become a leading idea within Israeli society. In fact, it is in constant regression. Economic, security and political circumstances may yet reverse this situation, but we need to look at matters in a clear-eyed fashion.

Let us examine the evolution in terminology that has taken place over the past 20 years, a period in which previously commonplace terms have undergone radical transformations in the wake of new perceptions among the public.

In 1993, when the Oslo Accords took shape, the prevailing catchword was “peace agreement.” True, that did not ensure automatic support. There were some Israelis who were ready to accept a peace that entailed sacrifice, while others said that Israel must on no account pay a high price for a peace agreement, which was really no more than a signed piece of paper.

As the years passed, the terminology changed, even though there were prime ministers and foreign ministers – such as Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni – who talked about a peace agreement. When they invoked that phrase, there was still considerable support for a peace agreement – but it no longer had the backing of a solid majority of Israelis, as it did in the Oslo period.

Subsequently, the word “peace” was dropped from the public discourse. The new buzzword was “settlement” (hesder in Hebrew). No one asked whether such a settlement contained elements of a permanent peace. A settlement is something vague, with a suggestion of temporariness attached to it. It is an arrangement, but not peace. In any event, the revised terminology left the nationalist right unmoved; for them, a settlement, like peace, was a piece of paper fraught with danger.

However, even the term settlement became problematic after state authorities declared that there was no partner for such an arrangement. The next step was to replace “settlement” with “steps toward a settlement,” and the government signaled to its supporters that these were insubstantial steps that would lead nowhere. Their effect was merely to create an illusion of movement, to avoid projecting the idea of treading water.

Stammering about peace

The split in 1990s Israel was between a very large segment of the public that wanted a peace agreement and was ready to pay a price for it, and those who neither wanted an agreement nor believed in one, and fought the idea tenaciously. Since then, the inclination to meet the other side halfway has declined. The parties that were leaders in formulating the Oslo Accords also began to speak in terms of “settlements” of one kind or another. They stammered when they talked of peace, and instead spoke of a settlement and steps toward it.

When Olmert tried to negotiate a peace agreement, public opinion was no longer behind him. Still, I am inclined to think that if he had achieved an agreement and put it to the test of a referendum, he would have stood a reasonable chance of gaining the public’s confidence. There’s a difference between support for a finished product and support for each of its components.

I am not sure that the most recent election, last March, represents a watershed in the weakening support for dividing the country. Already in 2005, the seeds of antipathy toward a settlement with the Palestinians were firmly planted by the Gaza disengagement, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. On the face of it, Sharon’s action proved to the nationalist right that the sovereign ruler has the power to remove Jewish settlements and their residents, despite opposition. However, Sharon, who never believed in peace, did not coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinian Authority; he spoke of a “unilateral settlement.” The Gush Katif evacuees and their supporters saw how the disengagement uprooted people from their homes but did not weaken Gaza-based terrorism. And this was followed by three blood-drenched military operations brought on by terrorist attacks and heightened enmity in the region.

The events of the disengagement served the narrative of the hard core right-wing, which warned the public that this was what peace or a settlement with our neighbors would look like. While the Kadima party, founded by Sharon, still remained strong after the disengagement, its message seemed disconnected from reality and not credible. In the end, the party met its inevitable fate and was wiped off the political map.

The coalition government that was established after last March’s election has only a one-seat majority, but its desire is to back away from every possible agreement, retreat from support for a Palestinian state, and further the belief in an apocalyptic, faith-driven reality.

The public is not as far to the right as its government, and is not fond of Naftali Bennett, Gilad Erdan or Zeev Elkin. However, most people believe that the idea of dividing the country is no longer viable. Nor can we ignore the fact that the fear instilled in Israel’s citizens by Prime Minister Netanyahu is now receiving indirect confirmation from the cruelty of Islamic State and the flow of refugees to Europe.

My words should not be taken as carved in stone. In 1992, few foresaw that apartheid in South Africa would end the following year. At the beginning of 1973, no one predicted the Yom Kippur War and all its horrors. Change is possible. But it can come only if the opposition is united and puts forward a dynamic leadership together with a message that offers hope.

The writer served as a minister in the first government of Yitzhak Rabin, as secretary general of the Labor Party, and has lectured at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and Sapir College, Sderot.