The Right of Return to Ourselves

The jumbo advertisements launching the peace campaign of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh may look, at first glance, like a cross between Shari Arison's New Age manifestos and a commercial for Dockers pants, tailored to fit both bushy haired Arabs and bald Jews.

The jumbo advertisements launching the peace campaign of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh may look, at first glance, like a cross between Shari Arison's New Age manifestos and a commercial for Dockers pants, tailored to fit both bushy haired Arabs and bald Jews. But it is hard not to welcome this initiative, which defines the inevitable with such clarity: separation between the peoples and sweeping concessions on both sides.

This is true even though there is nothing really groundbreaking in the plan, at least from the dovish-Israeli standpoint, and it is ultimately an epigonic digest of "understandings," "working papers," "guidelines" and left-wing petitions of yore - from the Yariv-Shem Tov proposal, the Clinton plan, the Oslo Accords and the Beilin-Abu Ala formula, to all the hundreds of manifestos and peace march slogans in between.

Between you and me, the major attraction of this campaign is the fact that Sari Nusseibeh is a participant, and hopefully represents more than himself. You've got to realize, there hasn't been a sensation like this since the discovery of the source of the Nile. Finally, after all these years, a Palestinian "Peace Now" movement - and he's a professor.

As for Ami Ayalon - the Israeli half of the duo - his appeal is obvious: his military and defense background as an army general and a former chief of the Shin Bet who has "seen the light" and eloquently told the world about it (albeit with the customary army general lag of 30 years). Ayalon's contribution to the proposal seems to be the military-sounding toughness of the joint manifesto, a bit on the dry side, which describes the "border compromises" of the two parties and their operational plans for signature-gathering. Israeli signers are lured on with a terse statement that is almost bankerlike in tone: "Until a political settlement is reached, the Israeli economy will not improve."

Apart from doubting that it can actually do something, it is hard to find fault with this peace plan. And yet it does seem to be missing a rather essential component, like many of those that preceded it, including various schemes endorsed by the governments of Israel. What is missing is joy, optimism, excitement over the idea of putting a constructive plan into action, as opposed to gloomily resigning oneself to the inevitable.

True, over the last decade - and even over the last week - festive peace rhetoric has been spewed without end at dozens of kitschy ceremonies in this region until it was coming out of our ears. But never, in round after round of peace efforts - including the brief flickerings of peace in the days of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak - has the end of occupation and withdrawal to established borders been portrayed as a "happy end" for Israel.

On the contrary: Every territorial concession has been depicted - also by many left-wingers - as a terrible price that Israel must pay, an unspeakable punishment, a horrible amputation so dangerous that it may not be worth the risk. Ariel Sharon's talk of "painful concessions" is an understatement compared to the lingo of Labor Party leaders, who clung to the territories not out of any emotional bond to Eretz Yisrael but more out of an urge to control, if not plain inertia.

One way or another, the decision about what happens to the territories is already out of our hands. Forces stronger than us have basically decided their fate. And since the inevitable will be at our doorstep, sooner or later, we might as well make the best of it and turn it to our own advantage. Rather than being pushed out of the territories, we should be heading inward, back to ourselves, to the State of Israel, delineated by clear boundaries and a clear identity, building our unique culture.

Because over the past 35 years, we have forgotten what it's like to be alone with ourselves, with our Israeliness, we barely see anymore how the anomaly of occupation has created a hostile bi-nationality that has become part of our everyday lives. Not only do we encroach on the Palestinians, but they encroach on us. Like in Meir Ariel's song about the "Arab with the narghile who sits at the end of every Hebrew sentence." We can't even inhale without the Palestinians on our breath, and vice versa. There is no Palestinian-free Israeli discourse, and no Israeli-free Palestinian discourse.

How can Israelis and Palestinians develop any kind of individual identity in this state of mutual toxic osmosis? We've already forgotten what it was like when we were allowed to be just Israelis (a classification that did not exclude minorities and Israeli Arabs), mainly in those identity-forging years before our borders keeled over in 1967.

If this is our fate, better that separation be presented not as something we must agree to for security's sake, or imposed on us for reasons of political expediency, but as an opportunity, a national-cultural elixir that will benefit both Israel and the Palestinians, allowing us to live together but apart, maintaining our individuality.

It is extra-parliamentary initiatives of the Ayalon and Nusseibeh variety that can afford the luxury of forging a positive and exciting vision that goes beyond the schematic sum of "maximum concessions." The Palestinian surrender of the right of return does not qualify as an uplifting vision for our own future. Something has to come from us, too. Something positive, from within. With all due respect to Nusseibeh's willingness to give up the right of return, a far more exhilarating vision is implementing our right of return to ourselves.