Israel Turns 60
The increasing strength of Hamas, the weakness and corruption of Fatah, a rash of suicide bombings, the shelling of Israeli cities from Lebanon and hateful rhetoric emanating from so much of the Arab world have all but drained Israelis of their compassion and patience for the Palestinian "other." "Political Islam has undermined the appeal of the Palestinian plight in the West," Avishai Margalit explains. During the weeks I was in Israel, much of the country appeared obsessed with the negotiations with Hezbollah over the return of the bodies of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. When the exchange finally occurred, Israel had agreed to release Samir Kuntar, who almost thirty years ago had carried out the brutal terrorist murder of an Israeli father and his young daughter (banging her head against a rock), along with four other prisoners and the remains of 199 others. The terrorist/child murderer was met with a hero's reception, including patriotic parades in Lebanon and victory proclamations issued by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Such scenes tell many Israelis all they believe they need to know about the possibilities of peace with the Arab world and clear their consciences about whatever misery the Palestinians are forced to endure in the name of preventing future attacks.
One might well respond that inhumane Israeli policies on the West Bank have helped fuel these and other unhappy developments. (As Margalit notes, "We put a million and a half people in jail.") One might add that Israel's coddling of the settlers--including settlements the government considers illegal and Israel has promised to uproot as part of its "road-map" agreement with the United States and the EU--appears to be destroying the possibility of an economically viable Palestinian state ever living peaceably alongside Israel.
The great Israeli novelist and Peace Now activist A.B. Yehoshua recently caused a stir when he wrote an op-ed for La Stampa in Turin, Italy--reprinted in Israel but not in the United States--calling on America to recall its ambassador to Israel as long as the practice of expanding the illegal settlements continues. (For instance, despite its promises, on June 1 Israel revealed plans to build 763 homes in Pisgat Zeev and 121 homes in Har Homa; two weeks later, a regional planning board approved construction of at least 2,550 homes in the West Bank and disputed parts of Jerusalem.) When I visited Yehoshua in his Haifa home, he explained that many longtime friends criticized this position--even Amos Oz disagreed--but Yehoshua replied, "If America loves us so much, they could help us to keep our promises.... It's like a father with a son and the son is taking drugs. I love him and I want to help him. But to help him, we have to break until he stops with the drugs."
The majority of Israelis oppose the expansion of the settlements and would be happy to see them demolished; however, they are in no mood to risk the kind of civil upheaval--possibly even Jew-on-Jew violence--necessary even to consider such a move on behalf of a peace process in which they have all but lost faith. Like many longtime liberals and leftists, Ruth Gavison, who helped create the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, finds herself less and less in sympathy with her former self. She explains her transition thus: "I came to see that many Arab organizations were using human rights rhetoric while not giving any weight to the rights of Jews. I came to understand the significance of the right of return in their rhetoric. And as I listened to their rhetoric, more and more, I became less convinced that the question of a Jewish state had indeed been resolved. Part of the struggle was still to delegitimate this state and undermine its right to exist." Peace Now has rarely enjoyed less resonance with the Israeli public than it does today. Menachem Brinker, professor of Hebrew literature, winner of a 2004 Israel Prize and a founder of Peace Now, tells me the organization has sworn off demonstrations for the time being, owing to low turnouts, and is focusing on documenting settler land grabs and abuses of the local population by settler fanatics.
Even in the event of a genuine agreement supported by majorities on both sides, the settlers present a daunting practical problem for Israelis. As political philosopher and former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and winner of the Israel Prize in 1996) Shlomo Avineri points out, "Very few Israelis on the center-left can answer the question of what to do with 250,000 settlers. We need not only politically correct slogans but also clear and specific ideas of how to implement them. I don't think there should be a single Jewish settler. But how in the world can they be resettled?" Avineri's pessimism on pragmatic grounds is reinforced by his understanding of the ideological forces at work in Palestinian society. "Ever since the 1920s," he observes, "the Palestinians have not produced a political leadership that has proven both responsive and responsible." Though he was an early supporter of a Palestinian state, Avineri notes that during his nearly half-century of engagement with the Palestinians, he has met perhaps one who was willing to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state: Al Quds University president and much-admired author Sari Nusseibeh. He says he has never met any who are willing to advise their brethren that, if only for pragmatic reasons, they must come to some sort of symbolic compromise on the Palestinian "right of return." And without these concessions, Avineri says, "there can be no real basis for negotiations."
Others in the peace camp do not take issue with Avineri's assessment but argue that to focus on ideology is to doom any hopes for peace. Naomi Chazan, an Israeli political scientist, feminist leader and former Knesset member, thinks his emphasis is misplaced. Over tea at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, where she is sandwiching me between meetings with Palestinian officials and aid workers, she tells me she is no longer interested in discussing "what we have to hear" and would prefer to focus on "what needs to be done. I don't need a validation for our narrative," Chazan argues. "We are putting the onus on the Palestinians when it is the Zionist enterprise that is not going to survive without a two-state solution. We are bringing all our fears to the table when we are the dominant power. We act as if we are still in galut [exile]. When we wake up one day and realize there is only a one-state solution or a semi-sanctioned apartheid, nobody in the world is going to want to associate with us. And there are alternatives. But it is five minutes to midnight."
Margalit estimates that roughly 60 to 70 percent of Israelis and Palestinians would acquiesce to a peace deal if a strong, trusted leader--in the manner of Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon--would promise to guarantee and campaign for it. But he distinguishes between this largely passive population and the active opposition of the settlers and their supporters--to say nothing of those who would seek to derail the agreement with suicide bombings and the like. And as Avineri implies, the settler issue is not going anywhere. Indeed, most of the Israelis I interviewed think it will be necessary to work out a way for the hard-core settlers to remain where they are but be located inside Palestine. After all, if they are so attached to the land--rather than the state--let them stay on the land in another state. Yehoshua was particularly animated on this point. "If you will give the Palestinians the maximum amount of the territories but say to them, 'You will have to take 60,000 to 70,000 Israeli Jews as Palestinian citizens, and you can have your secular Palestinian state,' that would be a great outcome and could facilitate the transition. The American Jews will pour money on them, and this will benefit their economy." His hopes go so far as to plan for platoons of Israeli Arabs to protect the settlements inside Palestine to provide a "bridge" between the two nations, "knowing, as they do, the intimate codes of the two people." Yehoshua shares Chazan's view that if you strip the conflict of ideology and religion, it is solvable. "If they would get an honorable peace treaty, meaning part of Jerusalem, most of their territory and the integrity of their territory, I think the majority of them are ready."