Israel's military defeat in Lebanon has created new opportunities for peace – that's what Israeli Knesset member and peace movement leader Yossi Beilin told Terry Gross on the NPR show "Fresh Air" on August 23. Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, has served in different Labor governments, and was one of the architects of the 1991 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva Accord.
The Israeli government and military today are facing popular anger and strong criticism over their failures in Lebanon. Beilen recalled that the government faced similar criticism after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But that war, he pointed out, opened the way to a historic peace treaty with Egypt — the Camp David agreement of 1978 – and a peace between the two countries that continues to this day.
That treaty was possible, Beilin argued, because after 1973 Egypt "felt there was there was a kind of symmetry" with the Israeli military, rather than feeling "they had been totally defeated," which had been the case with the 1968 war.
But, Terry Gross asked, who should Israel negotiate with? Hamas and Hezbollah don't recognize Israel or its right to exist. "I would negotiate with everybody who is ready to negotiate with me," Beilin replied. "Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas is ready to negotiate with Israel, which leaves us with the government of Lebanon, with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and with the Syrian government. All of them are speaking about an agreement with Israel." He suggested convening an international conference with those participants.
But withdrawing from Lebanon, and then withdrawing from Gaza, did not bring peace. Haven't these experiences turned Israeli public opinion against peace negotiations? "I don't think so," Beilin replied. What Israelis have lost faith in is unilateral withdrawals. In contrast to the "non-agreements" around the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, "We have had a peace agreement with Egypt since ‘75, with Jordan since ‘94, and these are big achievements," he said. "People are disenchanted about unilateralism. . . . They understand now that peace agreements do not have substitutes."
The crucial example: Syria. It's possible that the entire Lebanon war, and the arming of Hezbollah, could have been avoided if Israel had signed a peace treaty with Syria in 1999 – "and paid the price of the Golan Heights to have this peace." That would have had "a huge impact on Lebanon," which Syria has more or less controlled. Israel at that point had a Labor government headed by Ehud Barak; at the end of 1999, he decided not to sign a peace treaty with Syria, and instead to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally. The consequences of those decisions are now clear.