The theme of this latest issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal was born of the pessimistic mood that pervaded a recent meeting of the PIJ Editorial Board. As is our usual practice, the meeting began with a discussion of the current situation. The board members pretty much outdid each other in expressing their anger, frustration, and apprehension regarding the future, with the Palestinians sharing accounts of the misery in which they live and we Israelis rather shamefacedly sharing accounts of the gulf between us and our fellow citizens who are going about their business as if, in the words of the late Golda Meir, there is no Palestinian people.
Two questions were on everybody’s mind: How did things get this bad and what can we do? My answers to these questions will be written from my perspective as a Jewish Israeli. I dare not presume to present the Palestinian side, and while I cannot say that I represent the Israeli side (would that the numbers in the peace camp were large enough for me to make such a claim), it is the arena in which I live, work, and wage my struggle for peace.
With both history and, to a large extent, personal experience at my fingertips, it is far easier to address the first of the two questions. My account of how we got here is not an academic study but rather a series of observations about particular events. To begin, I’ll suffice with the brief comment that the inequitable 1947 UN Partition Plan got things off to a very bad start, and that Israel’s failure to immediately negotiate the return of all the land captured in the 1967 war compounded the injustice done to the Palestinians well before the first settler drove a stake into the occupied territories. Let me now fast forward to my move to Israel in 1975 and the birth of my first child.
From Egypt to Oslo to the Second Intifada
My son was born in 1977 at the very moment that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. Singer David Broza’s musical promise that “Things Will Get Better (Yihye Tov)” swept the airwaves, and the Israeli public was overcome with excitement by the lure of excursions to the pyramids. For me, the ensuing failure to achieve full autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, envisioned within the “Framework for Middle East Peace” that led to the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, marked the beginning of the rollercoaster ride that can describe my experience of relations between Israel and Palestine since the early 80s and up until the aborted Kerry mediation mission in 2014. Sometimes I imagine Secretary of State Kerry departing with the curse “a pox on both your houses” unspoken but on the tip of his tongue; were it so, I could attribute Israel’s evolution into a chronic human rights abuser to some supernatural force, but that is not the case.
In an earlier edition of the PIJ dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, I wrote about the surge of hope that overwhelmed me on an early September morning in 1993 when I saw The New York Times headline “Israel and PLO Ready To Declare Joint Recognition.” Looking back, that was probably the peak of my faith in the achievement of a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Of course, recognition of the PLO was and remains a far cry from recognition of a viable, sovereign State of Palestine, but remember that I’m talking about faith here, and I truly did believe that the process would culminate in Palestinian statehood. The lowest point for me was unquestionably the second intifada, but I would be hard-pressed to say whether the worst moment was watching the footage of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah cowering behind his father as bullets exploded around him on a Gaza street or that of the blood-soaked tables in the dining hall of the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover eve after a suicide bombing killed 29 civilians. It was this, the violence of the second intifada, that dealt the blow to the Israeli peace camp from which it has yet to recover and shattered most Israelis’ belief in the sincerity of the Palestinians’ willingness to accept the existence of the State of Israel.
Although it ravaged the Israeli peace camp, the second intifada did not mark the end of diplomatic efforts to bring about an agreement. There was the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the “Performance-Based Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution” presented by the Quartet in 2003, and the Annapolis process that got under way in 2007, but none of these roused the Israeli public the way that Oslo had. And then, in 2009, along came the return of Benjamin Netanyahu. With him, the notion that peace will bring security got turned on its head, and security based on territorial acquisition and military prowess once again was touted as Israel’s primary existential need.
As we go to press, we don’t know the outcome of the November elections and whether Netanyahu will remain head of the Likud and possibly regain the premiership. What we do know, however, is that even if he loses, the damage done during his four consecutive terms in office runs deep and will not be easily undone.
As opposed to his first term back in 1996 when the Oslo process was still moving forward, although at a snail’s pace, this time no one was breathing down Netanyahu’s neck to make peace. President Obama had other priorities and didn’t throw his weight behind Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts when they foundered. EU High Representative Mogherini sparred with him, but Netanyahu was fully aware of Europe’s ineffectiveness. President Trump presented a so-called peace plan, which he himself lost interest in once the ink had dried and the pictures had been taken. Had Trump persisted, however, Netanyahu could have lived with the plan because it gave Israel huge chunks of the West Bank and redefined Palestinian statehood to mean an autonomous entity that lacks sovereignty, territorial contiguity, and most of the characteristics of an independent country.
Erasing the Conflict and Legitimizing Racism
Meanwhile, the Israeli public, most of whom had stopped believing that peace with the Palestinians is possible, was ripe for Netanyahu’s new approach: Don’t fight it; ignore it. In this, he has been markedly successful. In the four elections held in the past two years, the term “peace” has not featured in any campaigns. Even the leftist parties don’t talk about “the occupation” – not because of objections to the term but rather because the public sees it as irrelevant. If you talk about the Green Line to the 18-25 age group, they will think it has something to do with climate change. By and large, the mainstream media have adopted the
discourse of the right, using the biblical names Judea and Samaria which desensitize the public to the fact that these areas are part of the occupied West Bank. Ariel University in the West Bank has been given a seat on the Committee of University Heads, reversing a decision that the chair of the Knesset Education Committee had characterized as a boycott. MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and his brand of Kahanist racism are rising in popularity, and this man whose party claims that freedom of speech and democracy are terms that are misleading the Jewish people is likely to be appointed to a ministerial position in a Netanyahu-led government.
In his speech before the UN General Assembly last year, then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said: “Israelis don’t wake up in the morning thinking about the conflict. Israelis want to lead a good life, take care of our families, and build a better world for our children.” He was right. When things are quiet, Israelis don’t give a moment’s thought to the rights of the Palestinian people, and when rockets are flying their only interest is in battering the Palestinians into submission. This disregard for the plight of the Palestinians was strengthened by the Abraham Accords, the subsequent agreement with Morocco, and the baby steps taken in ties with Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu trumpeted the accords as proof that the occupation does not stand in the way of developing ties with the Arab states and, unfortunately, time has proven him to be right.
In assessing how we got here; we must also shine a light on the harm wrought by Israel’s “government of change” over the past year. The coalition consisted of parties from across the political spectrum but had a distinct right-wing majority. It held together by rallying around one ultimate objective: Keep Netanyahu out. To do this, the left-wing parties abandoned their most fundamental principles, and we witnessed the shocking sight of Meretz MKs voting in favor of the discriminatory citizenship law as well as the Judea and Samaria law, which serves as the basis of the apartheid system in the occupied territories. On the other side, driven by the singular objective of bringing the government down, the Likud-led opposition voted against the very laws that it had legislated when in power. The result was that ideology was basically eliminated from the entire political system.
Now Is Not the Time
While the Israeli public has been sinking into a stupor, Europe outwaited Trump and looked to take its cue from the Biden administration. A liberal Democrat who walks the walk and talks the talk, Biden revitalized the rhetoric of the peace camp with references to the two-state solution and to the sanctity of human rights, but he is a lead singer in the “now is not the time” chorus that reverberates from Jerusalem and from European capitals. This attitude, coupled with the notion of “economic peace” or “shrinking the conflict,” suggests that the Palestinians can be placated with improvements to their standard of living, while freedom and independence are dangled before them as a prize to be awarded at some future time when they have proven themselves worthy.
And if things weren’t bad enough, the slight attention that was being paid to the Israel-Palestine issue on the international stage was diverted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the military, financial, and humanitarian implications for the entire world. With the belief in the stability of the rules-based international order having been shaken to its core, the Western world is reassessing its defense posture, and Israel’s stock as an arms manufacturer is rising. In this climate, the chances of the West holding Israel accountable for its violations of international law by imposing any practical measures are basically nil. One need look no further than President Biden’s fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to grasp the extent to which realpolitik is driving policy today at the expense of defending human rights.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he declared his support for the two-state solution, was hailed by some as a turning point, but it would be naïve not to see that the devil is in the details. As noted above, even Trump and Netanyahu supported two states; the question is what the Palestinian state would look like and what the nature of its relations with Israel would be. It’s easy enough to say two states (even Netanyahu said it), but Lapid’s repeated references to the might of the Israeli army and Israel’s right to use it, his perpetuation of the myth that Israel made peace with Gaza and got rockets in return, and his questionable comment about the values of the UN Charter would seem to indicate that he won’t be rushing to give peace a chance. If anyone had doubts, he made it clear in a follow-up interview to Haaretz on September 25 that he doesn’t believe the Palestinians are ready, but “maybe our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will bring an end to the conflict.”
Keeping the Faith
In 2017, many mouthed the words “half a century of occupation” with horror and disbelief, convinced that the enormity of the years that had passed would somehow awaken people to the need to bring the occupation to an end. Well, the occupation is now into its 56th year, and disbelief is giving way to an inability to see how to extricate the talons of the settlement project from the heart of the Palestinian lands.
And so we come to the second question: What can we do? Activists continue to debate a one-state or two-state solution, others are drafting proposals based on confederation or federation, bilateral or trilateral, scrambling to find something new. Some say the struggle should shift from the question of statehood to the attainment of human and civil rights but, as noted above, there are no grounds for anticipating any cracks in Israel’s impunity regarding rights violations. Some take heart from the developing discourse around the question of apartheid, although there is little reason to believe that such a discussion will reach the governmental level in any Western democracy. Some advocate for a topdown initiative, believing that two strong leaders can drag their people along, while others advocate for bottom-up efforts, believing that a surge of joint grassroots activism will drag the leaders along. United Jerusalem, divided Jerusalem, Jerusalem city-state, Palestinian sovereignty above ground level and Israeli sovereignty below…. Whatever flights of imagination may grab those seeking to end the conflict, as long as the world is divided into countries there is no avoiding the fact that in the end it will come down to the basic issues of borders and governance. When one considers the years spent devising plans and conducting negotiations, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the problem is not that there is no peaceful solution but that there is not enough will to agree on and implement it.
This edition of the PIJ is full of excellent articles by good people intent on answering the question of what should be done. Yet if you were to catch many of my generation whispering among ourselves, you would find that we share the belief that we are unlikely to live to see how the conflict is resolved. What, then, drives us to continue the struggle? What is it that motivates us to continue to meet, to write, to speak at conferences and give interviews to the media, to lobby at home and advocate overseas, to stand on the bridges and march in the streets, to convene in public and conduct Track II diplomacy, to post and tweet and like and comment and share? It is a sense of morality, the refusal to sit by while our government defies international humanitarian law, the desire to be a role model for the next generation and inspire them to stand up for what’s right no matter how dim the prospects of effecting change. We are driven by conscience, and conscience is a powerful thing.
Despite the current state of affairs, the absence of a diplomatic horizon, and the warnings of an imminent deterioration into widespread violence, this conflict will ultimately be resolved. History teaches us that nothing lasts forever, and eventually some person or event will emerge from left field and accomplish what looks like the impossible. Until that happens, we members of the peace camp will keep the faith. Today we may not see how to turn the tide, but unlike the Israelis described by Prime Minister Bennett, we not only wake up in the morning thinking about the conflict but go to sleep thinking about it as well, because we understand that there will be no better world for Israeli children if Palestinian children remain stateless and oppressed.