An American Jewish friend recently posted his own take on Israel’s responsibility for Operation Protective edge. Appalled by Palestinian suffering, he nonetheless did not want to undermine Israel’s defensive posture as responding to rocket fire and terror tunnels. Instead, he picked up the mantra he saw repeated daily in the liberal press. Israel was ultimately responsible for the fighting in Gaza because it had failed to make peace with the Palestinians.
This is an attractive argument. I too believe that Israel should have done a great deal more to promote peace. Netanyahu’s failure to work with Abu Mazen over the last few years will very probably be seen by future generations as a mistake of historic – and tragic – proportions. Having said that, the move from that failure to blaming the current round of violence on Israel is as unfounded as it is unjustifiable.
Making peace is not something one state or group can do on its own. It takes two. Even if Abu Mazen and the PLO on the West Bank could really deliver a peace agreement, the Palestinians in Gaza remain opposed. This was a choice they made quite consciously in the 2006 elections. These were held after Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from Gaza – a decision made because, among other reasons, Ariel Sharon was unable to find a partner with whom to negotiate the withdrawal.
In what were generally seen as reasonably fair elections, the Gazans swept Hamas into power. It had positioned itself as an alternative to a weak and corrupt PLO, tainted by its negotiations with Israel. The Palestinians of Gaza wanted to align with Islamicist and anti-Western forces and to enjoy an influx of money from Iran and sympathetic Moslem states.
They knew what they were doing. From 1995-2005, Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad, had led a deadly wave of suicide bombing inside Israel. Palestinian society itself welcomed the 9/11 attacks on New York with glee – a phenomenon repeated during the deadly 2006 rocket attacks on Israel by the militant Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
Clearly, the West Bank PLO is a better partner for peace. Here too, however, the signals being picked up by Israel have been highly contradictory. While Yasir Arafat did sign the Oslo Accords, he justified his actions to his own people by invoking the so-called Hudna truce of 629. This was a strategic move that the Prophet broke as soon it suited him. In the Camp David summit of 2000, Ehud Barak tried to undo the political stalemate by offering the Palestinians control of almost 95% of the West Bank – a dramatic shift in Israeli policy. Arafat’s response was not just to reject the offer but to return to open violence in the Second Intifada. Finally, though Abu Mazen can seem genuine in his desire to reach a settlement, he has always been a weak leader, unable to bring the majority of the Palestinians with him.
Is this lack of a credible partner an excuse for Israel to give up on efforts to make peace? Absolutely not. The occupation of the West Bank has proved a disaster for it and should be brought to an end. Improvements in weapons technology available to Hamas suggest that the only possible way to achieve quiet in Israel’s towns, cities, and villages is to come to some kind of political agreement.
But with whom? This is the impasse before which Israel has stood since the Second Intifada. As the popular saying goes, you can only make peace with your enemy. True enough. However, there is a second condition, less widely quoted. You can only make peace with someone who wants to make peace with you.
The assumption of the Israeli left – and of the journalists excoriating Israel – that there has always been a partner for peace is as wrong as the assumption of the Israeli right that peace can be imposed by military force. Both these conclusions must be faced squarely before it can be possible to start thinking about a new approach to end the conflict.
Today, the best way forward for Israel would seem to be to create a partner. This is an incredibly complex undertaking. After all the violence of the Gaza operation, Israel now needs to present a positive motivation for change. By co-operating with Abu Mazen and pushing, together with the United States, Europe, and Arab states, a program of massive development on the West Bank, matched with a staged withdrawal of settlements, it might start to move the hearts and minds of the Palestinians there towards seeing the benefits of peace. And perhaps when the Gazans see those, they too might decide to jump on the bandwagon.
Perhaps. Of course, the Palestinian leadership might revert to old patterns, taking all that is given them and channeling it back into improving their military capabilities. However, even if they do act in good faith, other dangers lurk. Moving public opinion is a slow process. In the meanwhile, the majority of Palestinians still opposed to peace will support efforts to sabotage it, some with extreme violence. Israelis will die – and the Israeli right will do all it can to drag the country back into another vicious war of retribution.
Making peace requires leaders of vision, who can identify both opportunities and dangers, and are willing to take on themselves the risk of acting for the long-term benefit of their country. Yitzhak Rabin was such a one, and he paid with his life. Sadly, there are no leaders of that sort currently to be found in Israel. Most are simply unwilling to put Israeli lives on the line for a peace process that seems wholly speculative. What proof do we have, they ask, of the Palestinians’ good faith? Though they are, for me, shortsighted and wrongheaded, I find it hard to blame them. When I read pundits who dismiss out of hand this skepticism born of long experience and then turn it into culpability for war, I find their position immoral. With leadership comes responsibility – with much contemporary journalism, apparently not.