Can an ancient Greek myth show Israel the way to peace?

The Twelve Labors of Hercules is one of the most well known tales from ancient Greek mythology. Hercules was ordered by King Eurystheus to perform ten tasks (twelve by the end of the epic poem) in order to achieve immortality and atone for him murdering his wife and sons. The second of these Labors was to slay the Lernaean Hydra, a serpent-like monster with poisonous breath and blood so toxic that even its footprints were deadly. Hercules fought the beast, but each time he cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two new heads would grow to take its place. The strategy of decapitating the Hydra therefore would not work, and Hercules’ struggle with the monster seemed hopeless. Eventually, Hercules called on his nephew Iolaus for help, who came up with the idea of cauterizing each head stump with a firebrand to prevent two more heads from growing out of it. This new strategy worked, and eventually Hercules was able to take the Hydra’s last head, the immortal one, and place it underneath a great rock, defeating the serpent and completing his second Labor. To this day, we refer to seemingly impossible problems that would take extraordinary measures to solve as “Herculean tasks.”

Keeping the story of Hercules and the Hydra in the back of our heads, perhaps we can apply the lessons learned by Hercules to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each day, scores of Palestinian civilians are killed in the crossfire between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the militant forces of Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, thousands of rockets are launched by Hamas and its affiliate groups at Israeli civilians, putting millions of innocent lives at risk. Hamas wishes to destroy Israel and “eradicate” all Jews. Israel seeks security and safety, and the notion of an actual peace or statehood for the Palestinians increasingly diminishes with every military operation. The Likud-coalition government of Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks mainly in terms of fighting Hamas and destroying their capacity to attack Israelis, while the Hamas leadership urges the Palestinians to wage an eternal, futile struggle against Israel. While Israelis take comfort in knowing that each rocket launcher, terror tunnel, and Hamas gunman taken out by the IDF improves their chances of safety, the collateral damage to the infrastructure and people of Gaza each day will unfortunately spawn more and more hatred for Israel from the average Palestinian.

In this conflict, imagine that Israel is Hercules, and the Hydra is hatred for Israel. With each blow that Israel makes to one of the “heads”, through military operations, more blind hatred for Israel and Israelis will be created, akin to the two heads replacing each one knocked off of the Hydra. Hercules was an incredibly strong demigod with the capacity to fight many immortal and supernatural creatures, but if he made too many heads sprout, eventually he would be overwhelmed by the Hydra, and his task could never be completed. In a similar manner, if too many civilians in Gaza are killed in Israel’s quest to protect its own citizens, eventually even those in Gaza who thought about making peace will want nothing but revenge and death. There is no doubt that once the current military operation in Gaza ends, Hamas will be able to recruit more fighters from Gaza, acquire stronger weapons from Iran, receive larger funds from Qatar, and obtain more support from Muslims and the international community. So just as a new strategy was needed to defeat the Hydra, so too does Israel need a new, overarching strategy to accomplish the Herculean task of making peace with the Palestinians.

Let me clarify by stating that this new strategy of course includes the right for Israel to continue protecting its citizens from rocket attacks, and taking out Hamas and other militant targets in Gaza. However, rather than solely attacking the “heads” and watching two more take its place, Israel should also seek out ways to cauterize the head stumps – prevent more Palestinians from wanting to support Hamas and kill Israelis. In other words, Israel should not only attempt to treat the symptoms of Palestinian terrorism, but try to cure the disease of Palestinian terrorism.

Now some of you might ask: how can this be done? In the past, Israel has made goodwill gestures to the Palestinians to try and facilitate peace. Israel withdrew its military force and settler population from Gaza  in August 2005, in the hopes that the Palestinians would use the millions of dollars in international aid it received, in addition to the greenhouse agricultural industry left behind by the settlers, to turn Gaza into a flourishing “Singapore on the Mediterranean.” Instead, the greenhouses were destroyed, and the Palestinians elected Hamas as the majority party in their legislative council in 2006. Hamas’ rival party, Fatah, refused to cooperate with a Hamas-led government, and in 2007, a violent civil war ensued in Gaza, with Hamas killing many Fatah members and their supporters. Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since then, and while they are responsible for the safety of the Palestinian civilians they govern, Hamas has focused much of its resources on: importing and building weapons to kill Israelis, constructing huge, concrete tunnels to launch cross border attacks on Israelis, and indoctrinating Palestinians to embrace a life of martyrdom, Jew-hatred, and violent resistance. In response to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, Israel and Egypt imposed a land, air, and naval blockade of the territory. While this ostensibly prevents Hamas from easily importing weapons from Iran, Syria, Libya, Lebanon and elsewhere, the blockade has also made it difficult for the average Palestinian in Gaza to work and live comfortably.

Even worse, Hamas has embedded its military apparatus into the civilian population of Gaza. They have reportedly created a command center underneath a hospital in Gaza City, dug tunnels into Israel underneath mosques and a UN health clinic, stored rockets in at least three different UN-run schools, and wired homes with explosives to try to crush Israeli soldiers when they step inside. Evidence exists that Hamas has used ambulances and UN marked vehicles to transport gunmen, and according to one captured militant, a sniper nest exists on the 10th floor of the Palestinian Red Crescent building in Khan Yunis. Hamas has proven impossible to negotiate with in this latest round of fighting, as they have violated several humanitarian truces imposed by Egypt and the United Nations.

So now Israel does face a truly Herculean task: how does the country obtain peace with its Palestinian neighbors, while at the same time, ending Hamas’ terrorism against Israelis, while at the same time, preventing the destruction of Palestinian homes and the deaths of innocent Palestinians?

I have a few ideas to begin with:

1. No more settlement construction in the West Bank– I cannot for the life of me understand why Israel continues to approve settlement blocs in the West Bank on land that is supposedly meant to be part of a future Palestinian state. Sure, I know why the current government of Israel does it – emboldened by an ultranationalist faction in the ruling Knesset coalition, the government wants to have more Israelis living in the West Bank to make it all the more difficult for a Palestinian state to be established. Some of these far-right politicians want Israel to annex the West Bank (and Gaza), and what better way to justify such a move than by having hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens living there already? However, as many foreign observers and Israelis have noted, given the fast growing Palestinian population in both Gaza and the West Bank, if both territories were annexed by Israel, Israeli Jews may eventually become a minority in the “Jewish State.” The demographic trends vary depending on whom you ask, but regardless, it would be impossible for Israel to be both a “Jewish and democratic” nation if Jews became a minority in it, and the only solution would be to oppress the Arab citizens and deprive them of their rights. By ending the construction of new settlements, Israel can make a concrete commitment to wanting peace and statehood for the Palestinians. They say that actions speak louder than words, and this action would speak volumes for Israel.

2. Rebuild Gaza– This one is a little more abstract, but history shows us that it is possible. After World War I, the new Weimar Republic of Germany was saddled with enormous reparation payments to be made to the victorious Entente Powers. The country’s devastated infrastructure could not be rebuilt, and therefore neither could its economy. Eventually a hyperinflation crisis occurred, and the German currency became worthless. Political infighting between the various groups vying for power became widespread, and Hitler’s Nazi Party promised stability and prosperity for Germans if they took charge of the government. I am not comparing the Nazis to Hamas (although their feelings about the Jews are pretty similar). However, in a climate of severe economic disparity, the average Joe on the street, or Palestinian in Gaza, could be inclined to support the new party in town, the one that promises to fix everyone’s problems. Obviously, Hamas has only made the situation in Gaza worse for its inhabitants, but history shows that attacking Israelis serves as a “rally around the flag” tactic for the movement, and helps to bolster support for itself when Gazans become discouraged by the lack of progress. Once the troops leave Gaza after this current war, Hamas will say to its citizens, “Look at all the damage and death the Israelis caused! By supporting us, we will make sure that next time, it will be Israel who gets destroyed!” And the cycle begins anew.

After World War II, however, the Allies actively sought to rebuild Germany’s infrastructure and economy, while at the same time, employing a variety of measures and policies to remove any traces of Nazism from German government and society. Germany prospered, became one of the top economies in the world, and now enjoys peaceful relationships with most countries, including Israel. Enter Israel into the mix. Since Hamas is adept at using propaganda and incitement against the Jewish State to maintain support, Israel has to reach out to the average Palestinian in Gaza and say that “if you choose peace and coexistence, we will help make Gaza flourish.” The issue with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was that it was predicated on the basis that Israel had to act first, and then the Palestinians would respond by choosing peace. Instead, to help rebuild Gaza, Israel must turn the tables: the Palestinians must reject Hamas and choose peace before Israel dedicates more money and resources to rebuilding its recovery. This might not be such a pretty kumbaya process either: Hamas is notorious for crushing dissent and opposition to its rule in Gaza. Perhaps Israel can gain the trust and cooperation of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank government of Abbas, and Egypt to help boot Hamas from power. It is clear, however, that Hamas is only strong when it maintains the support of its people, and by reaching out to Gaza and offering to protect the innocent Palestinians, and help make Gaza bloom, Israel can win over the hearts and minds of the Palestinians. It will take time, perhaps years, for this to occur, because the enmity on both sides is very strong. However, there is one more condition that can occur in Israel to help speed up the process…

3. Elect a new government in Israel

In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister of Israel for the second time. His party, Likud, is considered the center-right party of Israel, similar to the Republican party. Their platform takes a more hawkish stance on the Palestinian conflict than the social democratic Labor party, or the centrist Kadima party. However, Likud’s prime ministers have a history of contradicting their own platform. It was the first Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, who negotiated the Camp David Accords with Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1978. This historic treaty gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt that was captured by Israel in the 1967 6 Day War, and in exchange, Egypt recognized Israel’s right to exist (the first of two Arab countries to do so) and the two countries ceased all hostilities. It was Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who created the unilateral withdrawal plan from Gaza, albeit the party infighting which resulted from this plan caused him to split from Likud and form the Kadima party.

However, Netanyahu’s Likud has not seen any type of major peace actions similar to his predecessors. Instead, Netanyahu’s coalition skews much more to the right. It includes the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is backed mainly by Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and The Jewish Home Party, whose votes mainly come from Israel’s Modern Orthodox population. The ministers from these parties are staunchly opposed to a two-state solution, and the fact that the person in charge of approving all settlement construction in the West Bank, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, is a member of The Jewish Home, explains why the current government has been less in favor of a lasting peace with the Palestinians, and more supportive of filling the West Bank with more settlers. With the current military operation in Gaza, to heavily impair Hamas’ capacity to attack Israelis, Netanyahu’s government is supported for the time being.

This is where other voices in Israel’s government need to speak up. Likud’s largest partner in the coalition government is Yesh Atid, a brand new party formed in 2012 by the popular Israeli newsman Yair Lapid. Yesh Atid is considered a “centrist” party, and its platform includes striving for peace with the Palestinians in the form of a two-state solution. In return, Yesh Atid wants to maintain the largest three settlement blocs in the West Bank, and work with the Palestinians to ensure Israel’s security. In exchange for the three settlement blocs, Israel could conduct a “land swap” with the West Bank, possibly giving the Palestinians land from a heavily Arab section of Israel – each square mile of settlement blocs would be compensated. Land swaps and population transfers are not a new concept, and the Palestinian Authority government has seemed receptive to the idea in the past. Of course, this plan would not go without raising some issues: most Arab-Israelis prefer to live in Israel, even if the state of Palestine comes into existence. Who would control East Jerusalem and the holy sites within it: Israel or Palestine? How would the territories of the West Bank and Gaza be connected to allow transportation between the two of them for Palestinians? Would Israel demolish the security wall constructed during the Second Intifada to keep suicide bombers and gunmen out? It would take much time and lots of talks between the highest levels of Israeli and Palestinian government for those problems to be solved, but by electing a government that is truly willing to work on said issues, Israel can prove to the world its commitment to peace and the two-state solution.

Now of course, problems can and will arise even if all three of my ideas were enacted. Israel still faces security threats from Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and potentially even the Islamic State (ISIS). Peace talks may have to take a back seat to these threats. It might be impossible for Israel to convince the Palestinians to reject Hamas and terrorism in general. The far-right in Israel might refuse and actively attempt to sabotage peace efforts by a more moderate government. That should not mean that it’s not worth trying. With the backing of the international community, and a true, honest commitment to peace by both sides, Israel may be able to accomplish this Herculean task and slay the Hydra.

This post originally appeared on Justin’s personal blog, “Musical Musings and Political Prose”, on July 31st, 2014.