As someone who has been critical of our current government, it is always easy to blame them when things go wrong. However, it’s not always their fault. Unfortunately, the recent breakdown of the peace talks between us and the Palestinians is one of those cases. I say “unfortunately”, because if it had been our fault, we could fix it. Sadly, (for those of us who want to end our occupation of the West Bank) events of this past week are disheartening – to say the least – and leave us with no easy solutions.
The breakdown in this round of talks was precipitated by the delay of the last agreed upon prisoner release, along with the idiotic declaration of the Ministry of Housing, led by HaBayit Hayehudi’s Uri Ariel, announcing additional tenders for housing in Gilo. True, Prime Minister Netanyahu was short-sighted (both tactically and strategically) when he agreed to this prisoner release, instead of calling for a building freeze during the talks. Tactically, Netanyahu’s choice created the latest crisis, as the prisoner release was scheduled as the talks were breaking down. Strategically, Netanyahu erred in releasing prisoners (an important bargaining tool) and receiving nothing in return.
Despite these facts, the real failure of the talks began several weeks earlier, when Secretary of State Kerry tried to achieve a framework agreement, as a basis for extension of the talks. It was assumed by many that the great stumbling block was going to be our government coalition led by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Everyone thought Netanyahu would not accept a framework agreement including any reference to the 1967 borders as a basis for further negotiations. As it turns out, it was not Netanyahu, but rather, Palestinian President Abbas who refused the framework agreement. Abbas’ problem was the reference to Israel being “the Jewish State”, and it’s implied end of conflict and claims of the refugees. Obviously, the quid pro quo in any Israeli agreement that was based on the 1967 borders – would have to be the end of the conflict, and recognizing Israel as a Jewish State. Such a declaration would merely represent the acceptance by the Palestinians of the original 1947 U.N. Partition Plan. Apparently, that seems something Abbas is unwilling – or unable – to do.
Regrettably, this is not new news. The Israeli-Arab conflict is in fact a history of the unwillingness of the Palestinians to truly compromise. You can go back to the Peel Commission of 1936, which would have created a very small Jewish state (which the Arabs in Palestine opposed). They refused to agree to the original United Nations Partition Plan. Then, at Camp David, over forty years later, they refused Barak’s plan – without making a counter-proposal. The same thing happened more than ten years later, when Ehud Olmert tried to negotiate an agreement. Once again the Palestinians rejected Olmert’s plan and never presented a counter-proposal. The history of negotiations with the Palestinians has always been the story of listening to their demands, without ever hearing what they are willing to give up. The conclusion one must come to is that despite all the nice words uttered by Abbas and his compatriots, acknowledging the realization they will never go back to Safed or other ancestral homes in what is now the State of Israel, none of the Palestinian leadership dares tell their people that the best they can hope to regain is financial restitution. Furthermore, if they ever want a truly free and independent Palestinian State, they must have the courage to accept that their state will not include the land that is the State of Israel today, and (with the exception of a small number of cases) none of the current people defined as refugees will go to live anywhere but the newly founded State of Palestine. I fear that both the Israeli and the American Jewish left have been deluding themselves into believing that the current Palestinian leadership can deliver a peace agreement. It is rather natural, as everyone likes to think that the other side – whoever they may be – thinks as they do and shares the same goals. As much as we would like to believe that if only our government was different we would reach an agreement – it simply may not be true.
So what are we to do? Unfortunately, too many of us have become discouraged and believe that if we cannot achieve peace, then why bother trying? Regrettably, that inertia has created a void in political action; a void that has been filled over the past decades by what was once considered the political far right. That relatively small sliver of our population (i.e. those people who think that the most important national goal is to maintain our control over what they call “Yehuda and Shomron”) has managed to gain control over two major political parties. First, they gained control of what was once the relatively moderate Mafdal (N.R.P.) Party. They turned a Religious Zionist party into a party that believed it was more important to settle Ofra and Bet El, than to make sure that Tel Aviv is a city for all its residence, and that the people of Bet She’an get the full range of services they deserve. The far right, however, was not content with a party of their own. By deliberately making cynical use of the party mechanism the “Settler movement” managed to gain partial control over substantial parts of the Likud.
The result of this take-over had been decades of expansion of settlements; decades during which we, and now our children, go to the army and do reserve duty guarding places that most of us never want to see as part of Israel. We have been forced to endure years of government-sanctioned activities that go against accepted International law and provide ammunition to our critics around the world.
I fear that Ariel Sharon had it right. He believed that the current Palestinian leadership was incapable of reaching a peace agreement. However, he came to understand at the end of his career that the Occupation and the existence of many of the settlements undermine the very foundation of our Jewish Democratic State. The status quo situation also undermines our position in the world, at a time when our economy is totally based on being part of the international community. An overwhelming number of Israelis agreed with Sharon then, and if he were alive and in power, the same majority would agree with him now. For better or worse, there are no current leaders like Arik Sharon.
There are obviously no easy solutions. However, clarity of purpose is needed first. I call upon all the parties on the Left and Center – whether in Israel, or among the so-called “Zionist Left” (like J-Street) to acknowledge the fact that peace cannot be achieved by a unilateral desire for peace. At the same time, we cannot wait for a new generation of Palestinian leaders to emerge, or be born. We are obligated to determine what sort of State we want to have and what borders we need. Then, we must to work to implement both those visions – with or without Palestinians partners. If we leave our fate to the Right, or to the Palestinians, in another generation we will find ourselves in a Bi-National State, training another generation of soldiers (our children and grandchildren) in the methods of occupation. Zionism did not battle to create a State of the Jews in order to end up with a state where Jews are a minority (or just a slim majority). Jews did not end thousand of years of exile in order to rule another people. We must no longer allow ourselves to be governed by the inability of Palestinians to come to terms with our return home. The time has come for us to take our future into our own hands.