From Southeast Asia to Israel: A Reflection

While traveling in Vietnam, my friend Yonni and I had a life-changing experience. After returning to our hotel after a day of touring the lush countryside, we were invited by a group of six Vietnamese men to sit with them for a cup of tea. Unable to decline such a hospitable offer, Yonni and I sat with this group of men, who appeared to be at least seventy years old. They were wearing green army shirts, similar in appearance to the uniforms that Yonni and I had worn as soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.

We asked if they had fought in the Vietnam War against the Americans. While these men lacked a fluency in English, through the use of hand gestures and Google Translate, they responded to us that they had indeed fought as Vietcongs against the American army. Yonni and I, both political enthusiasts and former soldiers digesting our military services, jumped at the opportunity to hear from the former American “enemy.” After one of the former Vietcongs showed us a bullet mark in his arm from the war, we asked him several questions to which we received a response that we will never forget. This Vietnamese man expressed that his old anger towards the Americans had been replaced with the newfound love and admiration that had been created through peace between the two nations. It was at this moment that the two of us realized that peace is both possible and necessary.

As I return to Israel, I can’t help but reflect on how strange Israel’s current relationship is with her neighbors. Southeast Asia, a region that has experienced both colonization and civil unrest for centuries, has ushered in a new period of reconciliation between most of the nations in the area. Israel, over her short lifetime as an independent nation, has also succeeded in transforming former enemy nations, such as Jordan and Egypt, into partners of peace. It is truly astonishing that just thirty-five years ago a rocket, which demolished my relatives’ home in Kibbutz Maoz Haim, was launched by militants in Jordan. As a result of the normalization in diplomatic ties between Israel and Jordan in 1994, both parties have benefited from security and economic cooperation. Today Israelis can safely cross into Jordan at the Jordan River Border Crossing, just a short walking distance away from Maoz Haim. Although the majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, Israel has very few security issues with her neighbor to the east. In fact, Israeli and Jordanian security agencies work in cooperation to prevent terrorism that would destabilize the entire region. Both Israel and Jordan benefit from this security arrangement as it results in a promising future – a future without unnecessary death.

In addition to security benefits, peace has also brought Israel and Jordan economic benefits. Some examples of Israeli-Jordanian economic cooperation include the establishment of a modern medical center in Amman, the development of Qualified Industrial Zones, cooperation in the trade of goods, joint agricultural projects, tourism, and partnership in addressing the issues associated with environmental sustainability in the region.  These economic initiatives are the direct result of small, but nonetheless important developments in relations between the two nations.

In 1979, Israel and Egypt, once fiercest enemies in the region, also put an end to decades of conflict. Since then, both nations have enjoyed the fruits of peace. The status quo may be best described as a “cold peace;” nonetheless, the normalized relations between the two nations have welcomed a new era of relative mutual safety and prosperity.

Unfortunately, Israel and Palestine have yet to achieve what Israel has accomplished with Egypt and Jordan. It is unfathomable that I can go out to a bar with friends to get a drink, workout on the beach, ride public transportation, and perform countless other daily activities in Southeast Asia without second thought. Yet, in Israel, I have to be vigilant in my surroundings out of fear of falling victim to a Palestinian terror attack. Likewise, it is incomprehensible that a teenage Palestinian cannot walk to school without seeing a soldier holding an automatic rifle as he crosses a checkpoint, must stand in long and humiliating lines to get to work, be woken up to soldiers in the middle of the night, and left without hope as his aspirations for a nation and human dignity are too often denied.

Without peace, both parties suffer. It is time that we recognize that.

In recognizing the suffering of both parties, Israel and her Palestinian neighbors have already created a new path towards peace. Peace is an Israeli interest. Peace is a Palestinian interest. Peace is a Jewish value. Peace is an absolute necessity for the survival of the Zionist Dream. Peace is an interest for all of humanity.

In today’s Middle East, where do the Israeli and Palestinian governments really stand on the issue of peace?

While the current Israeli political leadership may, in theory, support the establishment of a Palestinian state along the framework of “Two States for Two Peoples,” their actions demonstrate the opposite. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s incitement of the masses moments before elections when declaring that Arab-Israeli citizens were voting “in droves,” his declaration that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, continued settlement expansion, and his history of compromising on national interests in favor of holding on to political power (seen as recently as his decision to bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the governmental coalition), are all evidence that Israel’s current political leaders are not serious about peace. As Israelis we often justifiably say that the Palestinians don’t recognize our right to exist, but under the policies of the current Israeli government, do we truly recognize their right to live as a free people?

Equally as upsetting is the Palestinian Authority’s failure to promote peace. Similar to the current Israeli leadership, the PA takes a position that promotes peace only when it is convenient. Although the PA is quick to recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security alongside a Palestinian state when speaking to the international community, there is an inconsistency when speaking to its own public. In short, the PA, like the current Israeli government, is jeopardizing the aspirations of the moderates within its population to live in peace and dignity for the political gain that comes with inciting the more extreme sector of its population. The PA’s failure to condemn, and too often its outright support of terror against Israelis, its unity government with Hamas, and a failure to educate its young generation on values of tolerance and coexistence, are barriers to peace.

Maybe both sides are too busy justifying their own right to the land that they are unable to see the perspective of the other. Although often because of legitimate security concerns, it is strange that Israelis cannot cross, nonetheless get too close, to the borders with some of their country’s neighbors – Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and even Area A of the West Bank. How will we bring people together when they don’t even know one another?

I believe that the path towards peace begins with education. The only way towards peace is through collective recognition of both parties’ national narratives, fears, emotions, and aspirations. In listening to the other party’s narrative, we do not deny our own. Both governments must strengthen the moderate and rational voices within their populations, as opposed to inciting the populace to create a climate of extremism for political gain. I believe that both parties will need to make societal and political compromises; compromise can be incredibly painful, but it is sometimes necessary for the greater good. I do not have the perfect solution to this conflict. I do not believe that this conflict is black and white. I know it is gray. I am simply a concerned Israeli that still believes in the greatness of Israel and her ability to flourish in a region full of so much chaos and destruction. It is my hope that one day Israel and all of her neighbors will know peace. It is my hope that, if not I, my children will be able to cross the border with our neighbors in Gaza and sit with the local elders as they speak over a round of kafe shahor.

About the Author
Ben Eitan Rathauser is a student at Tel Aviv University and a research assistant at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
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