Events of the past few weeks have underlined the destructiveness and futility of the policy of division and separation pursued by successive Israeli governments for decades. The purposeful isolation between Israel and its neighbors through the construction of a variety of fences, walls and barriers has only served to heighten insecurity and increase violence. The Gazan conundrum has been compounded by the concerted effort to drive a wedge between its desperate and hopeless residents and their brothers and sisters in the West Bank, continuing to compromise the safety of many Israelis in the process. Physical divisions that prevent human interchange have been accompanied by imaginary ones that highlight competing narratives of historical occurrences and contemporary realities. Even the human suffering from too many years of conflict has become the topic of venomous confrontation and contentious discord.
These patterns do not stop on the borders of the country. They have infiltrated into the core of Israeli society and now threaten to tear Israel apart from within. The gaps between rich and poor, religious and secular, Arab and Jew, citizens hailing from different countries and cultures, and between men and women have soared as Israelis have debated how best to mark their 71st anniversary. Beneath a verbal appeal to an undefined notion of unity, which became the mantra at numerous ceremonies and gatherings, fissures and fractiousness have been everywhere apparent. With very few notable and heartwarming exceptions, these human, ideological and emotional differences — often skillfully manipulated by those in power — have offered a stark and troubling summary of the divisive state of Israel today.
The separation strategy, carefully developed and honed by Israeli leaders over the years, has run its course. Its stubborn pursuit cannot but yield even more rancor, enmity and uncertainty. In its place, a strategy based on partnering across existing barriers could offer a far more constructive and productive alternative. Such a search for common ground is long overdue.
The starting point for this undertaking lies in the reexamination of some of the now clearly fallacious premises guiding the policy of divisiveness. In the early years of the state, barriers were seen as a means of distinguishing between external friends and foes — extended also to domestic matters under the hegemony of Mapai. When the possibility of a different type of relationship with Israel’s key rival, Egypt, surfaced in the latter part of the 1970s during the tenure of Menachem Begin, mutual recognition became inextricably tied to the institutionalization of international frontiers.
This approach was almost imperceptibly distorted during the Oslo process. The quest for a durable agreement with the Palestinians was predicated on the assumption that self-determination for the two peoples on the land was synonymous with separation — political, geographical, social, economic, and human. The notion of peace informing this approach equated reconciliation with effective partition (“we are here and they are there”). Insufficient attention was given to the quality of peace: to the possibility that sovereignty for the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the demarcation of a border between them and Israel need not create an unsurpassable barrier. For the past 26 years, every single Israeli leader has added more bricks to this growing divide. The result has been to both entrench Israeli control over Palestinian lives and to enhance the chasm between the two peoples.
An alternative, cooperative, strategy must move away from the contradictions ingrained in this mindset. It should be based, clearly, on respect for the right to sovereign independence of the Palestinians alongside Israel. At the same time, it should give as much thought to elaborating an open, collaborative, interactive definition of peace as it does to tracing its physical form. In this perspective, borders are not necessarily barriers and political boundaries need not be dividers.
The affirmation of difference and a commitment to working together are the cornerstones for a cooperative process with the Palestinians and from there with large portions of the Arab world (the attempt to jump over the Palestinian hurdle and foster relations with moderate Arab states has not worked; it will fail abysmally if it does not adopt — however belatedly — the Arab Peace Initiative formula that links normalization of relations with Israel to the establishment of a Palestinian state). This combination of respect for the other and the elaboration of viable ways of working together is also the key to preventing the further unraveling of Israel’s society and its increasingly fragile democracy internally.
Some of the building blocks of this alternative approach are already in place. The best example on the Palestinian front is exactly in the area that concerns Israelis the most: security. Under the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation has been the main factor in minimizing violence on the West Bank. Temporary breakdowns in these daily interchanges have almost always signaled escalation. The absence of lasting arrangements of this sort with Gaza helps to explain the ongoing recurrence of spiraling rounds of violence, temporarily tamed only via mediated interventions which have enabled some pauses in the rhythm of rocket launches and counter-attacks.
In many respects, the work of Israeli human rights organizations (such as B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Ir Amim, Gisha, Bimkom and Adalah) and grassroots organizations (including not only the Forum of Bereaved Families and Combatants for Peace, but also Machsom Watch, Ta’ayush, and lately, Women Wage Peace) has helped to prepare the ground for productive interchanges, despite the almost complete segregation of average Israelis from Palestinians residing across the Green Line. The joint memorial service for victims of the conflict held on the eve of Memorial Day last week stands out in this regard. To be sure, these examples are the exception rather than the norm. They do, however, share one important feature — they have all, in one way or another, helped to mitigate some of the deep-seated tensions between the two communities and thus pointed to potentially more mutually beneficial types of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Domestically, similar foundations for productive interaction take place on a regular basis — even when they are frequently overshadowed by divisive rhetoric, behavior and action. During the torch-lighting ceremony marking the transition to Independence Day, the inspiring off-the-cuff remarks of Holocaust-survivor Marie Nahmias gave voice to the commonality of norms that should bind the diverse segments of Israeli society together, emphasizing pluralism, tolerance, equality, well-being and — above all else — the quest for peace.
Indeed, the idea of unity molded from diversity stands as a stark counterpoint to the prevailing divides that have been cultivated in Israeli society in recent years. And although the many associations, initiatives and groups — too numerous to mention by name — that are active in trying to build a shared society through the joint efforts of various coalitions working together continue their good works and add hope in the midst of rising alienation, they have yet to induce that much-needed change in the public domain. They do, however, signal that other options are available and can bring about much more salubrious results than the bigoted divisiveness that currently engulfs Israel and its citizens.
Israel is currently on a separation-induced collision course internationally, regionally and domestically. Only a dramatic shift in its strategic outlook — from one of division to tolerance and exchange — can change this trajectory. The conceptualization, elaboration and implementation of this sharing alternative is the window to its moral and physical survival.