The mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, and the former Israeli defence minister, Amir Peretz, aroused the ire and indignation of the right-wing nationalist camp in Israel recently by suggesting that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is an ingredient in the toxic brew of Palestinian terrorism.
A day after Khaled Muhamra and Muhammed Muhamra — two young Palestinian cousins from the West Bank village of Yatta — killed four Israeli civilians at the Sarona Market in central Tel Aviv, Huldai issued a thoughtful response to it.
In a reference to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank, which Israel has militarily occupied since the 1967 Six Day War, Huldai — a member of the opposition Labor Party — said, “We can’t keep these people in a reality in which they are occupied and (expect) them to reach the conclusion that everything is all right and that they can continue living this way.”
Saying that Israel may be the world’s only country subjecting “another people” to an occupation, Huldai urged Israeli leaders not just to talk about attaining a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but to translate their desires into deeds.
Huldai’s comments may not have been politically correct in the eyes of some Israelis, but they contained a huge element of the truth that perhaps other Israelis recognized.
Shortly afterwards, Peretz said that the absence of an Israeli diplomatic initiative has engendered a feeling of insecurity among Israelis. Since last September, more than 30 Israelis have been killed in a spate of Palestinian shooting and stabbing incidents in the West Bank and in Israel itself.
Charging that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “no intention of changing and reaching a compromise on the core issues of the conflict,” Peretz accused him of lacking the courage to break the current political impasse.
Predictably enough, Huldai and Peretz were pilloried by the forces of the right.
Eli Ben Dahan, the deputy minister of defence and a member of the Jewish Home Party, described Huldai’s comments as “absurd.” Netanyahu’s Likud Party claimed Peretz had “gone off the rails, lost all touch with reality and adopted the talking points of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
In actuality, Huldai and Peretz expressed pragmatic and sensible views that were neither absurd nor unrealistic.
Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of the West Bank is obviously not the sole factor in stoking terrorism. Palestinian rejectionists, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have not reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence or legitimacy, being intent on destroying Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine.
The Palestinian terrorists who attacked the Max Brenner Cafe in the Sarona Market were members of Hamas, whose national charter reeks of Islamic fanaticism and antisemitism. For such Palestinians, the occupation is about Israel proper, not the West Bank. These are not the kind of Palestinians who are ready to work for peace and embrace a two-state scenario.
In their critique of Israeli policy, Huldai and Peretz suggested a peaceful way out of the Arab-Israeli dispute and sounded a warning of what Israelis should realistically expect should the occupation continue and quash the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
As they implied, Israel has a willing partner in the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has repeatedly endorsed the concept of two states for two peoples based on the pre-1967 lines.
Netanyahu and his associates claim the Palestinian Authority has failed to condemn Palestinian attacks against Israel with sufficient vigour. But in the wake of the Sarona massacre, Abbas’ office released a communique rejecting terrorism and correctly pointing out that the “realization of a just peace … is what will lead to a lowering of tension and violence in the region.”
With this statement, Abbas essentially delivered the same message as Huldai and Peretz. Israel would be wise to pay heed to it. Ignoring it will not be in Israel’s long-term interests.