It’s time to talk about peace, not separation

The late Amos Oz had a very appealing way of describing his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “I don’t believe in a sudden burst of mutual love between Israel and Palestine,” he would say. “I expect a fair and just divorce.”

Oz would say that when speaking to foreign audiences who often naively thought that if only Israelis and Palestinians would sit down together over a cup of coffee, they could resolve their conflict. But he would also say that to Israeli audiences, because he thought it was very important for people on the Left, people in the peace camp, to not be naive or to sound naive. After decades of bloodletting on both sides, with all the pain that each side in the conflict felt and feels, Oz was an advocate of a more “realistic” approach: separation.

There was a time when that was not the only approach. Many years ago, some Israelis (and Palestinians) would argue for peace — not separation. Martin Buber and a number of other quite famous Jewish and Israeli intellectuals supported Brit Shalom nearly a century ago, an organization that advocated a binational state. And one of the major founding components of Meretz, Mapam, emerged from the Hashomer Hatzair Workers Party, which also argued for a binational state. There is a long history of support for the idea that rather than separating Jews from Arabs, Israelis from Palestinians, perhaps ways should be found to bring them closer together.

The Left long believed that by advocating separation, they could appeal to the many Jewish Israelis who could not bear the thought of living in the same country, inside the same borders, as the Jew-hating terrorists of Hamas. If only we stopped talking about peace and reconciliation, and instead focussed on ways to build walls, we could win over the votes of those who were suspicious of the Palestinians. So the reasoning went.

But it all fell apart after the withdrawal from Gaza, which was supported by virtually the entire Israeli Left, even if it took a former Likudnik like Ariel Sharon to put it in place. That withdrawal, which really was the separation that Oz advocated, led to more than a decade of conflict which continues to this day, with no end in sight.

Another result of the separation strategy is the separation barrier between Israel proper and the occupied West Bank. This was first proposed not by the far right, but by Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, back in 1992. Another Labor prime minister and advocate of a two state solution, Ehud Barak, arranged most of the financing. The barrier was opposed by some on the Right who feared that it made permanent the 1949 cease fire lines, and physically divided different parts of the historic land of Israel.

And while the separation barrier has achieved some success in stopping terrorist attacks originating in the West Bank, it has been a massive public relations disaster for Israel and has done much to ramp up hostility toward the Jewish state among West Bank Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the two-state solution seems further away than ever, with both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, claiming that there is no partner on the other side. And both sides may well be right. Abbas seems to be concerned only with retaining power, which he clings to for dear life, and shows no interest in resuming any kind of negotiations. And this seems to work well for his Israeli partner Netanyahu, who also is laser-focused on remaining prime minister, and is delighted not to have to ever sit across a bargaining table with Palestinians again.

Many in Israel seem to think that this is all fine, and can go on forever. Netanyahu appears to be successfully managing the conflict, if not ending it. Israel now has its “Iron Dome” and its separation barrier, and the enthusiastic support of the Trump administration for everything it does.

And yet one cannot help but feel that this is not a conflict that can be managed in the long run, and that a day of reckoning may well come which would be catastrophic for both sides.

This is why I think it’s time to revisit the idea of separation, both as a propaganda tool for the Left, and as an actual policy.

As a propaganda tool, it has clearly not worked. The political parties most closely associated with it, Labor and Meretz, seem destined for disastrous results in the upcoming elections. The parties that couldn’t care less about separation, and that are keen for Israeli Jews to be able to settle anywhere in the historic Land of Israel, are expected to be able to form a coalition government with Netanyahu at its head. Even the main alternative to Netanyau, Gantz and his party, are not committed to a two-state solution. Ya’alon is publicly against it, Gantz had been ducking the issue.

For all these reasons, it’s now safe to say that the two-state solution and the idea of separation are — at least for the moment — dead.

And now what? Now is not the time for beautiful solutions on paper, like the “Geneva Accords” which Amos Oz and others advocated for so long. Nor is it the time for Israeli politicians like Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg to rush off to Ramallah to be photographed with Mahmoud Abbas, who is despised by his own people and has no democratic mandate.

Instead, this would be a good time not to come up with the right answers, but to ask the right questions.

If not separation and not a two-state solution, maybe a different approach should be considered.

Maybe it could begin by returning to the idea that Amos Oz rejected — “mutual love” or at the very least, mutual respect between Israelis and Palestinians. By each side understanding that the other has rights, individual rights as well as national ones.

The current wave of unrest in Gaza, including the recent self-immolation of a Palestinian protestor, shows clearly how the Hamas government remains in power only through terror. The Palestinians of the West Bank have shown little evidence of support for their “elected” government, which of course is not really a representative government at all.

All over the Arab and Islamic world, the “Arab Spring,” which was written off by politicians and journalists, has come back in full force, as the mass demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan, and the waves of strikes in Iran, have shown.

People in the Arab world hunger for governments that are not corrupt, for democracies that actually work, for employment, for freedom of expression, for human rights. Those ideas should resonate with Israelis as well. We share some of the same concerns as those who have taken to the streets in Gaza, in Algiers, in Khartoum, in Tehran, and elsewhere. They are not our enemies. They are human beings, just like us.

That’s why I’ve decided to cast my vote this year — for the first time — not for Meretz, which I continue to admire, but which has clearly hit a dead end and lacks the imagination to move forward, but instead for a party which is asking the right questions, even if it has no chance of winning an election any time soon.

That’s why this year, Da’am gets my vote.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.