Michael Hilkowitz

Justified in short term strategy but ignoring the long term

I have been talking to people over the last month and a half or so since war broke out here about why peace hasn’t been made and probably won’t be made in the near future. I get a wide range of answers from Israeli intransigence to Palestinian terrorism, to settlements, to Hamas to lack of trust and everything both in between and outside. Everyone has a reason why peace hasn’t been made; everyone has an opinion on who is to blame and who should be punished.

What I don’t hear in any of these conversations with both Jewish and Arab friends is a vision for the future. We seem to be so caught in a cycle of blame and recrimination that we only look behind us and not into the future. People will talk to me for a long time about the past, but when asked about how they envision a solution, no one has any ideas, well, those on the far right and far left have ideas, but these are ideas that would never be acceptable to one or the other side, and certainly not to the international community.

So why is it we can’t even envision what peace might look like. We have been talking about it for decades. We all know the outlines, the broad strokes of the deal that will hopefully at some point come about, and even with that, most Israelis and Palestinians can’t even imagine what life might be like the day after a deal would be implemented. I am stuck with this question of why.

Humans are blessed by God with a wonderful imagination and this imagination has been used for amazing things, as well as horrible things, but here I am, sitting in Jerusalem, for all intents and purposes the center of the universe in the eyes of a huge portion of the world population, and I can’t even imagine what life would be like if there were peace. Ask yourself, what a vision of peaceful co-existence looks like. If you can’t envision it, you are probably part of the problem. I am part of the problem. I live here, I love here, and I can’t imagine a time when this conflict won’t be at the center of the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

Has disappointment after disappointment removed from all of us even the smallest glimmer of hope for life after this conflict? Have we just given up to such a degree that we can’t even dream of a peaceful life with our neighbors? How can we get to a place we can’t even imagine? This is the thought that weighs on my soul at the moment.

Since moving to Israel, I have developed many friendships, not only with Jewish Israelis but with Arab Israelis, Christians and Palestinians. (I use the terms Arab Israeli and Palestinians to differentiate between Arabs living in Israel, holding Israeli citizenship and Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza without Israeli citizenship, there is no judgment from me in these terms, I use them merely for clarity.) All of my friends are equal in my eyes, no matter who they are, no matter where their place on the political spectrum, and because of this, the last month and a half has been horrible for me. I have seen otherwise rational, compassionate people say awful things, things that I would not have imagined they could have even thought a month and a half ago. I have seen all compassion lost for others not of the same group and it hurts my heart. I have begun to doubt in the future of humanity.

At this point I am going to talk about the Jewish side of this. I don’t ignore the Arab side, and I believe soul searching is necessary on both sides, but I don’t have the knowledge and background to speak with authority about it, and thus I will leave it for those on the Arab side, who like me wish to have a peaceful existence with their Jewish neighbors, and I promise you, there are many people like this out there.

Compassion is a core Jewish value; it has always been at the center of who we are as a people. The problem is that over the years of this conflict we have allowed ourselves to dehumanize our opponents, we have allowed ourselves to lose this compassion that is so a part of our being. We still pay lip service to it, myself included, when we say “All civilian deaths are tragic, BUT” or “Israel does more than any other country to protect civilians, BUT” or “We hate what Hamas is doing to the Palestinian people, BUT.” The truth is, this is not compassion, it is justification, and while the justification might be right and necessary, let us not for a moment confuse it with compassion. It lets us feel better about going against our values. Real compassion should have begun long ago. Real compassion would have been looking for real solutions to the conflict and not constant work toward maintaining the status quo, depending on short term strategies to manage the conflict.

This gets to the heart of the matter. While Israel has always been good at thinking about the short term strategy, reacting to situations that threaten Israelis, it seems to have no cohesive long term strategy. For all the talk of Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech clearly voicing the Israeli governments support for a two state solution, we have seen zero change in Israeli policies that would indicate such support. The settlement enterprise continues unabated, high ranking ministers within the Israeli government consistently try to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, and the influence of President Mahmoud Abbas, and in doing so, strengthen Hamas and the other forces of extremism in the Palestinian community.

While it goes without saying that Hamas is a violent, tyrannical organization, who will always put its own political interests over the interests of the Palestinian people, to say nothing of Israelis and regional stability, when looking for responsibility for the current situation, there is more than enough to go around and unfortunately some of that responsibility is held by the government of Israel. If, instead of showing the world that the forces of the PA, who at least are attempting moderation, will not achieve anything for their people, Israel worked to show the world that a move toward moderation, such as the PA has made, will result in advancement for their people, then the extremists among the Palestinians would have less power.

If we show that non-violence will achieve more than violence, the status quo might begin to change, but as it stands Israel has shown through its actions that terrorism will achieve more than peace. All the Palestinians have gained since Oslo has come from forcing Israel through violence. When the PA works with Israel on security and incidents drop, the Palestinians get nothing. When Hamas starts shooting rockets and kills and captures soldiers, they get concessions. Let us think about the message this sends. Over and over Israel has shown that violence is more effective than cooperation in creating gains for the Palestinians. With this in mind, would you opt for violence or cooperation?

To be clear, Israel is completely justified in its short term actions. When someone shoots at you, you shoot back, this is the way of the world, and we must live in the same world as everyone else. We can’t play the saint and let ourselves be killed for the sake of someone else. That said, Israel can and should do much more in terms of long term strategy to create an environment where cooperation gains more results than violence. Obviously Israel is going to have to make concessions to stop the current fighting, the day after, Israel must begin to create a long term strategy to change the situation. It should start with unilateral steps to show that coexistence will be more effective than terror. The first of these steps should be the Israeli government putting forth a proposal on the borders of a Palestinian state, and then begin to remove settlements inside of those borders. It is time for Israel to show it is serious about a two state solution. Next it’s time to really show that we can work with the PA and move forward on serious final status negotiations with the PA.

Without a long term strategy to change the motivations on the ground, we are doomed to a repeating cycle of violence. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to clearly articulate a long term plan that shows that his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech was not mere rhetoric and then actually move to implement it. If he doesn’t, we may get a cease-fire with Hamas, but we will just have to go back to Gaza in a couple of years, and lose more good Israeli boys who are doing their service to their country, and the circle of violence will continue.

I ask everyone to think about what the day after a true peace would look like. Put your thoughts in the comments. Though I expect a lot of responses will be along the lines of the day after peace there will be no Palestinians or there will be no Israelis, those are not actual options, but the first step to making peace is imagining how much better peace would be than what we have now.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.