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We need peace, not quiet

While most Israelis support a two-state solution, they haven't used their power to promote this goal

Israel is celebrating its Independence Day this year in the shadow of yet another failed effort at achieving a viable peace with its neighbors. Its leaders are currently engaged, full throttle, in the seemingly pointless blame game with their Palestinian interlocutors, which — beyond scoring points — does little to assure Israel’s future. In an atmosphere fraught with suspicion and mutual recrimination, the connection between the notion of freedom and the responsibility that goes with it to take control over one’s destiny is unraveling. Now, perhaps more than at any time in the past, it is the obligation of every citizen to do his and her part in making what the founders of the state and all successive generations have considered Israel’s primary objective a reality: securing a flourishing and decent Israel at peace with its neighbors.

The causes for the breakdown of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are being vigorously debated everywhere — in the media, the corridors of power and, of course, in private homes. Each side is hurling accusations at the other about obstinacy, lack of faith and absence of political will, while weighing the relative damage wrought by the continuation of settlement expansion, by the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, by the demand for the recognition of the Jewish character of Israel, and by systematic backpedaling and indecisiveness. The accompanying bashing exercise — rife with mudslinging and unrepeatable invectives — cannot, however, obscure the thread common to all parties: the ease with which they have been able to shirk responsibility for their role in bringing about the colossal failure of this round of talks and for its main result: the distancing of the prospects for the resolution of the conflict.

On the Israeli side, the primary onus for this situation, as for its potentially far-reaching repercussions, lies not only on the shoulders of those in power, but also, and no less heavily, on those of the silent majority who allowed the nine months of negotiations to be squandered, while their compatriots on the right utilized every moment to make the chances of accommodation even more remote.

The present government cannot escape some of the culpability for this turn of events. By sacrificing historical vision to immediate power considerations, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition partners have exhibited none of the stuff of which real leadership is made. By not offering any horizon for a better future for Israel, they have contributed directly to the growing despair of many Israelis and to a widespread sense of hopelessness on everything related to the achievement of a lasting peace.

But they have not felt any sense of urgency emanating from advocates of a two-state accord, in stark contrast to the entreaties coming from the proponents of the settlement enterprise. A large share of the responsibility for Israel’s present condition lies, therefore, with Israel’s mainstream. With very few exceptions, the majority of Israeli citizens — who for the past decade consistently express unease with the status quo and claim to support a two-state solution — have done very little to promote this goal. They have not used their vote to support parties committed to a negotiated settlement. They have been silent in the face of settler extremism. They have not spoken out against the official preference for housing construction beyond the Green Line. They have been sinfully oblivious to the fate of Palestinians while demanding constant consideration for Israeli victims of violence. They have refrained, especially during the past nine months, from applying pressure on the government to make the decisions necessary to reach a just agreement. They have, in short, deferred to their leaders instead of demanding accountability on the single most important issue on Israel’s agenda.

Israelis, however, no longer have the luxury, as the country enters its 67th year, to continue to act as if they do not have a duty to play a part in molding the character and shape of their state — just as their past actions have contributed directly to bringing Israel, with all its achievements and problems, to its present crossroads. If most of the citizens of Israel really want to live in a democratic country with a Jewish majority which guarantees equality for all its citizens, then each and every one committed to this vision should start doing something about it. Otherwise, their passivity is akin to complicity in the perpetuation of the current stalemate.

Citizen power, as many Israelis demonstrated during the social protests almost three summers ago, is real. There are multiple ways that individuals can broadcast the message to decision-makers that they expect them to do everything humanly possible — and more — to bring about the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This requires broadening the current discourse by speaking out boldly and repeatedly against the occupation. It also involves inviting rather than shunning even the most casual conversations on how to deal with the current deadlock and its ramifications. For some it may mean initiating and signing petitions, for others participation in vigils, protests and demonstrations. For all, it demands waking up from the slumber of recent years and speaking out on what is really important for sustaining Israel’s existence as a state devoted to the values ensconced in its Declaration of Independence. Each day, every day, those who do not want to partake in the dissipation of these principles has to ask what they — and not anyone else — have done to foster a just Israel.

Consistent pressure from below can, in and of itself, force the hands of those in office. If it doesn’t succeed in doing so, it still provides the foundation for a change of government (and with it the leaders at its helm) capable of bringing about the necessary shift in policy. Indeed, as in the past, such a call coming from large segments of the population supplies the impetus for real progress. Either of these possibilities is not beyond the capacity of an engaged and empowered citizenry.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is a lesson in the triumph of determination in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The maintenance of the independence gained sixty-six years ago and all the accomplishments that have come with it depends today on internalizing and acting on the understanding that true freedom cannot come at the expense of the self-determination of others and that hence liberty is a function of the physical, moral, normative and geographic boundaries inherent in self-restraint.

The responsibility lies with elected leaders; it is also the fundamental duty of citizens. If the former falter in fulfilling their role, then Israelis from all walks of life, by employing agency, can fill the gap by making it eminently clear that — in the democratic spirit — their will must prevail. This is the only way that each and every one devoted to this country and its future can put an end to the negative spiral of suspicion and blame and give real meaning to their independence. If we will it, it is no dream.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.