It is always an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. Have we learned nothing since Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian king who enshrined this legal principle forever? The bloodlust runs deep for victims of heinous, barbaric acts of violence. But when does it stop? How does it end? The logic seems inescapable: the barbarians who slaughtered innocent people must pay the price. They must be severely punished. We must not appear weak. But when do we finally realize this “compelling” logic condemns all of us, Israelis, Palestinians, the entire world, to witness an endless spectacle of murder and destruction. Who will stand up to say, enough is enough? Who will defend the lives of all those who will die, mothers and grandmothers, infants and children, young men, and women, in the current round of violence, or in the next one, or in the one after that, and the one after that.
At the expense of appearing weak and cowardly in the eyes of murderers on the other side, who will have the moral courage to draw a line in the sand? Who will lead the way back to a negotiating table to hammer out an enduring peace? A peace that virtually everyone on both sides of this intractable conflict desperately wants.
To all those who say now is not the time to pursue peace, that now is the time to exact the heaviest possible revenge on all those who perpetrated the recent violence, I say you are sadly mistaken. Imagine if an Israeli prime minister had the chutzpah to say we are done with violence, we are done with retribution. Now is the time for peace. Peace for Israel. Peace for Palestine. Would anyone brand Israel as weak or cowardly? No, world public opinion would laud Israel’s moral courage and vision, and rally behind it. But here is the essential reason to pursue peace now: A clear Israeli statement on behalf of peace would undermine Hamas in a way bombs and bullets never will. Let me say that again, a repudiation of violence and a sincere commitment to peace would undermine the extremist appeal of groups like Hamas in Gaza.
The sad truth is that both Israel and the Palestinians have been held hostage. Hostage to extremists and militants who do not recognize the legitimate rights of “the enemy”. Militants who want to vanquish the other side. In the last several months, the expansionist aspirations of the current Israeli government jeopardized Israel’s democracy and militated against any prospect to achieve a lasting peace. Similarly, Hamas militants have now exposed two million Gaza inhabitants to senseless violence and destruction.
When will we learn to pursue a strategy that marginalizes extremists on both sides? What does this mean? It means repudiating the language extremists encourage, the language of us versus them, the language that dehumanizes the “enemy”, the language that suggests the enemy only understands brute strength and massive violence. This language will condemn many more innocent people on both sides to certain death.
For so long, Israelis have been woefully complacent about pursuing peace. Some claimed there was no one to negotiate with. Others maintained the Palestinians don’t want peace; they want to destroy Israel. Many others assumed they were safe and secure in their homes; there was no need to change the status quo. But Hamas’s barbaric attack shattered Israeli complacency about being safe and secure. It pierced the illusion Israel was invulnerable to vicious attack. Bibi announced last Saturday that Israel was now at war. He was wrong. Completely wrong. In the absence of a final peace settlement, Israel exists in a perpetual state of de facto war. The absence of regular terrorist attacks never meant Israel lived in peace. Israelis were lulled into a very false sense of security. And here is the essential truth of this enduring conflict: neither Israel nor the Palestinians will ever be safe from violence, will ever live in peace, until a two-state settlement is negotiated.
Achieving peace is not rocket science. The Palestinian people want what Israelis want, an ability to secure a good life for themselves and a better life for their children. Why can’t that be achieved? All people deserve to live peacefully in a free and independent country. What is so difficult to understand? Of course, extremists on both sides do not want this. Hamas does not want this. Extreme right-wing Israeli nationalists do not want this. Shall we continue to let these extremists dictate the future course of events? Or can we find a way to empower those on both sides, at long last, who want to talk peace, who want to live securely side by side as neighbors and, dare I say it, as friends and brothers.