Kenneth Jacobson

The Importance of an Israeli Peace Initiative

As the war against Hamas rages on, one hears more and more talk: What about the day after?

It is instructive in this regard to look back at the very different experiences in Israel at two other difficult times, the First and Second Intifadas.

During the Palestinian uprising beginning in December 1987, which was not nearly as violent as the later one, Israel went through internal splits that added significantly to the challenges the nation faced. In the initial period, the country was united in opposing Palestinian violence, but as the Intifada dragged on, more and more political figures on the center and left began to question Israel’s position. In crude terms, the argument was made: while we don’t like the Palestinian violence, one can’t blame them since the Israeli government was offering them nothing that would open a possibility of bringing change to their situation. As a result, as the violence continued for several years, Israel was rife with dissension and disunity.

Now fast forward to the Second Intifada which was far more brutal, characterized by suicide bombings which cost Israel –and the diaspora- many lives.

Internally, however, it was a completely different situation. Israel, just prior to the outbreak of Palestinian violence, had offered the Palestinians at Camp David the opportunity to build an independent state on land that Israel was ready to withdraw from. And so, when the Palestinians rejected it and turned to terrorism, the Israeli public and political leadership were united in standing against the violence and in support of a strong Israeli response. This meant that as difficult as the Second Intifada was, Israel was in a much better place –from a societal perspective – to defeat it, compared to the First Intifada.

Now fast forward to today. Let’s be clear, what happened on October 7 was far, far worse than any of the prior conflicts, and was the most traumatic day in Israel’s history. And so the need to strike at Hamas in unprecedented ways was understood by the public in Israel. It was imperative to do so in order to repair the broken social contract between the Israeli authorities and people on that horrific day.

But as the war continues, the question of what about the day after persists. And while the most positive element of these terrible days has been the unity of the country through it all, let’s remember how divided the country was before the war and how disunity can break out again when things quiet down. Hopefully, all sides will realize how destructive the judicial overhaul issues were to the nation’s psyche, and sanity, moderation and consensus will prevail.

That takes us to the Palestinian issue. Obviously, as long as Hamas controls Gaza there is nothing to talk about. But assuming there is a new reality in Gaza after a few months, the question for Israel is what to do next. Most of the conversation understandably focuses on who will control Gaza, and already there are widely differing perspectives.

In the longer term, however, the question is whether the peace process should be at the top of the agenda. Indeed, in light of the controversies surrounding the war, one can be sure that the international community, including the United States, will be raising this fundamental issue.

The case can be made that Israel should start thinking about what steps it should take vis-a-vis the Palestinians even before the war is over. One says this even while recognizing that the chances of a true peace partner on the Palestinian side in the near and medium term are tenuous at best.

Instead, Israel should take an initiative for its own interests, both at home and externally.

At home, the center and left in Israel have largely put on hold their protests against the government which dominated during the year prior to October 7. Even if the government gives up on its judicial program after the war, resentments will remain high.

One way to ease some of that is by the government, no matter who is in power, showing a willingness to move forward on the Palestinian issue in ways that consider the new security challenges Israel faces, but also recognize the need to bring the population together in addressing this key underlying issue.

A disaffected public, having gone through two traumas, the battle over the judiciary and the barbaric terrorist attack, needs to find a new approach to the Palestinians for its own sake.

The issue of keeping Israel both Jewish and democratic should never leave the consciousness of Israelis as time marches on and no change is in the air.

In sum, internally, it is important to do this not because peace is on the horizon, but because Israel needs to reestablish for itself the image of being the peacemaker that it was for so long.

Similarly, on the external level one needs to be realistic. Those who have shown their hostility toward the Jewish state, denying its legitimacy, will not be moved by any Israeli initiative. But there are important world leaders and communities, particularly in the US, who would react positively to an Israeli peace initiative following the trauma of October 7, together with the controversies surrounding the war. It is almost inevitable that if there is no action on the political front by Israel, criticism of the Jewish state – even by those that largely stood by her during the war – will increase exponentially.

What exactly a peace initiative should look like is, of course, up to Israel’s leadership. Regardless, it needs to be serious both on the political side for the Palestinians and the security side for Israel.

Such a step will have the dual benefit of helping to bring disaffected Israelis back into the fold, while, at the same time, tamping down some of the criticism and hostility toward Israel that will undoubtedly surface after months of bloody warfare.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.