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Three questions for the prime minister

Including: How will he get us out of the present -- preventable -- quagmire?

Never before have I felt moved to write to you directly. Although our relationship goes back to our elementary school days, it is no secret that we have always stood on very different sides of the political spectrum. In recent years, I have been among those who have strongly opposed your policies — both in the Knesset and in public fora — insisting that your way will neither promote Israel’s safety nor ensure its democratic robustness

Since you returned to the Prime Minister’s office in 2009, I have become increasingly convinced that you have squandered numerous opportunities to secure the future of the country and its citizens by failing to reach a lasting agreement with the Palestinians when conditions were particularly auspicious. By ignoring the Arab Peace Initiative, you also wasted valuable time in forging new alliances in a rapidly changing Middle East.

This legitimate debate was treated by many of your cohorts with derision and even a new form of internal witch-hunting. I would have expected you to rein in some of the intolerant attacks of these ultra-nationalist diehards, but was hardly surprised that this rarely happened. Many of the liberals within your own party did not enjoy your backing.

Despite repeated disappointments, I nevertheless have continued to cling to a vision of a just and humane Israel based on the notions of liberty, equality and justice. This is the basis for the realization of the Jewish and universal aspiration both for a decent society at home and for peace with our Palestinian neighbors, whose right to self-determination complements our own. Your path did not promote these goals and in power terms, you and your fellow travelers have prevailed in recent years.

I thought that at least what held us together, however tenuously, was that in our very divergent ways we were struggling for a better Israel. Now I am beginning to wonder. Six weeks into the current Gaza war, with all the death and destruction it has wrought, there appears to be no end in sight. Your government seems at wits end, and your course of action is confusing at best. That is why I feel compelled to write you for the first time out of sheer and utter bewilderment. I believe that many people would like to hear your answers to three basic questions.

First, how do you envision Israel in ten years time? Since you regained office, you have clung to one key objective: the maintenance of the status quo (which you never fully defined). This concept allowed you to continue the settlement project and rebuff any serious attempt at negotiations under the pretext that there was no viable partner on the other side. The main strategic instrument you used to promote this goal of going nowhere was the concept of “conflict management.”

This idea rested on the notion that conditions were not ripe for resolution, and that therefore your brief was to do everything possible to maintain quiet. You chose to deflect suggestions that conflict management is, in many respects, an oxymoron that would only fuel the conflict in new and (and often terrifying) ways. You didn’t want to hear that there is no status quo — especially in a region under transformation — and that every day that passes without a diplomatic accord leads to further deterioration.

But now the idea of conflict management has collapsed. Obviously, the status quo is totally untenable for almost two million miserable Gazans, who have been besieged economically and militarily and have no horizon in sight. It is also unacceptable for West Bank Palestinians who demand an end to the occupation. Today, many Israelis are also reconsidering this concept, which has brought them three rounds of fighting in less than six years, with next to no respite. Just the thought of more of the same has brought upon Israelis of various political hues and shades what is nothing less than a collective depression.

What, Mr. Prime Minister, do you have in mind for Israel down the road? Since annexation of the West Bank will lead to the realization of a one-state option and continuation of present policies will deepen what is developing into a single state with institutionalized ethnic-based inequality, isn’t it time to readjust your views and offer Israelis some hope for a secure future through pursuit of a workable peace? Maybe the time has come to substitute a single-minded pursuit of a strategy of conflict resolution for the failed one of conflict management? What vision can you proffer and how do you plan to pursue it?

Second, on the basis of your answer to the previous question, how exactly do you intend to extricate Israel from its present quagmire? This round of fighting was preventable. The clock, however, cannot be turned back. Clearly Israelis deserve protection from further rockets attacks. The people of Gaza need guarantees from constant bombardments. But your emissaries in Cairo are demanding a truce as a precondition for any discussion on the rehabilitation of Gaza (and especially on the lifting of the ongoing blockade). Aren’t the two inherently linked? Is it possible that an overly narrow-minded military view is clouding the need to open a diplomatic initiative at this very moment?

There is, today, an unusual regional constellation including the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps even Saudi Arabia, which is amenable to an overall accommodation with Israel in the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative. It, too, is seeking ways to extend assistance to ameliorate the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza while searching for means to demilitarize the Strip. The United States — and in intriguing ways Europe — have suggested ideas on how to use the current discussions in Cairo as a steppingstone for such a broader initiative.

What, Mr. Netanyahu, are your thoughts on these matters? What do you propose to do in the next few days? How are you planning to proceed in order to avert a recurrence of another round of violence in the foreseeable future? Are we doomed only to live from one truce to another, from one arrangement of “quiet for quiet” to the next? Many Israelis, not only those of my political persuasion, would dearly like to hear your answers on the subject.

This leads me to my third and final question: what measures do you propose to adopt in order to restore the human face of Israel and its image in the international community? These have not been days in which compassion for the other has reigned. The ruthlessness of the Hamas should not obscure the fact that the number of people killed, injured and displaced in Gaza is mind-boggling. Official Israel has yet to reach out to these victims, let alone acknowledge some responsibility for their plight.

Perhaps such a gesture is too difficult to demand at this juncture, although it will be necessary at some point. But it is not too much to ask you to put an end to the domestic incitement against people of divergent opinions that has accompanied this war. Why hasn’t your voice been heard when freedom of speech and association have been curtailed? Why don’t you speak out against the rampant racism against Arab citizens of Israel? How are you putting your proclaimed dedication to democracy into action at home?

I am asking these questions because insisting on human sensitivity to the other along our borders and in our midst is critical to promoting those precepts that many Israelis share with much of the western world. You know well that Israel’s global image is value-based. Are you doing all you can to safeguard fundamental human rights in these difficult times?

I am well aware that the questions I have posed do not have easy answers. I do, however, know that these queries are being raised in many Israeli homes today. It is your job, often unenviable, to make a real effort to begin to supply some reasonable responses. If you can’t or you won’t, maybe the time has come for you to resign (every Israeli prime minister before you during a time of war since 1973 either left office or was ousted at the ballot box) and make way for a leader who can put Israel on a more hopeful, humane and secure course. So, for all of our sakes, please gives us some answers.

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.