It has been 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the
Palestinians, and the short-lived euphoria that peace was finally at
Somewhat less euphoria surrounds the recently renewed talks between
the Netanyahu and Abbas administrations.
I could reflect at some length
on what might have happened had Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s then-prime minister, not
been assassinated in 1995. Instead we live in the alternate reality: a
stagnating sense of hopelessness and distrust.
The story is seven decades
old: to partition the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, or not?
The only realistic answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the same as it
was in 1948: two states for two peoples.
The elements of a two-state
solution are known. The Palestinians will make their state in Gaza and major
parts of the West Bank. A special and creative arrangement will be agreed on
regarding Jerusalem, while the Old City will remain under Israeli
Israel must make the painful compromise of giving up the
cradle of Jewish civilization, and over 150,000 Israelis in outlying settlements
must be withdrawn, or stay under special arrangement in the Palestinian
Palestinians must give up their dream of having descendants of
Palestinian refugees “return” to Israel.
Instead they will be able to
immigrate to the newly created state of Palestine.
Whether this will come
to pass is a question of will and leadership on both sides.
Palestinian leadership has scuttled a number of previous attempts to partition
the land. Their fundamental challenges remain twofold.
First, they may
regard Israel’s creation as an injustice that occurred at their expense, but
they must accept the Jewish state as their neighbor and build their state in the
West Bank and Gaza.
Second, they are dealing with their localized version
of the global phenomenon of violent Islamic fundamentalism (Hamas, Islamic
Jihad, etc.) that is irredeemably anti-Semitic, makes maximalist claims and
rejects any Jewish presence in the Middle East.
Both problems can
probably only be overcome, if at all, by a Palestinian de Gaulle.
Israeli side, the prevailing sentiment among some leading Rightist figures is
that the status quo is a sustainable long-term option.
They imagine a
series of vaguely defined “interim agreements” with the Palestinians, endless
negotiations, and maintaining indefinite Israeli control over the West Bank. In
other words, stringing the Palestinians along.
This is, still, the
Netanyahu school of thought.
These figures are joined by a chorus of
those on the far Right who argue for “solutions” of varying levels of
outlandishness that always involve annexing the West Bank and somehow
maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel.
It must be said that there are
many legitimate security concerns that most Israelis share. Just last November,
southern Israel and even Tel Aviv were hit by hundreds of rockets from Gaza,
from which we have already withdrawn.
Without an Israeli military
presence on the West Bank, what is to stop extremists or a future rogue
Palestinian administration terrorizing the heart of Israel from the high ground
of the Judean Hills? And will the Palestinians, headed by Abbas, declare an end
to all future claims and uphold a peace agreement? Can they? These political and
security concerns must be addressed before we relinquish the West Bank. But
relinquishing much of the West Bank is what we must do to remain a Jewish
As a proud member of the Labor Party, I can tell you that most
of the great Zionists of history, from Ben-Gurion to Rabin, and even Begin, were
pragmatists. The irredentist fantasy of a “Greater Israel” was never a pillar of
the Zionist idea. A Jewish democracy living at peace with its neighbors is a far
Given all of this, has Netanyahu “crossed the
Rubicon,” as contemporary Israeli political parlance has it, and decided to be
Israel’s de Gaulle? Can he tell the far Right and the settlers, “Je vous ai
compris,” and proceed to forge a true peace with the Palestinians? And, after
that, can he respond to the Arab Peace Initiative and ink a broader deal with
the entire region? Netanyahu’s entire political career has been predicated on
indefinitely postponing Palestinian ambitions and preventing a final-status
agreement. His Likud party has been subject to a hostile takeover by the most
radical elements among the settlers, who stacked the branches during the
primaries last year and created the most extreme Likud list in history. This is
not Begin’s Likud anymore.
To make matters worse, there are Netanyahu’s
leading coalition partners. Finance Minister Yair Lapid is a human weathervane
whose only principle is his ambitions regarding the
Avigdor Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu, tried to
force Arabs to take loyalty oaths, and was accused by none other than the ADL’s
Abraham Foxman of “restricting democratic values.” And Naftali Bennett, head of
the far-right Bayit Yehudi party, has declared the two-state solution “dead.” I
do not envy Netanyahu. Things do look bleak.
But just this month, I
hosted a group of Palestinian officials at the Knesset for the first time. For
the first time, the Palestinian and Israeli flags were raised in the Knesset
chamber, beside each other. The spirit of peace was in the air.
not a prerequisite to peace, but an outcome of it.
We have an obligation
to try and try again for it, even when its prospects appear dim. I firmly
believe that when the leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians are composed of
the right people, and they decide to make peace happen, peace can be
And as for Netanyahu, one publication described him few months ago
as “King Bibi.” He will have to decide if history will remember him as “king of
Israel” or “king of the Likud.” It’s up to him.
The writer is deputy
speaker of the Knesset, secretary-general of the Labor Party and chairs the
Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict.