‘What a terrible thing war is,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace.
Indeed, war is the worst human practice, in which mankind destroys itself. Given the difference between war and peace, one wonders why peacemaking and conflict resolution are so difficult. It would be easy if one could move quickly from war to peace. Yet the transition is very slow and filled with tangible and psychological obstacles. Transition suffers from the lingering wounds and ailments of war, to such a degree that it sometimes makes peacemaking impossible.
While war and peace are well understood as human, social, and political phenomena, transition is not.
The transitions after the end of apartheid in South Africa, after the Dayton Agreement in the Balkans, and after the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland were all very slow, with a lack of political stability and even violence. In all these regions, it is taking a long time for relations to change from hostility to coexistence, from violence to cooperation; the wounds of conflict are often left open, especially with suspicion and a desire for vengeance. If the transition period is not handled well by the political leadership, it can be the spark that ignites a new conflict.
Concern over the nature of this transitory period may stand at the core of the hesitation of leaders and negotiators in our region, in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Historically, we are actually in such an unstable transitory period. Since the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo Accords, we have begun a prolonged period of conflict resolution.
The peace with Egypt is of tremendous strategic value, fully vindicating the withdrawal from the Sinai to the 1967 lines. Egypt is the biggest and most important Arab country. Without it, a regional war is virtually impossible.
We lost most of our soldiers at war with Egypt; since the peace treaty, the lives of Israeli and Egyptian soldiers have been spared. Egypt is now a partner in the struggle against terrorism, as we witness in relation to Hamas and Gaza. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak played a critical role in the agreements with the Palestinians. Yet the peace with Egypt is a cold peace. We have witnessed little cooperation between the two countries, mainly in trade and agriculture. The Egyptian public is, by and large, hostile to Israel, very much out of solidarity with their Palestinian brethren under occupation, but also out of the lingering contempt for Israel, dating from the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The peace with Jordan is also of critical strategic importance to the eastern front. Cooperation with the Hashemite kingdom has been somewhat better than with Egypt, especially in investment, trade, and Israeli tourism.
The king, like his father, sees the stability of Jordan linked with security cooperation with Israel.
Yet Jordanian public opinion is also hostile. Two-thirds of the population is Palestinian, making the fate of Palestine of paramount importance to Jordanians.
The Oslo Accords with the PLO represented a historic watershed, putting an end to the nightmare scenarios of a Greater Israel or a Greater Palestine. Cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, in all walks of life, is the highest compared to interactions with the rest of the Arab world.
With Palestine, though, we are still in the midst of the conflict resolution process, which, due to the weakness of the two leaderships, is taking far too long.
In all three cases, we are not yet in a post-conflict era, as the Palestinians, Egypt, and Jordan all await the permanent- status agreement to resolve the Palestinian predicament.
We are, therefore, still at the beginning of a transition from war to peace, but we can learn important lessons from this period for the sustainability of future peace.
The first and primary lesson is that without a permanent- status agreement with Palestine, we will not reap the benefits of peace in the region.
In the transition, the psychology of the past burdens the progress towards reconciliation and cooperation.
Above all, a deep suspicion imported from the conflict era makes the necessary level of trust impossible to achieve. Constantly questioning the motivations of your neighbors makes working together for better security and a better economic future almost impossible. Prejudice is no less dangerous, both in the way Arabs perceive Jews and vice versa.
Institutionally, in the transition period, the military plays a disproportionate role and economic players are still marginalized. Armies and security forces can, at best, cooperate for some level of security, but cannot work on turning peace into a daily reality. The main relationships on all these fronts are led by the security authorities and not by the civilian authorities. As a result, economic investment and cooperation suffer. This transition, as in other regions, suffers from an inherent lack of stability and sporadic outbreaks of violence and terrorism. It stems mostly from the enemies of peace who feel endangered by the eventuality of a peaceful accommodation, mainly religious fundamentalist groups of both sides.
The transition is not a rose garden. It is a desert, like the Sinai was for the people of Israel in their journey from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land. We have to be realistic in expectations, understand the alternatives and handle the transition correctly based on common interests; only then can we reach the promised land of peace.
Above all, we must face the realities of the Middle East, as well as the international consensus. A permanent status agreement is a must. It is not true that we negotiated permanent status in good faith. In the Oslo Accords, we committed to come to a permanent status agreement in April 1999. That was 15 years ago and, in all those years, Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister has skillfully evaded the necessary decisions to bring about an agreement.
During most of these years, settlements came first, peace with Palestine last. An agreement is not a favor to the Palestinians; it is a necessary historic compromise that is very much in our interest. It is possible with the existing pragmatic leadership of Fatah, although it too has its fair share of responsibility in the missed opportunities.
Permanent status is probably our foremost existential interest, touching upon our very identity. It is also the most important strategic interest upon which our relationships in the region and the world will be determined, to a large degree.
The transition to permanent status will be comprised of intense negotiations, critical decision-making, implementation and a lengthy period of profound change, which must be handled well by the government. To facilitate the transition, we and our Palestinian partners must plan the economic future. The sustainability of peace will be greatly affected by economic growth in Israel and Palestine.
The economic future will depend on better and more balanced cooperation between our two independent economies. A more peaceful relationship will significantly affect tourism. Two and a half million tourists to Israel and Palestine a year are a far cry from the potential, given what we have to offer and in comparison to European countries which see over 50 million tourists apiece.
The economic future will also be affected by an improved relationship with the world, given progress on permanent status, especially with the US, EU and Japan. Regional relationships and cooperation can be enhanced in the transitory period if the region is convinced of the destiny of the peace negotiations.
Security must be strengthened by regional counter- terrorism cooperation. It also will be enhanced by better economic realities in the West Bank and Gaza.
When there is more to lose, one cherishes stability.
Alongside the tangible transition, comes a more difficult and important transition – the psychological one.
Generations on both sides were educated to see the other as the illegitimate brutal aggressor – Palestinian terrorists and Israeli occupiers. In conflict resolution one must discover the best-kept secret of conflict – that everybody is human, with similar fears and aspirations.
The humanization of all sides is an important condition for the success of peacemaking. The easiest route is to harbor hatred and vengeance – which promises more cycles of violence. In conflict, we not only kill each other physically, but we also erode the human face of the enemy. A psychological transition can only happen through a slow process and reconciliation by those who have the courage to meet each other personally and put prejudice, suspicion and racism behind. It requires no less courage than to meet in the battlefield.
This transition demands guidance from the leaderships to encourage a necessary people-to-people process, something severely lacking today. It demands that we have the courage to change, individually and as a nation. We all have to change profound personal and collective attitudes – to stop thriving on victory and nationalism, to stop blaming and hating, to cease to admire force and violence, to seek a humanistic and empathetic approach to the other, to espouse equality as a principle value, to dialogue and cooperate. This demands a real transformation, which takes time in order to turn a conflict persona into a peace persona. In this transition, we must also change our language – from the language of accusation and hostility, if not outright racism, to a discourse of real mutual respect of each other’s dignity.
The collective identity must also go through a profound transition – from a people who can dictate to our neighbors, to a people who learn to compromise; from a people endangering our very democracy, to a real democracy with a Jewish majority and equal rights to minorities. The same transition must be undertaken by the Palestinians toward cooperation and empathy with Israel and for the creation of an independent democracy.
Transition between war and peace is long and critical. It must be managed both with a sense of realism that there will be drawbacks and even violence and, more importantly, by the creation of the right political, economic, security, and human conditions. It may take decades, as it has elsewhere, but there is no shortcut to peace.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.