In the days of Golda Meir, there was a popular song inspired by her world view: “The whole world is against us.” Its joyful melody was known to all. Isolation is indeed part of our national ethos, which one can very well understand, given our historical experience. Yet Israel was reborn to take us out of the ghetto, and establish a new relationship with the world.
To a degree we succeeded, yet in our national psyche we still very much thrive on the notion of standing alone against perpetual hostility.
This is part of our historical DNA, based on the biblical saying “A nation that dwells alone.” We have a tendency to glorify isolation and often to turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is dangerous for a small and young state like Israel, especially in these days of globalization and interconnectivity among economies.
The term “splendid isolation” stems from the days of Benjamin Disraeli.
At the end of the 19th century, Britain could afford it. Disraeli believed in self-sufficiency – “Don’t explain, don’t complain,” he ordered. The exact opposite of our national tendency – complaining and explaining have become second nature and is on the daily menu of our political leadership. They complain in virtually every statement about friends and foes; we love to blame everybody except for ourselves, from Iran to Abbas, Arabs in general, the Vatican, and “goyim” in general, to friends like Barack Obama and John Kerry. All are accused of a deep, inherent hostility toward Israel and the Jewish people – whenever they “dare” to disagree with our policies. Just in the last week we heard of “hypnotized Europeans,” “naïve Americans,” “anti-Semitic Palestinians” and “self-hating Jews.”
And then we also love to explain, which, translated into Hebrew, is hasbara. We repeat our policy justifications ad nauseam, including the right to settle in all of the land of our forefathers. When we do not manage to convince, we move from explaining to complaining – blaming the world for unjust if not anti-Semitic policies. We live in a mindset and rhetoric that is caught in a vicious cycle of complaining and explaining, not heeding Disraeli’s advice. Therefore our isolation is far from being splendid and is in many ways self-inflicted.
These days we demand to be recognized as a nation-state. We must first and foremost demand it from ourselves. A sovereign, modern nationstate must combine self-reliance and a sense of national responsibility with good international relations. Our Pavlovian instinct to blame others for our misfortunes does not demonstrate the maturity of sovereignty.
We are responsible for our destiny, not only as a demand, but as accountability for our own actions and policies. Some humility and self-criticism would not hurt us before we launch into a barrage of criticisms about good friends like, for instance, John Kerry.
While we must acquire a sense of responsibility for our actions, we must not elude deceive ourselves into believing that we are not dependent on others. Our security is highly dependent on American support and assistance. Our economy depends on good relations with the European Union and as well as with the rest of the world. Most important there is a link between our own responsibility for good policies and our ability to secure a good place within the family of nations.
Today we are indeed isolated, we are threatened with economic boycotts and sanctions, as our policies stand in full opposition to the most fundamental consensus of the international community. We live in a post-colonial world, in which self-determination is universally respected.
The occupation of another people is in today’s world totally taboo and, no matter the circumstances, unforgivable. Countries commit crimes against human rights and that is widely criticized, yet it is their own decision. Dominating the lives of another people is considered worse. We should not only understand this global consensus, but adopt it as our own values; as a people who suffered foreign domination and persecution, we should find it easy to understand.
This contradiction of basic values is the source of our international isolation. Instead of thriving on it a la Golda or complaining about it a la Bibi Netanyahu, we must find a way out of the isolation if we want to prosper as an independent nation-state.
The bridge to the international community is peace with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Territories for peace is the internationally recognized formula.
We tend to view withdrawal from the West Bank as a terrible price we must eventually pay. It is not. It is all in our favor. Putting an end to the occupation will create a real opportunity for peaceful relations with Palestine and most Arab countries. It will reinstate us as a respected member of the family of nations, strengthen our strategic alliance with the United States as well as our economic ties with the European Union.
Most important will be the domestic impact of such a choice. We will guarantee our identity as a democracy with a clear Jewish majority; we will be finally be able to readdress our national priorities, mainly in terms of being a more open and just society with social empathy. More resources will be available, with time, for education, health services, the periphery and minorities. A two-state solution will resolve the century-old internal debate between Left and Right ideologies, away from the messianic illusion of a Greater Israel. We will cease to run the destiny of others and take better charge of our own.
The end of the occupation, even more than a policy need, is a moral choice. Occupation corrupts the oppressor even more than it humiliates the oppressed. It contradicts the most basic of Jewish values, of treating the other with the same compassion we treat ourselves. Our army will then do what it was intended to do – defend our security from within our borders rather than chasing children in the streets of Nablus.
A two-state solution will, for the first time in our history, give us internationally recognized borders. Living within borders will give us a greater sense of permanence and stability, as we will be able to create greater social cohesion with open democratic discourse and diversity. The internal discourse will be about sovereign Israel, not about its expansion. We will be able to put the Negev and the Galilee first, rather than the settlements, and settle new immigrants in their sovereign homeland. We will get rid of the violent climate and discourse that is part of our West Bank experience. The domination of our next-door neighbors is imported into Israel; the occupation character has become second nature to many and has poisoned behavior within Israeli society.
Together with the new border, behind which we must continue our successful nation-building, we will be able to build new bridges to the world. Bridges of good diplomatic relations, trade, culture, tourism, scientific and technological exchange, etc. An Israel more focused on itself, in peace with itself, more self-confident, that can communicate with the world, and reap incredible opportunities that the globalized world has to offer.
This is the real meaning of sovereignty, to be in charge of our own destiny, not of others, and to communicate in a common language with the rest of the world, putting an end to the not-so-splendid isolation.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.