What can Israelis and Palestinians agree on? Everything. Or nothing.
I was asked to address this question by the moderator of a Facebook forum devoted to discussing Middle East peace. I’ve joined a number of such groups in recent weeks, in an effort to help promote my new book, Broken Spring. It’s full of lessons, and one of them – Egypt-Israel relations – can be a model for answering the question.
My brief experience with most of the Facebook groups has been disappointing. All of them have “peace” in their titles, but the overall tone of the posts, with some notable exceptions, is extremism and hate. Each event in the world that is related even tangentially to the Israel-Palestinian conflict becomes just the latest club with which to bash the other side.
The targeted side fires back in kind. Preconceived notions are reinforced. Sometimes someone – usually me – appeals for a modicum of civility. Here’s one of mine: “Don’t you people ever get tired of going over and over the same old ground with no intention of persuading anybody about anything? Years ago sensible Israelis and Palestinians agreed on the Geneva Initiative, which lays out in great detail the solution to the Israel- Palestinian conflict except for refugees – treaty, annexes and details. www.geneva-accord.
org. Why don’t we all take a break from bashing each other and spend a few hours reading that?” The ideologues and extremists on both sides – those who truly believe that Israel is a cancer that must be removed, that everything Israel does is aimed at oppressing the Palestinians, that Israel intentionally and happily kills Palestinian babies – or those who believe that all Palestinians are terrorists, that all of them believe Jews should be massacred at every opportunity, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian or Palestine, that all of them should be expelled to Jordan or the moon or wherever – those people make up the “nothing” part of the equation.
I got into a Facebook discussion with a couple of Israel-bashers who assumed I was a mouthpiece for the hated Zionists. I explained that indeed I was an Israeli, but that I was also a journalist/analyst/author who has covered the conflict hands-on for four decades and is trying to provide some background and context.
The reply was that this person had also “covered the conflict” for decades – though he’d never been within 7,000 km of the region! I admit, I laughed.
There are issues and narratives that will never be reconciled. Who did what to whom, when, why. Which side has suffered more.
Who has historical/religious/security rights to which sliver of land. On that basis, nothing will ever be achieved.
President Shimon Peres says peace can be made by looking forward, not backward. Peres isn’t right about everything, but he’s right about that.
Let’s examine where that leads.
Israelis are sitting on the edge of their collective chair, waiting for Egypt to abrogate the 1979 peace treaty that has revolutionized the Middle East far more than any accord between Israel and the Palestinians ever could. Israelis were certain that the day after the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Cairo the treaty would be canceled. It wasn’t. They assume the new military rulers are just as anti-Israel in their own way, noting the frequent Israel-bashing in the Egyptian press and anti-Semitic statements by officials and thinkers, and that cancellation is just a matter of time.
It hasn’t happened. It won’t. The reason is that Israel and Egypt both have vital common interests at stake, interests that require that the peace treaty remain in force, and more, that cooperation increase. That’s all in the book.
What if we examine the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, and see where that leads us? If it is in the interest of Israel to oppress the Palestinians, annex their territories and claim ownership of the West Bank, and if it is in the interest of the Palestinians to claim Israeli territory or try to flood it with millions of Palestinians, then we can stop right here.
If it is in the interest of both sides to set up two states living side by side, then it’s doable. Notice I didn’t say “side by side in peace.” That might come later. And it’s secondary, anyway.
Peaceful, warm relations develop over time. Or they don’t. Israel and Egypt aren’t particularly friendly, but they co-operate in many ways, most of which are not public. Good enough.
Neither side should be asked to forget history.
Each side can learn lessons from its history, be proud of parts of it and less proud of other parts. But no one should be enslaved by history.
Instead, if the principle of acting according to interests is accepted, then it’s a matter of hammering out terms that both sides can live with, as opposed to what both sides believe is theirs by right. The benefits are obvious, even more than the bilateral benefits of the Egypt-Israel treaty – ruling over your own people and not the other side, economic stimulation, prosperity and redirection of resources from conflict to cooperation.
After a certain run-in period with the requisite safety mechanisms, security challenges would fade, as they have between Egypt and Israel, because of the interests listed above. Did you know that there is still a multinational force in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, charged with observing the behavior of the two sides and pointing out violations? It’s pretty much unemployed – and forgotten. Few predicted that kind of calm the day after the peace treaty was signed in 1979.
For Israel, an agreement based on such interests means uprooting as few Israelis as possible from West Bank settlements – but many. Palestinians would get a contiguous, sensible block of territory in the West Bank and a corridor to link it to Gaza. This is achievable with swaps of territory.
It means sharing Jerusalem. If neither side is threatening the other, there’s no reason to physically divide the city. But after decades of bloody conflict, let’s be realistic – it will be divided, at least at the beginning. Arab neighborhoods will be in Palestine, Jewish neighborhoods will be in Israel, and the religions will administer their holy sites.
It means a reasonable solution for refugees.
There are not seven million Palestinian refugees, as some claim. That would be an unrealistic tenfold natural increase in 60 years. No population has ever mushroomed like that.
For example, the Jewish people are not even back to the numbers they had before the Holocaust.
Whatever the actual numbers, some compensation needs to be worked out, some refugees need to return to Israel symbolically.
These are just details, once it’s a matter of interests.
Other issues could be resolved just as quickly.
They already have been worked out in the detailed and sensible Geneva Initiative. One central part of this is: It’s a package deal.
If we keep bringing individual issues to the fore one by one, then of course each side must reject each demand of the other side in turn.
A package deal would include a statement in which Israel acknowledges the suffering of the Palestinians and their right to a state, and Palestinians acknowledge the suffering of the Jews and their right to a state – and so on down the list. Both sides get what they need.
Can this be done? In theory, of course it can. The Geneva Initiative people did it already.
Can Israeli and Palestinian leaders do this themselves? Not likely. They cower before their own extremists and are tied to their own ideology.
I’ve written for years that a solution will have to be imposed from the outside. It’s a pity, since the elements are all there, and everyone knows what they are.
The price of not reaching an agreement is more stalemate, more suffering, more wasted resources. Time is not on anyone’s side.
And before the bashers out there start in on me for this article, let me say this: I welcome criticism of anything/everything I write.
That’s one of the ways I learn. But from this day forward, I will ignore the posts of the ideologues and extremists. This issue is too important for those of us who actually live here, because the choice is clear: Everything. Or nothing.
The author, a foreign correspondent, has covered the Middle East since 1972. His book Broken Spring, is from Gefen Publishing House of Jerusalem and available at amazon.com.