The hysterics who warned of disaster if the peace process failed are now waiting for their predictions to come true. John Kerry and company belong to the “Tough Love” and “Sky is Falling” school of Middle East diplomacy. They believe Israel must be bullied by her friends and bombed by her neighbors into compromise, with dashes added of boycott threats, warnings of democracy eroding and harsh distorted charges about Apartheid -- even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is national not racial.
But what if the Chicken Little Peace Processors’ approach is counterproductive? Israel took the greatest risks for peace when it felt supported and secure, not attacked and abandoned. Israel withdrew from Sinai after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem in 1977 – during the tenure of President Jimmy Carter, who back then proclaimed “I would rather commit suicide than hurt Israel.” Similarly, the Oslo experiment began in 1993 only after the UN General Assembly repealed its libelous “Zionism-is-racism” resolution and the Madrid Peace Conference brought Arab rejectionists like Syria to the peace table.
Admittedly, farmers cherry pick, historians shouldn’t. The bloody Yom Kippur War preceded Sadat’s peace overture, and the first wave of Palestinian rioting in the territories occurred in 1987. But each of those events occurred five to six years before the breakthrough – and only after the immediate trauma healed.
Moving forward, next time, Kerry or his successor should try easing Israel into its comfort zone. Barack Obama accomplished more by embracing Israel warmly when visiting in 2013 than by cold-shouldering Bibi Netanyahu in Washington. With Israelis, the delicate dove of peace can soar higher in sunny skies than through thunderstorms.
A more honest, less hysterical, conversation could also set a more constructive atmosphere. So let’s acknowledge some politically incorrect truths.
First, Israelis are doing fine. Eighty percent of Israelis surveyed are happy, enjoying meaningful lives strengthened by family ties. This country is neither poor nor fragile. Nor is it a racist theocracy being massively boycotted worldwide. Israel’s multicultural democracy – and free economy -- are both thriving.
Second, Palestinians are not doing so badly either. If I dared say this on a university campus I would get booed, hissed, and snapped at, the latest Politically Correct technique to silence uncomfortable truths. It is awkward to make this argument when Israel restricts some Palestinian rights. But the world is not binary with clear categories of free and unfree. West Bank Palestinians enjoy some quality of life, some economic prosperity and some political rights. The simplistic narrative of Israel oppressing Palestinians ignores Ramallah’s high tech boom, Gaza City’s three-story shopping mall in an Israeli-free Gaza, the new, planned Palestinian city for 40,000 in Rawabi, which is in Area A – an area controlled by, you guessed it, the autocratic Palestinian Authority, which is often part of the problem.
Perhaps -- PC warning, get your fingers into snapping position – Palestinians feel too comfortable to start compromising on their maximalist demands and stop inciting against Israel. The biggest recent improvement in Palestinian political culture came when Palestinians mostly stopped suicide bombing under intense military pressure from Israel and moral pressure from the US.
Third, “the settlements” are neither the obstacle to peace nor a national disaster. The settlements did their job -- SNAP, SNAP. Not only does Israel have legal rights and historic ties to the disputed territories, amid the shifting borders of this region, but Israel’s post-1967 push into the West Bank made most Palestinians fight Israel’s communities there rather than Israel’s very existence. Those Israelis who viewed settlements as bargaining chips and security outposts must decide at what point they become burdens not blessings. But if Israel had withdrawn immediately from the territory it won legitimately in 1967 and not built any settlements, Palestinians’ European enablers would be debating Israel’s existence within the Green Line not just its presence beyond.
Fourth, even though Palestinians are not as oppressed as their propagandists claim, Israel’s long-term control over millions of Palestinians is bad for Palestinians and for Israelis. Both sides need an amicable, safe divorce (now snap with your right hand…)
Absent a comprehensive peace agreement – which is most difficult without a willing Palestinian peace partner -- Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Europeans should focus on maximizing quality of life for as many people as possible, minimizing whatever misery Palestinians currently endure, guaranteeing Israel’s security, and building an infrastructure for peace. Here, Obama’s recent admission that he likes hitting for “singles” not homeruns might be useful.
Palestinians should be invited, encouraged, poked, prodded, bribed, pressured and taught by the international community to become more middle class, more democratic, and more prosperous. Ari Shavit is calling this approach the “New Peace.” The destructive Palestinian anti-normalization boycott, which rejects any cultural, intellectual, or social ties, even among peaceniks, must be denounced for polluting the atmosphere precisely when we need such bonds to improve it.
Meanwhile, democratic Israel, which historically has taken more responsibility for itself, should work on developing creative solutions to the conflict, doing whatever is possible to reduce tensions, while respecting the dignity of every individual under Israeli power. Israelis must also learn to respect Palestinians’ collective rights as fully as we wish Jewish national rights to be respected.
The Oslo peace process foolishly focused on negotiations among elites without changing grassroots attitudes on both sides – and without changing Palestinian political culture, which (SNAP, SNAP) needed much more fixing than Israel’s democratic political culture. Being pro-peace does not require excusing Palestinian perfidy. The Kerry initiative also was too top-down.
Zionists succeeded by building facts on the ground, making history boldly, creatively. Both sides should start improving the atmosphere, planting seeds for peace, and cultivating them carefully – seeking to maximize happiness and minimize misery for as many as possible.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including,Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!