The hand-wringing pundits are right. Time is running out for the two-state
solution. Israel’s reputation as a democracy is in danger, and its Jewish
character does need to be carefully tended lest we lose it. Yet with any peace
deal highly improbable, one might be excused for quoting the Psalmist, “from
where shall come my deliverance?” From Taglit-Birthright, actually. But we
For starters, let’s remind ourselves of a few simple factors
that make any real progress in these talks exceedingly unlikely: You gotta wanna
dance with somebody (with apologies to Whitney Houston): Our esteemed prime
minister has been reminding us that in this region, “it takes three to
Not a pretty image, but he’s right. For this to work, the
Palestinians have to want it to work.
Yet if they have to be bribed
(think 104 prisoners) just to show up at the table, how badly do they want to be
there? How well does that bode for the hard work ahead?
we excuse the bribing, let’s at least be honest about it. Yet US Secretary of
State John Kerry recently remarked, “Both leaders have demonstrated a
willingness to make difficult decisions.” Really? Did I miss something? The
Americans have twisted Netanyahu’s arm almost to the point of snapping off (if
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon voted “yes,” one shudders to imagine the American
threats), but what “difficult decision” has Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas been pressured to make? If simply showing up to talk is a major
concession because his street is so unalterably opposed, of what possible
utility is any agreement he might sign? Refugees
The Palestinians continue to
insist that any agreement must include a solution to the refugee problem. Yes,
reasonable minds know that Israel would admit a token number and make some sort
of financial compensatory gesture towards others. For all we know, Abbas himself
might also think that that’s reasonable.
But what will happen to him if
he agrees to that? Has the Arab street become increasingly tolerant and
pluralist since the last serious talks were held? World over, has Muslim
moderation waned or flourished in that time? Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat
declined to attend the ceremony at which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
for making peace with prime minister Menachem Begin. He sent his son-in-law in
his place (you can’t make this stuff up). The finesse didn’t work, sadly; he was
killed nonetheless. Abbas, a “historian,” has undoubtedly thought of Sadat many
times in the course of the past few weeks.
And in the cause of honesty,
let’s acknowledge that matters are no simpler on the Israeli side: Judea and
Samaria are not Gush Katif
Israel dodged a bullet in 2005. The approximately
10,000 Israeli citizens who had to be moved out of Gaza behaved with
extraordinary dignity and restraint. In the past eight years, though, they – and
we – have learned that Israel’s international standing actually plummeted after
the disengagement, as Sderot and others towns have been subjected to years of
shelling to which Israel had no effective response. Many former Gush Katif
residents still do not have permanent housing.
Whether the deal is Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 86 percent or prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 97%,
roughly 120,000 Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would have to be moved
(Abbas wants no Jews in his country).
But would these people leave
peacefully as did the residents of Gush Katif? Talk to them, and they’ll tell
you. Many will, but some will not. Will Israelis at large have the heart to use
force? I doubt it. For when the debate unfolds, Israelis will be reminded that
these people – whatever one thinks about “settlements” – went to those places
out of the very same Zionist impulses that founded Petah Tikva and Karmiel. Do
Israelis have it in them to use force to destroy thousands of homes built by
non-radical, thoroughly decent, religious and secular Israelis who went to Judea
and Samaria for the same reasons their parents and grandparents established
kibbutzim and moshavim – all for a deal with the Palestinians whom no one
trusts? It’s hard for me to imagine.The Zionist impulse still matters
was recently at a meeting with the legal expert and political activist Talia
Sasson (of the famous Sasson Report – just Google it).
When asked whether
there was “anything at all that is good about the settlements,” she responded,
“No, nothing. Zero. Less than zero.”
Really? If decent, extraordinarily
articulate, committed Zionists like Sasson, who want out of Judea and Samaria
because they are deeply concerned about our rule of law and democracy (concerns
that I share) can see nothing good about the impulses of the people who have
built some extraordinary (and legal) communities out in those hills, what form
of Zionist ethos worthy of the name will be left after we pull out? Would we, in
seeking to save our state, destroy the very impulse and passion that have always
fueled its greatness? Here, then, is our conundrum: We do need a deal, for time
is running out, but there’s almost certainly no decent deal to be had. So, back
to the Psalmist, “from where will come our deliverance?” For me, it comes from
Taglit-Birthright – not because of its impact on a generation of Jews worldwide,
but because of what it does for us.
Every now and then, a student on
Birthright extends their trip for a few days and stays at our home. Typically
raised in rather tepid Jewish homes, these kids are suddenly on fire, in love
with Israel, moved by Jewish issues as never before.
So I talk with them,
perhaps too much, trying to get to the bottom of what moved them so.
surprisingly, it’s the story of this place, the stories we all know but seldom
speak of anymore: A people exiled from its homeland for 2,000 years, a people
that kept a dream alive, that clawed its way back into its homeland through all
sorts of extraordinary means, that breathed new life into an ancient, mostly
moribund language, that restored immediacy to Jewish memory, that created Jewish
communities of urgent purpose, fashioning a Judaism of activism and Jewish lives
with responsibility for our own destiny.
Most know very little history,
so they don’t appreciate how improbable was Theodor Herzl’s success, Israeli
economic stability after the early 1950s, our democracy after the vicious and
violent reparations debates or our very survival when UN secretary-general U
Thant pulled out his peacekeepers in 1967.
What they intuit, though, is
that Israel is a country where what does happen is not necessarily what reason
suggests will happen.
Even these young students sense that there is
something inexplicable about how we’re here. That’s what’s lit their fire, and
it ought to reassure us, too. That is no excuse not to be smart, strategic or
profoundly moral. But it is a reason to continue to believe that even when a
deal is both absolutely necessary and totally impossible, despair is not an
Belief in something greater than ourselves has brought us this
far. By all logic, we’re at a dead end with no good options, but we must reject
that calculus. As Begin said when US president Jimmy Carter viciously pressed
him for concessions, “Our people lived thousands of years before Camp David, and
will live thousands of years after Camp David... If we are told that this is the
last chance to arrive at peace, we shall not agree: There are no ‘last chances’
in life. ” Let us be smart. Let us be strategic, and moral.
But let us
also believe that we’re here for a reason, and that we always will be.
writer is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s
Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His most recent book,
Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest
Strength, was named by Jewish Ideas Daily as one of the best Jewish books of
2012. His new book,
Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, will be
published by Nextbook in 2014.