(Excised and adapted from a lecture given in London this week marking the 10th anniversary of the death of the former British chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits.)
I should note at the outset that I had certain loose connections to Lord Jakobovits. One of those was that, working as The Jerusalem Post's correspondent in London from 1986 to 1989, I covered the sayings and doings of the then-chief rabbi, met with him from time to time and, ahead of this talk, dug out of our archive at the Post in Jerusalem a long interview I conducted with him in March 1988.
Remember, March 1988 puts us in the early months of the first intifada, before Yasser Arafat had purported to be ready to recognize Israel and long before Yitzhak Rabin had endorsed what became the Oslo process.
My first quote actually comes from Jakobovits's maiden speech in the House of Lords, which he'd given earlier that same month: "What started as a conflict of two rights," he said, "between two people claiming the same land, has now become a conflict between two wrongs, with Israel still being denied the right to exist under the threat of war and terror, and with Palestinians still widely denied their national aspirations."
The chief rabbi stressed in our interview that it was "outside my sphere of competence" to offer recommendations for a precise solution, but speaking as a rabbi, he said, he did not believe that Jewish religious teachings prevent a territorial compromise. "The right wing thrust today, to the point of extremism, is very largely religiously inspired, for very genuine reasons which I respect," he said. "They say that religiously once we occupy the whole biblical land of Israel, we are not permitted to give it up under any circumstances. I cannot go along with this. I believe that for the sake of peace, for the sake of security, for the sake of saving Jewish lives as well as other lives, territorial concessions can be made. Life is worth more than land."
In the same interview, Jakobovits went on to state that "if we keep a million and a half Arabs under Jewish sovereignty" - he was talking about the then 1.5 million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza; today the number has more than doubled - then "the whole state will lose its Jewish character. The demographic developments today are such that in 10 or 15 years time, they'll be a majority. So what have we gained?"
Finally, Jakobovits went on to express concerns about how ruling over the Palestinians was brutalizing for Israel - he spoke of our losing our Jewishness, "the moral distinction that has marked us out through the ages."
"Get out," he said, at one point in our conversation, presumably referring to much of the territory we had captured from Jordan and Egypt in 1967. "It cannot be done."
I've quoted at length from that 21-and-a-half-year-old conversation because it prefigured so much that has unfolded since. Soon after that, the Palestinian leadership did profess a desire for compromise, and the Israeli public quickly elected a prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to try and negotiate an accommodation. We had the Oslo accords, which were fatally derailed by Arafat's duplicity, his fostering of terrorism. We had the Rabin assassination. We had another attempt at peacemaking with Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, again derailed by Arafat's refusal to legitimize our sovereign Jewish state and make peace with it. We had the second intifada - terrorism as a strategic weapon.
And most recently we had Ehud Olmert's bid at peacemaking - truly a pursuit of Jakobovits's plea to "Get out," which was rejected not by Arafat this time, but by his successor Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert offered all of the West Bank with some land swaps to keep major settlements. He offered to divide Jerusalem. He offered to address the Palestinian refugee issue. And Abbas, supposedly moderate Abbas, said no.
AT THE time that Jakobovits was speaking to me in 1988, it's fair to say that there was no consensus in Israel for Palestinian statehood. If there was to be a Palestinian state, ran much of the thinking, it should be in Jordan - much of whose populace was of Palestinian origin. Jakobovits anticipated the shift to the reality now, of an Israeli Jewish consensus in favor of Palestinian independence. Our problem now is that we plainly seek Palestinian sovereignty alongside the Jewish state of Israel more fervently than many of the Palestinians do.
When Israelis went to the polls earlier this year, they did so seeking an accord with the Palestinians, and doubting, in the light of Olmert's failure to make a deal, that we had a partner on the other side.
We elected the right-wing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. But our right-wing prime minister himself now speaks almost daily not about a reluctant support for Palestinian independence, but about his vision for a Palestine alongside Israel.
His only two caveats are consensual, existential caveats for Israel: That Palestine be demilitarized - in other words that it not be able to pose a military threat to Israel's security. And that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state - which is not a rhetorical request, but a practical demand that requires the Palestinians not to seek an accord under which they would flood Israel with millions of refugees and their descendants, thereby turning Jewish Israel into a second Palestine. Rather, the Palestinians should absorb their refugees in their state, just as Israel has absorbed its Jewish refugees, from Europe, the Middle East, north Africa and beyond, into our thriving Jewish homeland.
I say that Jakobovits prefigured the debate within Israel because the fact is that the Jewish Israeli consensus today sees viable separation from the Palestinians as an imperative - as the only means to maintain Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
We want control of as much of the biblical land of Israel as possible. We want to maintain a state in which the Jews are the overwhelming majority, in which we can shape our own destiny as much as any sovereign state can. And we want to maintain our gutsy democracy in a sea of hostile dictatorships. But there just aren't enough Jews between the river and the sea to facilitate all three of those ambitions. If two million or more Jews from North America - the last great Diaspora reservoir - were moving our way, then perhaps we Israelis would think differently.
The mainstream Israeli insistence on maintaining a Jewish and a democratic Israel requires separation from at least some of the Palestinians. That was the predominant imperative that led Ariel Sharon to leave Gaza - the attempt to shake off responsibility for 1.3 million Palestinians there. That, along with a genuine willingness to partner the Palestinians to statehood, a desire to alleviate the strains of ongoing West Bank rule and a recognition of the need to improve Israel's international standing, was the imperative that led Olmert to offer Abbas almost all, if not all, of the disputed territory in Judea and Samaria. That is the imperative that now sees Netanyahu extolling a vision of Palestinian statehood.
OUR PROBLEM is that for all that willingness to seek a viable accommodation, that same overwhelming Israeli mainstream does not see a Palestinian leadership walking along the path of compromise to meet us.
"Obviously," Jakobovits told me in 1988, "they too" - the Palestinians - "will have to make their concessions." But mainstream Israel today does not see evidence that the Palestinians have yet internalized that we Jews have sovereign rights in Palestine too - that, too bad, we are fated to live together, that compromise will be necessary.
Arafat told his people there was no Jewish temple, that, by extension, there was no Jewish historic root to this land. And we've not heard Abbas insistently telling his own people, in Arabic, the opposite. So much so that if Abbas stood up in Ramallah tomorrow and told his people delightedly that he'd cut a peace deal with Israel, they'd ask him: Why? Why have you compromised any of our demands to the Jews, when they have no legitimate claims here?
So while the security barrier has helped bring relative calm to today's Israel, there's acute concern about even the near future. Concern over the threat posed by Iran, and by its increasingly well-armed proxies to north and south, Hamas and Hizbullah. And concern over the prospects for the accommodation we seek with the Palestinian Authority.
We have a prime minister who says he wants to make peace but won't offer what Ehud Olmert offered for a deal. And we grapple with a Palestinian leadership which turned Olmert down - turned down a deal essentially offering everything Israel can offer, if not more than Israel should offer. A Palestinian leadership which knows it has overwhelming international support banked safely away for all the land beyond the pre-1967 lines, give or take a land swap or two. A Palestinian leadership that believes time, demographics, regional military shifts and international attitudes are all working in its favor.
"Get out," pleaded Lord Jakobovits in 1988, urging territorial compromise in the biblical land of Israel for the sake of the Palestinians, for the sake of our Jewish morality, to secure a Jewish, democratic Israel... and to save Jewish and other lives.
After the evacuation of every last Jew from Gaza, after successive prime ministers' efforts to achieve an accord at the price of further wrenching, far-reaching withdrawals, and with Netanyahu now approving a moratorium on new building in Judea and Samaria merely to try to get Abbas back to the peace table, most Israelis might answer him now by saying, "We've been trying."