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The outstretched hand of peace had once been the constant policy directive of all Israeli governments. Prime ministers always emphasized that Israel is seeking peace with all of its neighbors and is willing to talk to any of them, at anytime and in any place. This was the easy position to take when we knew that there was refusal on the other side. It was easy to present ourselves as the good guys who are seeking peace, while our neighbors were the ones saying "no." We didn't have to make preconditions and we didn't have to set any terms. Israel declared its willingness to talk peace when the "danger" of making peace was far beyond the horizon. But things have changed.
Today Israel has a whole list of preconditions for its neighbors before agreeing to come to the table. The Syrians must close the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they must seal their border with Iraq and they must prevent the shipment of weapons to Hizbullah. Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce terror and agree to adhere to agreements already signed. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas must show his ability to govern by confronting Hamas and he must begin to implement the road map dealing with security issues; otherwise he is not a partner.
These preconditions do nothing but close to door to dialogue and paint a picture of an Israel that is not really interested in peace - that is how Israel is perceived in most of the world today. It is a strange situation in which the Arab world is perceived as the side that is pursuing peace, while Israel is perceived as avoiding peace. Even the Arab League initiated a debate in the UN Security Council on its peace plan, while Israel, together with the US, attempted to prevent that debate. Even Israeli newspapers have written about the Arab League peace offensive. Where is the Israeli peace offensive?
Israel's behavior both during the war in Lebanon and afterward is perceived by the outside world as an overreliance on the use of force and an underreliance on the use of diplomacy. Israel's continued settlement expansion policy, which is rejected by the entire international community, is not only in contravention to the road map, it is perceived by the international community as a message that Israel will never leave the occupied territories.
OTHER POLICIES such as the continued closure of Palestinian territories and borders, the withholding of custom and VAT clearances - money which belongs to the Palestinian people - also contribute to the image of Israel as the regional bully, not only lacking any human compassion, but also lacking any political wisdom.
The international community has no sympathy for Hamas, but even the sad reality unfolding daily in Ramallah and Gaza is, at least in part, viewed by the world as the result of Israel's constant rejection of real peace with the Palestinians.
Experts have been saying that for at least the past year Syrian President Bashar Assad has been virtually pleading with Israel to return the Golan Heights via negotiations. While Assad has also threatened us with the option of war if we do not respond to the offers of peace, we should remember that Anwar Sadat did the very same thing in 1972 regarding Sinai. Had we responded positively to him then, the Yom Kippur War might have been avoided, together with its more than 2,400 Israeli casualties.
IT SEEMS that Israel is reluctant or unwilling to respond, perhaps because the fear of peace is greater than the fear of war. It is true that peace has been disappointing for Israel. The peace with Egypt has never been warm. We know that Israeli tourists are not very welcome and perhaps not very safe, neither in Cairo nor in Amman. Even during the "good years" of the peace process with the Palestinians, most Israelis were afraid to enter the Palestinian territories. But a cold peace is better than even a cold war, and Israel's strategic position globally, and its security situation at home and abroad, would be much more secure at peace with its neighbors than in constant conflict with them.
Peace may not be possible in the immediate future, neither with the Palestinians nor with Syria. Some Palestinian leaders have recently joined the calls to wipe Israel off the map; others speak of never making peace with Israel. Those statements are rejected by most of the international community. Israel should not respond in kind. Israel should constantly declare its readiness to accept, in principle, any initiative that will end the Israeli-Arab conflicts and that also ensure Israel's security.
The only precondition for talking should be the readiness of the other side to sit at the table without shooting, everything else is negotiable. Preconditionality, it should be understood, is also reciprocal. If Israel demands recognition, than it must grant recognition. Even senior Hamas leaders have said that they would be willing to recognize Israel, but first Israel must say which Israel they should recognize - in what borders - and that Israel too must recognize Palestine.
If Israel is demanding a renunciation of violence and an end to aggression as a precondition, then it too must act accordingly. Many people in the international community view targeted killings as state terrorism. The killing of civilians with bombs and rockets from IAF planes and helicopters is viewed no differently in many parts of the world than buses blowing up on Israeli streets. The end result is the same even if the motives may have been different.
It is in Israel's interest to pursue peace with sincerity and as a primary political and strategic directive. The pursuit of peace must be translated into policies that send clear messages to our neighbors and to the world. Those policies have the power to change the course of our lives, away from conflict and insecurity, in the direction of peace, regional cooperation and much more security.
The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.