Israel's conscience

Ha''aretz has long had a reputation as Israel''s most distinguished newspaper, read by the economic, political, and intellectual elites. It''s language and the lack of a sensationalist front page are among the factors that make it the secular Hebrew language daily with the smallest circulation. It is also the most left of center of the major papers, which says something about the capacity of the country''s elites to read and vote on different planes.
It is easy to imagine the paper''s editors thinking of themselves as the conscience of the country. They frequently print long and detailed articles by Amira Hass, which typically portray the misery of Palestinians having to deal with Israeli checkpoints, military incursions, and insults by Jewish soldiers and civilians. Ms Hass used to reside in Gaza, but since that became too dicey even for her she moved to Ramallah.
Gideon Levy is a prominent contributor to the Op-Ed page, often writing about the clumsiness of the IDF, and the damage it does to Israel''s image and existence.
On February 24th, the editors covered the top half of page one of their Friday edition (the most prominent spot in the week) with an article by David Grossman that told about the death due to police malfeasance or brutality of a Palestinian who had entered Israel illegally.
My university colleague and friend, Zeev Sternhell, is also a frequent contributor to the Op-Ed page. One of his articles carried the headlines, "The extreme right turned Israel into an anachronism . . . Unlike Europe, where the right has significantly grown but is still not in power, in this country the racists, the extreme and clerical right is the government, with only a vacuum opposing it."
We maintain our subscription to Ha''aretz, but some of our friends have decided that it has become less a newspaper than a political mouthpiece for those unable to obtain power.
This week, Akiva Eldar, a member of the newspaper''s editorial staff, contributed the lead article of an Op-Ed page to mark the 10th anniversary of three events: the Passover terror attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, the Arab Peace Initiative, and IDF''s Operation Defense Shield, a major incursion into the West Bank undertaken in response to the Passover attack
According to Eldar, "The result of these three connected events was the worst missed opportunity ever for the State of Israel, and a glorious victory for the enemies of the Zionist enterprise."
Eldar wrote that all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Iran, gave their blessing to the initiative that offered normalized relations with all of them if Israel withdrew from the territories taken in 1967, and made a just and agreed-upon solution of the refugee problem on the basis of UN Resolution 194.
According to Eldar, "The words "agreed-upon" in essence gave Israel the right to limit the number of refugees it would allow to be repatriated. Senior Arab spokespeople reiterated frequently that the initiative was only a framework for negotiations over borders, security arrangements and other core issues."
Eldar relates that Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Benyamin Netanyahu decided the Muslim initiative was not worth pursuing.
Eldar concludes
"Although the Middle East is different now than it was 10 years ago, there are signs that the Arab Peace Initiative is refusing to disappear. Three months ago, the secretary of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Prof. Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, told an audience in Doha that the initiative was and remains the only framework for peace with Israel.
But it won''t wait forever. Ignoring this opportunity will cause us endless trouble."
Is Eldar a better guide to Israel''s future than the politicians he criticizes?
A response depends on assessment and trust.
Would the Palestinians and their Islamic backers truly accept something other than the 1967 lines as a final settlement, and would they accept a reasonable limitation on the number of refugees to be accepted into Israel?
The mention of UN Resolution 194 in the Peace Initiative does not encourage a view of flexibility. The Resolution is non-binding, and has been rejected by Israel, but is often cited by Palestinians as the justification for their demand that refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to what had been their homes.
As indicated in a previous note, there are now 722,000 Israeli Jews living on the other side of the 1967 lines, and the most recent activities of the Palestinians have been to forego negotiations in favor of seeking their full demands from various organs of the United Nations.
Perhaps some of Israel''s elected officials making the crucial decisions have been sandbagging the Palestinians in the hope that eventually all--or almost all--existing settlements will remain in place and be allowed to grow.
However, the greater problem standing in the way of accommodation may be the variety of factions under the Palestinian tent, and the capacity of extremists to reject any notion of Israel''s legitimacy, or any compromise on borders and refugees that moderate Palestinians might be inclined to accept.
Eldar himself describes the intention of extremists to foil a peace initiative that was on its way to being formulated in early 2002. That is his explanation for the Passover terror attack, and the IDF operation that pushed the Peace Initiative to the back pages of Israeli newspapers.
Ha''aretz may be part of our conscience, but we live in a situation where optimal possibilities cannot by themselves shape our thinking and actions.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725