Permission to believe

Perhaps Israel can be the author of its own reality, and believe in the glass-half-full possibility of peace.

Palestinian flag at Knesset (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Palestinian flag at Knesset
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
As US Secretary of State John Kerry's new peace push begins, it is said by some that peace in the Middle East is a pipe dream and “there is no partner for peace.” It is claimed that: Abbas denied the Holocaust in his PhD thesis and will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state; that Arab culture is incompatible with democracy; that the Arab peoples never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity; that Israel has given “everything” for peace only to receive rockets and suicide bombings.
All of these claims contain some measure of truth, or they wouldn’t ring true to so many people. The Palestinians have missed many opportunities. Israel has received far too many rockets and suicide attacks, and it has made numerous offers in bids to end the conflict.
And when Israelis and their supporters look at the economic and military wunderkind, not to mention robust democracy, that the Jewish people has created in just a few short decades, and look around them only to see a violent and often savage region, they rightly wonder how on Earth it is possible to reconcile the two. How can Israel make compromises based on the promises of autocrats of questionable legitimacy among their own people, people whose civil society and institutions are fragile at best and whose media spew hatred for the Jewish state?
Complicating matters is that Israelis possess the unusual habit of venerating, out of all proportion, the status quo on a range of political issues. In other parts of the world, the status quo is made to conform to changes in the law; in Israel, the law frequently is written around the hallowed status quo. We are watching this unfold right now with the drafting of haredi yeshiva students – witness the waivers, delays and compromises in the haredi draft that even Finance Minister Yair Lapid, with all his bluster, seems helpless to prevent.
But just like the impossible status quo of a society groaning under the weight of hundreds of thousands of self-impoverished ultra-Orthodox families who share neither the burdens nor the benefits of army service cannot continue, so too is it an impossibility to forever maintain the status quo on the West Bank.
This status quo is attractive to Israel primarily because it allows the IDF to remain in the West Bank and maintain direct security control over the area. Plus, it’s difficult to stop the momentum of a politically powerful settler movement from continuing to build, let alone talk of evacuating thousands of Israelis from their homes. Meanwhile, Israelis and Jews get to feel as if Israel owns the territory that was the cradle of the Jewish people. Not a bad deal.
The price, of course, is that democratic Israel militarily occupies land that is also home to millions of Palestinians. This land has been under martial law since 1967, which has led not only to an undeniable erosion of Israel’s global legitimacy and the routine injustices that occur under any military occupation, but also to explosive violence and terrorism, which has included an intifada more bloody than the previous one and thousands of rockets on Israeli cities.
This is not to say that all violence and terrorism result exclusively from the occupation, only that it is disingenuous to argue that none of it does. Nevertheless, there are those who make precisely this claim – that its neighbors hate Israel and there is nothing that can be done about it, so the status quo should be maintained.
This is a tempting argument, because it requires Israel to do nothing more nor less than it does now, and the results are basically known to everyone. That is until you recall today’s fever pitch levels of international isolation and the sporadic surges in violence that are part of the status quo’s cold calculus.
Nobody disagrees that Israel resides in a dangerous neighborhood, that it has many enemies, that the demon of fundamentalist religion has infested the Palestinian polity and other Arab regimes in the region.
But there are other truths too, that help point a different way forward. The cold peace with Egypt has been the bedrock of stability in the region for decades, even through the recent turmoil of Egypt’s Arab Winter under the Muslim Brotherhood. While a warm peace is preferable, a cold peace can be enormously beneficial, too.
And it would be ill-advised to imagine that Israel’s neighbors are endemically undemocratic – or worse. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were once regarded as such, and as irredeemably barbarous countries at that. Fundamentalism was not in short supply in the Axis, either. The Marshall Plan and the occupation of Japan helped turn both countries into the democratic powerhouses they are today, and more importantly helped create an enduring peace.
The tribalism of the Middle East does represent a profound difference from those countries, and perhaps democracy is a long way off in this region; but if democracy may be but a distant hope, peace seems somewhat closer by comparison. The Arab Peace Initiative has gone without an Israeli response for over a decade now, so it is often forgotten that there is an extant framework for a regional peace. And the Wikileaks scandal taught us that the Arab regimes are far more terrified of Iran than they are of any peace with Israel (and thus, my enemy’s enemy…) Lastly, the Arab Spring, despite being almost inevitably disappointing, changed the face of the region in ways that nobody could have predicted just a few years ago.
Israel has everything to gain by seriously negotiating with the Palestinians. My own view is that the negotiations ought to be multilateral with a view to a regional accord, but either way, Israeli hasbara has always had it that Israel consistently “extends its hand in peace.” That has often been true, and it must continue to be Israel’s posture.
Let’s put it this way: what chance is there that the Palestinians will agree to a reasonable settlement that puts two states west of the Jordan River? Fifty-fifty? Four to one? One per cent? Can anyone honestly say that they know, with certainty, that there is simply no chance, zero, that an agreement can be reached?
It simply does not hurt Israel to negotiate in good faith to end the untenable status quo. At best, Israel gets peace; at worst, it may soften the hearts of those on the other side who will see an Israel genuinely interested in making peace.
The glass may be half empty. Perhaps the cards are stacked against Israel and nothing can be done about it but to build settlements in outlying areas of the West Bank, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
Or perhaps Israel can be the author of its own reality, and believe in the glass-half-full possibility of peace. Could peace really be any more audacious than the Zionist idea itself? Dare we remember the immortal words of the architect of Zionism, who told us that if we will it, it is no dream?
And if we deny ourselves permission to believe, what is the alternative?
Gabriel Sassoon is the Foreign Media Adviser to Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Hilik Bar, and former English Campaign Coordinator for the Israeli Labor Party.