Peace is not a prerequisite to Israel's survival

The claim made by Israeli officials that the survival of the Jewish state depends on peace is untrue as it is dangerous. It belies the past 63 years of Israel’s existence and effectively eliminates Israel’s leverage in negotiations with the Palestinians.

PM Netanyahu with US President Obama at White House 311 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
PM Netanyahu with US President Obama at White House 311
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is undoubtedly agonizing right now over what to say to Congress on Tuesday to mitigate the damage caused by US President Barack Obama’s bombshell last week: the unprecedented demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 lines without getting an end to the conflict in exchange, without such key issues as the refugees or Jerusalem even being addressed. Not even Europe or the Arab League ever went that far.
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I don’t know what Netanyahu should say. But I know one thing that he and other leading Israeli politicians desperately need to stop saying: that Israel’s survival depends on signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. For nothing so badly undermines Israel’s position among all three of the relevant audiences - the Palestinians, the international community and Israelis themselves.
Five years ago, no Israeli leader would have dreamed of asserting that Israel’s survival depends on anything any other nation does or doesn’t do: The whole point of Zionism was to restore control over Jewish fate to the Jews themselves.
But in a 2007 media interview, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert famously declared that “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished.” And in the few short years since then, that astounding claim seems to have become de rigueur for Israeli politicians. Even Netanyahu himself echoed it at the official memorial ceremony for late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin last October, claiming that his own political camp, the center-right, has also now “acknowledged that it’s impossible to survive in the long run without a political settlement.”
Yet even if Israeli leaders believe this, it ought to be obvious that they shouldn’t say it, because it completely eradicates Israel’s leverage in negotiations with the Palestinians. If all the Palestinians have to do to ensure Israel’s eventual demise is to keep saying “no” to every offer of statehood, what conceivable incentive would they ever have to compromise? Why should they settle for the West Bank and Gaza if merely waiting a few decades would give them pre-1967 Israel too?
Such statements are equally devastating to Israel’s effort to obtain international backing for its positions. Ever since the Oslo process began in 1993, Israel has been trying to convince the world that any agreement must accommodate its needs on issues like the refugees, Jerusalem, the settlement blocs and security arrangements. And ostensibly, it holds a very powerful bargaining chip: the threat that there will be no agreement if these needs aren’t met.
Yet if Israel’s very survival depends on the existence of a Palestinian state, then it is in no position to bargain; it will ultimately have to accept an agreement on any terms the Palestinians care to offer. Beggars, after all, can’t be choosers. And if accommodating Israel’s needs isn’t actually necessary to obtain a deal, why should the international community - which has never been sympathetic to Israel’s positions to begin with - support these positions?
Worst of all, however, is the impact such statements have on the Israeli public. After all, most Israelis have long since concluded that no peace deal is achievable in the foreseeable future. Thus if Israel’s future truly depends on such a deal, the country has no future. And if so, why stay here? Why shouldn’t any Israeli who can simply leave? Life in Israel has always entailed many difficulties; the prize that makes them all worth enduring is Jewish sovereignty - the Jewish people’s ability, for the first time in 2,000 years, to determine its own fate. But if that prize is in fact beyond reach, why keep making the effort? 
Indeed, such statements could well become self-fulfilling prophecies. For while I firmly believe that Israel can survive the absence of a peace agreement, just as it has for the first 63 years of its existence, it can’t do so without a massive investment in the necessary tools: sophisticated public diplomacy, a military capable of coping with the inevitable threats, a thriving economy to finance both of the above, and an educational system that prepares its students not only to participate in that economy, but to understand why Jewish sovereignty is worth the effort. Yet if our leaders have convinced themselves that only peace can save Israel, they will never even seek alternative strategies for surviving without peace, much less develop and implement them.
Theodor Herzl famously declared that “if you will it, it is no dream.” But to will anything, you must first be able to conceive of it. And that, ultimately, is the great challenge facing Netanyahu, one that dwarfs the challenge of his speech to Congress: He must reverse five years of disastrous public discourse and persuade Israelis, and the world, that survival without peace is indeed conceivable. And then he must develop strategies to turn that idea into reality.  
The writer is a journalist and commentator.