Restoring Israel’s image as a peacemaker

What is needed is a policy initiative that would make it clear that Israel remains ready to negotiate in good faith and make concessions as long as two basic elements are realized: 1) Israeli security arrangements, and 2) the end of the conflict and demands.

sharon olmert bibi 298AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolmiski)
sharon olmert bibi 298AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolmiski)
In the world of ideas, the single strongest thing that Israel has had going for it over the decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict is its image as the party that wants peace.
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Over the years, that image has taken periodic hits, sometimes because of things Israel did, sometimes because of things the Palestinians did. However, there has remained a strong understanding, at least in some parts of the world, that Israel is the party of peace.
That paradigm seems to be undergoing a change – one that could have more lasting effects if not taken seriously and dealt with effectively.In my view, this change in perception is not based on reality, but its very transcendence could have a dramatic impact on Israel’s strategic interests. In other words, Israel is in the right, but being in the right is not sufficient in the current international environment.
The growing feeling that it is the Palestinians – not the Israelis – who seek peace and the end of the struggle is simply wrong.
ISRAEL HAS been consistent under different governments in its willingness to negotiate in good faith and make concessions for peace. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has not only said these words repeatedly, he has acted, as reflected in his decision to halt settlement expansion. More recently, in a Knesset address before his trip to the United States, Netanyahu focused on settlement bloc retention and a military presence on the Jordan River – indicating that he, like his predecessors, is not going to insist on sovereignty beyond the blocs as long as security is obtainable.
Meanwhile, look at what has happened on the Palestinian side: a refusal to negotiate, making one excuse after another; an agreement with the terrorist group Hamas; a unilateral drive to get the UN to declare a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines; an international campaign to delegitimize Israel. This hardly sounds like peacemaking to me. And most significantly, there is the continued insistence on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.
Yet too many in the world, even some in the US, blame Israel for its alleged refusal to move to peace, and for its continued “occupation” of Palestinian land.
What should Israel do about it? It could say, we are in the right (which it is), so we just have to do a better job of explaining ourselves. Or it could ask itself what it could do from a policy perspective that would have an impact on the thinking about the conflict, without jeopardizing its fundamental interests.
Skeptics will say Israel has made peace offers before, including (just in the past decade) at Camp David, in the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, and during the Annapolis process; yet the Jewish state is still blamed for the failure to bring peace.
There is, of course, some truth to this – but only some. In each case, when Israel took specific policy steps toward peace, there was a significant positive impact on opinion in governments around the world, though unfortunately only for a while.
What is needed is a policy initiative that would be clearly supported by a consensus in Israel – an initiative that would make it clear that, as in the past, Israel remains ready to negotiate in good faith and make concessions as long as two basic elements are realized: 1) Israeli security arrangements, and 2) the end of the conflict and demands.
THE GUIDING star for such an initiative, one that would achieve the above-stated goals, is staring Israel in the face: the April 2004 letter from president George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon.
The focus in recent months has been on trying to get the Obama administration to reconfirm the Bush letter. That is a worthy goal.
However, Israel should consider using that letter, or its contents, more proactively. A presentation by the prime minister reiterating its two explicit themes would also allow him to make clearer than ever what was implicit in that letter.
The explicit themes were the recognition of Israel’s right to hold on to the settlement blocs, recognizing a changed reality on the ground since 1967; and the need for the Palestinians to drop their demand for the “right of return,” since only by their doing so can Israel believe they intend to end the conflict.
In this context, Israel can say explicitly what was implied in the Bush letter: that it will be ready to give up the rest of the West Bank for a Palestinian state as long as proper security arrangements are agreed to, and it will be ready to consider a trade-off of land in Israel proper to compensate for holding the settlement blocs.
This kind of a package will not solve everything. The future of Jerusalem, for one, will remain a challenge. But it is a fair step that speaks to Israel’s central concerns while making it crystal clear that Israel is the peacemaker.
Yes, Israel is in the right. Now is the time for it to be smart as well.
The writer is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of, most recently, Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.