A time for change

If Israel follows the course it is on, sooner or later it will lose its hold on the conscience of the West

Israel from space 4 (photo credit: NASA/BARRY WILMORE)
Israel from space 4
(photo credit: NASA/BARRY WILMORE)
Israel is approaching a decisive turning point in its history. No one knows when this will occur, but if Israel follows the course it is on, sooner or later it will lose its hold on the conscience of the West – a hold it owes to the devastation of the Holocaust and its survival as an island of liberal democracy in the midst of an ocean of autocracy and instability.
Israel has achieved the Zionist dream of an independent, free and pluralistic Jewish state. It enjoys unprecedented security and prosperity. It is time for Israel to acknowledge its historic achievement by taking concrete steps to advance the peace process – not provocative unilateral ones, but bold negotiated measures that seek to end the conflict with the Palestinians and that recognize their legitimate national aspirations. But Israel is showing no sign of doing this, without which Israel is putting in jeopardy its support in the West.
I write this as a lifelong supporter of Zionism and a longtime leader of American and Israeli institutions, serving in 1991-1994 as president of the American Jewish Committee and now as chair of Geneva-based UN Watch and co-chair of the Board of Governors of Beit Hatfutsot, Israel’s center for world Jewry. As someone whose adult life has spanned all of Israel’s existence as a sovereign state, this is a position that I never expected to take.
At the time the State of Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine) numbered barely 700,000. The outlook was grim, and among my Jewish high school friends in Baltimore, the mantra was, “If your hair is wavy, join the Jewish Navy; fight, fight, fight for Palestine.”
Immediately after that declaration, the Jewish state was invaded by six Arab countries. Three of the invading armies had been trained by the British; one was headed by a British lieutenant-general.
Today Israel has peace treaties with its two most important neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. Syria and Iraq, longtime foes, are in shambles. The other Arab countries in the region are vastly more concerned with Sunni extremism and Iranian subversion than they are about Israel.
For the first time in its history, Israel faces no immediate existential threats.
Its military is far superior to that of any other country in the region, and indeed, to all the Arab countries combined, thanks in large part to American support in the form of advanced aircraft, missile defense systems and real-time intelligence sharing.
In 1948 the population of pre-partition Mandatory Palestine was onethird Jewish and two-thirds Arab. In its early years, Israel’s economy was weak and exports were mainly citrus and flowers. Today, Israel’s citizenry is 80 percent Jewish. Per capita income is in the top tier of countries in the world; its hi-tech exports are everywhere.
More than 60 Israeli companies are now listed on NASDAQ, more than all European companies combined.
And with the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, it will soon have energy to export. Once an inward-looking, self-absorbed state struggling to integrate large numbers of Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands, Israel today is a global player.
Importantly, too, Israel is the only functioning democracy in the region and operates under the rule of law.
Political dissent is largely confined to the ballot box, not expressed in the street violence we see from the central squares of Arab countries.
Until now, Israel has found a shield in its alliance with the United States.
To potential adversaries of the Jewish state, the United States has said “hands off.” The Palestinian Authority’s pursuit of its “Independent Palestine” agenda at the United Nations has been blocked by Washington.
Under these positive circumstances, one should ask, “Will Israel’s economic and military strength together with its political stability provide the confidence for an Israeli peace initiative?” Many of us would want the answer to be yes, but in Israel, old thought patterns persist. Memories of historic tragedies linger, and the policies of a different era live on and, for some, have become sacred precepts.
Like me, many of Israel’s friends who have shared the Zionist dream are urging Israel to take bold steps to seek an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. There are more than 1.5 million Arabs on the West Bank. They are not leaving.
Is a secure, prosperous democratic Israel sustainable if its leaders continue to wait for a positive sign from the Palestinians, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently urged, before taking concrete steps to advance the peace process? By waiting for the Palestinians, Israel loses the moral high ground that comes from taking the initiative, and, in time, may lose control of the outcome.
The issues that divide Israel and the PA are largely political and amenable to compromise. With the exception of security, none of the issues is existential for Israel – not borders (within generally accepted confines), not the prospect of a limited number of Arab refugees returning to pre-partition Mandatory Palestine, nor the presence of a Palestinian capital in the greater Jerusalem area. It comes down to a question of political will on both sides. If the long-time leaders in Israel and the PA are not able to muster the political courage needed to advance the peace process, it is time for new leadership.
The writer is a former US ambassador and special presidential envoy. He divides his time between Washington and Israel.