Center Field: Pro-settlements, pro-peace and pro-Arabs in gov’t

Who loves peace more? Someone who throws back the land saying, “here, take it, we stole it from you anyway” or someone who says, “yes, this land is ours."

Construction near Efrat in the West Bank (photo credit: REUTERS)
Construction near Efrat in the West Bank
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We know the script we’re supposed to follow in this age of polarized politics: choose all or nothing, Right or Left. The first packaged deal: Applaud US President Donald Trump, cheer Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recognition of Israel’s settlements as legal,
denounce any compromise with Palestinians and mock those who suggest Blue and White form a government with Arabs. We’re going to hear Trump-worshipers saying, “you see, I told you he’s a great president – he’s Israel’s best friend ever.”
Or the second packaged deal: Denounce Trump, mock Pompeo’s statement, mourn this new assault against peace and plead for Arab participation in the next Israeli government. We’re also going to hear Trump-bashers saying, “you see, I told you he’s the worst president – and he’s anti-peace too.”
Instead, I’m putting my feelings about Trump aside, and declaring: Yes the settlements are legal, yet I still seek a compromise with Palestinians and hope Benny Gantz and Blue and White welcome some of the Joint List into a post-Netanyahu, incitement-ending, stalemate-breaking government.
Here’s my logic. First, the Trump question is irrelevant. No president is all right or all wrong on every policy question. I can condemn many Trump actions while thanking him for this one. Whether Trump quid-pro-quoed with Ukraine in 2019 has nothing to do with the Jewish people’s 3,500-year-old ties to their homeland. Distinguish the policy from the policy-maker.
So, too, distinguish Jewish rights to establish settlements from the rightness of Israel’s settlement policy. This week, Jews read “Chayei Sarah,” the Torah portion beginning with Genesis 23. Last year, I addressed a mostly anti-Bibi, pro-two-state audience about this Torah portion, which describes Abraham buying Sarah’s burial plot, the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron.
It was at an elegant Friday night dinner with white linens. I asked, “Which napkin do I love more?” Sneering “who needs this, I stole it from you. Here,” I threw a napkin at the closest diner. Stroking a second napkin, I purred: “I love this napkin – it came from my parents and my parents’ parents and my parents’ parents’ parents. But here, let’s share.”
Then I asked: Who loves peace more? Someone who throws back the land saying, “here, take it, we stole it from you anyway” or someone who says, “yes, this land is ours, we have ancient bonds, we never relinquished our claim, and we won it fairly in a justified war of self-defense in 1967. Nevertheless, I’ll share some of that land with our neighbors if they’ll treat me peacefully – because my love of peace trumps my love of this land, although I’ll never relinquish my rights or my historic love for that land”?
So, yes, I love the land enough to assert our historic and legal rights there. I thank Trump and Pompeo for affirming the obvious.
And yes, I wish a less toxic president had told this truth – but that doesn’t change the truth.
Finally, to preempt counter-arguments – the dithering of various Israeli governments over whether the land was liberated or occupied is as irrelevant as UN resolutions and past State Department announcements – all of which were more political than legal (as is Pompeo’s statement).
NEVERTHELESS, as a believer in liberal democracy, I still count heads – because people count more than land. History has happened since biblical times. When I count so many Palestinians living in this land, I consider our options. We could share power with them – but that violates common sense; it never works in the Arab world. We could impose a Jewish state on them without giving them any rights – but that violates my Jewish and democratic values. Or we could seek some compromise, trying to create two viable democratic entities – even if they are not contiguous – in this small space; maximizing both peoples’ national aspirations and safety, while minimizing the disruption to as many people as possible.
Although my historical accounting starts 3,500 years ago, my demographic and democratic accounting emphasizes 2019. Using today’s status quo as a baseline, let’s compromise based on what is and what can be rather than what was, because everyone picks their favorite historical moment that justifies their maximum demands. Instead, learn the real historical lesson: populations moved, borders shifted, and nothing is unchangeable.
My craving for compromise explains why I want Arabs in the next government. If we can improve relations with the overwhelmingly pragmatic Israeli-Arabs, maybe that can start a process that ends in real peace. The despicable Arab-bashing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unleashed should be repudiated, with a big loss.
What better message could democratic Israel send than tapping into Israeli Arabs’ democratic power to reject Bibi’s undemocratic demagoguery? Anyone who objects to having non-Zionists in government should remember how ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists were happily welcomed for decades.
Unfortunately, Israeli-Arab Knesset members are often far more radical than their voters.
To be safe, Gantz should write into the coalition agreement behavioral guidelines demanding common courtesy and basic patriotism from every governing partner. That should include avoiding certain words and accusations. Anyone who bashes Arabs should be out – take that, Avigdor Liberman. Anyone who lies and calls Israel an apartheid or racist state should be out – take that, Ahmad Tibi.
But everyone who is ready to work together, think together and help Israelis heal together should be welcome – and ready to welcome a new Middle East, one shorn of lies about our history, but filled with hope for a peaceful future that everyone who lives in this small historic space deserves.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100 – one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life” – the writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.