The cart, the horse, and the long road ahead

Only when there is a clear Palestinian stance in favor of a workable two-state solution will Israelis have to make tough decisions.

There is a great deal of passion about the difference between “Left” and “Right” in Israel. Yet these gaps are far less significant than people think. I’ll start with an anecdote that illustrates this point even as it seems to contradict it.
First, though, let me quickly add that these debates used to be very important.
After the 1967 war, Israeli society conducted a quarter-century-long argument over whether Israel should trade territory for peace. It was disrupted by the peace agreement with Egypt (a right-wing government returned the Sinai). Finally, in a sense, the two sides agreed to test the assumptions of the debate in the 1990s’ Oslo process. (The peace with Jordan also involved some territorial concessions.) The majority of Israelis agree that the Oslo experiment showed the fallacy of thinking that yielding land would bring peace. Some hold that the experiment was worth trying, others not. What is important, though, is that the result showed that neither the Palestinians nor Syria was ready to make full peace.
Thus, a new Israeli consensus was made: • In exchange for full peace, Israel would give up all of the Gaza Strip and almost all the West Bank, with border adjustments or land swaps to adjust the borders by about three percent.
• Israelis doubt the Palestinians are ready for a full peace, and are more skeptical than they’d been during the Oslo experiment, which cost thousands of Israeli lives.
• True, there is no consensus about precisely how east Jerusalem should be handled. What is basically accepted as the highest priority is incorporating the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (captured by Jordan in the 1948 war, after which all its Jewish inhabitants were expelled), access to it through the tiny Armenian Quarter(about one city block), and the Western Wall, with the Temple Mount next. The Arab-inhabited areas are likely to be traded away as long as there is no significant security threat to the Israeli portion of the city.
• Palestinian refugees must be resettled in Palestine, not Israel.
• The rise of an Islamist threat, including the seizure of Gaza by Hamas, makes real peace seem even further off.
• The status quo is sustainable for a long time. If Palestinian misery is the motive to break the deadlock, then why don’t we see any eagerness to make peace, negotiate with Israel, and get a state on the part of the Palestinians themselves? Within this framework, the governments of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu have all functioned along similar lines. There is no strong alternative vision; there is no real alternative to current policies.
NOW, HAVING given this context, here is the anecdote. During a dialogue meeting between different viewpoints in Israeli society, there was a panel discussion on which Yossi Sarid participated. Sarid, one of the Israeli Left’s most important leaders, is now formally retired from politics.
He is widely respected for his honesty, open mind, and his willingness to think “inconsistently,” which is to me one of the highest virtues.
According to the account, Sarid said: “There is no way to prevent the division of Jerusalem, or giving away Eastern Jerusalem and the Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian rule.” Another panelist, Avi Rath, replied: “We have seen what happens when land gets given away to the Arabs. They [the Arabs] don’t just sit quietly and eat hummus….”
Sarid reportedly got up and walked out.
As I said earlier, this appears to illustrate the wide gap in Israeli views, yet this apparent chasm is easily bridged in practice. Actually, such arguments about what Israel should offer in exchange for peace are probably at the lowest frequency in 40 years.
First, both Sarid and Rath know that Jerusalem is not about to be divided because there won’t be any comprehensive peace agreement on the horizon for many years. While Sarid and others on the Left fear that trying to hold onto Jewish settlements or parts of Jerusalem could destroy the chance for full and permanent peace, they also know (unlike many foreign observers) that this is not the problem. In 2000, for example, Barak offered to yield on virtually all these points.
Second, they both also know that if Israelis are ever confronted with the immediacy of dividing Israel, they would be doing it in a situation where the reward would be a credible end to the conflict and a remarkable improvement in Israel’s situation and their own lives. To make concessions in exchange for a great opportunity is tempting; to make them in exchange for nothing, a weaker position, or demands for still more unilateral concessions is not so attractive.
A very high standard of proof would be needed that things would be different and that there would be a lot more hummus-eating than fighting going on.
Third, despite Sarid’s declaration, there would be a real margin for negotiation. Israelis have no particular passion for keeping the “Arab neighborhoods” aside from security.
They have a very different feeling about the Old City, particularly the Jewish Quarter and Western Wall. But if everything else were to be in place, this issue alone would never make peace impossible.
And finally, Sarid knows that the record shows territorial concessions may make things worse.
So Israelis get heated about discussing a comprehensive peace agreement. But one thing is certain: Only when there is a clear Palestinian stance in favor of a workable two-state solution will Israelis have to make tough decisions.
Until the day comes when the Palestinian Authority offers a credible proposal to resettle refugees in Palestine, provide serious security guarantees, include minor border modifications, end incitement and terrorism, accept Israel as a Jewish state, and show itself able to deliver the Gaza Strip, these debates will remain theoretical.
On the Palestinian side, debate on these issues has not even begun.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at