Encountering peace: Israel 2019 and the absence of peace

Israeli peace activist on the Gaza border. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli peace activist on the Gaza border.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, I lectured to a group of 50 teenagers at the Nahshon pre-army academy in Sderot. I always enjoy meeting these mechanistim who take an extra year before being drafted into the IDF to focus on leadership development, volunteerism and making a commitment to the improvement of our society. They share the same activist attitude that reminds me of my own youth movement days in Young Judaea some 44 years ago. They were very engaging and interested in what I had to say. As always, a group of them followed me out of the room at the end of my talk, and their questions kept coming, even at the expense of their lunch break.
When I entered their classroom, I noticed a poster board they had produced from an earlier activity, on which was listed 20 issues to consider prior to voting on April 9 in what will be their first election. The list included issues such as a party’s platform and ideology, its economic plans, the integrity of its leaders, the consistency of the party’s policies and actions, the track record of the candidates, the homogeneous nature of the party, security and whether the party will pass the 3.5% threshold.
The one missing element that was obvious to me, but is completely missing in this election campaign, is the issue of peace, and our relations with our Palestinian and Arab neighbors. Peace is not only missing in reality, it has disappeared from the political campaign – whose outcome will shape the future of this country for years to come.
I can’t blame these 18-year-old Israelis, or their teachers and guides. Peace is absent from the Israeli debate and absent from the agenda of the governments that have led this country in recent years. For most of the last 70 years, the aspiration of peace was part of the stated agenda of most political parties in Israel and part of the agenda (at least in declaration) of past governments. But “peace” has become a dirty word in the Israeli lexicon, equivalent to “Left,” post-Zionist and anti-Zionist, and almost likened to treason.
We just marked the 40th anniversary of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Officially, we also have peace with Jordan. Netanyahu has boasted about Israel’s close relations with a number of other moderate Sunni states in the region which share the common enemy and threat from Iran.
The Israeli public is sophisticated enough to understand that the relations with Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries are not what was once dreamed about when we envisioned genuine peace. Were we just naïve dreamers in the past? Was the aspiration for peace just the empty words of politicians? Can we as a Jewish state in the Arab and Muslim Middle East allow ourselves to remove this from our agenda and our goals? I, obviously, believe that we cannot and we should not.
Oslo was a failed peace process. Olso was not peace. We never reached peace with the Palestinians. We never reached an agreement with them on all of the core issues that we agreed to negotiate when we signed the Declaration of Principles between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in September 1993. All of those innocent Israelis and Palestinians who were killed after the beginning of the peace process were not the victims of peace, nor the victims of Oslo. They were the victims of the continuation of the conflict and the failure to make peace.
Oslo failed after years of negotiations, and both sides are responsible for its failure. Both sides breached each one of the six agreements that were signed in the framework of Oslo. Both sides are responsible for the failure to reach a permanent status agreement. Both sides rejected the offers made by the other side as being insufficient in their eyes to end the conflict.
On both sides of the conflict, there is a firm assertion that there is no partner for peace on the other side. This is not the sole observation of Israelis. Palestinians do not see a partner in Israel. Both sides have very legitimate reasons to believe that the other side is not a partner, and it seems with each passing day that there are more reasons for that belief.
The absence of peace from the agenda of Israel’s elections is a reflection not only of the difficulties in reaching peace but also, and perhaps even more so, a statement that the status quo of not having a partner is all right. It seems to the public, and apparently also to the politicians, that the status quo for Israel is acceptable, or better than the option of actually working to develop a partnership with the other side. Negotiations with the enemy are hard. Concessions have to be made. Physical assets – land – has to be turned over. Jerusalem has to be on the table. Developing cooperation, working together, confronting extremists from within – taking controversial positions – these are all elements that have to be met with directly by responsible governments and statesmen and women.
The acceptance of the non-existence of a partner allows our current and future leaders to escape from dealing concretely with the primary existential issue facing Israel – the question of our borders, and the human makeup of the people living under the control of our country and their basic political and human rights.
Throughout this crucial election season, we continue to lie to ourselves that with 50% of the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea being Palestinian, Israel can remain the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. We can pass laws in the Knesset defining ourselves as the nation-state of the Jewish people only, and we can tell ourselves that we are a nation living under the laws that we create – but that does not change the reality that part of Eretz Yisrael is also Palestine, and that there is another people living under our control who do not live under democracy and will never be part of the Jewish State of Israel.
The political pundits can call this old politics or naïve or whatever names they wish to use – but this is our reality and it will not change until we go back to the basics: that we must return to negotiations with our neighbors and this must be done by governments. This is their responsibility and duty, and it is our duty as citizens to force them to do their jobs.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press.