Monday, September 13, 2010

Peace in the Middle East: An Israeli Perspective

Walter Reich has written an interesting article, The Despair of Zion, in the current issue of The Wilson Quarterly. He presents personal observations based on conversations with a variety of Israelis. With serious negotiations underway between Israeli and Palestinian authorities it seems a good time to feed some perspective into the discussion.

Reich finds the Israelis in a somber mood. He begins by detailing a conversation with an old friend who he describes as "one of the giants of Israel’s academic and intellectual life." The friend admits that right now what he would most like to have happen is for his children to emigrate, to leave Israel. He is obviously despairing over his country’s future.
"My friend’s despair is shared, in one way or another, by many of the Israelis with whom I’ve spoken. It’s a despair based largely on what they believe is a realistic assessment of Israel’s situation in the world and of the ultimate intentions of many, and probably most, Palestinians."

"To be sure, lots of Israelis don’t share this despair, don’t talk about it, or use every coping mechanism they can to set it aside and live a normal life. Yet it’s a feeling that, at some level and to some degree, permeates all things in much of the population, and that has frequently emerged in the many conversations I’ve had in recent years with Israelis."
The Israelis feel they are being compelled to negotiate a settlement with a people who still views them as an enemy that should and can be destroyed. There are only two possible outcomes from these negotiations and both are seen as bad for Israel.

The motives of the Palestinians are highly suspect. In the past they have rejected offers that the Israelis viewed as the best they could provide. They fear that the Palestinians believe that time is now on their side.
"Increasingly, Israelis are convinced that no concessions they make to the Palestinians will ever be enough—that each concession will be followed by another demand, that each new demand that isn’t conceded will be a pretext for more violence, and that each response to that violence will provoke international condemnations of Israel for using disproportionate force....Israelis might feel reassured that peace is possible if it were promoted in the Palestinian Authority’s education system; even if the current Palestinian generation isn’t ready to accept the Jewish state, maybe a future one will. But they know that Palestinian students study maps in their textbooks on which Israel doesn’t exist and watch television programs aimed at young people that identify cities in Israel as being part of Palestine."A two-state solution is the only viable one for most Israelis, but they fear it will only leave them more vulnerable and limit their options for defending themselves.
"This question keeps many Israelis awake at night. The main peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aims at a "two-state solution"—an Israel behind its pre-1967 borders alongside a Palestinian state in what is now the West Bank and, if Hamas can somehow be converted or defeated, Gaza. But, Israelis ask, why would any sane person, Israeli or otherwise, believe that, two weeks or two months after a Palestinian state were to come into being—a state that would abut the length of Israel’s narrow waist as well as Jerusalem—rockets wouldn’t be flying over its border and blowing up in every Israeli city and airport?"

"And why not? Even if Hamas were to retain control of Gaza and refuse to participate in a treaty with Israel, meaning that the Palestinian state would consist only of what is now the West Bank, and even if that state’s leaders wanted peace at least as long as it would take to establish their country, wouldn’t there also be, in that state, Hamas members and others who didn’t want peace, who had never wanted it, and who would use it as a springboard for launching attacks so as to achieve the ultimate objective of eliminating Israel?"

"With tens of thousands of rockets and missiles flying out of the Palestinian state and Lebanon—and, in this nightmare, from Gaza as well—it might be impossible for Israelis to live anywhere other than in bomb shelters, and the devastation would be immense. But if Israel were to respond by attacking the sources of those rockets in the newly declared Palestine, this time they would be attacking not a territory or a faction but a sovereign member of the UN, one that would call on—and instantly receive—the support not only of its fellow Muslim states but also the world at large, including most of Europe."
In a one-state solution the Palestinians would certainly demand equal rights for Palestinian citizens and attempt to impose right of return for Palestinian refugees. Either way, the Jewish citizens would lose control of their country politically, and it would no longer be what they set out to create: a Jewish homeland. Trying to form a stable state by mixing together two peoples who essentially despise each other, is, has been, and always will be a recipe for disaster. The country exists currently in a version of a one state solution. The status quo is not considered sustainable.
"And Israelis understand that an endless status quo could result in a one-state solution—a state in which they would be politically dominant but demographically a minority. The Zionist dream of a democracy of Jews in the land of their people’s birth would be destroyed. The vast majority of Israelis I know don’t want to have power over the lives of Palestinians. But deeper than their empathy with the Palestinians is their desperate hope to survive. What Israelis see before them is a choice between the physical destruction wrought by war and the moral destruction wrought by forever dominating a people that, if allowed, would destroy them. For these Israelis, it’s a choiceless choice."We have two sides moving forward, each with the feeling that they will have to give up more than is fair in any settlement. Each side knows that those who are doing the negotiating are risking not only their political futures, but their very lives. Each side possesses a significant minority of people who are expected to resort to violence to ensure failure of the process. It is really hard to be optimistic, but times do change. The Palestinians have begun to lose their political backing from the other Arab states. Israel can no longer depend on the United States to cover their back in any action they might take. The only way this will work is if all the nations interested in the peace talks convince both sides that failure to reach an agreement will have dire consequences.

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