There is perhaps no nation that tugs at the heart, draws upon emotion, or is filled with such political and historical nuance as the State of Israel. Founded on a moral imperative just three years after millions of Jews perished in the gas ovens and concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany, the birth of Israel is an inspirational, heroic tale, involving an unprecedented culmination of political, cultural, and religious factors that continue to confound and intrigue the world. When in 1948 the British Mandate of Palestine ceded to official U.N. recognition, Israel became a haven to Jews from all over the world, embraced them as family, provided sanctuary, and built a national community of citizens devoted to a common cause.
Aided by the courageous, last-minute support of President Harry Truman, whose recognition of Israel’s provisional government went against the advice of his foreign policy team, most of whom favored the oil-rich Arab nations, and by American Jewish support, Israel and the United States formed a lasting bond that has remained strong through Israel’s 63-year history. It has not, however, been an easy history. Peaceful coexistence between Israel and its Arab neighbors has proved difficult; many of Israel’s citizens discovered early on that they had merely exchanged the insecurity of pre-War Europe for the insecurity of the Middle East.
Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. The next day, 23,000 Arab troops from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, lined the borders of the tiny new nation and sought its destruction. From its very founding, Israel has been surrounded by hostile forces intent on its annihilation. Virtually every decade of its existence, Israel has been forced to defend its very survival. It is a nation uniquely and existentially attuned to the constant risk of extinction and what it takes to survive. In 1967, when Nasser’s Egypt and the Arab Legion once again threatened Israel’s destruction, Israel in self-defense launched a pre-emptive strike, conquering the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Sinai, and the Gaza Strip. No longer content to be history’s victims, the Israel Defense Forces now ranks among the most capable military forces in the world.
It was Israel’s success in defending its borders during the Six-Day War that resulted in occupied territories and prompted U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for the normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors. Despite the PLO’s and other Arab states’ failure to officially acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, the smallest and most basic of concessions, Israel has gradually and willingly made peace whenever true compromise and sincere negotiation was in the offering. In 1979, Israel exchanged the Sinai Peninsula for peace with Egypt. In 1994, it ceded a large swath of land in exchange for official recognition by Jordan. Both agreements resulted in a stable, if narrow, peace among the nations involved. Peace with Syria has proved more difficult, notwithstanding Israel’s repeated offers to give up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace on its northern borders. Israel has had even less luck on its southern border, as its full and complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 has provided no peace in return, as Hamas continues to seek Israel’s complete and total destruction, firing missiles on Israeli villages and towns, and provoking Israeli reprisals.
There are times, it seems, that whatever Israel does, regardless of how many olive branches it offers, rockets continue to rain down on Israeli civilian targets. Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and suicide bombers from the West Bank remain an ever present threat to Israel’s population. Israelis themselves are intensely divided between doves and hawks, between those who would willingly exchange land for peace and those who take a more hard-line approach. But all Israelis are united on the need to defend their country.
I understand that Israel is far from perfect, and there is considerable room for debate on how it should respond to the threats it faces. While Israel must be entitled to defend itself, its actions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are more complicated. There, Israel’s actions, particularly under Netanyahu, have been counterproductive and resulted in unnecessary friction with the United States and Western Europe. The expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem on the eve of planned peace talks and in violation of U.S. policy, has been unhelpful. And the building of a security fence along its eastern border, while providing a justifiable defense to suicide bombers, has encroached upon 7% of West Bank territory in order to include the largest settlements.
Why is peace in this land so elusive? Every U.S. administration for the past half century has made concerted efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, with little to show for it. The Oslo Accords in 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn between the outstretched arms of Bill Clinton, accompanied the promise of peace; the PLO finally recognized Israel’s right to exist and Israel agreed to formation of an independent Palestinian Authority as a starting point for future peace negotiations. But peace has been fleeting. In 2000, in what should have been a turning point in the conflict, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in concert with President Clinton, offered Arafat a Palestinian state on 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and 95 percent of the West Bank, including sovereignty over half of Jerusalem and the surface area of the Temple Mount. Although it was the first time that Israel had ever offered to give up a portion of Jerusalem, and although the vast majority of Israeli settlements were set to be disbanded, Arafat and the Palestinians responded with a flat “no.” That the Palestinians might ever again receive such a generous offer is almost unimaginable, and yet, somehow, Israel is too often portrayed as the bad guy in this sordid affair.
It is true that history has not been kind to the Palestinians. Displaced upon Israel’s founding, then rejected and scorned by the very Arab nations which claim to be concerned with their welfare and political existence, the Palestinians have been deprived of statehood, suffered affronts to their dignity and experienced second-class status as their successive leaders have persistently rejected compromise and perpetuated their people’s suffering. President Obama understands and, to some extent, empathizes with the Palestinians’ predicament, which is why I believe he recently called for “bold action” and insisted to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and in a speech before AIPAC, that the starting point for peace negotiations must be the pre-1967 borders with “mutually agreed swaps.” Although the American press made much ado about the alleged rift between Obama and Netanyahu, Obama’s statement in fact was merely a continuation of U.S. policy and the public articulation of what has been the basis of virtually all peace talks between the respective parties.
The formula for peace is relatively easy to outline, which only serves to render the elusiveness of peace so frustrating. The only hope for peace in Palestine is a two-state solution that guarantees Israel’s security and officially acknowledges its right to exist among the world of nations, while uplifting and respecting the dignity and peoplehood of the Palestinians. Land for peace -- Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and the dismantling of settlements, including in East Jerusalem, in exchange for a demilitarized Palestinian state that officially recognizes Israel’s right to exist -- is precisely the formula required for a lasting peace.
It appears that Netanyahu and Obama do not fully trust each other, and that is a shame, really, for it is simply another pothole on the road to peace. Netanyahu is less willing than his predecessors to take a chance on peace, to lead Israel into courageous and bold action, to risk political disfavor among his Likud supporters, even as his party occupies a minority of seats in the Knesset. Unlike Rabin and Barak in the Clinton years, and Olmert in the Bush years, each of whom understood that the security and very existence of Israel demands that Israel take risks for a lasting peace, Netanyahu seems more interested in his political survival at home than his historical legacy as peacemaker. Israel cannot move forward until it fundamentally addresses the cruel reality that it continues to effectively rule over and occupy territory outside of its internationally recognized borders containing more than a million non-citizen residents, including families with children who want and need a country of their own. To absorb the population of the West Bank into Israel proper would be to compromise the democratic character of Israel, its Jewish nature, or both.
Of course, the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation further complicates matters, for as long as the dignity of the Palestinian people and their hope of independent statehood resides with the leaders of Hamas, peace will remain an empty promise. President Obama is right to call for bold action. He must, however, demand as much from the Palestinians as he does from the Israelis.
U.S. policy is and will remain, rightly so, pro-Israel. Israel is a staunch U.S. alley and strategic partner. It is the most democratic country in the Middle East. It generates more life-saving medical research than all of Europe combined. When natural and man-made tragedies happen around the world, whether in Haiti, Indonesia, Turkey, or anywhere else, Israel is among the first to respond in providing medical and technical aid. Because of Israel, Jews will never again be without sanctuary. But like his predecessors, President Obama must develop the capacity and credibility to push and prod and pressure both sides of the conflict, or he too will make little progress towards peace. Bold action is required if the vision of a peaceful world is ever to be attained. We must remain firmly committed to Israel’s safety and security, while continuing to push for the establishment of a legitimate, independent nation for the Palestinians.
I will always believe that the possibility of peace remains our best hope. I envision a world in which Palestinians and Israelis exchange currencies and commerce, and tour each other’s countries; where friendships develop and thrive across borders; where the boundaries are open and the fear of rocket fire and terrorism a thing of the past. Is it such an unrealistic dream? Perhaps, but I refuse to give up the possibility that the dream of a democratic Palestine living peacefully, side-by-side with a secure and democratic Israel will one day become reality. Let us hope that President Obama’s call for boldness and courage will not go unheeded, that pride and egos and power struggles will not again prevent meaningful progress in the quest for peace.