Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Search of a Difficult Peace


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.

4 comments:

  1. Mark,

    Let me get this straight: Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who is “existentially attuned to the constant risk of (Israel’s) extinction,” who more than once put on a uniform and defended Israel and who lost a brother in the fight against Arab terrorism, is acting “politically” when rejecting the return to the indefensible 1967 borders, but President Obama, our community organizer, who was doing drugs when Netanyahu was shedding blood and who now organizes his presidential Memorial Day duties so as to get in his 70th round of golf, is acting nobly when he suggests that once again it is Israel that must be “courageous” and “take bold action” for “a chance on peace” in hopes that the Arab Street will magically give up its one true goal of destroying this tiny country.

    Do I have that about right?

    What’s so amazing about this naiveté is that you do a thorough job describing why peace has not been achieved and at whose feet responsibility for failure must be placed before you fall back on the tired false assertion that it is Israel that must extend the olive branch.

    So help me with the math:

    May 1948 Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon go to war against Israel.

    Plus:

    “Israel has (always been) surrounded by hostile forces intent on its annihilation.”

    Plus:

    “Virtually every decade of its existence, Israel has been forced to defend its very survival.”

    Plus:

    “In 1967, . . . Nasser’s Egypt and the Arab Legion once again threatened Israel’s destruction. . .”

    Plus:

    “Despite the PLO’s and other Arab states’ failure to officially acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. . .”

    Plus:

    “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.”

    Plus:

    “. . .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. . .”

    Plus:

    “. . . whatever Israel does . . . 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.”

    Plus:

    “In 2000 . . . Prime Minister Ehud Barak . . . 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. . . . Arafat and the Palestinians responded with a flat ‘no.’”

    Plus:

    “. . . 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 . . . as their successive leaders have persistently rejected compromise and perpetuated their people’s suffering.”

    Plus:

    “. . . 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.”

    Equals:

    Bold action required on the part of Israel.

    Israel is not responsible for making peace with enemies who aggressively wage war against her anymore than a rape victim should be made to find common ground with her rapist. The proof is as simple as the question to this answer: This occurs immediately once the Arab countries decide to stop attacking Israel.

    “Alex, what is peace?”

    “Excellent Mark, you control the board.”

    “I’ll stick with Answers That Make You Want To Say ‘Duh!’ for $200.”

    “That was then, this is now.”

    “What is the logic that justifies Palestinians rejecting a land of their own in 1947, but justifies demanding Israel provide it to them now?”

    “Right again, Mark!”

    “Answers for $300, Alex.”

    “Not a chance in Hell.”

    “What is the likelihood that the Arab Street will ever use its own land to create a Palestinian State?”

    “You’re on a roll!”

    “Just common sense, Alex.”

    (continued. . .)

    ReplyDelete
  2. You see it is not Israel’s responsibility to provide the mythical race of people named Palestinians (we’ll skip for now the debate of the existence of such people) with a homeland; there is plenty of sand surrounding Israel that could be carved up by Arabs for Arabs without touching even one green blade of grass that is Israel. In fact, Israel gave back a huge chunk of land called Sinai; why not give that to the Sasquatch of the Middle East?

    A better idea still is to adopt the philosophy of their enemies: Once Muslim land, always Muslim land. Kings David and Solomon ruled over Israel when it was two or three times as large so why not insist on the return of that kingdom? After all, we know who will make better use of it. Or demand that Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt use some of this stolen land to provide a home for the Palestinian chupacabras.

    But 1967 borders? Have you seen the map? Heck, don’t bother; just imagine trying to defend your home against bad Muslims while first agreeing that the bad Muslims have a right to control your front yard, kitchen and master bathroom.

    Now imagine for a moment what happens to the holy sites if Israel gives up control of land they rightly seized after being unjustly attacked. Heck, don’t imagine; just look at Bethlehem, currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Once predominantly Christian, the birthplace of Christ is now openly hostile to the remaining 15 percent Christian population. Where are those good Muslims that believe in protecting the religious rights of non-Muslims? Where is even the hint that a Palestinian controlled West Bank would be democratic and willing to live peacefully with Israel? But guess where Christians, Jews and Muslims do live together peacefully? Yup, Israel.

    It’s time to recognize who the good guys are and it is clear that Israel wears the white hat. It is also time to stop expecting the victim to make up with the villains and to hold those bad guys accountable for their actions. When a bully picks a fight and ends up with a bloody nose, he does not expect the defender to pay for his medical treatment. When multiple bullies invade another country with the intention of destroying it, those black hat wearing countries do not get to call do-overs and get their land back.

    It’s also time to stop using language that misrepresents the relationship between the attacker and the attacked. Israel is not one side of a “conflict” – she is a victim trying to survive. Israel does not “occupy” territory – she claims as her own, land that was forfeited during an unprovoked attack. Israel does not attack in “reprisals” – she attacks in self-defense.

    It is also time to conduct ourselves in a manner that does not leave Israel thinking that with friends like the U.S. who needs enemies. If the President plans on saying something that no president has said out loud before, he should call our pal Bibi and run it by him first. In other words, treat him with respect. That would also mean not inviting the Prime Minister to the White House only to leave him twiddling his thumbs while the President eats dinner. And no more staged photographs of the President talking to Netanyahu while the soles of his feet are displayed in the foreground, a clear message of disrespect in the eyes of Jew-hating bad Muslims.

    And lastly, let’s not pretend that terrorists are anything more than what they are, as we did with Yasser Arafat. The picture posted above ranks high in the political porn category and it represents a strategy that never works: trying to make peace with bad guys who haven’t yet surrendered. Treating a terrorist as an equal results only in the terrorist sensing weakness, which encourages continued violence.

    Here’s a better strategy: When the so called Palestinian people elect leaders who are not terrorists, then the U.S. should immediately begin pressuring the Arab world to cough up some real-estate and then pressure Israel to teach the Palestinian people how to make their desert bloom.

    Rich R.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rich,

    Why do I have the sense that you are incapable of nuance? You seem to go out of your way to drum up large disagreements, when they are at best minor ones. This time you are really stretching.

    First, I did not write that "bold action" is required only of Israel. What I said was, "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." Now, if you disagree with something in that statement fine, but your present comments don't address it.

    Second, my essay makes clear where I believe the blame lies for much of the historical disconnect that is Israel-Palestine. But to reject the notion of the pre-1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations, as every U.S. administration has done, is to ignore history and international law. Israel was created via international law, through a vote of the United Nations. The pre-1967 borders are what Israel had when it declared independence and became a nation-state. It is true, as I made clear, that their occupation of the West Bank, et al. was the result of self-defense, and there is part of me which wants to say, "Screw you, Palestinians, what do you expect?" But in reality, continued occupation and settlement building does not make Israel safer or more secure, but in fact threatens its Jewish nature (Palestinians outnumber Israeli Jews when the territories are included, and they multiply at a much faster pace) and ridicules its democratic nature (you can't be a legitimate democracy if you deprive a majority of your "citizens" the rights of citizenship). This is why the vast majority of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution, which will eventually require the dismantlement of many settlements and Israel's withdrawal from most of the West Bank (and likely East Jerusalem). Thus, pre-1967 borders with "mutually agreed swaps".

    You don't like the picture, I understand. Rabin had to bite his lip when he shook Arafat's hand. It was a hard thing to do. But he understood the reality and the desperate need for Israel to retain both its Jewish and democratic nature. He also understood that peace comes only by negotiating with your enemies, not your friends. If peace were easy, everyone would do it. Peace is hard work. It requires "bold action."

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mark,

    While I’m heartened that you support Israel, our belief in how that support should manifest itself is profoundly different.

    You believe Israel should negotiate with blood thirsty animals who want nothing more than to devour Israel. Even after endless negotiations have failed, you still push for this strategy. I do not believe in negotiating with the likes of Arafat and I do not approve of presidents who soil my White House by hosting such killers. How do negotiations even begin when one side fails to recognize the legitimacy of the existence of the other side? Why talk of what Israel should do to secure peace until the Arab world agrees to Israel’s right to live in peace? This is not a minor difference, but a profound one.

    I don’t believe Israel should give up land or “swap” land; you do and that is a profound difference.

    You believe in negotiating with enemies; I believe in negotiating the terms of surrender. Historically, the latter has proven to be a greater guarantor of peace.

    I’m glad you side with Israel (not enough liberals do) but your methods would please the enemies of Israel in the same way Hitler was tickled pink with Chamberlain; whereas Netanyahu, and Churchill before him, understands evil and the firm manner in which it must be confronted.

    Justice can be hard to recognize sometimes, but the existence of Israel, preferably in a constant state of growth, is justice of the poetic kind for the millions of Muslims who revere Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who couldn’t decide what he wanted more: a Palestinian state or a partnership with Adolf Hitler in the Jewish liquidation business. In the end, the Palestinian people traded the Grand Mufti for the PLO and Arafat, and later added the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and still they don’t get it.

    As long as there is such a profound difference in what Israel wants (life) and what much of the Arab world prefers (death), the only reason Israel has to lift a finger is to hover it over the red button.

    Rich R.

    (This just in: Immediately after Friday prayers at the Western Wall, Muslim men began stoning worshiping Jews. In related news, the Palestinian Authority wants control of the Temple Mount where Jews have prayed since the 4th Century. The last time Arabs controlled this area was after the 1948 war and Jews were then barred from the wall for 19 years until the President of the United States began negotiations. . . scratch that. . . until Israel “occupied” it after the 1967 war and then they barred Muslims from pray. . . scratch that. . . then they allowed Muslims to pray there too.)

    ReplyDelete