First, the bad news: As we all learned to say years ago — even before the year 2000 and the outbreak of the second intifada — Israel has no partner for peace. Or so, at least, Israelis believe.
For Ariel Sharon, the absence of a credible partner was a strategic assessment, leading directly the calamitous unilateralism of the withdrawal from Gaza. And today? Yes, maybe something will come of the talks with Syria, and yes, Hamas is suddenly a partner in ending the back-and-forth violence with Gaza, but the Road Map and the White House’s belated initiative notwithstanding, the informed judgment is that nothing of consequence is happening in the negotiations between the Olmert and Abbas governments.
As Benjamin Netanyahu put it last November, “We have a partner for words, but not for deeds, certainly not for fighting terrorism, and, to my regret, no partner for a real peace.”
Most American supporters of Israel agree. They have long since accepted the “no partner” mantra, believing that the Israeli hand has been repeatedly offered the Palestinians, who have, as Abba Eban used to put it, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
That is hardly news. What renders it pertinent is that for their part, the Palestinians have precisely the same complaint, and their evidence that they have no partner for peace is at least as persuasive as Israel’s.
We are not required to choose between the two bills of particulars. Indeed, the tragedy that unfolds in Israel — and still more, the larger tragedy that looms around the next corner — derives in no small measure from the fact that both indictments are convincing.
The Palestinians point in particular to the roadblocks and checkpoints that litter the West Bank, more than 600 of them despite Israel’s pledge at Annapolis to remove a significant number, an ongoing insult and injury that is a daily humiliating reminder of Israel’s 41 year-old occupation of the West Bank. Israel’s nightly incursions into Palestinian population centers, even those where the Palestinians themselves have lately taken convincing charge of security, is another abrasive reminder.
And then, of course, there are the settlements, among them not only the contentious expansion within Jerusalem neighborhoods but also the persistence of more than 100 illegal outposts, more than half created after March 2001. Yet Sharon’s promise to President Bush, a promise repeated since by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that at least these would be promptly removed has been almost entirely dishonored.
A glance at the most recent map of the West Bank shows quite dramatically the deplorable consequence of all the settlement activity, past and ongoing: A dozen or more enclaves of Palestinian population, cut off one from the other, rendering the goal of territorial contiguity a cruel joke.
All this means that Palestinians simply do not believe that Israel is serious in its profession of support for a two-state solution to the conflict. Or: They have no partner for peace.
What might interrupt this absurd symmetry?
The stage is now being prepared for a change in leadership on both sides, as also in the United States. At some point, before the window of opportunity is closed tight, there will perhaps rise up a Palestinian leader with the courage to say to his people, “We have lied to you. Israel is here to stay, like it or not. Palestine will come to be in the West Bank, and the refugees who choose to return will come to Palestine, not to Jaffa and not to Haifa and not to anywhere else in Israel. And there we will build our state, and there will be, at last, our place in the sun.”
And on the same day, Israel’s leader will say to his (or just as likely, her) people, “We lied to you. We cannot have it all. Our borders will be, roughly, what they were in 1967, before the occupation. We will have Jerusalem — and so will they, each sovereign in its own precincts. And our children will grow up as children should, uncurdled by fear and by violence.”
Alone, the lawyers cannot do it. It is not technical language that is lacking. In fact, the language is all there, in desk drawers in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington. It is not pressure from the outside that will do it, for pressure encourages clever evasions. It is not rhetoric and it is not some dazzling new insight. Everything that needs to be said and everything that can be said has already been said, many times over. It is, in the end, candor.
And now, the good news. Seriously. Quietly, far from the stormy headlines, there is taking place a sea change in Israel’s relations with Europe. In recent weeks, Italy, France, Germany and England have all made clear their commitment to Israel’s safety and welfare.
And last month, after a year of intensive negotiations, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and European Union foreign ministers announced an upgrade in the relations between Israel and the E.U.: increased diplomatic cooperation, Israel’s participation in European agencies and environmental, educational, agricultural, banking and space programs; and an examination of possible Israeli integration into the European single market.
We are so used to complaining about Europe’s perfidy that this unexpected turn is a welcome shock. And who knows? Perhaps it will lead, in time, to a lowering of Israel’s debilitating sense of claustrophobia, an opening to the north and west substituting for the eastward spell of these last decades.
No, Europe’s not the Holy Land, nor can Israel evade the fact that it is of the Middle East. But the pleasure of easier breathing is not to be denied.