Prime Minister Sharon’s speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 15 was widely praised as confirmation of the old warrior’s turn toward peace. Even Ha’aretz, Israel’s most resolutely liberal major newspaper, called it “a speech of historical importance.”
Perhaps. Medical technology, for all its sophistication, has yet to develop machinery that will enable us to discern a genuine change of heart. In the case of political leaders, our uncertainty is compounded by the need of such leaders to appeal to diverse constituencies. Which of their words are sops to this faction or that, which are purposely ambiguous, which are intended to respond to an immediately compelling political exigency — and which give voice to real conviction? We cannot and do not know.
The Sharon text is indeed a remarkable document: “I, as someone whose path of life led him to be a fighter and commander in all Israel’s wars, reaches out today to our Palestinian neighbors in a call for reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict, and embark on the path which leads to peace and understanding between our peoples. I view this as my calling and my primary mission for the coming years.”
And then, after an eloquent expression of the attachment of Jews to Israel, where “every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock, is saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories,” the prime minister goes on with what he clearly intends as the heart of his remarks: “I say these things to you because they are the essence of my Jewish consciousness, and of my belief in the eternal and unimpeachable right of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel. However, I say this here also to emphasize the immensity of the pain I feel deep in my heart at the recognition that we have to make concessions for the sake of peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors.”
Sharon’s “immense pain” in contemplating the concessions Israel must make “for the sake of peace” is understandable in a number of different ways. There is no reason to doubt his visceral attachment to “every inch of land.” There is his political need to assure those Israelis for whom every inch of the land is not merely saturated but also sacred that he feels their pain. There is even, perhaps, the pain of personal regret, since he has spent so much of the past 38 years building up precisely that which he now asserts must be torn down.
Still, there is high drama in hearing Ariel Sharon say, as he did, “The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.” That is, of course, the famous “two-state solution,” the very policy endorsed by Israel’s left for lo these many years, a policy Sharon himself repeatedly and contemptuously dismissed.
How can one explain so dramatic a change, which sounds very much like a genuine change of heart and is, in any case, an apparently far-reaching change of assessment? Is it the realities of the demographic question, as has been widely suggested, or is it a new evaluation of how Israel’s security may best be assured — or is it that Sharon, informed by ample precedent, counts on the Palestinians to make a mess of things?
For note: He does not say that now the two sides should consult and negotiate. He says instead that since Israel has, via its disengagement from Gaza, taken a first and manifestly difficult step, it is therefore now the Palestinians’ turn. And until they take their turn — ending terrorism and its infrastructures, eliminating the anarchic regime of armed gangs, and ceasing the incitement and indoctrination of hatred toward Israel and Jews — Israel is not obliged to take any “second step.”
Indeed, as Sharon made sure to say in the same week as his U.N. speech, Israel can and will go forward with the expansion of West Bank settlements (making it all the more difficult to dismantle them when that time comes); Israel can and will surround Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem (the heart of the putative Palestinian state) with Jewish neighborhoods; Israel will withhold its essential cooperation from any Palestinian election in which Hamas fields candidates.
One can rationalize each of these positions, the last of them especially. Why cooperate in any election that is sure to provide both power and legitimacy to a group that has repeatedly called for, and worked for, Israel’s destruction? It certainly appears not reckless but prudent for the Israelis to demand serious signs of Palestinian responsibility before going forward with other peace-oriented steps.
But appearances can be deceiving. For the truth is that what is asked of Israel just now is not “concessions.” If, as Sharon himself has asserted, it is wrong for one people to rule another, it cannot at the same time be a “concession” for it to put an end to such rule. If, as Sharon himself has maintained, Israel’s security as a Jewish state will be enhanced by the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous Palestine, it cannot be viewed as a “concession” for Israel to help enable such a development.
The conflict, over all these years, has been dynamic; the cumbersome peace process must also be. If peace is in Israel’s interest, then it cannot simply say “now it’s your turn” and then sit back and wait. For its own sake, it must do what it can to enable its partner in conflict to become its partner in peace.