Peace In Israel Starts With An Apology

Imagine you have an old beater – say, a 1967 Chevy – that hasn’t really run in years. The tires are flat, it’s riddled with dents, seats are torn out, windshield’s cracked, the fuel gauge constantly malfunctions, and someone just stole your spark plugs and battery. Yet, for reasons you can no longer remember, you’re attached to this car, and so for decades you’ve listened to the “experts” over at Ross & Indyk Automotive tell you why this jalopy is not only your best option, but you’re only one. All you need, they tell you yet again, is another jump start.

At some point, wouldn’t you say to hell with this! and get a new car, and a new mechanic?

The Oslo “peace process” has been essentially dead for a decade, yet the zombie keeps getting its star turn, despite overwhelming facts:

  • The Israeli West Bank settler population has nearly quadrupled, to about 400,000, since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White house lawn in September 1993;
  • More than a dozen Jewish settlements now ring East Jerusalem, the would-be capital of an independent Palestinian state, virtually snuffing out that dream;
  • Sixty percent of the West Bank remains under Israel’s full military control, with hundreds of barriers forcing Palestinian families into increasingly isolated cantons;
  • Israel essentially controls even so-called “Area A” autonomous zones, with checkpoints at the entrances of most Palestinian towns, and frequent night raids, which the military implements with impunity. In one incident straight out of the Jim Crow south, soldiers took over a swimming pool in Area A, forcing Palestinians out of the water so that settlers could take a dip.

Nearly all of this has happened under Oslo’s derelict watch. The Oslo Declaration of Principles, which mention security 12 times but never once independence, sovereignty, freedom, or Palestine, were never designed to stop such expansion. Instead, they’ve facilitated it.

The core problem, 50 years after the end of the Six Day War, remains Israel’s illegal occupation, which has grown ever more oppressive since June 10, 1967. With that in mind, why would the so-called experts insist on reviving a process that has only made things worse? Call me cynical, but it seems to me their interest is in extending the status quo of this jalopy-cum-charade.

Ah, you say, but just as democracy is the worst form of government except all the others (apologies to Churchill), so is the “two-state solution” the worst endgame, except all the others. A fine position to have, and a defensible one, until you understand that the reality on the ground is already a single state, with sharply diverging sets of civil and human rights, depending on your nationality and (lack of) citizenship. Never mind that many leaders and pundits, from Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak to John Kerry to Tom Friedman, have warned of the coming apartheid if Israel doesn’t solve its moral crisis of colonial land acquisition. The deed is done, and getting worse by the day: The dreaded “A word” already applies.

So, what to do? If, like most reasonable people (whose numbers in the Holy Land are fast dwindling, never mind ethnicity) you agree that some form of just peace is preferable to the status quo, then what’s the path?

Ready? Here goes:

  • Freeze settlement construction. Not a temporary halt; not a slowdown that allows for “natural growth.” A complete halt, now. Until that happens, no durable solution will ever emerge.
  • If you’re the U.S., act like a superpower, for crying out loud. Link U.S. military aid to an absolute end to settlement construction. Not since U.S. Secretary of State James Baker threatened Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir with suspension of American loan guarantees has an American leader been willing to back up tough talk to Israel. It’s long past time. Eventually, this tool can be applied to relocation of settler populations.
  • End the occupation and lift the siege of Gaza. The West Bank barrier regime is in place largely to protect settlers who don’t belong there. But massive confinement and incarceration has created a human rights nightmare. U.S. and international pressure could help bring down hundreds of barriers and end the siege of Gaza. Both are examples of collective punishment that have fueled greater rage – a fury that does not bode well for future generations.
  • Encourage, don’t vilify, non-violent resistance. (Unless you prefer the alternative.) The demonization of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is hypocritical and counter-productive. Consider the movement’s targeting of Caterpillar, the company whose D9 bulldozer has helped Israel demolish tens of thousands of Palestinian dwellings. How is highlighting Caterpillar’s disgraceful behavior part of an effort “to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people,” as candidate Hillary Clinton wrote in her fawning anti-BDS letter to her patron, the Israeli-American “Power Rangers” mogul, Haim Saban?
  • Embrace a process of truth and reconciliation. This is not a step for tomorrow, or even next year. The Israeli historian, soldier and politician Meron Benvenisti once told me that this South African model of healing would never work, because it, unlike the vast majority in Israel/Palestine, is rooted in Christianity. But Dalia Landau, the Israeli subject of my book, The Lemon Tree, is right when she calls for both Israelis and Palestinians to confront each other’s past through “the three A’s”: acknowledgment, apologies, and amends. This would be a slow and deliberate process of trust- and confidence-building. What exact reality it would lead to, we can’t yet know.
  • Move beyond denial and begin exploring genuine alternatives. Unless the U.S. insists that Israel moves a large portion of its 400,000 West Bank settlers, and the 200,000 surrounding Arab East Jerusalem, a two-state solution, with a viable, contiguous independent state of Palestine, will never happen. Frightening as it may be to consider how bi-national or parallel states might work, it is far better than perpetuating the illusion that “jump-starting” peace talks will lead us anywhere new.

Before you start fuming, these are all non-starters! consider the quagmire we’ve reached in our 50-year-old bucket of bolts. We’re not going anywhere in this old heap.

Now, think about the steps that would be possible if the U.S. began to implement a forceful, anti-colonial policy rooted in human and civil rights and equal treatment under the law. Then, allow yourself to dream of a reachable future:

With the physical barriers down — eventually, this would include the separation wall – Israelis and Palestinians alike could move freely across the Holy Land: visiting family, swimming in the Mediterranean, worshipping at sacred sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, without fear of attack.

Jerusalem would evolve into an open city, where culture, commerce, art and faith would produce a spectacular mosaic. Jerusalem could sparkle as an example of tolerance and multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism. A few miles south, millions would flock to Bethlehem, now a sad town surrounded by concrete and barbed wire, but in this vision, transformed into the rejuvenated birthplace of Christ.

Once the boycotts and international condemnations vanished, culture and commerce would soar, with strong global backing. Musicians, artists and writers would bear witness to the fruits of a just peace. Economies and infrastructures would connect across the borders of former enemies. A new Orient Express could chug from Haifa to Saudi Arabia. Israel could share its farm and water conservation technology with the entire Arab world; engineers across the region could work on joint solar power projects. Israelis could visit Lebanon and other Arab neighbors – only this time, not in uniform. Arabs from the Gulf to the Levant could for the first time set foot in the Holy City and pray at Al Aqsa Mosque.

Significantly for U.S. policy, America would no longer be the central focus of rage on the Arab “street.” With true peace in the Holy Land,Al Qaedaand ISIS would have lost their greatest recruiting tool: the unmitigated tragedy of Palestine.

Call me a dreamer. But I prefer to trash this old heap and find another way to travel. To envision the day when no one in Israel and Palestine has to instinctively look over his shoulder. Where no young musician has to submit her flute for inspection at a military checkpoint. Where Arab and Jew can one day look each other in the eye, as equals.

Sandy Tolan is professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC. He is the author of the international bestseller, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (Bloomsbury, 2015). Follow him on Twitter, @sandy_tolan.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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