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There’s Little Hope for Peace if Occupation Is a Proper Noun

I hate the Occupation and I hate the occupation.

I hate them both equally.

I long for a time when it will end, but I fear the second will end because of the tyranny of the first. Let me explain.

I hate the Occupation, the invented brutal and apartheid-like regime whereby Jewish Israelis systematically mistreat indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I hate it because it is largely untrue and places unrealistic expectations as well as an impossible burden on Israel. Last month, the United Nations Security Council was set to call on the Jewish state to abandon its defensive operations in the Gaza Strip; the resolution was vetoed by the American ambassador, John Bolton. Paragraph three “calls upon Israel, the occupying power, to halt its military operations and its disproportionate use of force that endanger the Palestinian civilian population and to withdraw its forces to their original positions outside the Gaza Strip.”

Aside from the obvious objections — Israel’s actions were aimed at putting an end to rocket shelling from within Gaza — the proposed resolution, acceptable in its language to all Security Council members save for the United States, continued to depict Israel as “the occupying power” even though Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of Gaza almost a year and half ago, withdrawing to the international border, as the 1967 lines are often described.

I hate the Occupation because it denies history, assuming that the Arabs were willing to accept Israel before the 1967 war and refusing to acknowledge Jewish claims to the land of Israel, which if they are theoretically inapplicable to the West Bank are also offensive and unjust with regard to the pre-1967 core area of the Jewish state. I hate the Occupation because the Israelis can’t get any credit even when they, as in the cases of Gaza and Lebanon, withdraw to the borders the international community claims as rightfully Israeli, while Arabs continue to “resist the occupation” under the absurd conditions that nothing is being occupied any longer and that, in any event, Israeli extra-1967 claims are now limited to less than 10% of the area of the West Bank.

I also hate the occupation — the real, day-to-day interaction between Jews and Arabs that is demeaning to both and certainly insulting to everything I hold dear about democratic and humane Jewish and Zionist traditions.

Road blocks, land grabs, water consumption, separate systems of law and order on different parts of the population; a system of roads and underpasses allowing Israelis to ignore the realities of Palestinian life (and, to be fair, to be safe from random and not infrequent terrorist attacks upon them); the impossible-to-sustain intermingling of populations separated by history, faith and ethnicity and with full political rights limited to one and completely restricted to the other — I hate all that. And I hate the occupation because, before we knew everything else wasn’t equal, it put the territorial imperative over the strong pull for peace.

So I hate the Occupation and I hate the occupation, because generally one is either pulled to one side or the other and rare is the person who is able to simultaneously grasp the incomplete truths in each that form a whole truth only when held together by a complex sense of proportion.

Given the choice, most Israelis have demonstrated a desire to see an end to the occupation, for a jumble of reasons that come down to the fact that continuing it poses an unsustainable conflict with the desire for a normative life. But that desire is confounded by the breakdown of both the negotiating and unilateral pathways.

At the same time, the world is largely hostage to a misconception of the Israeli-Arab conflict, seeing it as the cornerstone in the edifice of Muslim-Western conflict. In this situation, international actors are subject to the enormous temptation of putting a cap on the Israeli-Palestinian friction at any price.

I hate the underlying smugness, the attempt to reduce the incredibly vast well of anger, frustration, self-perceived humiliation and religious triumphalism coursing through the Muslim world to the single question of Israel’s lingering and quickly diminishing claims in the West Bank. But I also resist the urge to dismiss that thinking all together — to deny, as it were, that the Israeli-Palestinian issue makes an already difficult situation even more dangerous.

It is this mood that underlies the evolving Israeli-American doctrine, a unilateral disengagement from most of the West Bank amid coordination with the moderate Palestinians led by Mahmoud Abbas. A successful outcome depends on current attempts to overcome both the political and military challenges posed by Hamas by building up Abbas’s forces and by squeezing the Palestinian Authority dry through a continued cut off of financial aid so as to lead to a de facto semi-coup in the form of a Palestinian “unity government.”

Should those efforts fail, we can expect a chorus of voices surrendering to the temptation to resolve the crisis at any cost by accepting the Hamas proposal for a lengthy hudna, or truce. Israel will be asked to play its territorial card and return to the 1967 lines in exchange for a possible change in Palestinian mood a decade hence and for promises of Palestinian good behavior in the meanwhile.

The question of peace will be off the table and the principle of “land for peace” — enshrined in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and which forms the basis of an entire generation of peacemaking efforts — will have been transmuted into “land for temporary calm,” the diplomatic version of a timeout.

And even if the pro-Abbas schemes succeed, rising Islamic militancy will persist to sorely limit the new “unity” government’s room to maneuver.

I hate the Occupation because it allows Israel’s enemies, like Hamas spokesman Ahmed Yousef, to propose last month a hudna that would go beyond the current cease-fire in Gaza “to bring about an immediate end to the occupation.” Israel would lose its only card, while the Palestinians would keep theirs — the ability to formally end of conflict and recognize Israel — close to their vest for another decade at least.

Optimists pretending to be realists argue that during the interim period of calm, construction would replace destruction and Palestinians would develop a constituency with a vested interest in peace. But unless the Israel question is settled in such a way so that Arab moderates can claim that a measure of justice has been achieved for their side and that the question of Israel’s continued existence is now off the table, Islamic extremists will continue to wage war against any deal with the Jewish state.

David Twersky is director of international affairs of the American Jewish Congress.

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