Two opposing truths characterize this increasingly dangerous world we inhabit. First, many of us are certain that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to being resolved than it ever has been. And second, much of the world is certain that it is. The test of the Jewish people’s leadership – a test that it seems poised to fail – will hinge on whether it is sufficiently deft and nimble to navigate these competing certainties.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unlikely be resolved, now or at any time in the foreseeable future, because there is no solution possible if the Palestinians do not both recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and give up the right of return. Only when the Palestinians – their leadership and their street – call Israel a Jewish state will we know that they have internalized that we are not interlopers, latter-day Crusaders, here for now but bound to depart.
When chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat opined this week that he would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state because his ancestors were here 5,000 years before Joshua, was he preparing his street for an agreement? With the right of return, Palestinians would just destroy Israel demographically, rather than through violence. Yet how many leaders of the Palestinian Authority believe they can remain alive if they sign an agreement with Israel that gives up on that right of return? Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, it should be recalled, did not attend the ceremony at which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1978. He knew that having made a deal with Israel in which Palestinian demands were not met, for much of the Arab world, he was a traitor. So he sent his son-in-law to the ceremony instead. But it made no difference; Sadat was gunned down barely three years later by fellow Egyptians.
Does anyone imagine that Abbas, Erekat and others do not recall Sadat’s fate? What is the likelihood they will take the risk? Europe and North America, though, are equally certain that peace can, and must, be attained – and soon. “A bit more pressure on Israel, and the dominoes will begin to fall.” So a Danish bank decides to boycott Bank Hapoalim because it does business over the Green Line. A Swedish bank has now asked for “clarifications” on the settlements, clearly a prelude to another possible boycott. Israel indicates willingness to pay Turkey $20 million compensation for the flotilla, the result of enormous pressure.
It is in this atmosphere that US Secretary of State Kerry warns Israel – perhaps correctly – that the world is running out of patience. “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained,” he said. “It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.” Yet another clear warning shot fired across Israel’s bow.
It’s a tale of two colliding certainties, and it is unlikely to end well. Reasonable minds can, and do, differ as to how Israel should manage a virtually impossible situation. About one matter, however, we ought to begin to agree: it’s time to dispense with our own certainties.
When Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, says that Israel does not need an agreement – “We’ll manage” – is he (perhaps like Erekat) simply staking out a position from which he can later compromise, or does he actually believe that Israel can survive an international boycott? If it’s the former, then fine.
Prime minister Menachem Begin, when told by US president Jimmy Carter that he was facing his last chance for peace with Egypt, replied on Israeli TV: “Our people lived thousands of years before Camp David, and will live thousands of years after Camp David… If we are told that this is the last chance to arrive at peace, we shall not agree. There are no ‘last chances’ in life.” It worked, and Begin got his deal.
But Begin was also a pragmatist, and knew when to accede. Will our leaders – whether in a few months or in 50 years – know when they have the best deal that they can get, and summon the wisdom to take it? Can Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pull that off? Does he wish to? Does Ya’alon really imagine that Israel could withstand the crippling treatment that the world brought to bear on South Africa? “We’ll manage,” he says with an air of certainty. How, exactly? Surely, he knows how a global economy works, no? And on the other side of the political divide, one can already hear the lip smacking, the self-congratulatory satisfaction of those who believe that in helping to force Israel’s hand, they’re doing Israel a favor. “My involvement in the Jewish world is the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” a North American Jewish woman said to me at a public forum in Jerusalem this week. “I’m working to make Israel better.”
Really? The hubris of the certainty was astounding. Are you sure that Israel is “better” when it has both less land and 170,000 rockets pointing at it? Are we sure that Israel is “better” when settlers, some of whom represent the most vibrant, selfless form of Zionism, will be told that their project is to be abandoned? Are we entirely certain that we can take this step without extinguishing the very flame that gives this country purpose? Are we sure that a move to the never-recognized pre-1967 lines will not then lead to a push to the once-recognized 1947 lines? One day, we are likely to have only choices even worse than the ones we have today. Until then, though, our greatest enemy is certainty. And our greatest asset will be in recognizing the profound pitfalls of any approach we take. Resist international pressure, and the dangers are enormous. Cave in to international pressure, and the risks are equally great.
Despite our predilection for incessant protestation, this is not the time for certainties. It is, if anything, the time to really start to think. It is, if anything, the time to recall Deuteronomy 21:21 – “Let all Israel hear, and be afraid.