Being Realistic About Peace

One of the main concerns I hear from people reluctant to pursue any kind of peace process with the Palestinians and the larger Arab world is that people believe that any withdrawal from the Occupied Territories will only strengthen the resolve of the Palestinians to pursue the destruction of Israel. Indeed, the former Israeli Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, gave concrete voice to this view on July 4.

Similarly, in an article in the latest issue of Tikkun Magazine, Roger Gottlieb condescendingly paints an image of Israeli peace activists as being not only naive but insensitive to the fact that they really don’t know what will happen if the occupation were ended.

There are issues here, both real and illusory. Ya’alon’s claim that the withdrawal from Gaza led inevitably to the takeover by Hamas omits numerous key facts. As many of us, including myself, warned before the withdrawal, the unilateral nature of that withdrawal as well as its timing in light of the state of affairs in Gaza in 2005 rendered it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to establish control in the Strip. That situation was exacerbated by the Strip’s collapsed economy and its isolation even before the elections that brought Hamas to power. Out of such a state of affairs only chaos can emerge, and once that reigns, the next outcomes are entirely unpredictable.

Ya’alon similarly obscures the facts about Camp David, which I have already recounted in this space. Yet despite his propagandistic distortions (or, perhaps one might say, because of them), Ya’alon is giving voice to the belief of a majority of Israelis, Jews and many concerned people around the world.

The peace movement, in Israel, in Europe and in the United States has not adequately addressed this question. The offensive image that Gottlieb draws in Tikkun (the article seems only to be available in the print edition) of a peace activist, following stereotypical left wing politics, who cannot answer the questions about what happens after the end of the occupation, also holds in it a kernel of truth. In Gottlieb’s view, the activist hasn’t given serious consideration to these questions, can’t answer them and seemingly doesn’t care, simply moving on with her activist work despite not being able to address the issue.

In reality, the peace movement does not act blindly in this regard. There is a firm belief that Palestinian independence, in whatever configuration, will remove the basic driving force behind violence. Like Ya’alon’s cherry-picking of facts, there is a surface appeal to this view, but if we are to seriously consider the future, it is inadequate.

There is also the sub-heading for Gottlieb’s article, “Stop Unfairly Blaming Israel for Everything.” On the one hand, this seems to echo the disingenuous accusation against the Iraq Study Group that they said that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict was the key to defusing all the Mideast crises, something they did not say. On the other hand, the popular notion that Middle East turmoil is all centered on Palestine is just as wrong, ignoring not only modern political but also historical realities in the region.

There are real answers to these questions, but the more radical, but still somewhat sensible sectors of the left have been unable to articulate them, in some measure because they are too concerned about mollifying those in their own camp who, whether directly or indirectly, advocate the view that there can be no peace as long as Israel, as it is currently constituted, continues to exist. The more moderate left has generally shied away from describing a peace that would be both difficult and expensive.

In some instances, because realistic answers to these questions can only be formulated in terms of the real world– which means a system of states with imperfect and sometimes very corrupt and brutal regimes rule and in terms of real-world economics– these answers can’t be spoken on the left. But they are there.

What would a functional, post-occupation Middle East look like? If it is to be viable, Israel, the US and Europe will have to take wide-ranging measures to create a sustainable and functioning Palestinian economy. This can only be done by working with Israel directly–it is one of the reasons that the idea of total separation of Israel from a future Palestinian entity is unrealistic. Jordan as well could be a part of this economic partnership, one that can be purely economic–it does not need to imply any kind of political union.

Economic interdependence is the greatest insurance possible. It removes the incentives for conflict and creates, within both societies, powerful political forces, centered in burgeoning upper and middle classes, that will force their leaders to maintain the peace and to prosecute those who threaten it. International security guarantees for Israel would be bolstered by this internal Palestinian impetus. Moreover, should the Palestinian state in fact prove me wrong and dedicate itself to Israel’s destruction, it would not find nearly the kind of sympathy in Europe, the UN, even the US that it does now, and Israel, which would clearly still be the supreme military power in the region, would have much more freedom to act in its own defense.

Am I sure of all of this? Of course not. I am, however, certain that Ya’alon’s grim pronouncements are not based on the actual events on the ground as they took place. I am certain that the status quo offers no hope for a normal existence for Israel and no hope for anything for the Palestinians. And, above all else, I am certain that it is wrong to hold 4 million people under military rule for 40 years, with no guarantees of civil or human rights.

One might argue, and many do, that Israel has held the Occupied Territories only because it has been forced to, by attacks on its citizens both before and since the 1967 war. OK, that’s a debate with which we’re probably all way too familiar. But, if one has any scruples at all, one must agree that holding people without rights of citizenship for year after year is something that is wrong. The question then is only whether or not circumstances have justified that action. As a moral question it is no different from killing another person–most reasonable people agree that such an act is essentially wrong, but can be justified by certain circumstances, such as self-defense.

The question of whether the occupation is so justified is a debate that has been engaged many times and will continue to be. But the bottom line has to be that it is desirable to end any situation where millions of people are held without civil and human rights. It is simply unacceptable to abandon the search for a way to do that, whatever one thinks of the “enemy.” Asking for absolute guarantees is a way of abandoning that search. Life simply doesn’t come with such guarantees.

I do not believe Israel (or the Palestinians) are going to “trust” the other. So, a framework like the one I outlined, or something similar in form, is needed to create an atmosphere where peace is simply a better option than conflict, with tangible, rather than theoretical results. But there is always risk, and to search for a settlement that has no risk is, in practice, to refuse to search for a settlement.

The peace movement needs to talk in more realistic terms. If we want to see a better future for Israelis and Palestinians, we must accept that such a solution must occur in the world we live in. That is a world where things are not always fair, so we strive to make them as just as conditions allow. That is a world in which power prevails over ethics, so we must make things as ethical as we can in that context, knowing that, especially in this conflict, neither side is going to be able to fully realize what they see as their due.

That means that we can’t afford to wait until Israel and the Arab states all overcome the internal problems they have before coming to a solution that stops the current daily bloodshed (and it is daily, whether as a result of guns, bombs, missiles or malnutrition, unclean water and lack of medical supplies). Progress, if it is to come, will occur in a world where Israel is continuing to struggle with its treatment of its non-Jewish citizens, where Arabs live under varying degrees of dictatorship, and where other conflicts continue to seethe. It will occur in a world dominated by the capitalist system, which some on the left support and others do not. It will occur, finally, based on real measures for security and economic development, based on the global systems we have now and will, perforce, involve the United States protecting its own perceived interests. If we don’t accept those conditions, we will make the already insanely difficult task of resolving this conflict impossible.

In that respect, Gottlieb is correct in his criticism of peace activists. He could, however, have made that critique without the ridicule he used. He could also have made the valid point that resolving the Israel-Palestine issue is not going to solve the problem of the wider Middle East being immersed in conflict without sounding like an apologist for Israeli human rights violations.

The Iraq Study Group was widely accused of making the claim that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict would be a big step in resolving conflicts around the Middle East. Those conflicts have grown far more intense and complicated thanks to the Bush Administration’s incompetence in their Middle East policy, particularly with regard to Iraq and their tactic of essentially ignoring Israel-Palestine.

But what the ISG said, in fact, was that US diplomacy in the region was not going to be effective without resolving the Palestine issue. And they’re right; the quagmire of Iraq has no immediate resolution for the US. Even if they pulled out immediately, the ongoing fighting would remain a black mark on America’s reputation in the region. And as bad as Iraq is, the Arab world’s essentially correct perception that the US has been consistently and severely one-sided in its approach to the Israel-Palestine issue causes just as much of a credibility problem in the Arab world as Iraq does. The ISG simply acknowledged this reality and made the rather axiomatic assertion that American leadership in calming the region (should the US change its policy toward trying to do so, an effort it has not made for some time) would no longer be able to overcome the ill will generated by the Palestinian issue.

Perhaps more to the point, resolving, or at least improving significantly on the status quo in the Israel-Palestine conflict might actually raise tensions in the Arab world. Without that safety valve, Arab people might well become much more active in their own countries against dictatorships which are mostly propped up, in one way or another, by US support. It would also likely bring into much more stark relief the competition between the Saudis and Iran for regional hegemony.

In any case, the legacy of centuries of imperial rule under the Ottomans, followed by a relatively brief colonialist period; arbitrary drawing of a map of the region by early 20th century European powers concerned about their own fiefdoms rather than the regional and ethnic issues; a poorly managed de-colonization process and subsequent flooding of the region with weapons large and small; as well as ongoing outside interest and interference in the region due to the central place oil holds in the global economy are all factors that lead to boiling conflict that have no connection to the plight of the Palestinians. More recently, the rise of the violent Islamist movements and their conflict with more educated and moderate Muslims as well as secularists in the region add a whole new dimension, one which will continue to inflame the Mideast with or without Israel.

None of that detracts from the importance of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. In many ways, such a resolution could well help with those other issues. Taking advantage of the Arab offer of normal relations will spread diverse economic opportunities throughout the region. The resolution of the Palestinian issue can also serve as a spark for peacemaking throughout the region, since, after all, if the Israelis and Palestinians can come to an accommodation, can’t these other warring groups? Indeed, Israel and Palestine can become a force in the region for accommodation and peace, rather than a flash point for conflict.

But no one really knows what will happen. Politicians and academics and others all hatch wonderful theories about what this or that action or event will lead to. And the farther into the future they project, the more of a guess it is. I claim no better insight. Predicting the future is always guesswork–sometimes educated, sometimes not, but it’s always a shot in the dark and predictions by the best of us are wrong more often than they’re right.

But if we strive to do the right thing by everyone, we are at least putting our best foot forward. When we recognize that conflicts cannot be resolved by pushing for the interest of only one side, we stand a better chance of dealing with future challenges because we will have more variety of partners and less diversity of adversaries.

Israelis deserve a better life. Palestinians deserve a better life. Israelis deserve not to live in fear. Palestinians deserve that and also deserve to have the civil and human rights we all expect. If both peoples can get those things, maybe they can, individually or together, spread them throughout the region where fear is often present and civil and human rights are all too often missing. Those of us who care about Israelis, who care about Palestinians and/or who care about human rights in general would do well to maintain that vision, and would do even better to keep that vision focused on work that is based on the world we actually live in, not the one we wish for.