Risking Peace: A Thought Experiment

Risking Peace: A Thought Experiment November 19, 2012

As I write this on November 19, 2012, Israel’s ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’ is proceeding apace in Gaza. Over 1,000 airstrikes, some more precise than others, have been launched against Hamas, most in and around the Gaza City, which is one of the densest urban areas in the world. Israeli drones patrol the skies above Gaza City, hunting for targets of opportunity, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have activated 75,000 reservists for possible future deployment. At the same time – and this is not well-known – the IDF is continuing to allow ground shipments of food, fuel, and medical supplies into Gaza, and a couple dozen Palestinians have been permitted to cross into Israel for hospitalization. As of today, roughly 95 Palestinians have been killed and 700 wounded. Hamas claims that all those killed in Gaza were civilians. Israel counters that two-thirds of those were paramilitary fighters.

For its part, Hamas has countered with ‘Operation Stones of Baked Clay,’ and along with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has launched over 700 rockets into Israel since last week, including several that reached as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 40 Israeli civilians have been injured and three killed.

Israel claims that these recent events were predicated by a heavy volume of rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel during the past two years. It is in fact true that over 600 rockets were fired into Israel in 2011 and over 700 during the first ten months of 2012. It is not clear how many of these were launched by Hamas or by the PIJ, but from the Israeli point of view, it makes little or no difference. The rocket attacks originate in Gaza and Hamas governs Gaza. These are not precision munitions, and the vast majority fall do no damage or even fail to detonate. Still, the very fact that they are fired indiscriminately into civilian areas makes them a tool of terrorism by any definition of the term. And as many observers have noted, no sovereign nation would permit a steady barrage of missiles to fall on its territory without taking measures to make it stop. If south Florida or Brownsville, Texas, were being subjected to daily rocket attacks from Cuba or Mexico, for instance, one can be sure that the US Air Force would undertake to staunch the barrage. According to Israelis, this is no different.

But of course everything about the Israeli-Palestinian situation is different. As longtime Palestinian moderate Hanan Ashwari said this weekend on CNN, the biggest difference is that the United States doesn’t occupy Cuba or Mexico. It doesn’t blockade their ports or occupy their territory, and it doesn’t permit (and protect) American “settlers” who claim a biblical right to take up residence on their land. So, while the analogy of defending national sovereignty is partly valid, it is not wholly so. Context matters, and the context in Palestine is different than that in the United States, or practically anywhere else.

Here is a big part of the context in Palestine (click to zoom):

The land available to the Palestinians has been slowly shrinking since the settler movement was inaugurated in earnest following the 1967 war. It’s true that in 2005 Israel forcibly closed 21 settlements in Gaza and repatriated settlers, but the same has not been true on the West Bank. Moreover, the loss of contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war has never been addressed, meaning that the Palestinians are dependent upon Israel to move about even in lands they nominally control.

None of this excuses terrorizing residents of southern Israel with rockets. Nor does it excuse the vicious anti-Semitism of much of the propaganda that emanates from Hamas, or the corruption that has characterized two generations of Palestinian “leadership,” or the resort to suicide bombings on Israeli buses or in Jewish schools and restaurants. But neither do the rocket attacks justify perpetuating the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, or the elevation of Avigdor Lieberman (who has compared Arabs to “worms”) to the post of Foreign Minister, or the routine murders of Palestinians by settlers.

All of these things, on both sides, feed the logic of permanent war and ensure that the cycle of death and hatred will go on and on. Jewish grievance gives rise to Palestinian grievance which creates Jewish grievance which gives birth to Palestinian grievance, and meanwhile the two communities descend further into their respective disfigurements. The Palestinians become more and more entranced by the death cult at the heart of the Hamas movement. Israelis become more and more comfortable with fascism at home and oppression abroad. And religious extremists in both societies flourish.

What is needed, it seems to me, is an event that will break both the logic of war and the cycle of death/hatred. A gesture so different, so unexpected, and from so unlikely a source that it will shock and reinvigorate the dessicated moral imaginations of people on both sides. Only the strong can offer such a gesture, in my view, which is why it must come from Israel. One might wish that the Palestinians could raise up a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King, Jr., but that is not likely to happen for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, but mainly because the Palestinians are quite literally powerless. Ghandi was able to marshal the embedded power of nearly a billion Indians on whom the exhausted British Empire depended as a market for manufactured goods. King was able to leverage the founding mythology of the United States and the lingering Christian sensibility of the American people to make his case for an end to Jim Crow. The Palestinians have no such leverage, no such power. The gesture must come from Israel, backed by the United States, who together have power sufficient to give a breakthrough gesture a reasonable chance at success.

So, what I would hope for is this: Benjamin Netanyahu announces tomorrow that there will be no ground invasion of Gaza this time. Instead, he declares that

  • Jewish settlements on the West Bank will be halted immediately
  • Those settlements will be disbanded over the next two years, their settlers repatriated, and the land turned over the Palestinian Authority.
  • Israel will sponsor a motion in the United Nations recognizing the sovereign and independent State of Palestine, with Ramallah as its capital.
  • Israel will establish its permanent capital in Tel Aviv and turn over the the City of Jerusalem to the United Nations to be administered as an international protectorate with full, unhindered access to citizens of both Palestine and Israel.
  • What the Palestinians call the “right of return” cannot be literally fulfilled, but will instead be negotiated economically. How that will happen will be subject to those negotiations, but it may include a lump sum payment to Palestinian families who can trace their roots to what is now Israel, or it could include a commitment by the government of Israel to shift some percentage of its foreign trade with other countries to the new Palestinian state.

Only Netanyahu could pull this off. Like Nixon going to China and concluding the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union, only Netanyahu – head of the Likud Party; former Israeli commando; brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, a hero of the raid on Entebbe; American educated; a once-before Prime Minister; long-time scourge of Hamas – has the credibility to sue for peace at this scale and, more importantly, persuade his fellow Israelis that it is the right thing to do now.

I can just hear my Israeli friend Amotz Plessner roaring with disapproval, indicting me (in his endearing, passionate way) as hopelessly naive and dangerously reckless. But I truly believe that such a gesture as I’ve sketched above might have a chance to break the spell that lingers over the region, or at least remove the sting from much of the anti-Israeli propaganda that fuels Arab (and Iranian) hatred. Israel, for its part, would have made a gesture so large, so sweeping, that it could never again be accused of merely talking about peace while actually pursuing expansion and permanent occupation. Are there risks to Israel? Of course, and they need not be enumerated here. I’m sure readers will be happy to ruminate on them in the comments section, below.

My question is: Are the obvious risks of such a gesture greater than the risks of not making the gesture at all, of doubling down on the same cycle of death/hatred that has gotten us to where we are, teetering on the brink of World War III? In the long run, demography and the momentum of history are not on Israel’s side. If the Arab Spring has shown us anything it is that the formerly stable dictatorships – in Egypt yesterday, Jordan and Syria today, perhaps Saudi Arabia tomorrow – on which Israel relied for the maintenance of an uneasy peace are no longer stable and cannot ensure a sustainable balance of power in the region. A state of permanent war and occupation may be possible today, but can anyone imagine that in 50 years Israel will exist at all under current conditions? Or that, even if it should somehow manage to survive, it will be even remotely democratic?

My pal Amotz would say – probably will say – that all this is very easy for me to suggest sitting in my safe little office on the East coast of the United States. He’s right, of course. It is easy for me to suggest that Israel assume the risks of a gesture this large, but I return to my earlier question: Do those risks outweigh the long-term risks of NOT changing the dynamic? If we continue down the path we’re on, isn’t Masada the only likely outcome?

Do I think it will happen? Look, I’m no fool. No, of course I don’t think it will happen. But it could. As a Christian, I reject historical determinism. There is no iron law of history, no necessary descent into total war. Peace can be made. Peace must be made.

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