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Why Peace is So important for Israel – a Yom Ha’atzmaut Message

This article points out the importance of peace for Israel to be able to more effectively address climate change and other environmental threats.  It considers why a just, comprehensive, sustainable, mutually-agreed-upon resolution of Middle East conflicts is essential and will have many benefits for Israel, the U.S., and even the entire world. (It is from Chapter 7 of the 2nd edition of my book, “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalising Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperilled Planet,” published July 2016).

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“It shall come to pass in the latter day… that out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem….” – Isaiah 2:2-3

“And I will bring back the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall build the wasted cities, and dwell therein; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine; and they shall lay out gardens and eat their fruit.” – Amos 9:14

“Until Israelis and Palestinians are able to listen to each other, hear each other’s anguish and anger and make cognitive space for one another’s hopes, there is no way forward.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1)

Let me first make it clear that I am fully aware of past intransigence in the Arab world. I know that hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial are taught in many Muslim schools, and that some governments and violent groups like Hamas refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. The many outrageous acts of terrorism by Palestinians must be condemned and steps to prevent further acts of terror must continue. However, since I am a Jew speaking primarily to fellow Jews, I want to focus on what I believe we, as Jews, should be doing to work for peace. Instead of each side demonizing the other, we need to seek common ground and ways to overcome obstacles to peace.

An Important Israeli Peace Group: Oz V’Shalom/Netivot Shalom

Rather than offer only my own opinions as an American Jew on peace issues in Israel, I will base my analysis largely on the views of the Israeli Orthodox peace group Oz V’Shalom/Netivot Shalom and the views of retired Israeli security and military experts.

The phrase oz v’shalom literally means strength and peace, and that makes a very important point. Pursuing peace is not an indication of weakness. Israel can and must remain strong while, at the same time, seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts. Oz v’Shalom was founded in 1975 to present an alternative, more moderate expression of religious Zionism. They later merged with Netivot Shalom (Paths of Peace), which was formed after the 1982 war in Lebanon, in which a disproportionate number of religious students who combined their military duty with studies at Hesder yeshivas were killed. This, in turn, caused their teachers and others to question the direction that Zionism was going and take a stronger stance for peace.

The name Oz v’Shalom was taken from Psalm 29:11: “God will grant His people strength (oz); God will bless His people with peace (shalom).” The name Netivot Shalom was taken from Proverbs 3:17: “[The Torah’s] ways are pleasant, and all her paths (netivot) are peace (shalom).” The two organizations combined, because both are Orthodox groups committed to promoting the ideals of justice, tolerance, and pluralism – concepts central to Jewish tradition and law. For the sake of brevity, I shall refer to them collectively as Netivot Shalom. While the group is no longer active, I think it is important to consider their views as an Orthodox Israeli group that promotes reconciliation and peace based on Jewish values.

This movement originally began with a group of Orthodox Jewish academics that were alarmed by the growing militarism and intolerance they saw in much of the religious Zionist community. They became aware that religious fundamentalism was gaining hold throughout the region on both the Arab and Jewish sides and represented a major threat to coexistence. They believed that any effective counter argument in the religious community must also be based on authentic Jewish tradition. They were convinced that the established religious Zionist camp had drifted away from the values that had been its initial foundation. Unfortunately, this tendency has only increased since the 1970s.

As a religious Zionist peace organization, Netivot Shalom is in a unique position to counter fundamentalist and extremist political arguments that they believe have placed the value of possessing the Land of Israel ahead of other vital Torah values, such as human life, justice, and peace – concerns that have always been central to Jewish law and tradition.

Because they are committed to Jewish tradition and law, while at the same time supporting peace, equality, and co-existence, Netivot Shalom is able to enter into a dialogue with both the secular left and the religious right. They seek to effect a fundamental change within the entire national religious community and throughout Israeli society by endeavoring in the words of their mission statement to:

  • Demonstrate support for the peace process on the basis of political reality and justice.
  • Enhance Jewish unity and pluralism among Israel’s religious and secular communities.
  • Promote coexistence and support for equality for Israel’s Arab minority.
  • Advocate political rights for Palestinians and work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Netivot Shalom argues that the Jewish people’s special relationship towards the Land of Israel should not override the preservation of Jewish lives (as well as others). They view the pursuit of peace as a central religious value and believe that Jews have a religious obligation as a nation to seek and pursue peace. They believe that Jewish law clearly requires us to establish a fair and just society, and that attempting to achieve co-existence between Jews and Arabs is not merely an option, but an imperative.

Netivot Shalom sees the pursuit of peace as a political necessity, a religious duty, and an ethical obligation. They understand political reality and the necessity to require territorial compromise as part of any plan to achieve lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs. The State of Israel’s survival and success take precedence over the desire to maintain control over Eretz Yisrael Hashleimah (Greater Israel), including the West Bank (the historical Yehudah and Shomron, or Judah and Samaria). Therefore, they advocate making the painful concession of parts of the Land of Israel so that the State of Israel might live in peace with her neighbors. They believe that a peace settlement based on territorial compromise is necessary to realize the values of religious Zionism, which are the preservation of the Jewish character of Israeli society and the maintenance of the highest ethical standards. And they stress that their daily lives and the political life of Israel must be guided by the biblical verse “And you shall do what is right and  good in the eyes of God” (Deuteronomy 6:18) and the Talmudic principle mipnei darchei shalom (for the sake of peace).

Netivot Shalom believes that lasting peace can only be achieved when the basic needs and aspirations of both peoples are met, with each side acting in consideration of the ideals and constraints of the other. They quote Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a leading modern Orthodox rabbinic authority of the 20th century:

“Saving the life of a single Israeli young man takes precedence over the entire Torah. The Jewish law regarding saving lives must be taken into account when dealing with politics. There are now many who call for giving up not an inch of the land of Israel, who think not, that for our intransigence we may pay a dear price in human lives. The notion that the Messiah must come at the high cost of human blood opposes the breath and spirit of Jewish law.…In matters of territories, politics, and saving lives, the recognized experts are the army and the Israeli government. If they find that it is possible to give up territories without endangering lives in the community or the state’s very existence, then they [the secular authorities] must be listened to. (2)

Netivot Shalom also points out that continuing to rule over a nationally conscious Arab population is a threat to the internal welfare and ethical character of Israel. They stress that if Israel continues the way she has been going, she will soon be faced with the choice of either annexing the West Bank permanently and giving its inhabitants full citizenship (which would result in an Arab majority and destroy Israel’s Jewish character), or continuing to oppress an entire population as second-class citizens and being considered an apartheid state (which would destroy Israel’s ethical character). Neither of these is a viable option. Both would be the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, honorable nation (as some Israelis have also warned). So, while acknowledging that it takes two sides to make peace,

Netivot Shalom believes that Israel is responsible for forging and advancing a vision of a Jewish state and for acting in pursuit of that vision. They see the choice as between: A Jewish state governed by Biblical values, just laws, and reason – or a garrison state characterized by chauvinism, institutionalized injustice, and xenophobia. A democratic society, flourishing within smaller borders, in which the Arab minority enjoys full human dignity and civil rights – or all of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) at the price of repressing the political freedom of millions of Palestinian Arabs; Mutual recognition and co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians – or escalating destruction and loss of life.(3)

As Netivot Shalom outlines these stark choices, it becomes clear that it is long past time that we move beyond the current impasse and start using our wisdom and resources to seek a longlasting solution that will be of enormous benefit for Israel, the Jewish people, the Palestinian people, and all of humanity. While, as previously indicated, Netivot Shalom is no longer active, its essential message of peace and justice is needed more than ever before.

In a Netivot Shalom 1986 English Language Series article, “Religious Zionism Today,” author Janet Aviad argues that peace groups have difficulty attracting followers because:

1. The voice of moderation and rationality is always dim next to the voice of emotionalism and extremism.

2. The voice that introduces ambiguities and complications is always dim next to the voice of self-certainty and clarity.

3. A movement that critiques society and the religious establishment in the name of transcendent values is far less appealing than one which identifies the sacred with a specific social order.

4. A movement that speaks in the name of universal ethical values and the rights of others is far less comfortable than one that asserts the superior status and rights of the “group” or nation.

In a follow-up article in that series, “Education and Ideology in Jewish Education Today,” Lawrence Kaplan, a then Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University, argued that it is Jewish education that is at fault. He stated that the Jewish component of education in many yeshivas today is “overlaid with a coating of Messianic, nationalist Zionism” and is essentially “fundamentalist, authoritarian, and particularistic in character, having a narrow, if intense, range of concerns, and basically unconcerned with general universal, social, ethical, and humanistic issues.” Due to the increasing shift of Orthodox Jews to the right, this is likely more true today.

Why Peace is so Important for Israel

Peace in the Middle East is critically necessary for Israel’s future, and Jewish communities should make the pursuit of peace one of our highest priorities. Some reasons include:

1, Time is not on Israel’s side. As stressed by Netivot Shalom and other Israelis, if there is not a two-state solution relatively soon, Israel will face a situation in the future where Arabs are a majority or close to a majority of the population of Israel and the West Bank. Israel would then face the very difficult choice of either giving the West Bank Arabs voting rights, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, or not doing so and being looked on by much of the world as an apartheid state. Of course, neither of these choices would be good for Israel.

2. The unstable situation and the widespread hatred and violence in the Middle East could result in a wider war with devastating consequences for Israel and many other nations. Another war in the area could be especially destructive for Israel, since Hamas and Hezbollah have been stockpiling more missiles and other increasingly lethal weapons. Furthermore, the record wildfire near Haifa in early December 2010 should provide a warning of the potential grave dangers to Israel if her forest areas were set afire in a war by enemy missiles, especially at a time when these areas are often very dry from lack of rain.

In January 2011, Colonel Dan Zusman, who is in charge of defending about 1.5 million Israelis in the Tel Aviv area, said on IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) radio that “missiles and rockets from all fronts will reach Tel Aviv in the next round….We are talking about dozens of missiles of different kinds that will hit Tel Aviv and, therefore, the estimate is that there will be hundreds of dead, destruction of buildings, and destruction of infrastructure.”6(4)

Unfortunately, since then the situation has become worse and every major Israeli city may be threatened in a future war, God forbid, not only those on the northern and southern borders, and very frighteningly, it is estimated that there are now 200,000 missiles and rockets targeting Israel.(5)

3. Failure to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is making Israel diplomatically isolated. In 2012, the UN General Assembly approved the de-facto recognition of a Palestinian state, with 138 votes in favor and only nine votes against, with 41 abstentions. On December 16, 2014, the European parliament passed a resolution in favor of Palestinian recognition. (6) While the resolution is only symbolic, it stated that the European Parliament “supports in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution, and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced.” Similar resolutions previously passed by the British, French, Irish and Portuguese parliaments requested that their respective governments recognize a Palestinian state immediately.

Israel’s increasing isolation is indicated by a cover article in the May 22, 2015 Jewish Voice (NY), “Israel Targeted for International Isolation by the EU, Vatican and FIFA.” The article discussed efforts by a group of influential former European leaders to have the European Union (EU) step up its efforts in support of a Palestinian state and to consider promoting a deadline for the negotiation of a two state solution; the recent Vatican recognition of a two-state solution; and efforts by the Palestinian Football Association to have FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), world soccer’s governing body, suspend Israel, which would prevent Israel from participating in international soccer competitions. Fortunately the appeal to the FIFA was withdrawn, but future such efforts are likely if current conditions are not changed.

In addition, the campaign to “boycott, divest from, and sanction” Israel (BDS) is growing in many U.S. campuses and among groups in Europe. While I am, as indicated above, a strong supporter of a two-state solution, I oppose the BDS campaign, because many of its supporters oppose Israel’s existence or support a one state solution, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state or as a democratic state. However, support for BDS is likely to grow as long as the world sees Israel as an occupier.

Along with many Israeli security experts, I believe that the best way to reduce Israel’s increasing isolation is through a settlement of her conflict with the Palestinians and surrounding Arab nations, followed by cooperative efforts to improve economic, environmental, and social conditions in the area.

4. Although there are many causes of anti-Semitism, and it is never justified, one major source for anti-Semitism today is the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian-Arab conflict.

When Palestinians daily experience or see on television other Palestinians being detained at security checkpoints –sometimes rudely – and other examples of what they regard as humiliation, it builds resentment against all Israelis and Jews in general. There was a significant increase in anti-Semitism during and shortly after the Israeli wars in Gaza in January 2009 and during the summer of 2014. Although, unfortunately, anti-Semitism will never be completely eliminated, a just, comprehensive, sustainable settlement of the present disputes could be a major factor in reducing it. Also, when Muslims worldwide see pictures on their TV screens that emphasize 65 Yaakov Lippin, “[Israeli Homeland Defense Minister Gilad] Erdan: Enemies have 200,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel,” Jerusalem Post, October 9, 2013. 66 Barak Ravid, “European Parliament passes motion in favor of Palestine recognition,” Haaretz, December 17, 2014. 70 negative aspects of Israel’s occupation, it makes terrorism and future conflicts more likely, which will negatively affect not only Israel but Jews throughout the world. An end to the occupation would mean an end to broadcasting these types of images.

Of course, there is never an excuse for anti-Semitism, and, as discussed in chapter 5, Israel is doing many positive things, including humanitarian work in Nepal after the country was struck with volcanoes and providing medical help even to her enemies. Unfortunately, there will be some anti-Semitism no matter what Israel does, but properly resolving the conflicts between Israel and Palestinian and the Arab nations should be considered in terms of reducing anti- Semitism, among other reasons indicated in this chapter.

5. Israel needs a comprehensive, sustainable, secure peace to effectively address her major economic, social, and environmental problems. Israel has a large and growing poverty gap. According to a flyer, “Fighting Poverty in Israel,” from the anti-poverty and anti-hunger group Meir Panim, which operates 14 free restaurants throughout Israel and delivers meals daily to the elderly and homebound, “over 1.75 million Israeli citizens suffer from hunger; two of five Israeli children live below the poverty line; over 817,200 children face the daily challenge of hunger; and 186,700 of Israel’s elderly citizens are completely destitute.”

The educational and healthcare systems have suffered in recent years because so much of the Israeli budget necessarily goes to security. High school class sizes are increasing to as many as 40 students in some cases. As university budgets are slashed, many departments, especially in the humanities, have been closed. Many Israeli scholars have sought jobs in other countries because of decreases in funding for education and research, creating a serious “brain drain.” Israel’s healthcare system faces a major crisis as government subsidizes health maintenance organizations, and hospitals are unable to pay doctors adequate wages. For five months in 2011, Israeli doctors were on a partial strike, performing only emergency surgery. Israel badly needs peace in order to address its many domestic problems. Almost a fifth of Israel’s budget goes to defense and this is likely to increase as new weapon systems are introduced in response to security threats.68 Meanwhile, social services are often being reduced, and the number of middle-class Israelis has significantly decreased.

In July and August of 2011 there were about a dozen major demonstrations in Tel Aviv and ten other Israeli cities, protesting the high costs of housing and food and low wages. An estimated 150,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities on the evening of July 30, 2011, protesting the high cost of living.69 This is about two percent of Israel’s population, which would be the equivalent of about six million Americans, to give perspective on the size of the protests. Later demonstrations kept getting bigger, culminating with an estimated 450,000 Israelis demonstrating on September 3, 2011 in Tel Aviv and many other Israeli cities. (10)

The record wildfire in December 2010 made Israelis aware of how woefully unprepared the country was to fight fires.(11) Many requests over the years for more money and resources for firefighting have been turned down, largely because so much money had to be allocated for security concerns. While politicians knew of the serious deficiencies of the firefighting service in Israel, a succession of government agencies and ministers had failed to deal with the situation because they were necessarily focused on Israel’s security.

6. Israel needs peace in order to effectively address an impending climate crisis and many other environmental threats.

Some climate experts are saying that climate change could spin out of control with disastrous effects within a few years, unless drastic changes are soon made. If this crisis is not properly responded to, nothing else will matter. It is essential that the world focus its attention on saving the global environment, but this will be more difficult if there is continued instability and violence in the Middle East. Of course, this is also true of other world trouble spots.

Israel is especially threatened by climate change. The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense projects that, unless major changes that reduce greenhouse emissions soon occur, Israel will experience major temperature increases, an average decrease in rainfall of 20 to 30 percent, severe storms, increased desertification, an inundation of the coastal plain where most Israelis live by a rising Mediterranean Sea, along with other negative effects from climate change. On May 27, 2015, the temperature in Tel Aviv reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was also over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in much of Israel for a few days about a week later, with one tourist falling to her death from Masada after becoming dehydrated. So, it is essential that Israel find peace so that she can devote greater attention to responding to climate change. This is discussed more in Chapter 11.

Israel faces many other environmental problems that are not being adequately addressed, largely because so much attention and resources are devoted to security concerns. Far more people die from air pollution in Israel than from terrorism and traffic accidents combined. Most Israeli rivers are badly polluted. There is a shortage of open space. Less than 10 percent of Israel’s garbage is recycled. The flow in the Jordan River is less than a tenth of its normal flow, and most of it near its entrance to the Dead Sea is sewage. Since the Jordan River is the main source of replenishment for the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking, with resulting nearby sinkholes that threaten the tourist industry in the area. Once again, a resolution of Middle East conflicts would enable Israel to respond more effectively to these problems.

7. Benefits for Israel, if peace is finally reached, would potentially include open borders, an end to boycotts, international cooperation, and free movement of persons, products, and services across borders – all of which could lead to major economic growth.

Peace would reduce the need for military expenditures in all the countries involved in the conflict. Billions of dollars would become available for economic development to improve the quality of life for everyone. Peace would open transportation connections, air travel, maritime relations, and better telecommunications. More outside investments would be attracted, leading to more jobs and greater prosperity.

8. Because of the great stress on security issues, Israel’s progressive forces have been considerably weakened.

When people are primarily concerned about terrorism and other security measures, it is hard for a politician who is concerned about the environment, poverty, education, and other social issues to get a receptive hearing. HaYeruka, a political party led by leading Israeli environmentalists Alon Tal and Eren Ben Yemini that stressed a greater emphasis on environmental and social issues, received less than one percent of the vote in the 2008 Israeli national elections. This was so discouraging that there has been no separate ‘green’ party in later elections.

In a column in the Jerusalem Post, Larry Derfner wrote that when he tries to explain Israel to Americans, he asks them to imagine 80 percent of their fellow citizens being Republicans. (12) In 2015 Israel elected the most right-wing government in her history.

9. Threats to Israel’s security rightly occupy Jews’ attention but they also divert attention from other issues of great importance.

When I try to engage Jews on the need to apply Jewish values to the solution of current global threats, I am often told, “All I care about is Israel.” Many U.S. Jews support Republican politicians because they think they are better for Israel, agreeing with their very hawkish Republican positions, while ignoring their very conservative positions on the environment, climate change, social security, taxes, job creation, and other issues.

None of these negatives matter, as long as politicians are perceived as being “good for Israel,” which generally means supporting Israeli right-wing politicians. Jews have a special mission to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), but it is very difficult when so much attention and resources must be given to combating terrorism and to maintaining a strong military force.

10. Failure to achieve a settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict damages Israel’s image worldwide.

A poll commissioned by the BBC in December 2010 and January 2011 asked over 28,000 people in 27 countries around the world: “Please tell me if you think each of the following countries is having a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world.” (13) For Israel, the results were 21% positive and 49% negative. Of the 27 countries involved in the survey, a majority of people in 22 countries saw Israel in a negative light.

A 2013 BBC poll (14) showed the following: The U.S. was the only country with a majority (just 51%) with a mostly favorable view of Israel. The average for the world with a mostly favorable view of Israel was just 20%, and many countries had very low percentages of their people with mostly favorable views of Israel: Japan [3], Spain [4], Germany [8]), United Kingdom [14]), and Greece [15].

Of course, much of the negative views about Israel are due to misleading and false media reports, but a just settlement of her conflicts would greatly improve Israel’s image.

11. Israel’s long struggle to maintain security is making her less tolerant of dissent. One important example of this is the hearings that were held in the Knesset in 2011 to determine if the U.S.-based organization J Street could be considered a pro-Israel organization. Many groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, condemned the

hearings, with some comparing it to the McCarthy witch-hunts in the United States. Naomi Chazan, former president of the New Israel Fund and a former Knesset member, stated:

“Let us be clear about what is happening here. Proponents of a narrow, demagogic, ultra-nationalist, pro-settlement, anti-peace point of view have decided that every other point of view is illegitimate. They believe that only they can define what it means to love and support Israel and what is best for its future. In so doing, they undermine Israel’s standing as a liberal democracy, alienate its most stalwart supporters in the Jewish world, and sadly contribute to its de-legitimization in the international arena.(15)

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Former Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs and leader of the dovish religious party Meimad, stated:

“A large portion of the Jewish world, mainly the non-Orthodox, is drifting away from Israel and I find it very disturbing. We mustn’t push them away but bring them closer to us. They are allowed to object to legislation and our views. J Street is within the family.” (16)

There have been several other examples of a shift in Israel toward curbing freedom of thought and actions, including the following reported in a New York Times article, “How Israel Silences Dissent:” (17)

  • On July 12, 2014, four days after the latest Gaza war, hundreds of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest Israeli policies with regard to Gaza and to call for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. They chanted, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” The protesters were attacked by a group of Israeli extremist Jews chanting “Death to leftists” and “Deaths to Arabs.” While several protesters required medical attention from being beaten, the police made no arrests.
  • A similar event occurred a week later in Haifa, with the deputy mayor and his son being among the victims this time.
  •  In July 2014, Gila Almagor, a veteran Israeli actress received threats that she would be murdered on stage after she told a reporter about feeling ashamed after learning of the kidnapping and burning alive of the 16-year-old Palestinian, Abu Khedeir.
  • The popular comedian Orna Banai was fired from her position as a spokesperson for an Israeli cruise ship company after she expressed sorrow in an interview about the killing of Palestinian women and children during the Gaza War.
  • Haaretz hired bodyguards to protect its columnist Gideon Levy because he received threats after he wrote an article critical of Israeli pilots.

Because of these and other examples of intolerance by the Israeli government, one of Israel’s leading authors David Grossman stated: (18)

“The danger is that if such a process continues and if our isolation in the world increases – Israel will become nothing more than a militant, fundamentalist and inward-looking sect on the margins of history….The [Culture] Minister’s highest interest needs to be contact with reality, and [to allow] criticism to be as deep and wide and varied as possible.

Sometimes we need to also include what makes us hurt. The principle of absolute freedom to express one’s opinion is such a strong element in the life of society, and we are in a constant process of its erosion and even abhorring it. We are pursuing a narrow, literal “justice” that is more than anything selfrighteousness. In such a place, as [Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai said, no flowers or culture will grow.”

Knowing of all the positive things Israel is doing, it pains me to report the above. But I think it is necessary that Jews be aware of what is happening in order to help shift Israel back to a more democratic, tolerant path.

Recently this intolerance has spread to the U.S. where some disruptive groups tried to prevent the progressive coalition – T’ruah, New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, and Partners for Progressive Israel – from marching in the 2015 Celebrate Israel Parade. They were permitted to march, but, as in the past, near the very beginning before the part of the parade that was televised.

Another example is the booing and jeering of Orthodox Jewish Jacob (Jack) Lew – Secretary of the Treasury, former Obama Chief of Staff, a long time strong supporter of Israel and other Jewish causes including the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jews during the 1970s – as he defended the Obama administration’s positions on Israel and preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, at a forum sponsored by the Jerusalem Post in Manhattan on June 7, 2015.

12. If a resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be found, it would serve as a model for other trouble spots in the world.

At a time when military conflicts are becoming increasingly destructive and when so many human needs are unmet, as nations spend large percentages of their wealth on weapons, it is essential that there be a reduction in wars and violence. If Israelis and Palestinians – two peoples who have been at war for decades – can make peace, it could demonstrate that peace is possible everywhere.

Prospects for Middle East Peace

Based on the many reasons given above, it is essential that there be a comprehensive, sustainable, and just resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Of course this depends on actions and compromises by the Palestinians as well as by Israelis. Friends of Israel can win many debates, by pointing out negative things that the Palestinians have done in the past, and Palestinians feel that they can do the same about Israel. However, the important thing now is not to harp on past negatives and reasons why it is hard to negotiate with the other side, but to find common ground and solutions.

A key question I often ask with regard to Israel’s future is, “How will Israel avert renewed violence and increased diplomatic isolation, effectively respond to her environmental, economic, and other domestic problems, and remain both a Jewish and a democratic state, without a proper resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations?” I have raised the question often in recent years in personal conversations, in comments posted after online articles, and in letters to editors.

Nobody has been able to disagree with my assumptions or effectively respond to my question. However, two responses that I often received were to the effect of “Yes, but what can we do – we have no partner for peace,” and “Yes, but as bad as that would be, giving back land as part of a peace agreement would be even worse.” These responses were often combined with statements like “Arabs can’t be trusted,” and/or “the Palestinians won’t be satisfied until they have all the land.”

Prospects for peace are certainly not good now (as of January 2016), but we should recall that opinions about peace prospects can change overnight, which happened when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Israel in 1977 and spoke at the Knesset. Currently, there is an increase in Palestinian terror attacks, anti-Israel rhetoric and support for violence against Israelis, support for BDS, and isolation of Israel. Also, it is unlikely that any successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be as cooperative in security efforts and resisting a return to armed struggle. If hatred and fear continue to escalate among Israeli and Palestinians, conditions for both peoples will become increasingly difficult, and possibly intolerable. Very sadly and unfortunately there have been almost daily terrorist acts against Israelis since October 2015, which has created much fear among Israelis. I am heartsick when I hear about these terrorist acts, especially in cases like the killing of Dafna Meir, the nurse and mother of six, in her home, with three of her children present, on January 17, 2016. For these reasons, and the many others indicated previously, I believe that it is essential that Israel make resolving her conflict with the Palestinians and building positive relations with them a priority.

Statements for Peace by Former Israeli Prime Ministers

Over the years, many former Israeli prime ministers who were initially hawkish came to the conclusion that Israel must make painful territorial compromises in order to seek a peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They include Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert.

In January 2006, Olmert said: “The choice is between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority [which] mandates giving up parts of the Land of Israel. We cannot continue to control parts of the territories where most of the Palestinians live.” (19) Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Likud Party in May 2003, “The idea that it is possible to keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy.” (20) Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made the following statements: (21)

  • “I enter negotiations with Chairman Arafat, the leader of the PLO, the representative of the Palestinian people, with the purpose to have coexistence between our two entities, Israel as a Jewish state and Palestinian state, entity, next to us, living in peace.”
  • “I would like Israel to be a Jewish state, and therefore not to annex over 2 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Israel, which will make Israel a bi-national state.”
  • “I believe that it is my responsibility as the prime minister of Israel to do whatever can be done to exploit the unique opportunities that lie ahead of us to move towards peace.”

Views of Israeli Military and Security Experts

In 2013, an Israeli Academy Award-nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers, provided valuable insights on Israel’s security situation. What made it special is that its Israeli director, Dror Moreh, interviewed all of the then-living retired heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, and they responded with great candor about their experiences combating terrorism and striving to help maintain Israel’s security. These six men know much about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from personal experience, so their opinions should be thoughtfully considered. The strategic experts are unanimously critical of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and feel that Israel should be doing more to help resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in order to provide Israel with a decent future. Here are a few quotations from some of the former Shin Bet directors who appeared in the documentary: (22)

  • Avraham Shalom, on concluding that Israeli policy had become primarily about punishing the Palestinians: “We became cruel…to the occupied population in the guise of fighting terrorism.”
  • Amit Ayalon: “The tragedy…[is] that we win every battle, but we lose the war.”
  • * Yaakov Peri: “I know about plenty of junctures since 1967 when in my view…we should have reached an agreement and ran away from there.” In discussing his growing tired of pulling suspects from their beds in the middle of the night and watching the anguish of their wives and children: “These are not easy moments. They get etched deep [in your psyche]. And when you retire from the agency, you become a bit of a lefty.”

There are other examples of key Israeli security experts and others coming to conclusions similar to the retired Shin Bet directors. According to the Israeli national Security Project,

“The roster of former Israeli security officials who support the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long and varied. It ranges from those on the left to those on the right to those without any partisan affiliation. It includes senior political figures, such as former presidents, prime ministers, and defense ministers; seasoned bureaucrats; and apolitical experts, such as heads of think tanks. It includes some of the highest decorated soldiers the state of Israel has known, as well as civilians who have served in the highest capacities within Israel’s intelligence agencies.” (23)

Outline of Steps Toward a Peace Agreement

Gershon Baskin is a long-time peace activist in Israel and founder and former Israeli CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy research think-tank on Middle East conflict issues. The group proposes policy options to decision makers about the peace process. Baskin is also a weekly columnist for the Jerusalem Post and was an elected member of the leadership of the Green Movement political party, HaYeruka. In his July 5, 2010 Jerusalem Post article, “Encountering Peace: And We Shall Dwell in Peace,” Baskin discussed key points on the potential for peace that are still relevant: (24)

  • The basics of an agreement are well understood for what is “the most researched conflict in the history of conflicts, and there are more detailed plans on how to resolve even the minutest of details in this conflict than any other.” Every possible issue in the conflict has been explored in depth by Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams.
  • Until now, the peace process has been a failure, and time is running out, as current options may no longer be available in the near future.
  •  A majority of Israelis and Palestinians say that they want peace and are ready to make painful compromises, but they both also feel that there is no partner on the other side.
  • Failure to make peace would be catastrophic for both Israel and the Palestinians, since “the survival of the Jewish people on our land, of the Zionist enterprise in its entirety, is based on our ability to extricate ourselves from the occupation of the Palestinian people and to make peace on the basis of two states for two peoples.”
  • Since there is a lack of trust on both sides, based on a long history in which many agreements have been broken, there must be a reliable third party who will monitor implementation and verify that all aspects of all agreements are being fully implemented. The reliable third party must be able to act immediately with full transparency when there are breaches, “to call the parties to task, to demand explanations, and to insist on implementation.”
  • It is essential that President Obama become actively and directly involved and that intense, direct negotiations mediated by a leading American mediator be held, to reach an agreement that both sides can live with and that leaders on both sides will support enthusiastically.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu must, in effect, look Israelis in the eye and describe to them the necessary conditions for a peace agreement, including that the Palestinian state will include about 96% of the West Bank with the Palestinians given land inside Israel in exchange for the 4% percent of the West Bank that Israel will annex as part of the agreement, and that Jerusalem will be the capital of both countries. Because of mutually agreeable land swaps, about 80% of the settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will remain in place as part of Israel.
  •  President Abbas must also look into the eyes of his people and tell them that they will not be able to return to their lost homes inside Israel, but that they have the potential to build a model state using the latest technologies, create the first successful, working democracy in the Arab world, and have the best school system in the region.

Other Considerations

Some other considerations about a possible resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict include:

  • Several polls have shown that most Israelis, American Jews, and Palestinians favor a two-state solution. The problem is that both sides feel that they have no partner in efforts to obtaining peace. So confidence-building measures from both sides are essential.
  • On the evening of June 4, 2011, an estimated 20,000 Israelis marched through the streets of Central Tel Aviv under the banner “Israel says yes to a Palestinian state.” Organizers argued that the establishment of a Palestinian state would serve vital Israeli interests.
  • The terrorist group Hamas, whose charter favors the elimination of Israel, has stated several times that it would abide by a negotiated settlement obtained by the Palestinian 78 Authority if it was also supported in a referendum of Palestinians.85 Of course, no matter what promises are given, steps to insure Israeli security must be taken.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is an important choice that Israel and its supporters must now face, between (1) continuation of the status quo, in which case violence, diplomatic isolation, and current socio-economic problems will continue and likely worsen, and Israel may face the difficult choice of remaining a Jewish state or a democratic state, or (2) recognizing that the alternative to such a bleak and depressing future is to make seeking peace Israel’s highest priority.

The achievement of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Arab states will not be easy, but working toward it is essential to a decent future for Israel and puts into practice essential Jewish values and mandates: to seek and pursue peace (Psalms 34:14), to turn enemies into friends (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 23:1), to work cooperatively for justice (Deuteronomy 16:20), and to preserve God’s world (Genesis 2:15). Fortunately, there are signs of movement among some Palestinians who have recognized that terrorism is counterproductive to their cause and have started to build the infrastructure and economic and security conditions that can form the basis of a future Palestinian state.

Among the many blessings a just Mideast peace would bring is that it would enable Israel to strive to completely fulfill her true moral mission as a model of justice, compassion, and, most important, shalom. Then the vision of Isaiah can be fulfilled: “It shall come to pass in the latter day… that out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-3).

NOTES:

1. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London/New York: Continuum, revised edition, 2003), 189, 190.

2. Maariv, Rosh Hashanah, 1975, quoted by David Bedein, “Genesis of an Israeli Religious Left,” New Outlook, January 1976, 39.

3. Oz V’Shalom poster.

4. Gil Ronen, “‘Hundreds of Civilian Deaths in Next War,’ Says IDF” Arutz Sheva, January 12, 2011.

5. Yaakov Lippin, “[Israeli Homeland Defense Minister Gilad] Erden: “Enemies have 200,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel,” Jerusalem Post, October 9, 2013.

6. Barak Ravid, European Parliament passes motion in favour of Palestinian recognition, “Haaretz, December 17, 2014.

7. Raphael Magarik,“Do Jewish Actions Ever Cause Anti-Semitism,” Forward, September 24, 2014; MJ Rosenberg, “Sorry, Jewish Organizations, the Cause of Spike in Antipathy Toward Jews is Israel’s Behavior,” MJ Rosenberg on Everything, September 18, 2014.

8. Moti Bassok, “Israel shells out almost a fifth of national budget on defense, figures show,” Haaretz, February 14, 2013.

9. Ilan Lior, “150 protesters take to streets around the country, calling for reform of welfare state,” Haaretz, July 31, 2011.

10.  “Israel Protests: 450,000 Hit The Streets In Country’s Largest Demonstrations,” The Huffington Post, November 5, 2011.

11. Donald Macintyre, “Criticism mounts over Israel’s unpreparedness for wildfire,” The Independent, December 6, 2910.

12 Larry Derfner, “To Be Israeli Today,” Jerusalem Post, January 13, 2010.

13. Israel’s popularity climbs in annual BBC poll, but overall global impression is still negative, Haaretz archive, March 9, 2011.

14. “America is the Only Country with a Favorable View of Israel,” Washington Post blog, July 25, 2014.

15.  Sabithulla Khan, “Middle East Peace Talks 2010: Investigating the role of lobbying and advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. as spoilers,” academia.edu, Spring 2011.

16.  “Current & Former Knesset Members, Jewish Leaders Strongly Defend J Street in Unprecedented Committee Debate,” J Street Blog, March 23, 2011.

17, Mairav Zonszein, “How Israel Silences Dissent,” NY Times, September 26, 2014.

18. Gil Itzkovich, “David Grossman: Culture minister turning Israel into a militant, fundamentalist sect,” Haaretz, June 15, 2015.

19.  Greg Myre, “Israel’s Acting Leader Backs Creation of Palestinian State,” NY Times. January 24, 2006.

20. Bickerton, Ian J., The Arab-Israel Conflict: A History, Google Books, 2009, 195.

21.  Brainy Quote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/y/yitzhak_rabin.html#qiL3Xx40T3LkXws

22. Dan Ephron, “The Gatekeepers: Shin Bet Chiefs Air Peace Views in Documentary,” Newsweek, February 5, 2013.

23.  “Two States for a Strong Israel,” Israel National Security Project, http://www.israelnsp.org/the-experts.html

24.  Gershon Baskin, “Encountering Peace and we will dwell in peace,” Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2010. 77

25.  Reuters, “Hamas vows to honor Palestinian referendum on peace with Israel,” Haaretz, December 1, 2010.

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