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Jewish Journal

Divorce is the Only Option

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

March 17, 2011 | 2:14 pm

Naming is the most human of functions. In the Bible, Adam named the animals and plants. Scientists name diseases, and in so doing they identify its symptoms, predict its consequences and prescribe treatments. Ultimately, they seek a cure or better yet a means to prevent the disease.

If we call the diplomacy, the give and take underway of the past two decades the “peace process” or a “return to the peace process,” we are confused by the events of the past years and deservedly despairing. Clearly, trust has broken down. Both parties do not trust the other – and for good reasons. How can the Israeli trust the Palestinian, given the nature of—just insert the atrocity de jour—the murder of babies, the suicide bombings and the societal support given to the murder of Israeli civilians? Who among us would suggest that they can be trusted, that Israel can build its future aspirations expecting that the Palestinians will be peaceful. And the Palestinians clearly do not trust the Israelis. We can argue over the reasons, but it takes no great insight to show that trust has broken down.

In reality, there is no peace process. What is taking place in the Land of Israel/Palestine is at best a divorce between the two parties, who will continue to live in the same “martial home” [land], even after they are divorced. Separation must now be the goal, separation because reconciliation is impossible—at least in the current climate, at least for the foreseeable future.

It is because the two parties do not love each other, cannot trust each other, and cannot live together that the divorce is necessary. Viewed as a process of divorce, Israel can fashion a policy that makes real sense politically and psychologically. And it can use a vocabulary that tells the truth to itself and the world and does not mock the meaning of peace.

Yitzhak Rabin had come to the conclusion that separation was required. Unlike his colleague Israel’s current President Shimon Peres, the driving force behind the Oslo Agreement, who dreamed of a new Middle East and articulated that vision in glowing – dare we say prophetic terms – Rabin was no dreamer but a pragmatist. The Palestinians did not want to live under Israeli rule and as he learned well when he served as Defense Minister during Intifada I, Israel did not want to pay the price of occupation, including the moral price of defending one’s territory by killing or wounding an adversary’s children.

For Rabin, Oslo was a divorce, the separation of two nations. The outlines were clear. Land for peace. Rational negotiations were aimed toward a maximum level of separation and maximum achievable comfort on both sides after the divorce. Incremental steps would be taken on the road to the divorce. He also understood contrary to the mantra of the Israeli right and the organized American Jewish community that settlements were an obstacle to peace and they were not in the security interest of Israel.

Israel’s instinctual response to many crises resembles the initial instincts of a spouse in a bad marriage—get even, respond. Israel cannot respond in kind to the brutality witnessed last weeks, but its Interior Minister urged building more settlements, pushing up ever closer to the Palestinians.

In the late 1990s, during his first term as Prime Minister Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who defeated Shimon Peres on the promise that he could find an alternative to divorce, thought that separation was unnecessary. He soon concluded that the most he could hope for were tougher terms of separation, better conditions, less alimony, less engagement, more land, less inconvenience at the end. Yet under his government, even Israel’s right wing was forced to give up the dream of the Greater Israel. Since then every opinion poll in Israel has shown consistent support for the separation of Israelis and Palestinian, which is distorted by calling it the “land for peace” formula.

Since ethnic cleansing remains unacceptable – morally, politically and globally—partition is the only solution.

Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak knew that there was no peace process. He so deeply – perhaps even desperately—wanted a divorce that he was prepared to be flexible—just not suicidal. His generous offer was scorned by Arafat—many on Arafat’s own staff urged him to take the deal—and Barak paid the political price of defeat.

His successor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also understood that there is no peace process. He promised greater security, a promise on which he could not deliver without changing the terms of the engagement between Israelis and Palestinians. His successor, Ehud Omert understood the necessity of a divorce and came close to an agreement on its costs.

And Netanyahu in his second round as Prime Minister has also understood that divorce is necessary. He wants to sacrifice too little for the divorce and doesn’t want to lose power in the process so he is timid; his policy vacilates and he was without a strategy even before the uprisings in the Aran world. His view was that Israel can live with the status quo, a view he continued to hold even as there is no status quo.

The imbalance of forces is so great that Israel’s overwhelming strength is its greatest public relations weakness. Palestinians were unwise to misperceive a reluctance to use force for weakness. It is strength, strength of character and strength of vision. When provoked again and again, Israel used force consistently and firmly and their use of force enjoyed overwhelming domestic support even as it caused disquiet overseas.

Some are uncomfortable with the image of Israel as Goliath, the strong against the week, the well armed against those less well equipped but such was the case and despite not understanding the role reversal, my Jewish brethren should not be displeased. Goliath wins most of the time. Perhaps only in the biblical fable does the young David emerge triumphant and unscathed.

I suspect seeing this as a divorce process not a peace process, as separation because of hatred may indeed allow us to see the outlines of a deal.

Israel should welcome the declaration of a Palestinian state. If I had been Prime Minister – a prospect no one should ever welcome – I would have done so a decade ago, essentially establishing unilaterally the borders Israel wants, vacating the settlements that are not viable and securing those it wants to maintain and then tell the Palestinian President that if he wants to improve on the current borders then the negotiating table is still available.

Pull a Jim Baker! As the Secretary of State, Baker once publicly gave then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir the White House’s phone number to call if he ever became interested in peace. Give Arafat the phone number of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office if he wants improved borders and more assets.

And if he – his Palestinian allies or his Palestinian enemies—choose to attack, Israel will respond as one sovereign state responds to an attack by another, which is perceived rather differently than the attack of one occupying party on the “powerless people” it occupies.

Critics will contend that unilateral withdrawal is a disaster because it rewards violence, it imposes on Israel the civil strife necessary to evacuate the settlements, and the Palestinians might mistake it for weakness, as was the withdrawal from Lebanon. They have a point—but not quite a convincing one. For what is the alternative?

Under the status quo ante, the radicals dictate the terms of the strife. Because Israel is an occupying force, its efforts at self-defense are perceived as aggression against a defenseless population and subject to criticism by external forces.

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, said many times, “I don’t care what the nations [‘goyim’ translated literally] say, I do care what the Jews do.” Divorce – not peace – is the strategic goal, not because peace is undesirable, but because it is unachievable in the foreseeable future. Israel therefore can shape a map it can live within not as a plan but as a reality on the ground and change the facts on the ground and thus the terms of the debate.

Marriage counselors and divorce lawyers well know that when all love is lost and there is no hope for reconciliation, the most that one can achieve is the division of property, the maximum separation of the parties so that daily frictions do not intensify the overall conflict.

And few marriages can end without outside intervention. That is why intensive American-led mediation is necessary and for the United States to remain disengaged is disadvantageous to all parties and should be unwelcome by all supporters of Israel.

Forget about peace. It is time for a divorce. Separation is imperative. Divide the assets, establish boundaries, and allocate resources and set firm ground rules. That is the most that can be achieved. And that is quite a lot.

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