December 15, 2010
Can we ever admit failure?
The State of Israel was built on the very Jewish idea of taking personal responsibility. It was built not by whiners but by Jews for whom no miracle was impossible — whether that meant defending against an Arab invasion or turning a desert into lush fields of agriculture. Throughout its young history, this can-do attitude has been the life force behind Israel’s military success as well as its economic and cultural renaissance.
There is one area, however, where Israel’s can-do attitude has been a big failure, and that is in making peace with the Palestinians.
Success in business is clear — you create a product or service that people want to buy. But with the business of making peace, history has shown that it’s far from clear whether Israel has a product the Palestinians want to buy. This has thrown Israel’s macho swagger for a loop: If we can make or sell pretty much anything, why can’t we make peace with the Palestinians?
Because Israel’s can-do reputation is so strong, the country has been under enormous pressure over the years, internally and externally, to “do something” to bring peace. More often than not, Israel has been too embarrassed to admit that “we can’t solve this one,” that the parties are too far apart, that peace, no matter how desirable, is simply not in the cards at the moment.
But what if, in fact, this is the truth? What if there is nothing Israel can offer the Palestinians to get them to accept and deliver a durable peace with a Jewish state? What if the ugly, unbearable truth is that Israel can evacuate 300,000 Jews from the West Bank tomorrow and give up half of Jerusalem and that this would still not bring peace — and might even bring more war?
How does a macho country admit failure?
I got a glimpse of Israel’s dilemma the other morning at the Museum of Tolerance (MOT), where Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora, was giving a briefing to the museum’s board of directors and other community leaders. After Edelstein’s candid but balanced assessment of Israel’s situation, the MOT’s dean and founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said something so simple and stark that it seemed to stun the room.
“What two-state solution are they talking about?” he asked. “It’s a three-state solution: Israel, the Palestinians, and Hamas in Gaza. What do we do about Gaza?”
Hier’s point was that even if Israel can achieve the impossible and make a deal with Abbas in the West Bank, a mortal enemy remains at its doorstep in Gaza. How do you convince a terrorist neighbor to cancel its charter calling for your destruction? How do you make them stop hating you? Apparently, not even Israel’s ingenuity can crack this code.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the UK, seems to understand the conflict behind the conflict. In response to a Jewish community leader’s recent admonition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for lacking “the courage to move the peace process forward,” Sacks wrote that the debate is “deflecting us from the real issue,” which is that Israel’s enemies — Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran — refuse to recognize its existence as a matter of religious principle. And as long as this is the case, he says, “There can be no peace, merely a series of staging posts on the way to a war that will not end until there is no Jewish state at all.”
This is scary stuff. It suggests that even if we had the leaders of J Street or Peace Now negotiating for Israel, there would still be no peace. How painful is that?
The way I see it, Israel has one option left: Stop the swagger and start speaking the truth. The Palestinian demand for a “right of return” is a deal-killer. So is a return to nondefensible borders, and so is the presence of a terrorist state in Gaza.
Instead of looking so macho and responsible, Israel should just be candid. Netanyahu had no business calling Abbas his “peace partner” after the wily Abbas dragged his feet for nine months during Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze. He should have said, bluntly: “This is not the behavior of a peace partner.” By looking so darn optimistic while the other side looked so darn pessimistic, Bibi ended up looking so darn guilty.
The fact that peace is immensely desirable has nothing to do with the reality that it is immensely unobtainable. If anything, the more Israel has shown its desire, the more the price has gone up. The Palestinians have said “no, no, no, no” to every peace offer Israel has ever put on the table. Seriously: What are the chances that Abbas will receive a better offer from Bibi than the generous one he rejected from Olmert two years ago? With Hamas breathing down his neck, how likely is it that Abbas can even deliver on a peace deal?
Let’s stop faking it. The status quo may be untenable, but a fake peace process makes it even worse. There’s no deal at the moment. That’s the annoying truth.
Admitting this truth may not be macho or practical, but at least it’s honest. Israel should fess up that it doesn’t have the power to turn enemies into peacemakers. If such honesty spares us the pathetic spectacle of grown men pretending to make peace, that alone would be a miracle.