Why won’t Israel make peace with the Palestinians? On the face of it, this seems like a strange question. After all, doesn’t Israel repeat endlessly that it wants peace? Didn’t it offer the Palestinians 95% of the West Bank in the Taba negotiations last January? Wasn’t it the Palestinians who began the violence, the “al-Aqsa Intifada?” And aren’t the Israelis the ones that are suffering from terrorist attacks such as the terrible one that took twenty young lives just a few days ago?
On the day following the Tel Aviv suicide bombing I stood with a small group of peace protesters trying to get a simple message across to a shocked, angry, frustrated and confused Israeli public: There can be no peace, no personal safety or normal life for us and our children, as long as we continue to occupy the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. For 34 years the 3 million inhabitants of the Occupied Territories have lived under Israeli military rule. They have watched as tens of thousands of acres of their farmland have been expropriated for Israeli settlements, roads and military bases. While 400,000 Israelis have moved onto their lands across the 1967 “Green Line,” the Palestinians themselves have endured the systematic demolition of 7000 of their homes, leaving 50,000 people homeless. They have been brutalized, humiliated, impoverished, imprisoned. Even Israel’s “generous” offer of 95% left 80% of the settlers in place and Israel in control of Palestinian roads, borders, water and airspace. Israel has never seriously considered dismantling its occupation. It has never really contemplated “granting” the Palestinians a viable and truly sovereign state.
The war between Israelis and Palestinians is a cruel one. Neither side differentiates between civilians and combatants, and children on both sides are predominant among the victims. But here is where the symmetry ends. Israel is the strong party. It is a state that possesses one of the world’s most sophisticated military forces, including 200-300 nuclear warheads. For more than three decades it has been the occupying power, defying all the human rights provisions in international law that would protect the Palestinian population. It is clear that ending the occupation is essential for achieving peace and security for both peoples, and that doing so is completely in the hands of Israel. So if Israelis crave personal security and peace, and the Palestinians have declared their willingness to make peace if Israel withdraws from the territories seized in 1967, what’s the problem? Why won’t Israel end the occupation? Why don’t Israelis even see the occupation as part of the problem? Why, in the end, does Israel refuse to make genuine peace with the Palestinians?
I suggest several reasons:
- Strange as it may sound, Israelis don’t really know there’s an occupation, or think about it much. Israel, which faces Europe and has its back turned to the Middle East, has succeeded in insulating itself from the Occupied Territories. Israelis seldom use the term “Palestinians” and never “Palestine.” The people are merely “Arabs,” part of an undifferentiated mass, and the Territories are called by their biblical names, “Judea and Samaria,” integral parts of the “Land of Israel.” Thus the very idea of “occupying” one’s own country is rejected. But even if occupation is vaguely acknowledged, it exists in some far-away land which Israelis seldom if ever visit.
- The Israeli public is unwilling to see the other side. Israeli claims to the land are exclusive, based on tribal “rights” to the entire country. Both the biblical perspective and Zionist ideology completely exclude any Palestinian claims, considering them at best aliens whose presence in the country is only recent. Add to this the views that Jews and Israel are essentially victims and that Israel – despite its overwhelming military might – is fighting for its survival, and it is no wonder that the message of peace is rejected. Indeed, “peace” is viewed in negative terms: as forcing us to “give up” territory, to compromise our exclusive claims to the land, to become more vulnerable.
- Since there is no political context of occupation, Palestinian resistance is seen by the Israeli public as mere “terrorism,” proof that the Palestinians do not want peace. This removes all moral or political opposition to occupation, turning repression into “self-defense.” And since terrorism against civilians has become the most common form of warfare between the two peoples, both sides demonize the other, eliminating the willingness to even consider co-existence.
- Israel also has a political system which makes peace-making virtually impossible. There are no major parties. The largest, Labor, has only 22 seats in parliament out of 120. So unwieldy are Israeli governments (the present one comprises some 10 parties, a number of which are expected to leave this week), that it is virtually impossible to adopt a policy that includes the evacuation of settlements from the West Bank and Gaza, or allowing into Israel a significant number of Palestinian refugees. Thus, while the Israeli public voted for peace in 1999 when 56% chose Barak, the coalition system gave them instead Sharon, another general and the architect of Israeli settlements. In terms of peace, the Israeli public is disenfranchised by its political system.
- Besides ideology and politics, Israel has fundamental interests in retaining the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. One is security; Israel considers the Jordan Valley as its eastern security border, a conception that denies a Palestinian state any meaningful sovereignty. But Israel needs the water of the West Bank, which today supplies about a quarter of its water needs, its cheap labor, its tax money and export market, as well as its historic and lucrative tourist sites.
- Finally, Israel’s political leadership believes it can win the struggle, that the Palestinians can be defeated. Since the 1920s the Zionist movement, and subsequently Israel’s leaders, have held onto the doctrine of the “Iron Wall.” Israel’s massive settlement presence among the Palestinians, its overwhelming economy and military force, will, over time, simply compel the Palestinians to submit to a kind of autonomy under Israeli control – or leave the country. The fact that Israel enjoys complete American support, that Europe has no foreign policy independent of the US, that the UN has been neutralized and that the Arab world is prepared to make a separate peace, leads the Israeli leadership to believe that the Palestinians are isolated, with nowhere to go. Attrition, combined with military strikes, will break their resistance. This is the agenda of the Sharon-Peres government.
The public mood in Israel is one of desperation, despair. Yet, for all the reasons given, it is unable to break out of the spiral of violence, to do the one thing that will bring respite and relief to all the peoples of the region – dismantling the occupation. Its leadership gives the public no direction out of its tragic quandary, no vision of a better future. And critical voices advocating a way out – a just peace based on the end to the occupation — such as those raised in the sad hours after the attack in Tel Aviv, remain unheeded and unheard.