Dear Mr. Greenblatt, I wish you only success as you set out on your bid to pave a path to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. You may be as surprised to be here as we all are to see you. And I’ve no idea how much authority you actually have, or what is supposed to happen when you head back home from the region. You may not know either.
But since this has not hitherto been your prime preoccupation, and since you are the first official dispatched here by the new president for the purpose of peacemaking, allow me to offer some insights, from the perspective of an Israeli who has unhappily watched well-intentioned efforts at peacemaking fail time and again over the years.
The Israeli mainstream wants to separate from the Palestinians, not necessarily out of any particular love of our neighbors, but out of simple self-interest. This is the only country on earth with a Jewish majority. And we insist that it remain a democracy. Since there are today almost as many non-Jews as Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, we need to separate from many of the Palestinians or risk losing our Jewish state or our democracy. We emphatically assert a historic right to the disputed West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria, but exercising that right risks dooming Jewish-democratic Israel, so we recognize the imperative to compromise with the millions of Palestinians who also have rights in this land.
Plenty of us also believe it is bad for them and corrosive for us to be running the lives of the Palestinians, to the reduced extent that we still do. (Israel does not control day-to-day life in the West Bank cities.) Most of us Israelis, for this reason too, are baffled by calls from some on the political right to annex much or all of the West Bank. Why would we choose to have millions of hostile Palestinians forced to live under our rule?
We also tend to think time is working against us. Demographers argue among themselves, and many of us argue with the demographers, but the general consensus is that, come back in a few decades, and the Jews will be outnumbered between the river and the sea. There is thus an urgency for separation.
Why, if this is so obvious, have we not then disconnected ourselves from the Palestinians? Why did we so frustrate your predecessors in the Obama Administration, spurning their entreaties to take territorial risks for peace, deriding their talk of multilayered security fences and other arrangements that would ostensibly keep us safe after a withdrawal to a slightly amended version of the pre-1967 lines?
Why? Because we don’t trust the Palestinians. We think we would be vulnerable to aggression they might initiate. And even if we were to put aside our doubts about the current regime of Mahmoud Abbas, we know he could be easily swept aside by Hamas or other extremists were the Israel Defense Forces no longer deployed in the West Bank. And were Hamas or other extremists to take over there, as they took over in Gaza after we left in 2005, Israel would be paralyzed. Everywhere in Israel is within rudimentary rocket range of everywhere in the West Bank. We managed to function, somehow, during 50 days of war with Hamas in Gaza in 2014. We would not be able to function for a single day with Hamas in control of the West Bank.
We didn’t always mistrust Abbas as much as we do today. We concluded, after the 2000 attempt at peacemaking under the Clinton Administration was doomed by Yasser Arafat, that Arafat was never going to genuinely come to terms with Israel the Jewish state, and we saw him return from those talks to foster the strategic onslaught of suicide bombings against us in the Second Intifada. But we did not regard Abbas as an Arafat-style duplicitous sponsor of terrorism, even though we lamented that Abbas failed to counter the false narrative bequeathed by Arafat, to the effect that there were no Jewish temples in Jerusalem, and thus that we Jews have no right to be here.
In recent years, however, we have also watched Abbas preside over a hierarchy that relentlessly defamed and demonized Israel, that incited his Palestinian people against us, and that did encourage terrorism. We saw his Palestinian Authority immortalizing terrorists by naming streets and squares in their memory, and paying salaries to families of terrorists. And latterly, we saw him personally escalate the tensions surrounding the incendiary Temple Mount, by hailing the pure blood of Palestinian martyrs spilled in defense of Al-Aqsa — directly contributing to the hysteria surrounding the site, and thus to the car-rammings and stabbings and shootings.
How, then, in this near-impossible context, Mr. Greenblatt, as a lover of Israel and doubtless as a seeker of peace, are you to succeed in your mission?
Peacemaking requires both decisive leadership and grassroots support — each benefiting from the other.
There is grassroots Israeli support in principle for an agreement because most Israelis, as I noted above, regard separation from the Palestinians as a vital Israeli interest. And I would argue that Israel has chosen leaders down the decades who proved their readiness for peacemaking, and has ousted leaders — including Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999 — when it feared that opportunities for peacemaking were being missed.
But there is no parallel on the Palestinian side. It seems to me that there is woefully inadequate grassroots Palestinian support for an accord, because the widespread Palestinian conviction remains that the Jews have no right to be here, and that if they hang tough enough, for long enough, they will be able to see off this iteration of Jewish sovereignty. Any Palestinian leader who thus agrees to the far-reaching compromises an accord would necessitate will be regarded as a traitor and betrayer of the cause.
As their veteran, ultra-credible leader, Arafat could have worked to change the mindset of his Palestinian people more easily than Abbas. Arafat could have impressed upon them that the only viable path to their independence winds via true recognition of Israel. But he had no desire to do so. Abbas would likely have been risking his life in seeking to tell his people the inconvenient truth that the Jews have rights here too. He chose not to.
How to shift this picture, Mr. Greenblatt? One word: Education.
Change what Palestinians are taught and told about Israel in their schools and mosques, by their political leaders and via social media, and you begin to create a climate in which, one day — who knows, perhaps even in your era? — genuine progress toward an accommodation becomes possible.
And how do you achieve that change? By insisting upon it, and using America’s leverage to have others insist upon it, too — as a condition for financial aid to the Palestinians, and diplomatic support for the Palestinians. Make the inculcation of a “culture of peace” a core element of your efforts at peacemaking. In the Obama administration’s predictably abortive attempt at forging a deal in 2013-14, the two sides did make some progress toward a joint document devoted precisely to this issue — to fostering tolerance and understanding and mutual respect. Israel’s one-time chief negotiator Tzipi Livni gave me some details in an interview in September 2014. Go back to that document. Revive it.
Educate, open minds, boost understanding, and you start to change the nature of interaction. You give your mission some prospect of success.
I’m not saying that all the onus is on the Palestinian side. Plainly, your administration is already giving some thought as to how Israel could contribute to the beginning of a change in climate. Already, the president has indicated some concerns over the settlement enterprise. President Obama’s mistake was to castigate all building beyond the 1967 lines as a crime of equal gravity. A wiser approach would be for Israel, in coordination with your administration, to refrain from building in areas that we will have to relinquish, however reluctantly, if we are to serve our long-term imperative to separate from the Palestinians.
There is also more that can be done to help bolster the Palestinian economy and freedom of movement, within the limitations of Israel’s valid security concerns. A thriving West Bank economy is unfortunately not a sufficient condition for peace, but it is a necessary one.
Mr. Greenblatt, you begin your mission in, potentially, a slightly more encouraging era than some of your predecessors. Shared concerns about Iran mean that others in this region are more ready than in the past to ally with Israel, privately if not publicly. There was dismay in parts of this region at the perceived weakness of the Obama Administration — failing to support reformists in Iran; failing to intervene when Syria’s Bashar Assad gassed his own people.
You have a clean slate.
Your administration is deemed unpredictable. And your president relishes deal-making.
What would seem to have been logical for years — the need to invest strategic efforts in education in order to create a grassroots Palestinian climate that backs compromise — was ignored by your various predecessors. They instead followed decades of conventional wisdom and sought to strong-arm the sides into an impossible deal within an impossible time frame. I urge you to defy conventional wisdom. Do the unexpected. It happens to be the smartest course.
Assuming, that is, that your mission actually has presidential potential to lead anywhere at all.