It’s 20 years after that hesitant Yitzhak Rabin handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, and tragically little has changed.
Palestinians are again killing Israelis — an off-duty young soldier lured to the West Bank on Friday, an on-duty young soldier cynically shot down by a sniper in the West Bank on Sunday.
The right wing demands an end to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, an expansion of settlements, a halt to Palestinian prisoner releases.
The left wing insists that negotiations are the only way out of the morass, that the settlements should be contracting, that releasing prisoners to the Palestinian relative-moderates strengthens them against the extremists.
The prime minister utters a slightly amended mantra in the wake of the killings: Where Rabin vowed to fight terrorism with one hand while pushing for peace with the other, Benjamin Netanyahu promises to fight terror while bringing more Jewish settlers to live in the territories. But for all the determined conviction in his statements, and his empathy for a settlement enterprise Rabin never embraced, he too is a hapless figure struggling to find the correct path forward. Like the prime minister he so castigated from the opposition benches 20 years ago, he is pulled one way by the hawks who declaim that Israel must hang tough against its implacable enemies, and the other by the doves who urge compromise and goodwill gestures in the cause of diplomatic progress.
Much of the Arab world, now as then, dismisses the Israeli deaths as the legitimate or near-legitimate consequence of the foul Israeli occupation. And the international peacemakers, now as then — from the UN, the EU, the Quartet and all — parrot their empty, blind rhetoric about the need for both sides to avoid actions that would prejudice the talks, and the imperative to recommit to terms for Israeli security and Palestinian statehood.
It was only a few short weeks ago, in willful defiance not only of past experience but of present reality, that today’s would-be peacemaker-in-chief publicly declared his conviction — in the dismal tradition of leaders falsely promising an accord before the completion of this presidential term, the end of this calendar year, the convening of this UN General Assembly — that an end-of-conflict accord could and would be sealed within nine months.
In truth, sadly, there was no quick fix to be had 20 years ago. No handshake, even had it been mutually heartfelt, could itself have been transformative back then. And no accelerated negotiating process, even if it involved two sides genuinely determined to find viable compromise, can remake the Israeli-Palestinian reality in a matter of months today.
There is a way forward, but it was given only marginal attention in the failed process that began 20 years ago, and it is patently off the radar for Secretary John “Nine Months” Kerry: It is called tackling incitement. And we won’t have compromise, and we won’t have viable coexistence, without it.
Official Israel is not without blame in this most fundamental of areas. We, too, have our textbooks, and our maps, and parts of our media, and some of even our most senior politicians, peddling a Holy Land narrative that excludes the Palestinians, sidelining them in theory in the apparent hope of somehow doing so in practice. On the ground, too, the growth of illegal outposts, and the expansion of settlements in areas most Israelis do not imagine permanently retaining, run counter to our own interests, and magnify Palestinian doubts about the possibility of compromise, despite a history of Israeli withdrawals — from the Sinai, south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. But most Israelis have long since come to terms with the fact, however unfortunate they may consider it, that there were and are Palestinians as well as Jews in this coveted, bloodied sliver of land, that our state was only revived as part of a plan that also provided for the introduction of theirs, and that we are all going to have to find a way to somehow live alongside one another.
On the Palestinian side of the figurative and literal fence, there is no such wearied recognition. The duplicitous, terror-fostering, handshaking Arafat of September 1993 bequeathed his people a pernicious narrative that claimed there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and by extension, therefore, no historic Jewish sovereign legitimacy in these parts. Remain committed to the land, eschew a permanent accommodation, trust Palestinian steadfastness, Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian womb, and you will prevail — that was the legacy Arafat bequeathed his people.
And nine years after his death, incitement against Israel’s very existence remains widespread — in Palestinian schools and summer camps, newspaper articles and caricatures, TV shows and advertisements, where Israel has no place, where Israeli cities have Arabic names, where the Jews have no Middle East history.
Arafat told president Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 that he couldn’t sign a peace deal then because he would be assassinated by his own people for doing so. But that was a consequence of the uncompromising climate that he had most deliberately created. Why, his people would indeed have asked him, are you relinquishing parts of our land to an enemy you have assured us has no claims upon it?
His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, though better intentioned, has shown little appetite to challenge the Arafat legacy. And Israel, and the international community, are heavily at fault for failing to demand that he do so, and for failing to use every scrap of their leverage to marginalize the hierarchies that inculcate hatred and encourage those that push for interaction and conciliation.
So the relentless anti-Israel material continues to spew out in Palestinian-controlled media, streets and squares are named in honor of terrorist murderers, and Abbas demands the release of the most ruthless killers as a precondition for peace talks. Why would Abbas seek their freedom? Because in the unchanged Palestinian narrative, the killers are heroes in a struggle against Israel that, all too plainly, continues.
This is the cycle that has to be reversed if, 20 years from now, we are to find ourselves in a safer, quieter place. There has to be a change of climate — wrought by a change in what is taught and what is written and what is broadcast. So that an illegal Palestinian worker knows his own people will try to thwart his premeditated killing of an Israeli off-duty soldier, lured from their common place of work in Israel to his home village in the West Bank. So that, if a Palestinian sniper picks up his rifle in the hills of Hebron and prepares to take aim at a young sergeant at an IDF position, those around him will intervene and prevent the killing, not hail him and hide him after the deadly act is done.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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