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Analysis

Talk to the Palestinians, before it’s too late

Op-ed: Zionism used to be committed to the quest for peace. That goal is being obliterated

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at a peace conference in Washington, DC, on September 2, 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left), and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at a peace conference in Washington, DC, on September 2, 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

On one of my visits to the Gaza Strip in 2006, I met with Ahmed Yousef, a high-ranking member of Hamas and the political adviser of Ismail Haniyeh, who was prime minister at the time. In his office in the prime minister’s complex in Gaza, Yousef boasted to me about a book he had co-written with a rabbi from the Neturei Karta movement — a book entitled The End of the Jewish State: Just a Matter of Time.

I admit that deep down I made light of Yousef for his ignorance and his drawn-out fantasies of wiping the State of Israel off the map. But as the year 2015 has come to a close, after three months of an intifada, the likes of which we have never seen before — whose attackers are lone individuals, and where three terrorists go out to kill on an average day — with no trace of a solution in sight, Ahmed Yousef’s fantasy looms closer with every passing day.

The dream of a Jewish state is fading, and in its place we are quickly approaching the reality of a binational state or a state in which a Muslim majority is ruled by a Jewish minority — in other words, an apartheid state.

Based on the fairly realistic assumption that no Palestinian state will be established here anytime soon and that the settlement enterprise will go on, let us be honest: This will not be the Zionist state that we prayed for. We may control all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, but we will continue to occupy another people. Either we will treat it according to the rules of apartheid, or we may grant it the rights of full citizenship — and then the composition of the population on which the State of Israel’s foundations are based will be altered beyond recognition.

The Israeli government rules out any territorial compromise with the Palestinians and refuses even to hold talks with them (including over the past several weeks, as reported this week). Even a temporary halt on construction in settlements sounds like a four-letter word. The explanations for the deadlock offered by Israel’s leadership are that we have no choice and there is nobody to talk to.

What is surprising here is the incomprehensible ease with which those words have become axioms and statements of supposed fact. The “lefty” media in Israel toes the government’s line, fearing to confront it on the Palestinian issue. The possibility of talks with the Palestinians sounds like the crackpot delusion of a bunch of leftist traitors.

Where are the opposing voices?

What about the politicians on the left? They are silent, too. It is much “sexier” to talk in the media about natural gas deals, social welfare gaps and plenty of other subjects, but not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We hear not a peep from Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. As for Yair Lapid, his opinion on the Palestinian issue seems to have gone missing. Anyone who knows where it may be found is asked to notify the police. Even the members of Meretz have gone silent, either by their own decision or by the decision of the media outlets, who do not want to hear about the conflict anymore.

The absurd thing here is that the axiom that there is no partner was dropped on us (out of the sky, it would seem) in complete contrast to the defense establishment’s position. All the defense professionals believe otherwise. In their view, a peace process is necessary to calm things down — which completely contradicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance that we will have to live by the sword here for many years to come.

Here are a few examples: Military Intelligence directorate chief Herzi Halevi said during a cabinet meeting that among the reasons for the “wave of terrorism” were despair and frustration among the Palestinians, mainly the young generation (as reported in Haaretz). According to the same report, one cabinet minister, Ze’ev Elkin, was quick to call him out because his statements appeared to put the blame for the violence on Israel rather than on incitement. Halevi quickly added that there was also incitement. Elkin then scolded Halevi for speaking in the Palestinians’ defense.

And what about Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai? We have heard nothing from him about the subject, but his deputy, Brig. Gen. Guy Goldstein, was caught saying on Channel 10, “Even if there should be a certain amount of calm, all the conditions still exist… We are sitting on a kind of explosive in this context. Unless significant change takes place in some if not most of the political aspect, it seems that we will keep experiencing what we are experiencing.” Goldstein added that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was restraining terrorism, not encouraging it. Brig. Gen. Goldstein has not been heard from since.

And what has not been said about OC Central Command Roni Numa, who was asked about what needed to be done in order to calm things down? Maj. Gen. Numa, who spoke off the record, made headlines in many media outlets merely because he had expressed his professional opinion, which the Israeli right wing evidently felt was not “Zionist” enough. He mentioned several gestures that it was possible and worthwhile to make toward the Palestinian Authority in order to stabilize the situation, even partially.

And what of the Shin Bet? Nobody there speaks openly now. Its high-ranking officials are doing their best to preserve their communications channels with their Palestinian counterparts because they know very well how vital the Palestinian Authority and its security agencies are to Israel’s security. But after a wave of verbal attacks on Mahmoud Abbas, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen said all that needed to be said, when he stressed that Abbas is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

But who pays any heed? What are all these agencies — the Shin Bet, the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Central Command, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — compared with the ministers of our government, who are so very well informed about what goes on among the Palestinians? Pardon my cynicism. The ministers all know who is a “good Arab” (none) and who are the radical Muslims (all of them).

So what if the professional defense echelon warns repeatedly of the collapse of the PA and a loss of control over what goes on in the West Bank in the absence of a peace process? After all, it is the fault of the Arabs and the Muslims, and there is nothing to be done; this is what fate has forced upon us.

The silent majority

Perhaps what is most dangerous is that the silent, cool-headed majority, has accepted this ostensibly inescapable reality and destiny. It has resigned itself to a state of affairs in which every day brings with it a terror attack, or two or three. It has bought into the right wing’s narrative that “there is no one to talk to.”

This is where we see the rare link between the common interests of Hamas and the current government: each wants a one-state solution, not a two-state solution. As the current government sees matters, maintaining control over another nation is a trivial thing, even at the cost of isolation and pariah status. For Hamas, it is a matter of time until the Muslims become the majority here and the state becomes a majority Muslim entity from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

What was not tried here over the past three months? Home demolitions, arrests of family members, the confiscation of ID cards, and so on and so forth. Brigades upon brigades of IDF troops were sent into the territories and to East Jerusalem, and still the flow of attackers will not be stemmed. Is this because it is the Muslims’ nature? That is what the right-wingers say. How interesting that this nature was not prevalent just six months ago. What exactly caused it to break out? Why did the Israeli government ignore, time and again, all the warnings of the professionals who urged it to talk with Abbas, to make diplomatic gestures?

Nothing was done. The government insisted before the intifada on not speaking with the Palestinians, saying: “Why talk with the Palestinian Authority if the situation is not so bad?” And then, when the situation started getting bad, it was “Why on earth should we talk with the Palestinians? That’s rewarding terrorism!” So we learned to live with it; as much as it hurt, it was still less painful than it might have been. And let’s admit it: Who cares that several terror attacks are attempted every day as long as they mostly occur in the territories, and as long as the number of casualties doesn’t climb too high? And we stay as silent as lambs to the slaughter. We have resigned ourselves to the evil decree because that is what the government sells us.

Let’s talk about peace

There is just one thing that we won’t do here: we are unwilling to try to talk with the Palestinians. About peace. Yes, about peace.

But what other option is there, exactly? To keep occupying the Palestinians until the Palestinian Authority collapses, as it will sooner or later? To go back to the cities of the West Bank? To build an apartheid state here for the greater glory of Zionism?

The defenders of the right wing will say once more that there is nobody to talk to. According to whom? Who said that Abbas has no capabilities or power? The man has proven over the past 10 years of his rule that no one can compete with him; he did the impossible by restoring calm and public order to the West Bank. (Did anyone believe in 2005 that there would be no armed men in the streets just three years later?)

But we ignored him. And even when the State of Israel pulled dirty tricks regarding the 36 prisoners whom we refused to release, the media quickly adopted the Israeli story without being honest with itself: Israel had not met its commitment to release those 106 prisoners. And when Abbas began a process of reconciliation with Hamas that was supposed to get him back control of Gaza without a single Hamasnik sitting in his government, the entire Israeli government leaped up and castigated the man who had made a pact with Hamas. It did this even though we all knew that Israel was making plenty of deals on the sly with Hamas’s administration in Gaza.

Now, every possible scenario we look at points to an additional escalation in the not-too-distant future. The Palestinian Authority will not survive here for much longer. With our own hands, we weakened and crushed it — and then complained that it was powerless.

So what does the right wing want? Do its adherents want to reoccupy Nablus and Jenin? Then let them at least be brave enough to say so.

And yes, I accuse. I accuse the Israeli government of blinding us with slogans and selling us the possibility of a calm that was not viable given the reality of an occupied people. Now it is only a matter of time until the suicide attacks resume and the intifada returns to that same grim reality we knew in years past. And what of my friends on the right wing? When that happens, will they come back and say “We told you so”?

For the sake of the State of Israel’s future, for the sake of all our children, I urge the government: go back and talk with the Palestinian Authority. That is the last thing that can still make a difference here, that can still create hope.

Do not utterly kill off that hope, as you are doing at present. A future of bloodshed, attacks and victims is no future at all. This country was committed to the quest for peace, yet that goal has been obliterated in recent years, that Zionist vision rubbed out.

Why not try again to talk to the Palestinians? Could it be that the fear of losing the governing coalition is greater than the fear of losing the Jewish nature of the State of Israel?

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