By Barry Rubin
There is a great deal of heat and passion about the difference between “left” and “right” views in Israel. Yet these gaps, at least during this era, are far less significant than people think. I’m going to tell an anecdote that illustrates this point even as it seems to contradict it.
First, though, let me quickly add that these debates have been very important in the past. After the 1967 war, Israeli society conducted a quarter-century-long argument that, in the end, had no material application. The question was: Should Israel trade territory (the lands captured in the 1967 war) for peace or should it keep most of them on the twin assumptions that Israel had a claim and that the Arabs would never make full peace.
This debate was at first an abstraction since the Arab and Palestinian side did not seek peace for a long time. Then it was disrupted by the peace agreement with Egypt (a right-wing government returned the Sinai). Finally, in a sense, the two sides agreed to test the assumptions of the debate in the 1990s’ Oslo process. (The peace with Jordan also involved some territorial concessions by Israel.)
The majority of Israelis overwhelmingly agree that the Oslo experiment was a failure. It showed the fallacy of thinking that yielding land would bring full and final peace. Some hold that the experiment was worth making, others not. What is important, though, is that the effort was made and the result showed that neither the Palestinians nor Syria was ready to make full peace in 2000. Nothing has changed in this regard during the last decade.
Thus, a new Israeli consensus was made:
–In exchange for full peace, Israel would give up all of the Gaza Strip and almost all of the West Bank, with either border adjustments or land swaps to adjust the borders by about three percent (for incorporating some Jewish towns just across the new border into Israel and secure the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway).
–Israelis doubt that the Palestinians were ready for a full peace and are more skeptical than they’d been during the Oslo experiment, which cost the lives of thousands of Israelis and actually made the West more hostile in the end.
–True, there is no consensus about precisely how east Jerusalem should be handled. What is basically accepted is the highest priority is incorporating into Israel the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (captured by Jordan in the 1948 war and with all of its Jewish inhabitants deliberately expelled), access to it through the tiny Armenian Quarter (about one city block), and the Western Wall, with the Temple Mount next. The Arab-inhabited areas are likely to be traded away to Palestinian state in exchange as long as there is no significant security threat to the Israeli portion of the city.
–Palestinian refugees must be resettled in Palestine, not Israel.
–The rise of an Islamist threat, including the seizure of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, made real peace seem even further off.
–The status quo really is sustainable for a long period of time. Yes, it really is. And if Palestinian misery is the motive force to break the deadlock then why don’t we see any eagerness to make peace, negotiate with Israel, end the “occupation,” and get a state on the part of the Palestinians themselves?
Within this framework, the governments of prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu have all functioned along similar lines. There is no strong alternative vision within Israel. The reason for that is that there is no real alternative to current policies.
Now, having given this context here is the anecdote. During a dialogue meeting, one of many, between different viewpoints in Israeli society, there was a panel discussion on which Yossi Sarid participated along with some who hold right-wing views. Sarid, one of the Israeli left’s most important veteran leaders, is now formally retired from politics. He is widely respected for his honesty, open mind, and his usual willingness to think “inconsistently,” which is to me one of the highest virtues.
According to the account, Sarid said: “There is no way to prevent the division of Jerusalem, and giving away Eastern Jerusalem and the Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian rule.”
Another panelist, Avi Rath, replied, “We have seen what happens when land gets given away to the Arabs. They [the Arabs] don’t just sit quietly and eat hummus….”
Sarid reportedly got up and walked out of the room.
As I said earlier, this appears to illustrate the wide gap in Israeli views, yet this apparent chasm is easily bridged in practice if not in the passions thus aroused.
Actually, such arguments about what Israel should offer in exchange for peace or claiming that Israel could end the conflict if it only did more–which used to be a daily feature of life here–are probably at the lowest frequency in 40 years.
First, both Sarid and Rath know that Jerusalem is not about to be divided because there won’t be any comprehensive peace agreement on the horizon for many years. This is an abstract debate. While Sarid and others on the left are horrified by the idea that trying to hold onto Jewish settlements or parts of Jerusalem could destroy the chance for full and permanent peace at some future point, they also know (unlike many foreign observers) that this is not the problem at present. In 2000, for example, Barak offered to yield on virtually all of these points and the Palestinian leadership still rejected peace.
Second, they both also know that Jerusalem would only be so divided in exchange for a full and realistic peace that would end the conflict. Sarid and Rath are repeating an argument that could have taken place—and frequently did so–forty years ago.
If Israelis are ever confronted with the immediacy of dividing Israel they would be doing it in a situation where the reward would be a credible end to the conflict and a remarkable improvement in Israel’s situation and their own lives. To make concessions in exchange for a great opportunity is tempting, to make them in exchange for nothing, a weaker position, or demands for still more Israeli unilateral concessions is not so attractive to them.
Even if this were to happen, some would still oppose doing so, yet their numbers would be greatly diminished. To repeat: a very high standard of proof would be needed that things would be different and that there would be a lot more hummus-eating than fighting going on. And Sarid would by no means be one of those who would accept less.
Third, despite Sarid stating it so bluntly, there would be a real margin for negotiation. Israelis have no particular passion for keeping the “Arab neighborhoods” aside from the security aspect. They have a very different feeling about the Old City, and particularly the Jewish Quarter and Western Wall. This is not to say that any decision on Jerusalem would be easy but that if everything else were to be in place this issue alone would never make peace impossible.
And finally, Sarid knows–and it makes him very unhappy to admit it even to himself–that the record shows territorial concessions by Israel don’t bring full peace and may make things worse at times.
You know what? That’s probably the real difference between mainstream left and right in Israel: the left feels miserable in having to admit that the land-for-peace approach with the Palestinians isn’t going to work until they make a paradigm shift. The right feels a bit more smug about it and in many cases are happy to continue having the settlements, though seeking far less territory than in the pre-1993 period.
I guess that’s how I know I belong to the left side of the spectrum: I would love there to be a two-state solution, even if that required giving up the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and almost all of the Jewish settlements (with minor border modifications to incorporate into Israel the large settlement blocs), but I’m certainly ready to accept reality. I may be unhappy about it but I’m not so stupid as to pretend the situation fits my preferences.
So Israelis can get quite heated about discussing the future of Jerusalem or other issues about the shape of a comprehensive peace agreement. But no matter how many media articles, conferences, plans, speeches, or whatever debate about Jerusalem or the conflict or peace one thing is certain:
Until the day comes when the Palestinian Authority offers a credible proposal that will bring full peace, resettle refugees in Palestine, provide serious security guarantees, include border modifications or territorial swaps, end incitement and terrorism, and include the PA’s ability to deliver the Gaza Strip, these debates will remain academic ones.
On the Palestinian side, debates on these issues, must less offers of real compromises or concessions, have not even begun. Let me repeat that for emphasis: These discussions have not begun, they are non-existent. Indeed, outside of the official PA line, which has not changed since 1994, the main alternative is the Hamas position. There are many in Fatah who sound like Hamas, albeit with nationalist arguments replacing Islamist ones and the next leaders of Fatah may be far closer to Hamas than is Mahmoud Abbas.
Peace is not at hand, nor is the division of Jerusalem.
Only when there is a clear Palestinian stance in favor of a workable two-state solution (and despite the blabbering of foreign “experts” and others this just doesn’t exist) will Israelis have to make tough decisions. Sarid knows it, so does Rath, and so should we all.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).