Greater Israel Converts to a Two State Solution
I imagine many of you are as focused on the U.S. presidential election as I am, particularly with less than three weeks until Election Day. When we need a break from looking at Electoral College maps, we can check an Israeli online newspaper to see how Tzippi Livni is progressing towards forming a new Israeli government following her pre-Rosh Hashanah victory in the Kadima Party leadership primary.
Coupled with the global financial crisis, these “main events” have naturally taken the spotlight off the Israeli- Palestinian peace process and indeed political pundits seem to agree that despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s last minute push, there will be no significant progress until the new President is in office and has put together his foreign policy team. Many also suggest that, assuming Livni succeeds in forming a stable coalition, she will avoid taking on anything too substantial early in her administration to avoid losing a majority in the Knesset and going to elections early.
However, there are others like me who are concerned that the status quo is too fragile to put on hold for long without negative implications. Fatah and Hamas are once more discussing reconciliation and any agreement along those lines will create a dynamic to which Israel and the U.S. will need to react. Put that together with a history that suggests that a lack of progress in negotiations brings more violence and all of the parties have an interest in keeping talks going.
In his last traditional Prime Minister Rosh Hashanah newspaper interview, Ehud Olmert stated once more that peace with the Palestinians will involve withdrawing from nearly all of the West Bank and sharing Jerusalem. Invoking perhaps the strongest language he has used to date, he explained his transition from a right- wing “Greater Israel” Zionist to a pragmatic two state advocate, saying “I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.”
Many of us came to this conclusion about what a just solution would look like years ago based upon a blend of our sense of moral responsibility and the reality of the situation. Committed Zionists in Israel and around the world staked out this position long before the hundreds of thousands of settlers dotted the West Bank, making the negotiations that much more difficult. While it momentarily feels good to say “I told you so” and “what took you so long,” let’s face it, it really isn’t useful. Rather, I think it is instructive for our work in the American Jewish community to understand the thinking of Olmert and others who have undergone this transition.
What do Olmert, Livni and Salai Meridor, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, all have in common? Their families all come out of the right wing Jewish underground of pre-state Palestine and all of their fathers served in the early Knesset as Herut members of Knesset. They all continued in the “family business” in public service, joining the Herut successor party, the Likud. All of them also followed Ariel Sharon’s migration to the center of the Israeli political map, with Olmert recently using a historical reference to make the point when he stated publicly that his father Mordecai was wrong about voting against the Partition Plan and Ben Gurion was right to champion it.
A recent exchange between Ambassador Meridor and a group of American Jewish leaders in which I participated provided a neatly organized summary on the thinking of these relatively new converts to the belief that there is an urgent need to arrive at a two state solution with the Palestinians.
Meridor provided the gathering with an overview of the diplomatic landscape regarding Iran, Syria and the Palestinians at which point the first questioner asked, with incredulity in his voice, how can Israel even talk to the Palestinians?
Meridor acknowledged that with the Fatah- Hamas/West Bank-Gaza split the situation is complicated, but he added that “nothing in this business is risk free and there is also risk in not having an agreement.” He went on to outline what he described as “Israel’s strategic strengths” which allow it to engage in the negotiations with the Palestinians:
- Military strength
- A strong economy that can support the country
- The strength of the spirit of the citizens
- Strong international relations
- A strong Jewish majority to ensure a Jewish, democratic state once borders are delineated
- This obviously didn’t satisfy his listeners, as another long time Jewish activist asked “what is the risk of simply not negotiating for peace?”
Meridor, sighed, suggested that he thought he had covered this already and then provided the flip side of his previous list of points.
- If Israel ignores the issue, there will almost certainly be a third Intifada, this time with more sophisticated weaponry on the Palestinian side. This not only threatens the lives of Israelis, but their spirit as well.
- Another result of the next Intifada is that within two to three years Palestinian society will be completely in the hands of the radical Islamists, turning a political conflict into a religious one.
- If we go 10, 20 or 30 years without an agreement, the demographic situation will speak for itself, international sympathy for the Palestinian cause will continue to grow and translate into broad-based support for a democratic, one state solution.
- He closed by saying, do not forget, Zionism was born in the context of European nationalism at the end of the 19th century. Sympathy for that notion is not overarching now and it behooves Israel to reach a good deal with the Palestinians sooner rather than later.
I believe that both Livni and the new American president will be motivated to address the Israeli- Palestinian issue in early 2009. As in the past, the American Jewish community will engage around this issue and express its opinion to both Israeli and American political leaders. Meridor has provided us with non-ideological, pragmatic talking points as we continue to develop support within the American Jewish community for a pro-Israel, pro-peace approach to the conflict. A new President and Prime Minister will both want American Jewish support for what Meridor acknowledged are not “risk-free” steps.