Several years ago my friend Susan Lourenço, who used to be an American academic, took me early one summer morning to a checkpoint deep in the West Bank. There, along with several other women in MachsomWatch, we spent the morning watching young–very young–IDF soldiers check the IDs and bags of hundreds of Palestinians on their way to work or school.
There were no obvious abuses, perhaps in part because of the watchful eyes of the women. A couple of young men were detained under a corrugated plastic shelter that gave them a little protection from the sun. A few mild altercations occurred between people on line and the soldiers; one or two of the MachsomWatch women went up to the soldiers and inquired about them. Slowly, the line kept moving.
This is daily life for all Palestinians who need to go anywhere, even within the West Bank. It isn’t what I would call a severe kind of oppression; it’s not much more onerous than our having to wait on long security lines and be searched on a really bad day at the airport. But it’s an everyday—twice a day—occurrence for many thousands of Palestinians, and in a community desperately in need of development, it’s a big daily economic setback.
Settlers and other Israelis, of course, move around the West Bank with no such obstacles. One day on that same trip I took the wrong highway exit and accidentally left Israel, driving my rental car into another part of East Jerusalem. Finding my way back, I saw a huge line of cars waiting to be checked. But I noticed that there was an open lane adjacent to the line and, feeling sheepish, guilty, and a bit adventurous, I drove down it, passing the waiting cars. It led to the other side of the IDF booth, where I stopped. A soldier looked at my passport and waved me on.
The need for these security measures is not lost on me; along with the security fence, they have reduced terror-related deaths from hundreds a year to zero. I don’t question that. But, like many Israelis today, I do question how long this situation can go on.
Many savvy people in the field of international relations are saying that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is slowly closing. At this moment in history, the idea of a Jewish and a Palestinian state side by side is widely accepted throughout the world, even much of the Arab world. Some very big sticking points, especially the exact path of the border and the question of a right of return for Palestinians to Israel proper, remain to be worked out. No one thinks that will be easy.
But a growing number of voices outside the Jewish world are calling for a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. If these voices prevail, along with those of the settlers who believe in Greater Israel, there will be a majority-Arab state that will inevitably become either non-Jewish or non-democratic. The world reluctantly tolerates many Israeli compromises with democracy, from the treatment of Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens to the ongoing but temporary occupation of the West Bank.
Any Jew who thinks the same world will stretch its tolerance to accommodate a single state in which a Jewish minority permanently rules an Arab majority does not understand that world. Such a state would truly be the apartheid state that Israel is now unjustly accused of being. It would be internally unstable, the target of relentless hostility from its Arab neighbors, and a country far more isolated on the world scene than it is now. And yes, that is possible.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for a month now, governing from a conservative coalition. But he is a pragmatist, and on May 17th he will have his pragmatism tested in his first meeting with our new president. He will find Mr. Obama to be exceedingly intelligent, well informed, sympathetic, and prepared to act in the best interests of the people of the United States.
This president, unlike the last, may not feel that those interests are exactly super-imposable on the interests of Israel. He will be friendly, no doubt, and he will be looking over his shoulder at his supporters in the American Jewish community. But he will want very much to move the Middle East situation forward toward the two-state solution that is for the moment widely accepted.
That means, ultimately, rights, respect, freedom of movement, pride, independence, and a real chance at prosperity for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This cannot be achieved in a simple-minded way, and it will never happen except against the background of true and lasting military security for the Jewish state. But it is increasingly clear that the same security will be even more threatened by indefinitely prolonging the current stalemate.
The women of MachsomWatch, whether or not they are religious, have taken to heart the mitzvah—the commandment—that appears three times in the Torah: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
If there is going to be a Jewish state in Israel fifty years from now—and I hope with all my heart that there will be—it is going to have to be one that treats the Arab stranger in its midst without wrong or oppression, and, almost certainly, one that lives side by side with a free, democratic, proud, and prosperous Palestinian state. If this is impossible, Israel is impossible.
Might this "soft oppression" abate when there is real certainty that it is safe to allow Palestinians unfettered movement through Israel and the West Bank? My impression is that the deciding factor is aggression against Israeli Jews, a subject you have written about copiously on this website. When there is no longer a risk of terrorist infiltration or widespread sympathy for those who would murder Jews, I can’t imagine the Israelis deliberately mistreating Palestinians or having any reason to oppress the stranger. Will the same be true for Jews in Arab-Muslim lands? Was it ever? Is this even a concern for those same "reluctantly tolerant" voices you mention in your post?
I write out of admiration and respect for your work.
I am sharing Mel’s worries and sadness since I agree with his analysis of the situation. To this, I would also like to add some of the words delivered by Tzipi Livni to the AIPAC meeting last week
She said, “As a Jew and a human being, Israel’s existence as both a Jewish State and as a democracy are critically important to me. These values must exist in harmony not in contradiction… To achieve this we need to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. This is not a technical matter; it is a matter of our survival. And in the choice between giving up our values, the "reason d’etre" of Israel, and giving up part of the land – I choose the land. It is for this reason that I believe that embracing the vision of two States for two peoples – a vision that was recognized by the UN in 1947, and embraced by the United States – is not an Israeli concession but an Israeli interest.”
Your demand of ceasing all aggression against Israel as a precondition for two states might simply never happen. Your hope for “no longer a risk of terrorist infiltration or widespread sympathy for those who would murder Jews” would hopefully emerge when we enjoy productive relations as neighbors. Currently the Palestinians have no good reason to like us or trust us. Unfortunately, “the Israelis deliberately mistreating Palestinians” need not any imagination. There are too many examples of it.
Israel, as a mighty state, can and should take the risk of having a Palestinian state next to it. The more successful this state would be, and the more economical and cultural ties with Israel it would have, the less reasons it would have to try to eliminate us. We cannot make them our lovers as a precondition to reach a solution. As Livni stated correctly, “[The two state solution] is not an Israeli concession but an Israeli interest.”
Thanks for your response. It seems to me that Arab refusal of Israel isn’t entirely dependent on land-for -peace. Would there were a neat and simple way out of this mess! Just give them the West Bank, Golan, East J’lem and let all their descendants come back to Israel as if 1948, 67 etc…had never happened, and all will be well, living side by side in paradise. This increasingly appears a mistaken assumption. Is there anything Israel can do to make its Arab-Muslim neighbors like it? This is a question that cannot be answered, except by Arab-Muslims who reject the very idea of a Jewish Israel.
I instinctively agree with you, Livni and Mel. Practically, I have strong doubts as to the efficacy of giving land-for-peace after Gaza. What if a Hamas-ruled Palestine is established, with to the north a Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon and an atomic Iran? What then? Rockets will rain on Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. What will Israel be asked to give up then, short of its very existence?
Dear Marc and Shlomit,
Thank you for these valuable contributions. I feel like the comical rabbi in the old story who is supposed to settle a dispute. The first claimant tells his tale, and the rabbi says, "You are right!" The second presents his contrasting case, and the rabbi replies, "You are right!" A witness says, "But rabbi, they can’t both be right." And the rabbi says, "You, takeh, are also right!"
Yet perhaps in this case there is a way for both of you to be right. I fully understand the tremendous safety that has been gained by the security fence and the checkpoints. But isn’t that a short-term safety? What about the demographic danger in the long term that goes with continuing occupation? What about the dangers of a world in which sympathy for Israel steadily declines, even in the United States? As Shlomit says, if Israel waits until terrorism goes to zero before making a move, it may never happen.
I don’t think we have to imagine any sudden changes. I only imagine an Israel that is pursuing a possible safe haven of future peace with the same boldness and determination it has shown in preparing the safe haven of military self-defense. I admire Livni, whom I have written about in a past blog, and I agree with Shlomit that this speech last week was heartfelt, patriotic, and pragmatic. Livni is no leftist and no fool, and I believe she represents the long-term future of Israel. Naivete about Israel’s enemies will absolutely never do, but neither, I think, will a naive belief that the current situation will solve itself, or that it can go on indefinitely.
Thank you both again for your thoughtful comments,
Shabbat shalom, Mel
It’s good to be reading your words again, and the glimmers of hope
that show up there as well as in comments. How often, though, have
we felt on the verge of some fresh resolve, only to see it implode!
The vision of a democratic successful Palestinian state that majorly
accepts Israel lifts the heart and convinces the mind. But does the
wherewithal exist at all among the Palestinians and their Arab
surround? And Israel seems so divided too. But if Obama shows some
tough love, mi yodea?
By the way, that "You know, you’re both right!" joke has always had,
in my frequent telling, the Rabbi’s *wife* intervening with the key
Mr. Felstiner, you are also right!
I think we are all coming from the same place, more or less, neither too right or too left for anyone’s good. A nice place to stand.
Mel, I appreciate your thoughts. Something tells me that "world opinion" will always find a way to blame Israel for more than can possible be her fault. I see little or no sign that hasbara has any effect. Many people even see it as grovelling. I have my own roundabout conversations on my blog with people who not only know nothing about the history of this conflict, but have no desire to know. It is like preaching to a wall.
My thought is that many otherwise reasonable people come down hard on Israel because they see the Jews as malleable, receptive to criticism. These same people probably see Arabs as intractable and hotheaded. Therefore it makes practical sense to criticize the Jews for what the Arabs have done to them, because at least you can pretend to expect results.
A way out?
Yours is a depressing analysis of world opinion, but I fear it is right. Israel is held to a higher standard than its neighbors because it has always met a higher standard, and therefore it gets the lion’s share of the criticism because it fails to meet an even higher standard. Thus the Catch-22 of fighting an enemy who is held by the world to a much lower standard, and can do whatever it likes while the world criticizes Israel.