Why the time for talking peace is now

Why the time for talking peace is now

Some observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict assert that both the Right and the Left have “sinned” against Israel. (”How Left and Right sin against Israel,” NJJN, March 14.) The pro-settler Right, they admit, has failed to acknowledge the consequences to Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.  The Left, they say, has failed to grasp the urgency of the existential threats facing the Jewish people, which, insist the critics, trump the “longer-term” dangers for Israel’s democracy and Jewish character posed by the occupation.  

The lesson they draw from these gathering storms is that Israel cannot afford to take meaningful steps to end the occupation or create a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

But J Street and the many high-ranking Israeli security officials who agree with us fully understand the perils looming before Israel.  Continued occupation of the Palestinians isn’t just a threat to Jewish democracy; it’s a near-term major security risk for Israel.  U.S.-trained Palestinian Authority security forces have been providing such effective coordination with Israel, according to Israel’s own top military brass, that there has not been a single Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel from the West Bank during the past year. 

But if we take away hope among Palestinians for a territorially viable polity, we’ll rob Palestinian forces of their motivation to keep fighting terrorism, as U.S. security coordinators in the region will be the first to testify. Settlement expansion in areas likely to become part of a future Palestinian state is the surest way to undermine the Palestinian security cooperation with Israel that helps prevent terror.  It jeopardizes the power of Palestinian moderates like President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad who seek peace with Israel, while strengthening Islamic extremists like Hamas in the West Bank. 

If we want to prevent Tel Aviv from becoming the next Sderot, and the West Bank from going the way of Gaza, the right prescription is neither perpetual occupation nor unilateral withdrawal, but a peace agreement. Perpetuating the occupation gives Palestinians incentives to fight Israel, breeding terror and the violent rebellion of intifadas, as Israel’s own intelligence officials predicted it would after 1967.  Unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon emboldened Hamas and Hezbollah, who portrayed Israeli flight from territory without a peace agreement as proof that their path of violent resistance works.  

The way to keep that from happening west of the Jordan River is to build a bulwark of peace with Abbas, with a safe, gradual, and fully coordinated withdrawal of IDF forces and of settlers from those communities deeper in the West Bank that will not become part of Israel. An agreed plan will ensure enhanced Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, reinforced and monitored by U.S.-led international forces, much as was successfully done between Egypt and Israel for over 30 years. 

The naysayers claim that the current Palestinian leadership is not a “credible partner” for peace and has not addressed “our red line issues like the right of return.” Apologists for the status quo shut their eyes to the dramatic concessions offered by Abbas on the issue of refugees and the “right of return” in the last serious round of peace negotiations with an Israeli leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. After Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded Olmert, he refused to resume the talks from where they left off.   Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security advisor, recently told The New Republic that “there was a deal to be done on [the refugee issue],” concluding that “although differences remained on all the key issues, the gaps seemed surmountable.”

The critics are equally off-base in their claim that J Street and its supporters have overlooked regional perils to Israel’s security, especially the rise of political Islam from the “Arab Spring,” and Iran’s approach towards a “nuclear threshold.”   Egypt under President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood has not only kept the peace treaty with Israel, but brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. They have been pressuring Hamas to honor the truce, and recently have been flooding the tunnels through which Hamas smuggles arms from the Sinai into Gaza.   If anything, this shows the durability of U.S.-brokered peace agreements with the Arab side, and their moderating impact even when Islamists take power. 

A breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian peace will help further isolate Iran, creating an opening in which to forge a strategic alliance between the Sunni Arab states and Israel against Iran, including normalization of relations with Israel.    

It is no small irony that the naysayers are speaking out as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are reviving hope for a renewed push for peace, and while the Oscar-nominated Israeli film The Gatekeepers is playing in theaters across the U.S.   The film offers compelling testimony from all six living chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service, confirming the urgency for Israeli security of the two-state solution.   Admiral Ami Ayalon best summed up their consensus when he told the Forward recently:  “The six of us reached our opinions from different personal backgrounds and different political outlooks, but we’ve all reached the same conclusion. Many Israelis and American Jews want to deny it, but this is our professional opinion. We’re at the edge of an abyss, and if Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t progress, it’s the end of Zionism.”

If American Jews are to hear both the voices of liberation from oppression and alertness to threat, to heed the lessons of both Passover and Purim, they will find no better guide than the thoughtful and moderate pro-israel policies of J Street.  

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