Facebook challenge—an Israeli-Palestinian accord

What can Israelis and Palestinians agree on?

Everything. Or nothing.

I was asked to address this question by the moderator of a Facebook forum devoted to discussing Middle East peace. I’ve joined a number of such groups in recent weeks, in an effort to help promote my new book, “Broken Spring.”  It’s full of lessons, and one of them—Egypt-Israel relations—can be a model for answering the question.

My brief experience with most of the Facebook groups is disappointing. All of them have “peace” in their titles, but the overall tone of the posts, with some notable exceptions, is extremism and hate.

Each event in the world that is related even tangentially to the Israel-Palestinian conflict becomes just the latest club to bash the other side. The targeted side fires back in kind. Preconceived notions are reinforced. Sometimes someone—usually me—appeals for a modicum of civility. Here’s one of mine:

Don’t you people ever get tired of going over and over the same old ground with no intention of persuading anybody about anything? Years ago sensible Israelis and Palestinians agreed on the Geneva Initiative, which lays out in great detail the solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict except for refugees–treaty, annexes and details. www.geneva-accord.org  Why don’t we all take a break from bashing each other and spend a few hours reading that?

The ideologues and extremists on both sides—those who truly believe that Israel is a cancer that must be removed, that everything Israel does is aimed at oppressing the Palestinians, that Israel intentionally and happily kills Palestinian babies—or those who believe that all Palestinians are terrorists, that all of them believe Jews should be massacred at every opportunity, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian or Palestine, that all of them should be expelled to Jordan or the moon or wherever—those people make up the “nothing” part of the equation.

I got into a Facebook discussion with a couple of Israel-bashers who assumed that I’m a mouthpiece for the hated Zionists. I explained that indeed I am an Israeli, but I am a journalist/analyst/author who has covered the conflict hands-on for four decades and is trying to provide some background and context. The reply was that this person has also covered the conflict for decades, though he’s never been within 7,000 kilometers of the region! I admit—I laughed.

There are issues and narratives that will never be reconciled. Who did what to whom, when, why. Which side has suffered more. Who has historical/religious/security rights to which sliver of land. On that basis, nothing will ever be achieved.

Israeli President Shimon Peres says peace can be made by looking forward, not backward. Peres isn’t right about everything, but he’s right about that.

Let’s examine where that leads.

Israelis are sitting on the edge of their collective chair, waiting for Egypt to abrogate the 1979 peace treaty that has revolutionized the Middle East far more than any accord between Israel and the Palestinians ever could. Israelis were certain that the day after the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Cairo, the treaty would be canceled. It wasn’t. They assume the new military rulers are just as anti-Israel in their own way, noting the frequent Israel-bashing in the Egyptian press and anti-Semitic statements by officials and thinkers, and cancelation is just a matter of time.

It hasn’t happened. It won’t. The reason is that Israel and Egypt both have vital common interests at stake, interests that require that the peace treaty remain in force, and more, that cooperation increase. That’s all in the book.

What if we examine the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, and see where that leads us?

If it is in the interest of Israel to oppress the Palestinians, annex their territories and claim ownership of the West Bank, and if it is in the interest of the Palestinians to claim Israeli territory or try to flood it with millions of Palestinians, then we can stop right here.

If it is in the interest of both sides to set up two states living side by side, then it’s doable. Notice I didn’t say “side by side in peace.” That might come later. And it’s secondary, anyway. Peaceful, warm relations develop over time. Or they don’t. Israel and Egypt aren’t particularly friendly, but they co-operate in many ways, most of which are not public. Good enough.

Neither side should be asked to forget history. Each side can learn lessons from its history, be proud of parts of it and less proud of other parts. But no one should be enslaved by history.

Instead, if the principle of acting according to interests is accepted, then it’s a matter of hammering out terms that both sides can live with, as opposed to what both sides believe is theirs by right. The benefits are obvious, even more than the bilateral benefits of the Egypt-Israel treaty—ruling over your own people and not the other side, economic stimulation, prosperity and redirection of resources from conflict to cooperation.

After a certain run-in period with the requisite safety mechanisms, security challenges would fade, as they have between Egypt and Israel, because of the interests listed above. Did you know that there is still a multi-national force in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, charged with observing the behavior of the two sides and pointing out violations? It’s pretty much unemployed—and forgotten. Few predicted that kind of calm the day after the peace treaty was signed in 1979.

For Israel, an agreement based on such interests means uprooting as few Israelis as possible from West Bank settlements—but many. Palestinians would get a contiguous, sensible block of territory in the West Bank and a corridor to link it to Gaza. This is achievable with swaps of territory.

It means sharing Jerusalem. If neither side is threatening the other, there’s no reason to physically divide the city. But after decades of bloody conflict, let’s be realistic—it will be divided, at least at the beginning. Arab neighborhoods will be in Palestine, Jewish neighborhoods will be in Israel, and the religions will administer their holy sites.

It means a reasonable solution for refugees. There are not seven million Palestinian refugees, as some claim. That would be an unrealistic tenfold natural increase in sixty years. No population has mushroomed like that. For example, the Jewish people are not even back to the numbers they had before the Holocaust of World War II. Whatever the actual numbers, some compensation needs to be worked out, some refugees need to return to Israel symbolically. These are just details, once it’s a matter of interests.

Other issues could be resolved just as quickly. They already have been worked out in the detailed and sensible Geneva Initiative.

One central part of this is: It’s a package deal. If we keep bringing individual issues to the fore one by one, then of course each side must reject each demand of the other side in turn.

A package deal would include a statement in which Israel acknowledges the suffering of the Palestinians and their right to a state, and Palestinians acknowledge the suffering of the Jews and their right to a state—and so on down the list. Both sides get what they need.

Can this be done? In theory, of course it can. The Geneva Initiative people did it already. Can Israeli and Palestinian leaders do this themselves? Not likely. They cower before their own extremists and are tied to their own ideology.

I’ve written for years that a solution will have to be imposed from the outside. It’s a pity, since the elements are all there, and everyone knows what they are.

The price of not reaching an agreement is more stalemate, more suffering, more wasted resources. Time is not on anyone’s side.

And before the bashers out there start in on me for this article, let me say this: I welcome criticism of anything/everything I write. That’s one of the ways I learn. But from this day forward, I will ignore the posts of the ideologues and extremists. This issue is too important for those of us who actually live here, because the choice is clear:

Everything. Or nothing.

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10 thoughts on “Facebook challenge—an Israeli-Palestinian accord

  1. “Peaceful, warm relations develop over time.” Actually, epiphany throws the switch, but it may come with war rather than peace as the humanity on the “wrong side of right” — and there is a good side, a truthful side, a loving side in the middle east conflict — as the search for answers, or justice, leads into a new intellectual environment. With the Egyptian story noted, the Egyptians themselves and en masse in extraordinary numbers overthrew the Morsi government inside of its first year. For the refugees of 1948, Arab and Iranian kleptocratic behaviors may tell them about how they’ve been lied to, manipulated, used. Their tension is between loyalty and integrity, and loyalty lasts only to the point at which the unavoidable perception of betrayal intrudes. Hamas human shields, wealth, tunnel millionaires, drug trafficking, taxation — all of that comes home. Also: the promotion of anti-Semitism as a tool employed by political sociopaths becomes more and more apparent to the bright and perceptive, and it doesn’t matter where their loyalties may lie. Eyes open. It’s not always about “getting to know the other” — it can be about getting to know the truth of things and things have been made to work by the powers in one’s own camp.

  2. This is Billy from facebook…again, I hope you can use me as the Palestinian that is equally serious about peace. I’d like to know what we can agree on.

    We can probably agree that Hamas needs to go, they show disregard for both innocent Palestinians and innocent Israelis.

    We can probably agree that Israel has made steps in the past to try to achieve peace. What I hope we can also agree on is that the past few years Israel hasn’t been trying as hard to achieve peace and should try harder to find ways to solve the crisis instead of escalate it.

    We can probably agree that a two state solution is the most likely way to achieve peace. We can probably agree that Palestinians need to get rid of extremist leaders first for this to happen, but that we need Israels help in this.

    We can probably agree that both Palestine and Israel need to try harder to achieve peace. Maybe you can agree with me that Palestinians usually start the conflicts, but that Israel usually escalate them in an unproportionate way.

    • Yes, I can agree with most of that, but what you’re missing is that Israel already offered the Palestinians a state in the quivalent of all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a corridor between the two, something that has never existed before, and the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but the Palestianian leaders turned them down. Once in 2000, which we all know about, and again in 2008–which most of us don’t know about. That’s because I’m the reporter who discovered the offer, but my bosses at AP refused to let me write about it. Apparently it didn’t fit their preconceived narrative. If we understand the importance of this, it makes all the complaints against Israel pale into insignificance. It means the Palestinains are unable to accept a state on reasonable terms. As I wrote, I believe the problem is the refugee issue — a promise to 7 million people that after there’s a Palestinian state, they’ll have the right to go live in someone else’s state. If Arafat couldn’t tell his people that’s not going to happen, then certainly Abbas can’t–and where does that leave us? Complaining about settlements?

      • I agree that Israel shouldn’t have to agree to let 7 million refugees into Israel, that’s just unreasonable if we are getting our Palestinian state (which I think is happening). I also agree that we have messed up but not accepting generous offers from Israel in the past, but we must keep trying…it seems like Israel has given up. I hope I’m wrong. We Palestinians need Israels help, we want that deal that was offered in 2000 and 2008, but our current leaders wont let it happen. We need Israel to try hard to make it happen, get the UN involved too.

  3. It’s hard for me to imagine what else Israel could do besides offering the Palestinians exactly what Abbas is demanding now at the UN, only to have the same Abbas slam the door in Olmert’s face. I write about this in my book, and in my conclusion, I agree with you that the leaders of both sides are unable to get back to that point or move past it–so a solution should be imposed by NATO or someone else, preferably not the discredited UN, which is largely responsible for the refugee mess. It wouldn’t be peace, at least not right away, but there would be two states and a recognized border. Maybe my grandkids would see peace emerge from that.

    • See we agree on that. And it wouldn’t bring peace right away, but it would be the first step. Once a decent Palestinian state is officially established and recognized, I believe terror will lose popularity and gain far more condemnation from not just Palestinians but the rest of the world, and slowly but surly terrorists such as Hamas will lose the power they hold over Palestine, resulting in less restrictions from Israel, resulting in even less popularity for terror. Basically an establishment of a two state solution will set a chain reaction that will ultimately bring our area closer to peace than we’ve been in thousands of years. They say a good deal leaves both sides unhappy…well extremists on both sides will be unhappy, but those of us who want peace will eventually get it if this plan we agree on is ever implemented.

  4. “good fences make good neigbours” is a pretty obvious truism relevent here. yet you say jerusalem can be shared. you make light of this matter cimpletely!
    anyway you know that the palestinian leaders will never agree to dividing jerusalem, as their ideaology of river to the sea and refugees returning lurks at their core and has not been subdued. (all different from egypt/jordan). so how do u justify your old fantastical ideas?

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