Among Israelis and Palestinians, as across the international community, there are proponents and opponents of the peace process. Proponents of the peace process speak of the need for a two-state solution, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with economically viable borders, though presumably demilitarized because of Israel’s security concerns. Opponents of the two-state solution—excepting extremists who dream of settling the conflict by total annihilation of the other—fall into two opposite camps. There are those who believe that a sovereign state of Palestine in most or all of the West Bank and Gaza would constitute a mortal threat to the future of the Jewish state and there are those who believe that no viable Palestinian state can possibly be established in the West Bank and Gaza and who therefore advocate a one-state-solution. This however is rejected by those who fear that this would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Then there is the disagreement between socalled “realists” and “idealists” among proponents of peace and a two-state-solution. The realists say they would like to see the peace process advance but they are not sure this is the time to advance it. Who has not heard concerned Jews and non-Jews point out that the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians makes no sense at this point because the Palestinians are internally divided and so there is no one there to make peace with? In contrast, idealists (such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Brith Tzedek v'Shalom, or Americans for Peace Now) took heart by President Obama's inauguration and the initiatives, taken early on in his administration, to revive the peace process at a time when on the Israeli side there seemed no one to make peace with, and the process appeared all but dead.
Is it possible that the pursuit of Middle East peace is a semantic folly and does more damage than harm, at least at this stage? No one wants to appear as intransigent, no one wants to admit that they actually benefit from conflict more than they would from compromise. But claiming to pursue peace (something most admit is unattainable) has by now turned into a tool for the perpetuation of conflict. Peace rhetoric may serve as a mere pretext for politicians and governments to improve their image in front of a world audience that is insufficiently familiar with the intricacy of the problems and hence naïvely longs for an unrealistic resolution. Peace rhetoric allows painting the other as an inveterate enemy of peace, while indigent populations can be violently repressed as threatening the peace, and military aid can continue to flow into an industry based on the production and testing of sophisticated defense technology, all in the interest of peace.
Is it useful for Israel to have the Palestinians divided into irreconcilable camps, one of which fits the mold of radical Islamism and the other appears as corrupt and powerless? Perhaps not in the long run, but for the time being it allows for a significant part of the Israeli electorate to be held hostage by the right-wing religious nationalist settlers who have little to gain and much to lose by the establishment of a Palestinian state. Since January 20, 2009, the call for a permanent settlement of final status issues and for the implementation of the two-state-solution, that is: the threat of peace, has hastened the aggressive settlement policies pursued in the occupied territories and in annexed East Jerusalem, it has accelerated the evictions of Palestinians from their homes under the pretense of law-enforcement, and it has added urgency to the revoking of residency permits in Jerusalem, all of which is part of the concerted attempt to accomplish a “silent transfer.”
Perhaps it is futile to press for a political settlement. Any peace between Israel and the Palestinians, even if this entailed full sovereignty for Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza and sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, also entails for Palestinians to accept the division of what they regard as their ancestral homeland, their homes, cities, lands, and villages. Why should they be compelled to make peace and accept the finality of the partition of Palestine? And why should Israelis enter into a peace agreement with the Palestinians knowing full well that Palestinians can never be fully reconciled to a Jewish state anywhere in historical Palestine, even though they might temporarily be compelled to put up with it.
But there is a whole other view, one that also resonates with many Israelis and Palestinians, although it is less well understood abroad. A few months ago I attended a lecture by Dr. Abuelaish, a gynecologist and advocate of education and health clinics for women in Gaza, who lost two of his teenage daughters to an airstrike of the IDF on his private residence in Gaza during the December 2008/January 2009 incursion into the densely populated Palestinian enclave. (The Israeli army later apologized for what appeared to have been a completely unmotivated attack on the apartment building, though it took Dr. Abuelaish months to extract this apology.) During his lecture at Northeastern University, Dr. Abuelaish echoed a view I had first encountered among my Israeli friends when I visited the country last summer. What my friends had said was that no one believed in a solution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict anymore. The conflict cannot be solved, it can only be managed. Dr. Abuelaish recommended something similar. Please stop talking about peace, he said. There is no peace, and there may never be peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But, he continued, we can achieve something that is far more urgent and may have much greater impact on the lives of Jews and Arabs, and that is to remember that the enemy is still a human being. His message was that peace-rhetoric merely obfuscates what must be the primary goal for all of us, namely, to stop demonizing one another.
Peace requires shared or equal sovereignty, i.e., statehood that applies to Jews and Arabs alike, whether in a single bi-national state or in two states or in some other form of political organization. Israel is already a sovereign state, but Palestine is not, and as a stateless entity, Palestinians cannot make “peace” with Israel. Only a state can make peace with another state; a stateless people cannot make peace with the power that renders it stateless, and as long as the Palestinians regard themselves as a nation and Palestine as their homeland, they cannot make peace with Israel in the sense of reconciling themselves to the fact that the Jews have a state in historical Palestine but they do not. Peace, or a declaration of peace, cannot be the precondition of Palestinian statehood, which is a matter of dignity, justice and the right to national self-determination, a right Jews have justly claimed for themselves for over sixty years. (In this connection it must not be forgotten that it was not Israel alone but the Arab states, supported by England and France, who prevented the formation of a Palestinian state in 1948, even though they may still deny this.) What we can learn from Dr. Abuelaish is that dignity matters more than peace. Unlike peace, it is also attainable and it does not require governments to attain it. We can simply relearn how to confer it on one another, one person at a time.