The Missing Peace
Mother Jones, May/June 1991
When I founded the Jewish Peace Lobby in May of 1989, I had no illusions about the difficult road to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Even so, I did not expect the obstacles we face today. A triumphant right-wing government sits Israel. For the first time the cabinet includes a minister who advocates expelling the entire Palestinian population from the West Bank. The U.S.-PLO dialogue has come and gone and PLO support for Iraq has severely damaged the Palestinian cause. Israeli settlement of the West Bank rushes ahead at a record pace. Iraqi Scud missiles have intensified Israeli opposition to giving up territory, and have muted criticism of Israeli governmental policies m the American Jewish community.
Now that the gulf war is over, there is a new American diplomatic effort, and possibly a new Israeli peace plan will emerge. The United States seeks to move forward simultaneously with the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Shamir government will only offer the Palestinians some vaguely defined process, which will require that they place enormous faith in Israeli goodwill. Shamir’s real objective is a separate peace with Syria, which has recently made overtures toward recognizing Israel’s statehood. Essentially, his message to the Syrians is that Israel will be most forthcoming on the Golan Heights and Lebanon if Israel is given a pass on the West Bank.
But it will not fly. The Arab states that sided with the United States in the gulf war face challenges to their legitimacy, and although their interest in the Palestinian cause may have waned, they cannot abandon it without imperiling their own regimes. And the Palestinians, reading a new Shamir proposal as a recipe for indefinite occupation, will continue their resistance. There will be a return to the random stabbing of Jews in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem; stepped-up governmental and nongovernmental Israeli violence against Palestinians; and a sealing-off of the territories. It will escalate further to the Palestinians’ abandonment of the “no guns” policy, extensive expulsion of Palestinian leaders, frightening deterioration of Palestinian economic conditions and worldwide anti-Israeli outrage. But there will be little movement toward peace.
If anything of value is to come out of the postwar period, there will have to be new and, in some instances, bold steps by the United States, and by Israeli and Palestinian peace forces.
U.S. policy must deal head-on with two basic issues: West Bank settlement activity and Israeli security fears. Jimmy Carter thought he had a promise from Prime Minister Begin that there would be an indefinite freeze on settlement activity. Without such a commitment, it is inconceivable that Palestinians will agree to any ill-defined process that provides the advocates of “Greater Israel” with the opportunity to delay action while settlements are created on the ground, spurred on by a housing crisis inside Israel and aggravated by Soviet immigration. But if there is a settlement freeze, Palestinians may be induced to explore a process that begins with autonomous control of their own communities and leaves open questions of sovereignty. So vital is this issue of freezing settlement activity that the United States should make it the essential test of Israeli bona fides and a condition for any higher levels of assistance. (Israel has already indicated that it will seek ten billion dollars in housing-loan guarantees.)
With respect to security issues, the United States must introduce new ideas. One step would be to place on the table a detailed military analysis of how Israel could ensure security and yet withdraw from West Bank territory. To transform the sterile debate we must shift the public discussion from abstract fears to concrete modalities of defense (e.g., pre-positioning, radar installations strategic points). And secondly, the United States should offer Israel no less than what it did for Saudi Arabia. We should give Israel a formal defense treaty, which says that if it withdraws from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and is subject to unprovoked attack, the United States will guarantee Israel’s integrity, even if U.S. troops are required.
Once again, the vital role falls to the Palestinians: They must regain their diplomatic creativity. During the first two years of the intifada, they demonstrated a remarkable ability to determine the agenda. Yet now the Palestinians are adrift, swept downstream by floodwaters. The very best thing they could do is to find a way of transcending the PLO. The Israeli idea of an alternative leadership is a fantasy, but there is within Palestinian politics a dynamic of political evolution, which does allow the Palestinians a new institutional starting point. In November of 1988, they proclaimed the existence of the state of Palestine, and close to one hundred countries recognized the new entity. But the Palestinians never took the next step: the establishment of a provisional government. The PLO is the Palestinians’ past; a Palestinian government is their future. It is time to move forward. Many steps can be taken, but two broad principles stand out. First, there must be new faces in a Palestinian government. And second, predominant weight must be given to the people living in the West Bank and Gaza.
It will not be easy to move in this direction under conditions of occupation, but it can be done. The Lithuanians recently defied the Soviet government and went to the polls—Palestinians in the territories should follow this example. They should hold elections select their representatives to a Palestinian parliament, and enact their own democracy. There is no need to let the Israeli government set the rules. If the Israeli government decides to use force to stop Palestinians from electing their leadership, so be it. This will not disadvantage the Palestinian cause.
With a determination to pursue their own political development, the Palestinians need not fear any transitional autonomy plan, so long as it is accompanied by a settlement freeze. There is no version of autonomy that, with some creativity, will not be to their advantage.
And finally, a recommendation to American Jews: bring the Israeli peace movement to America—at least at election time. This is where it can have an impact, where it can put a stop to the mindless defense of Israeli government policies by the Jewish establishment and some members of Congress. Left to ourselves, we in the American Jewish peace movement have no way of matching the power of the establishment organizations and the PAC structure. But if the Israeli peace movement breaks the rules and enters the rough and tumble of American politics things will change.
For instance, Congressman Mel Levine is expected to run for the U.S. Senate in California. Whatever his private doubts Levine epitomizes the view that Jewish members of Congress should not be critical of the Israeli government in public. We need Israelis to help us confront Levine and others over their refusal to call for a settlement freeze. Israelis must tell the American public, and, in particular, the Jewish community that Israel’s “friends” are harmful to Israel’s real interests. If this were to occur and cost Levine his Senate bid, shock waves would travel through the American system. The Israeli peace movement may not be making much of an impact in Israel, but, if we take the gloves off and combine forces, we can turn American politics upside down.