Bridges to peace in Gaza

Last week, the war in Gaza was served at my family's dinner table, as the main course.

"You don't understand, Dad" -- this is the opening sentence of most conversations in my home -- "when you were our age, there was a war every decade or so, alongside perpetual hope. I'm only 26 years old, and I already have personal memories of five wars. Every couple of years there is a war here, and more are on the way. Can you grasp the meaning of this?"

My daughter was crying as she asked this. Her husband, to whom she was married only three months ago, was just called up by the army -- to hurt others or, God forbid, to be hurt.

Yes, my beloved child, I do understand. I understand that the Six-Day War in 1967 was a singular event, and that ever since it has been impossible to win a victory of such scale. I understand that national traumas are cultivating fear and hatred on both sides, and this labyrinth is saturated with too much blood. I understand that my generation and I have failed to bring you peace. I understand that it is of absolutely no significance who started it, who was the first to draw the sword or who is responsible. A much more pressing question is the identity of the person who will bring a solution, who will bring a future that encompasses elements other than steel and death.

For Israelis, Gaza is more than a set of geographical coordinates; it is a mental state, a national psychological reality. In many ways, our children in Israel are also the children of Gaza. They are the children of despair. In order to bring them hope, it is necessary for us to comprehend the deeper roots of war.

In past centuries, nations could set forth and wage war with the sole purpose of annihilating the enemy. Since the end of World War II, however, it seems that something very deep and essential in the world's consciousness has changed, something about its willingness to exterminate human beings.

The West, as far as I can gather from examining the wars led by Western regimes in the past decades, is no longer able to bring wars to a close. In the past, war had a single aim: to decapitate Goliath, to burn Joan of Arc, to wipe Hitler off the map or to nuke Japan into submission. Nowadays, the West cannot simply declare a comprehensive war that includes among its missions the extermination of the enemy. This impossibility reveals itself both at the level of principle and the extent to which Western soldiers will be willing to commit acts incompatible with their civil morality.

Both world wars, along with the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe, have led to an evolution in the old doctrines of war. Instead of crushing the enemy and humiliating him, the new style of war seeks to preserve the ability of the opponent to reconstruct, maintain his dignity and transform from a foe into a friend. The same coalition that had wrongly humiliated Germany after World War I built post-World War II Germany as a central pillar of the new Western construct. Japan's honor -- embodied in the chair of the divine emperor -- was not desecrated, and that country too is now a faithful ally to the West.

A new form of victory emerged -- a non-absolute, non-humiliating victory and, most important, one that does not destroy the possibility of future dialogue with yesterday's foe.

Keeping in mind the strong commitment of Western soldiers to human dignity and liberties, we can understand why present wars take such a different shape. But if that's the case, how is a just society to combat societies that do not share its values and vocabulary? The purpose of a modern war ought to be this: to lead to the negotiating table. If a war ends and no dialogue emerges between the two sides, that war should be regarded as a failure.

Just like the bridges that were erected between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, between Dresden and London, and between Catholic and Protestant Dublin, there must be a bridge between Sderot and Gaza, between Israel and Palestine.

A few days ago, I drove to a factory I own in Sderot, which was closed, and stood in front of it listening to the falling Kassam missiles. I took shelter with a frightened stray dog and thought to myself that even being a dog these days in the Middle East has become an impossible task.

And I also thought about the conversation with my children. Their argument is valid, but their despair is an error. Wars cannot be the one and only solution in a modern world such as ours. In Israel, as in Palestine, all the horizons have shut down; the anger and disbelief are so great that the eyes see only blood. I am confident that many Palestinians, religious as well as secular, yearn for a peaceful life. They too watch Barack Obama on TV and are inspired that anyone, even a person whose father was born in a small village in Kenya (or in Gaza) can end up at the top of the world.

I know many Israelis feel this way too. We are not all bloodthirsty; not all of us are willing to give in to despair and accept as a given the sorrow of our children. We too want happiness. This happiness is, despite the death, blood and horror that is so close to us today, within reach -- right around the corner, actually. For us and for them.

We must let go of the fundamentalists who have hijacked both nations and buried our hopes. We must speak to yesterday's terrifying enemy, about everything, and we must say to our children: "I understand. Do you?"

Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli parliament, is a businessman and the author, most recently, of " The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes."