Israeli Views Harden Against Giving Up Occupied Territories for Peace
Simcha Dinitz, a former ambassador to Washington and longtime member of Israel’s Labor alignment, remembers the way people reacted last year when he brought up the possibility of giving up the West Bank territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors.
Dinitz talked about such a trade-off while campaigning for election to Parliament last summer, and people “looked at me as if I was coming from the moon,” he said in a recent interview, “particularly the younger people.”
They wanted to know how Judea and Samaria, the biblical names Israelis apply to the West Bank, differ from the Galilee and the Negev, districts in northern and southern Israel.
As far as younger Israelis are concerned, these occupied lands have always been a part of Israel. Students who graduated from high school last month have lived all their lives in an Israel that reaches from the Mediterranean eastward to the Jordan River and from the Golan Heights southward to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Bethlehem for Brunch
Pulling back to anything like the pre-1967 borders is, to them, unthinkable. Not to be able to go to Bethlehem for Saturday brunch? Not to be able to drive the Jordan Valley on the way to a weekend at the Sea of Galilee?
“I remember a time,” Dinitz said, “when 60% to 70% of the people were prepared for compromise (over the West Bank) and 30% were not. Now, it’s at best 50-50.”
It is not only on the issue of the West Bank that the Israeli views of the Arabs among them and around them have have changed.
Six years after the signing of the Camp David accords with Egypt--Israel’s first treaty ever with an Arab country--most Israelis seem to be disillusioned. They are skeptical that the arrangement can be duplicated any time soon and increasingly unwilling to compromise in what they see as the vain hope that concessions might lead to a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Attitudes about the Arab-Israeli conflict are formed early in the ethnic pressure cooker that is Israel and its occupied territories. Arab and Jewish elementary school children even dream about it. In Jewish children’s dreams, according to a recent study by a Hebrew University psychologist, Arabs are almost invariably terrorists and criminals; in Arab children’s dreams, Jews are soldiers and occupiers.
Another study, by the Van Leer Foundation of Jerusalem, showed that 40% of Israel’s Jewish youth support the policies of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who has tried to introduce legislation banning sexual relations between Jews and Arabs and who advocates the expulsion, by force if necessary, of all Arabs from the land of Israel.
These attitudes are reinforced even by officials and institutions usually considered moderate. On July 7, for example, the state-owned Israel radio reported in an English-language news broadcast: “Police are investigating two bombings and a grenade attack in the Tel Aviv area. The two bombings are suspected to be the work of terrorists, while the grenade attack, on the Hassan Bek Mosque in Jaffa, is believed to have been carried out by Jews.”
There is evidence of a widespread sense among Israeli Jews of cultural superiority over the Arabs, reflected in frequent references to such things as “Lebanese methods” when talking about revenge killings, or the “brutalization” of an Israeli army that must serve in the predominantly Arab West Bank area or in Lebanon.
But that feeling is mixed with an elementary fear born of the awareness that they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Arabs around them.
Compounding this sense of being under a constant threat of siege from outside, Israeli Jews worry about a “fifth column” within Israel, where Arabs make up 17% of the population and have a substantially higher birthrate than Jews. If the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are counted, Israel’s population is nearly 40% Arab.
The only way to annex the West Bank while guaranteeing that Israel continues to be the Jewish state envisioned by its founders would be by enacting apartheid-type rules that would limit the political influence of what might someday become an Arab majority.
The most obvious alternative--and it is politically explosive--is to give up control over the occupied lands heavily populated by Arabs.
Israel’s official policy is that it stands ready to negotiate with any Arab state that comes forward without setting preconditions. Commenting on this, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in an interview:
“We cannot achieve by one act a solution to the whole Arab-Israeli conflict, and therefore it has to be done gradually, with the Arab country which is ready to do it. . . . This policy has produced the first peace between an Arab country--and I refer to Egypt--and Israel. Therefore, in continuation of the peace process, we believe that under the present circumstances, the only potential candidate for peace among the remaining three Arab neighbors of Israel is Jordan.”
But beneath the stated policy, there are deep political divisions in Israel’s fragile government of national unity. The extent of the political paralysis is underscored by the continuing debate over a sliver of waterfront land on the Gulf of Aqaba called Taba. The area is the subject of a six-year-old border dispute between Egypt and Israel.
Rightist members of Israel’s coalition government are opposed to submitting the issue to arbitration because they see it as the first stage of what one has called a “multistage rocket” that would blast open the whole issue of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In this view, agreement to arbitrate the future of Taba would lead to a meeting between Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; Mubarak would invite his ally, Jordan’s King Hussein, and this would lead to an agreement to open Israeli-Jordanian talks. And that would mean opening the Pandora’s box that is the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, many here see no need to be in any rush about starting any new peace talks. They point out that the Arab countries are divided and in disarray, that the Palestine Liberation Organization is weak and fragmented, that Arab oil has not proved to be the tool of political power it once seemed. In the circumstances, as these people see it, Israel is under no pressure to make concessions for peace.
Also, there has been a backlash from Camp David that makes many Israelis pessimistic about the prospects for any fundamental change in Arab attitudes toward Israel that might make lasting peace possible, according to Eliahu Ben-Elissar, a member of Parliament from the rightist Likud bloc and Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt.
“Israelis never hated Arabs,” Ben-Elissar said in an interview, “but there was a lot of suspicion--a lot of mistrust. This mistrust in 1977 (when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem) gave way to a lot of enthusiasm created by something new.”
There was a sense, he said, of “a new era, a new chapter, a new book--'This can work; let’s make it work.’ ”
There is considerable room for debate over why it happened, but the peace with Egypt quickly turned cold, and, according to Ben-Elissar, “the old stereotypes came back.”
“Time has shown,” he said, “that nothing in Arab attitudes (toward Israel) has changed. And the worst thing about the whole story is that the average Israeli would tell you that even Egyptian attitudes have not changed.”
At the other end of the Israeli political spectrum is Ezer Weizman, a minister without portfolio in the national unity coalition and probably the most outspoken champion in government of revitalizing the peace process.
“I see the peace with Egypt as one of the great political achievements of the last 25--you know what? in the last 70--years, since the Balfour Declaration,” Weizman said, referring to the 1917 British statement of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. “And my colleagues in the Likud, instead of treasuring it as a great success, are doing their best to make the people of Israel almost hate this process.”
Weizman agreed that the road to peace with Jordan runs through Cairo, and to him this is proof that Israel must put the peace with Egypt back on track.
“I strongly believe that wars are meant to solve political problems in a very stupid way,” Weizman said. “Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like we’ve seen in the last 35 years.”
However, he said, “I believe that we’re now in a period . . . when we have to attempt more than usual to negotiate, to come to political decisions.”
For one thing, the consequences of war are ever greater, he said, adding: “We’re going into far more difficult times as far as fighting is concerned. . . . Every battle is more costly for both sides. Who ever imagined we’d lose over 600 killed in a stupid war in Lebanon?”
The Lebanese war was sobering for the entire nation, emphasizing Israel’s inability to translate its military prowess into lasting political gain. In that sense, it is another argument for peace talks.
A Genuine Consensus
What is sometimes ignored in focusing on political divisions within Israel that stand in the way of new Mideast peace talks is that beneath it all is a genuine national consensus on several key issues--a consensus suggesting that even if they sit down together, Israel and its Arab neighbors will have a hard time agreeing on an agenda.
“There is a national consensus in Israel,” the veteran Israeli diplomat Michael Comay observed recently in the Jerusalem Post, “on at least two points: no return to the pre-1967 armistice line and no separate Palestinian Arab state between Israel and Jordan.”
Consensus on a third point is so general that it hardly seems necessary to mention it. Jerusalem, Israelis insist, will remain undivided and Israeli.