The moment of truth has arrived, and it has to be said: Israel does not want peace. The arsenal of excuses has run out, and the chorus of Israeli rejection already rings hollow. Until recently, it was still possible to accept the Israeli refrain that “there is no partner” for peace and that “the time isn’t right” to deal with our enemies. Today, the new reality before our eyes leaves no room for doubt and the tired refrain that “Israel supports peace” has been left shattered.
It’s hard to determine when the breaking point occurred. Was it the absolute dismissal of the Saudi initiative? The refusal to acknowledge the Syrian initiative? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s annual Passover interviews? The revulsion at the statements made by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in Damascus, alleging that Israel was ready to renew peace talks with Syria?
Who would have believed it? A high-ranking U.S. official says Israel wants peace talks to resume and instantly her president “severely” denies the veracity of her words. Is Israel even hearing these voices? Are we digesting the significance of these voices for peace? Seven million apathetic Israeli citizens prove that we are not.
Entire generations grew up here weaned on self-deception and doubt about the likelihood of achieving peace with our neighbors. In our younger days, David Ben-Gurion told us that if he were only able to meet with Arab leaders, he would have brought us peace in his time. Israel has demanded direct negotiations as a matter of principle and Israelis have derived great pride from the fact that their daily focus on “peace” has concealed their state’s lofty ambitions. We were told that there was no partner for peace and that the ultimate ambition of the Arabs is to bring about our destruction. We burned the portraits of “the Egyptian tyrant” at our bonfires on Lag Ba’omer, and were convinced that all blame for the lack of peace lied with our enemies.
After that came the occupation, followed by terror, Yassir Arafat, the failed second Camp David Summit and the rise of Hamas to power, and we were sure, always sure, that it was all their fault. In our wildest dreams, we wouldn’t have believed that the day would come when the entire Arab world would extend its hand in peace and Israel would brush away the gesture. It would have been even crazier to imagine that this Israeli refusal would have been blamed on not wanting to enrage domestic public opinion.
The world has been turned upside down and it is Israel that stands at the forefront of refusal. The policy of refusal of a select few, a vanguard of the extreme, has now become the official policy of Jerusalem. In his Passover interviews, Olmert will tell us that, “The Palestinians stand at the crossroads of a historic decision,” but people stopped taking him seriously a long time ago. The historic decision is ours, and we are fleeing from this crossroads and from these initiatives as if from death itself.
Terror, used as the ultimate excuse for Israeli refusal, only helps Olmert keep reciting, ad nauseum, “If they [the Palestinians] don’t change, don’t fight terror and don’t adhere to any of their obligations, then they will never extract themselves from their unending chaos.” As though the Palestinians haven’t taken measures against terrorism, as though Israel is the one to determine what their obligations are, as though Israel isn’t to blame for the unending chaos Palestinians suffer under the occupation.
Israel makes a point of setting prerequisites and believes it has an exclusive right to do so. But, time and time again, Israel avoids the most basic prerequisite for any just peace – an end to the occupation. Of all the questions asked during his Passover interviews, no one bothered to ask Olmert why he didn’t react with excitement to the recent Arab initiatives, without preconditions? The answer: real estate. The real estate of the settlements.
It’s not only Olmert who is dragging his feet. A leading figure in the Labor party said last week that “it will take five to 10 years to recover from the trauma.” Peace is now no more than a threatening wound, with no one still talking about the massive social benefits it would bring in development, security, freedom of movement in the region and by establishing a more just society.
Like a little Switzerland, we are focusing more these days on the dollar exchange rate and on the allegations of embezzlement leveled against the Finance Ministry than on the fateful opportunities fading away before our very eyes.
Not every day and not even in every generation do we encounter an opportunity like this. Although it’s not for sure if the initiatives are completely solid and believable, or if they are based on trickery, no one has stepped up to challenge or acknowledge them. When Olmert is an elderly grandfather, what will he tell his grandchildren? That he turned over every stone in the name of peace? That there was no other choice? What will his grandchildren say?
GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz, where this essay originally appeared.