After a week of strafing, rocket fire and death, a cease-fire has been declared between Israel and Hamas. While all – and most certainly the residents of both places – will breathe a sigh of relief, but if that is all we do, that will be insufficient, simply a prelude to the next violent eruption.
The only agreed upon facts of the conflict that has taken center stage the past weeks, knocking the woes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran off the front pages are the death counts.
Less agreed upon, and the subject of various timelines and debate, are questions of who did what to whom, and when. And, of course, why now?
Some say the escalation was a move by Hamas to undermine Fatah and elevate its own status. Others say that it was a move to strengthen the bid, demonstrating the unequal force of the Middle East’s only nuclear power against a people dispossessed. Cynical commentators cite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to enhance his political party’s position before next January’s elections. And still others assert that the Israelis, in the face of a likely U.S. push for a negotiated settlement after the reelection of President Obama’s election, wished to draw the Palestinians into increased and violent conflict in order to substantiate the view that Israeli has no “reliable partners” with whom one can negotiate.
Whatever the perspective, one thing is clear. Rather than wring hands or point fingers, it is time to address the underlying issues of statehood for the Palestinians that have made Israel/Palestine a battleground for decades – issues that now threaten to destabilize the entire Middle East and draw the U.S. more deeply into the conflict. Issues that have only become more difficult since the last real negotiations between the parties that produced the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Although the Accords were designed to be temporary for a five-year period that would precede a negotiated settlement, nearly 20 years have passed since they were signed. While the process was aborted with the assassination of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the accords – with their establishment of the Palestinian Authority, their division of Palestine into areas A, B and C and their granting of broad authority to the Israel over virtually every aspect of Palestinian life – have stayed in place.
And rather than lead to a healthy transition, the accords, as implemented, have made an already difficult situation more complicated and ultimately more unsustainable and dangerous for all.
Where there were an estimated 300,000 settlers already ensconced in Palestine (including East Jerusalem), today, that number has more than doubled. While Palestinians still comprise the vast majority of residents, today there are an estimated 600,000 settlers who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – all moved there in violation of international law and with the support or complicity of the Israeli government.
While some may laud the settlements as good for an Israel that wishes to expand from “the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” the unilateral seizure of Palestinian land, the destruction of millennia-old Palestinian-owned olive groves and the imposition of Israeli military law on Palestinians in the area breed anger and resentment, not only in the occupied lands but throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Whereas in 1993 Palestinians had relatively easy freedom of movement across Israel and across the land, today Palestinians’ movement is greatly restricted, making normal life and work unconscionably difficult. Unless they have special permission from the Israelis, Palestinians are prohibited from entering East Jerusalem as well as the Israeli cities where they once worked, studied or enjoyed the sea. Palestinians traveling from one village to another in the West Bank are prohibited from using many roads, being required, instead, to use time-consuming circuitous routes to which they are restricted.
With restriction on movement and a prohibition from entering Israel, an entire generation of Palestinians has grown up knowing Israelis only as the settlers up the hill or the armed men and women who stop cars at check points, guard the perimeter of settlements or enter their communities at will. So too Israeli youth, who are no longer likely to see Palestinians on the streets of Tel Aviv and are prohibited themselves from entering Palestinian cities like Ramallah, know Palestinians only as the “other” that they confront at check points or guard against when doing their military service.
Where there was once vigorous commerce in Palestine, today there is little – a situation created not only by restrictions of movement but Israeli control of all imports and exports to the West Bank and Gaza. To Israelis such control is considered necessary to prevent the flow of contraband. To Palestinians, from the U.S.-educated businessmen who are still waiting for the Israelis to release the geo-thermal equipment that’s been sitting in Israel for more than a year to the Palestinian Authority, who, when I met with them were waiting an equally long time for Israel to release the essential police cars and weapons that they had ordered, it is quite another matter. To them, Israeli control of imports and exports is seen as both untenable and an intentional ploy to undermine the Palestinian state and economy and make them look ‘incompetent" in the eyes of the world.
And then there are the deaths. From 2000 to 2012, the conflict has claimed the lives of 1,604 Israelis and more than 13,000 Palestinians.
After nearly 20 years, it is enough: it is time to achieve the just negotiated settlement that is the only real basis for lasting peace.
Some say that the two-state solution embraced by the international community for these past two decades is dead due to the very changes mentioned above. But the alternatives are no more tenable or sustainable than the current unsustainable and deadly situation. Israelis will never accept a single democratic secular state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean with every citizen having equal rights and votes, as that would render Israel a state where Palestinians were the majority and therefore no longer a Jewish State. Palestinians – and the world – will never accept a two-class state with diminished rights of citizenship to its Palestinian majority. We know the fate of such states.
The only solution is the two-state solution, and the time for the United States to join the Arab League and European leaders to press for it is now. Why should Americans care? Because we do have a long-standing and unbreakable bond with Israel – and we will be dragged into the continuous conflagrations, as we have been over and over these past years. Because it is in our national interest to resolve an issue which every demagogue uses as an excuse for extremism and violence. Because, most importantly, it is the right thing to do, to act by a moral compass that recognizes the just claims of two people on land that both have occupied for millennia. Because only with that just settlement can there be peace.
Our president has just been reelected with the support of 70 percent of Jewish Americans, support that rejected the bellicose warnings of the Sheldon Adelsons and the Mitt Romneys. He has the mandate to press for peace, he has the relationships to press for peace.
If not now, when? If not he, then who? The opportunity, the necessity, to act is now.