Breaking Taboos: Confronting the Ghosts of 1948

Every conflict between Israel and its neighbors including the recent fighting in Gaza stems from an enduring tragedy.  It is a tragedy few supporters of Israel want to discuss:  the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 ended one diaspora and created another.  Ever since, Jews and Palestinians have asserted ownership of the same territory known as Israel. Jewish claims refer back to the ancient world. Palestinian claims derive from more recent centuries. There is, of course, historical truth to support both positions.

We want to be clear about where we stand.  Israel has the right to exist and the right to enjoy peaceful and secure borders.  It is intolerable for any Israeli citizen to live with the threat of rocket attack and/or invasion by tunnel. These are not subject to negotiation. Never again should the Jewish people be defenseless and/or without a homeland.

But there will never be a durable peace without recognizing how the creation of Israel established a Palestinian diaspora. This is an important challenge confronting every Israeli citizen.  Honore de Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Regardless of how you feel about his statement, we believe the creation of every nation involves many great crimes, crimes including appropriation of wealth and/or land, a usurpation of political power and the murder of those in opposition, invariably signifying the death of many innocent people. Israel is no exception.

In 1948, atrocities were committed on both sides. And land owned and occupied by Arabs for many decades and/or centuries was taken over by Jews. Eight hundred thousand Arabs went into exile. The Jewish people who lived in exile for millennia should understand the plight of any people living in a diaspora, especially those sent into exile by the creation of Israel. For an older generation of Israelis and Jews living around the world, we believe unvoiced guilt makes it difficult to discuss the Palestinian exile. For younger generations and recent immigrants to Israel, the historical record of 1948 appears to be ancient history and irrelevant.  As a result, it is remarkably difficult to mention this inconvenient truth of history  without being accused of being anti-Israel or, worse yet, anti-Jewish.

But acknowledging the historical record does not make one anti-Israel any more than admitting the injustice done to Native Americans makes one anti-America. It is important to understand what happened in 1948 because the Jewish people must accept there are legitimate grievances on the other side. The historical injustice effected by Israel’s creation should compel every Israeli to conclude that nothing short of a two state solution will ever end hostilities between Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately, the political momentum in Israel has shifted away from embracing the need for two states. And any serious discussion of the origin of the Palestinian exile has become virtually taboo in Israeli political life.

There are also fundamental challenges confronting Palestinians. Someone once quipped that forgiveness means giving up hope for a better past. Yet individuals and nations often fight one another to address previous injuries. But to do so perpetually is ultimately self-destructive. Can all Palestinians finally embrace Israel’s right to exist and to enjoy peaceful and secure borders? Can they accept that the reality of 1948 will not be overturned? Can they accept there will be no right of return that would demographically endanger the Jewish state?

Both sides must finally transform their respective national conversations about painful and difficult issues if an enduring peace agreement is to be negotiated. This will involve confronting and breaking political taboos. However, the entrenched positions of hardliners on both sides militate against this, prompting the ghosts of 1948 to haunt Israel and Palestine well into the 21st century.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

The Wall

It is known as a separation barrier, a security or an anti-terrorist fence or, as the International Court of Justice described it, a wall. When completed, it will be a 422-mile long physical barrier separating Israel from Palestine. Construction of the wall began in 2002 during the second intifada when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved it to protect Israel from suicide bombers. The wall’s exact location and route and its precise role in reducing terrorist attacks remain controversial.

The wall functions as an obvious physical barrier separating Jew from Palestinian, reflecting their tense and often violent relationship and the perceived Israeli need to remain apart. As a result, the wall greatly diminishes physical contact and cultural exchange between these two peoples. This is an ominous development. The reduced level of personal, professional and cultural interaction means that ordinary citizens on both sides have less experience and understanding of one another as flesh and blood individuals. Each side becomes a suspicious and feared and an increasingly unknown “other”. This allows Jews and Palestinians to more readily vilify and demonize one another as less interpersonal contact enables ugly and derogatory prejudices and stereotypes to flourish on both sides, unchecked by the wisdom embedded in actual relationships.

The political consequence of this cannot be overemphasized. As negative stereotypes abound, intolerant and even hateful rhetoric becomes an increasingly accepted part of the cultural landscape. Political discourse about the underlying conflict becomes more harsh and inflexible, reinforcing the intransigent positions of hardliners on both sides. In turn, the spirit of accommodation and compromise vital to any productive and successful negotiation to engineer a durable peace agreement becomes difficult to nurture and sustain. We believe this has already occurred on both sides.

We believe the wall has also engendered a false sense of security that reduces a sense of urgency in Israel to negotiate a final settlement. It contributes to what we perceive as an arrogant swagger by members of the ruling Israeli cabinet in response to John Kerry’s recent efforts to promote constructive dialogue. We remain worried about the rigid and unrealistic postures of the current Israeli government that help explain why there has been no concerted effort to broker a peace deal with Mahmoud Abbas, who still represents Israel’s only viable partner in any peace negotiation.

But there is a profoundly disturbing irony here that is often overlooked. Jews have a long and tragic history with walls. What are we to make of a people once coerced to live in communities enclosed by walls but who now feel compelled to enclose themselves from their neighbors? Could those who fled Europe, escaping or surviving persecution and the Holocaust to settle in Israel, ever imagine the Jewish state building a wall to keep itself safe and secure? This would have been too awful to contemplate. We do not equate the Warsaw ghetto wall with the barrier separating Israel from Palestine but the latter conjures the horrifying return of a Jewish nightmare despite the persistent refrain of “never again” and expresses the grim political reality.

The presence of the wall reflects the chronic failure of both sides to meaningfully address the sources of their conflict. But it also represents a failure to recognize the shared humanity that transcends the divisions expressed by any wall or separation barrier, one that yearns to live in peace with safe and secure borders and with dignity and hopeful aspirations for the future. It is a humanity that lies fractured by the physical wall that, in turn, reflects the presence of many walls separating Israeli from Palestinian and Palestinian from Israeli. Who on either side will have the vision and the courage to assert that humanity and defy what continues to separate and condemn both peoples to endless, pointless violence?

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
The Editor of Delano

Israel and Hamas: What is To Be Done?

Israel’s devastating air, naval and ground assault of Gaza will destroy many rockets and their launchers and the maze of underground tunnels, to say nothing of inflicting a terrible loss of life and property. The military threat posed by Hamas will be, for the short and even medium-term, seriously eroded. But what happens after the military campaign is over? Will this latest round of violence bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to a durable peace? Sadly, as long as Israeli policy remains focused on responding to hostilities versus resolving the conflict, the answer is a resounding no.

Everything Israel does vis-à-vis its neighbors in Gaza and the West Bank should be assessed on its ability to empower Palestinian moderates and erode the popularity of extremists. Israel’s policy mantra should be: empower the political center, marginalize the extremes. Do the current hostilities help Israel accomplish this?

Quite clearly the reverse is true. Israel’s military campaign unifies Palestinian moderates and extremists around the perceived heroism and courage of militants who resist the continued “occupation” of Gaza and attack Israel. Of course Israel has the right to protect its people from rocket attack and from underground tunnels. No one disputes that. But the invasion of Gaza bolstered the image and popularity of extremists when support for Hamas was declining. At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas has been widely scorned if not ridiculed in the West Bank for having nothing to show for his long-term effort to make peace with Israel. In other words, current Israeli policy has enhanced support for extremists while eroded popularity for the political center. This is directly contrary to what Israeli policy should promote, indicating a need to change direction with a bold initiative.

There has been talk of offering a huge carrot to Gaza and its militant leadership: give up violent resistance and accept Israel’s right to exist in exchange for receiving a massive amount of development aid. We understand the sentiment here but the idea that diehard militants will be bought off represents a cynical calculation doomed to fail. A more plausible strategy involves offering assistance to someone Israel can do business with. The time has come to empower Mahmoud Abbas by allowing him to present something tangible to his supporters. Israel should negotiate an enduring peace with him, regardless of his unity pledge with Hamas, and offer massive aid from Israel and the world community to implement a Marshall plan for the West Bank. If a durable peace can be brokered resulting in significant new investment, many new jobs and a rising standard of living, Israel can develop a significant constituency for peace in the West Bank by linking an end of hostilities to economic prosperity.

Peace and prosperity in the West Bank would have a desired political effect in Gaza. As the economic and financial gulf between the West Bank and Gaza widens, Gaza residents, worried about being left behind, would apply increasing pressure on Hamas to change direction or risk being stripped of political power. If Israel is serious about regime change in Gaza, it will pursue a focused policy to connect peace with prosperity in the West Bank. Regime change will be undertaken in Gaza by the residents of Gaza themselves not by Israeli military campaigns. The only effective way to dislodge Hamas is from below.

So important questions remain: Does Israel have the political will to make a deal with Mahmoud Abbas despite Fatah’s unity agreement with Hamas? Could it achieve a durable peace in the West Bank and establish a political and economic wedge between Fatah and Hamas resulting in political pressure on Hamas from its own citizens? At the moment there is no sign of this policy shift, yet it remains Israel’s best chance to undermine Hamas and establish a lasting peace with its Palestinian neighbors.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

 

Why Delano?: A Statement of Purpose

Many of our discussions about important issues of the day suffer from a lack of political and intellectual imagination.  Conventional wisdom often militates against developing fresh ideas about persisting problems.  We believe that any effort to make individual and collective life more humane begins when we transform our conversation about the salient issues of our time. This blog will offer progressive ideas and uncommon common sense to provide new ways to think about important political and social problems and thoughtful ways to address them.  We welcome you to Delano and invite readers to engage in dialogue by responding to what is written  here.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

A Blog of Progressive Ideas