Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Talking only to ourselves By Daniel Ben Simon

Ha’aretz 17 Aug 2006

I am trying to recall when I last saw Israeli leaders talking with Arab leaders about peace, and finding it hard to remember. In recent years, our compulsive tendency to talk to ourselves about an agreement with the Arabs has been strengthening, as though the real conflict in the Middle East were between the right and the left. The fruitless discussions between these two tired bodies have had two goals: to neutralize any possibility of change and to freeze the reality on the ground, for fear that any step toward peace will ignite a domestic war among the Jews. And if we are already fated to go to war, say our architects to themselves, it is better to have a war against the Arabs. It is torturous to think that had similar diplomatic energy been invested vis-a-vis Palestinian leaders, Lebanese leaders and Syrian leaders, perhaps everything would look different. Perhaps we would even be living in peace with them.

Is it possible that the miserable war in Lebanon and the endless slaughter in Gaza are an outcome of the lack of willingness to talk with our neighbors? When was the last time we tried to talk to the Palestinians about their future and about our future? When was the last time we sent out probes to the Lebanese about signing a peace agreement with them? When was the last time we tried to renew the truncated negotiations with the Syrians about the possibility of arriving at a peace agreement?

For six years now Israeli politics has been at a standstill. Ever since prime minister Ehud Barak shoved Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat into the lodge at Camp David in July 2000, there has been no serious contact between an Israeli leader and an Arab leader with whom we are in conflict. The result is dreadful. Israel has slammed doors on its neighbours and has made up its mind to set arrangements on its own, in dialogue with itself, while ignoring its neighbours as though it were a lone juniper tree in the desert. It is possible that for this insult, we are now paying the price.
To a large extent both the slaughter in Gaza after the disengagement and the war in Lebanon prove the failure of the unilateral approach. How is it possible, asks every reasonable individual, that we pulled out of Lebanon and they are attacking us? How is it possible, asks every reasonable individual, that we pulled out of Gaza and they are still attacking us? Is it any wonder that the lack of gratitude on both these fronts has led many Israelis to the conclusion that hatred for Jews is imprinted in the Muslim genome and that the urge to go to war is imprinted in the Arab character?

And perhaps this outburst of aggression has its source in our egotistic nature, in our refusal to relate to our neighbours, in our unwillingness to see them from the distance of a meter. There is no such thing as unilateral peace, just as there is no such thing as unilateral war. It takes two to dance the dance of death, and to dance the dance of joy. We have decided to dance with ourselves, as though the Arabs were shapeless, transparent and not worth speaking to.

And it isn’t as though in the past there haven’t been bilateral contacts that aroused hope. However, they can be counted on one hand. Only two months ago a cheerful meeting was held between our new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan. How many smiles they scattered, and how many times they clapped one another on the shoulder. Olmert was at his best. He laughed, he joked, he chummed and he demonstrated impressive communications skills. He spoke with everyone – apart from the only person at that meeting who justified a serious discussion. And indeed, Olmert’s aides worked for days so that their boss would not shake the hand of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

These are the achievements of Israeli diplomacy vis-a-vis the Palestinians during the past six years: Ehud Barak pushed Arafat at Camp David, the same Barak invited Arafat to dinner at his home, prime minister Ariel Sharon invited Abbas to a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence, Olmert bestowed a hug on Abbas. Two gestures, one conversation and one dinner party during the course of six whole years. Not a bad output for a country mired in a bloody conflict with the Palestinian people.

And during this entire time, Israel has withdrawn into itself, refusing to look sideways. It exited Lebanon in anger and it exited in similar anger from the Gaza Strip, without having attempted to coordinate the moves with those concerned. It is also planning to exit the West Bank with a similar, unilateral slam of the door.

Instead of speaking with our enemies we speak with our friends, not to say our patrons, the Americans, as though we were lowly vassals. We have adopted English almost as a mother tongue and we relate to Arabic as almost an existential threat. Thus far, the subordination of our lives, our values and our future to the Americans has not proved itself. We have never been as insecure as we are today. As part of our despair we are surrounding ourselves with a wall and turning the symbol of national rebirth into a fortified Jewish ghetto closed on all sides.

If the despair with our neighbors and with peace spreads, the Israelis are liable to deposit the reins of the state in the hands of dangerous fanatics like Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman. “For insane situations, you need insane people in charge,” said an inhabitant of Kiryat Shmona last week who thus reflected the new mood and mentioned Lieberman as a wonder drug.

If Olmert does not hold out any hope soon and does not start talking with the Lebanese and the Palestinians and the Syrians, the despair is liable to push the Israelis toward extreme solutions.

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Timely Reminders

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-- Aldous Huxley

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