Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt, Israel, and the sudden return of Land for Peace

When the revolution began in Egypt, many in Israel expected it to fail. What is more telling, though, is that so many in Israel quietly wanted it to.

PRINCETON, New Jersey - Revolutions feel different from a distance.
When the revolution began in Egypt, many in Israel expected it to fail. What is more telling, though, is that so many in Israel quietly wanted it to.

This is not a judgment, nor a criticism. It's not that Israelis were against Egyptians feeling freedom. It's that Israelis did not themselves want to feel panic.

Not just fear. A certain specifically sabra-grade panic, a black dread, too broad to ignore, but too deep and too tangled to read, especially for people who have learned, across four decades of occupation, to deaden anxiety into denial.

What was most shocking, and therefore the hardest to fathom, was that many of the same people on the Israeli and world Jewish right who for 30 years had derided, dismissed, and did their best to deny the peace with Egypt, suddenly voiced fears that this same peace was in danger, that it might be lost in the course of the Tahrir revolution.

Abruptly, and as a direct result of revolution in Egypt, Land for Peace has returned. Some of the very rightists who for years have pointed to hasty, unilateral Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza as proof that no withdrawal can ever work, that pullouts lead only to war, have changed their tune overnight.

The reason is clear. For the first three decades of Israel's existence, Egypt was Iran and then some. Egypt was the worst, the fiercest, the deadliest, the most existential enemy Israel ever faced. Its threats to annihilate Israel, threats both verbal and military, went far beyond anything Ahmadinejad has let fly.

This was the country which fostered terror attacks that murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians in the 1950s. So awful an enemy was Egypt, so heinous in Israeli eyes, that it could even consider launching a war on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at the cost of thousands of Israeli lives.

Just four years later, when then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat announced that he would travel to Jerusalem to conclude a historic peace with Israel, some in Israel greeted the news with suspicion, and a measure of panic. Four days before Sadat's arrival, Israel's army chief Motta Gur warned in an interview with Yediot Ahronot of the potential dangers of the visit, and that Egypt was at "the peak of preparations to begin a war against Israel by 1978."
When the treaty was signed in 1979, many Israelis were still skeptical, maintaining that if anything happened to Sadat, the deal would not survive him. Less than two years later, Sadat was, in fact, gunned down by members of his own military. Not only was the peace upheld, Egypt became the only Arab country to take back 100 percent of its land captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, representing 89 percent of all of the occupied territories.

It is not an exaggeration to conclude that time has proven the land-for-peace treaty with Egypt, as Israel's single most important regional strategic security asset.

Nor is it a stretch to conclude that this land-for-peace success has always posed a terrible problem for the Israeli, Diaspora Jewish, and Christian right. Especially in recent years, as their search for ways to block a withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem has taken on mounting urgency. Worse yet, their government in Jerusalem is running out of reasons to say no.

Once, the security argument went: If Israel withdrew from the West Bank, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport would fall within rocket range. But both targets, and the whole of Israel, are now well within the range of the tens of thousands of rockets in the hands of Hizbollah and Hamas.

Then there was the contention that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were much too far apart on bedrock issues to conclude a deal. Recent leaks, subsequently confirmed, have put paid to that argument.

Then, of course, there's the idea that what the Arabs really desire is the extermination of Israel, a claim which the Egyptian peace and the current revolution have done little to substantiate.

The desperate search for new reasons to say no, has brought us the ludicrous demand that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, in order to talk to us. Of course, no such demand was made of Egypt in 1978, nor of Jordan in 1994, or of the Palestinians the year before. As if self-determination has suddenly become a function of other people deciding for us, who we are. Back to the ghetto.

In recent days, speaking with American university students while the distant revolution was reaching its apex, another element of this issue came into focus for me. It was the possibility of another whole revolution in thinking, vastly smaller, but potentially powerful in consequence.

What if, in an evolving Middle East, people speaking about the Israel-Palestine issue actually spoke their hearts. For example, what if high-profile voices on the right, actually, finally, came out with the unvarnished bottom line:

"I want my settlements."

Even for some of the most erudite and intellectually credentialed of neo-cons, it comes down to this. A measure of the ferocity of the attacks against the likes of NGOs, the New Israel Fund, J Street, Peace Now, has to do with the challenges that they pose to unbridled settlement expansion and permanent occupation.

As far as I'm concerned, "I want my settlements" is as valid, and certainly as honest, an argument as anyone needs to make. At long last we can have a real discussion. I fully respect the fact that you want your settlements. I don't. Now we're getting somewhere.
The other argument that the government hesitates to make is that "We have to stay in East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria because God and His Bible want us to." I respect that as well. It's honest. For the record, His book tells me the opposite.

Here in Princeton, a serious and thoughtful student asked me, "Don't you think that the instability in Cairo, which could put the treaty with Israel at risk, shows that the peace deal might have been a mistake?"

Something about the question sparked my curiosity. "What would you like to see happen?" I asked.

"That's not really the issue," he replied, a bit startled. I asked him to humor me.
"Well, I'd like to see peace and security."
"And would you like the peace with Egypt to continue?"
"Of course."

For most of us, even many on the right, the Tahrir revolution has forced a re-evaluation, a new appreciation, of the possibility of land-for-peace, of the power of timing and unanticipated opportunity, and of the potency and endurance of diplomacy done right.
This, right now, this Egypt, is the acid test of the peace with Israel, and thus, the ultimate test of land-for-peace. If it holds, we will know that it is not only possible, but necessary. And if it doesn't, we'll all have to reboot our thinking.

If this peace holds, and this revolution as well, the arguments for Israel's holding on to the occupation will all weaken. Except, of course, "God told me to," and "I want my settlements."
For the present, at least, land for peace is looking more and more realistic.


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