How to change track and move forward

By Daniel Bavly (for Safe Democracy)

Dan Bavly writes on the multiple missed opportunities for peace in the Middle East due to a general trend of indifference in the Israeli government for long-term negotiated solutions. Still stuck in the 1948 War of Independence mentality, the Israeli government, military, and population as a whole have been unable to adapt to the changing reality of the Middle East conflict. From the current Saudi Initiative, to the dozens of proposals and openings over the last forty years, Israel has failed to seize countless opportunities for peace, insisting instead on the use of military might to end wars. But in Bavly‘s opinion, modern wars cannot end without negotiation. It is time to change track and move forward.

Daniel Bavly graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after having fought as an infantryman in Israel’s War of Independence. An Executive Partner in the Accounting and Auditing Firm Bavly, Millner and Co. in Tel Aviv from 1957-1995, Bavly became an active lay-leader in many Israeli Universities after retirement. He is the author of a number of books on the history and foreign relations of Israel.

AROUND THE WORLD, heads of government, public opinion formers, and academic scholars spend more time pondering how wars begin, than searching for ways to end them. And Israelis are no different. Many in Israel believe that the country is still waging its 1948 war for survival, and unhesitatingly provide their support to the continuing violence, quite oblivious about the many less belligerent options that could be pursued and possibly lead to long term peace and security.

Yet, what would peace signify for Israel? Few within the Israeli establishment have assessed this question candidly, nor examined the somewhat painful compromises that would have to be made.

The Arab League and the majority of its 22 members are committed to the Saudi initiative and the Beirut 2002 declaration. This means that should Israel return to its 1967 cease fire lines, agree to the establishment of an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its Capital, and provide for an equitable solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem in accordance with UN Resolution 194, all 22 Arab states will confirm that the conflict has come to an end and will therefore establish normal peace relations with Israel. Israel has, however, never seriously considered undertaking this path towards peace. The reasons why are baffling.

In his book, published in 1995, General Colin Powell wrote that Responsible people ought to start thinking how the war would end.* Is it really possible to give a rational and convincing explanation why Israel’s leaders have over the past 60 years avoided any attempt to try and make peace (with the possible exceptions of Itzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak)? Was their preference to avoid reconciliation intensified by the blind support of the majority of the Israeli population?

In the past, wars had clear beginnings and ends, and were fought against clearly defined enemies. But the world has changed. In the post-Cold War era, minorities living under majority rule are beginning to rise up all over the world and assert their quest for independence through force. From Northern Ireland, to Basque Country, to Kosovo, to Chechnya, to Lebanon, and to Palestine, the world has yet to adapt to this new kind of warfare against factions within the domestic population itself.

Much publicity was given to the speech made by President George W. Bush aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, six weeks after the invasion of Iraq, when he declared that the US had won the war. Almost four years later, it is obvious that the President did not know the facts. Yet, he was not the first to make such a mistake. While the US had successfully invaded and defeated the Ba’athist regime, the new enemy that they were about to face was illusive, undefined, and impossible to defeat with military might.

Gone are the overwhelming victories of World War II against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Here are the days of partial victories, where calling an end to hostilities requires the art of compromise and negotiation. Those setting out to wage war must have clear objectives in mind, in preparation for inevitable and necessary negotiations.

Students of Israeli history know that Israel’s leaders have never planned for the long-term. Following all of its wars, Israel never sought to convert its military victories into political victories to make peace. For years Israel has ignored the existence of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian leadership, claiming, there is no one available to talk to. This policy enables Israeli military forces to act unilaterally. Yet, unilateral military action, as we saw in the Gaza pullout of August 2005, does not provide for a lasting solution.

As early as 1949, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion refused to meet and discuss a peace settlement with the then Syrian ruler Colonel Husni Zaim. In the early 1950s, at times resorting to extensive reprisal raids, he refused to talk with Colonel Jamal Nasser, initiated by friendly intermediaries. Later, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, there were numerous proposals from Jordan and others from Egypt, which Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to address.

Repeatedly, the Israeli leadership has blamed their silence on the Arab refusal to negotiate. To prove its point the Israeli government has cited the well publicized three Nos ostensibly prohibiting any negotiation with Israel at the Arab League Khartoum Conference in August 1967. Yet, King Hussein of Jordan assured his listeners that President Nasser had encouraged him to pursue peace.

In fact, in the aftermath of the Six Day War and even more so after the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Government took a number of binding, constraining decisions that would make future negotiations with its Arab neighbors more difficult. Hence the annexation of East Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the earlier war, and the encouragement of settlement building, first in the Golan Heights and later in the West Bank. Then came the law of de facto annexation of the Golan initiated by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981.

Most Israelis reject the term, but there are many people around the world who believe that this unilateral settlement policy is reminiscent of acts of colonialism practiced by European countries in the 19th century. These practices, as well as the Israeli inability to come to an understanding with the Palestinian people in the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2000 Camp David Accords, have complicated negotiations and further distanced reconciliation. Although Israel has made many conciliatory statements, a serious and credible commitment to dialogue has never been tried.

Since taking office early in 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly disregarded the Palestinian leadership using the old line, there is no one to negotiate with. Even after the Syrian proposal for a settlement was raised following last summer’s War in Lebanon, Olmert rejected the opening stating, this is not the suitable time. And in the absence of any serious attempt to negotiate, the hostility between the parties has increased over the years and worsened the possibility of finally making peace.

With a rising death toll on both sides, (9,000 estimated Israeli casualities and 40,000 estimated Arab casualties since the end of the Six Day War) Israel must seriously consider the destruction it could have averted had it not failed to embrace its multiple opportunities for peace.

As modern warfare continues to change, the Israeli military must learn to adapt to the new modes of fighting. No longer pitted against armies, fighting now takes place in cities and villages against individual terrorists and guerilla fighters living alongside the civilian population. And while the Israeli military has developed techniques to root out the suicide bombers that have caused terror in Israeli population centers, their policies of targeted assassinations, collective punishments, and the ravaging of houses and villages have increased the hate and hostility of the Palestinian people.

The confiscation of Arab lands, the building of settlements, the continued military rule in Gaza and the West Bank, and the maltreatment of the Palestinian population have all contributed to the rage and violence of this second Intifadah. Between the carrot and the stick, Israel has repeatedly chosen the stick, to terrible consequences. If no policies are carried out to ensure a real improvement in the quality of life of the Palestinian people, then more and more civilians will be driven to side with the extremist terrorists, in the absence of other options.

These terrorist and guerilla organizations have defied the recycled methods of warfare chosen by the Israeli military. As long as Israel remains entrenched in their choice of military might over negotiation and understanding, Hamas and other terrorist organizations will continue to grow. And as long as the Israeli political and military leadership are convinced that it is unrealistic to dialogue with these organizations, the confrontation will only get worse for all parties involved.

The Israeli public must realize that all military achievements, without accompanying political programs, will fail to bring a peace settlement closer. Changing track and moving forward should be regarded as urgent priorities for all those who crave peace.

Note: * Colin L Powell, My American Journey, Random House 1995, page 519

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