A wasted chance for peace, if not love

Patiently constructed hopes for a positive change in Arab-Israeli relations lie in ruins. Israel's belligerent new leaders are to blame, says David Grossman
Click to follow
The Independent Online
How hard it is to create something new in this world, and how easy it is to destroy it. It took only a few hours to demolish the delicate web of relations that had been woven between Palestinians and Israelis after 100 years of animosity. Of what was that web made? Of the most abstract things: much good will on both sides, war fatigue and, especially, the maturity and readiness of some great leaders, who in the wisdom of age were able to rise above their fears, and rebel against their own mentalities.

During the past two years we were able to begin to speculate on how real peace between Israel and its neighbours might look. Peace, I emphasise, not love. But then who looks for love between nations? The main thing is the change in categories of feeling and thinking: it suddenly became clear, to the surprise of many Palestinians and Israelis, that if you cast aside your stereotypes and see the enemy as a human being, you discover that he is a person like yourself. It turned out that a person - and a nation - could decide it was no longer prepared to continue to be the victim of a stagnant view of the world, of a narrow interpretation of its own history. Maybe that sounds banal, but the events of this week show to what extent all of us in this region are the slaves of those stereotypes and how much the use of force is our mother tongue.

The opportunity for peace revealed to us that you do not have to live every part of your life in the dichotomous framework of "victim or master". The three years since the signing of the Oslo agreement instilled in Israelis and Palestinians the feeling of freedom, of the beginning of a long recovery. Here and there new ties were made - economic, cultural, even military. A routine of working together began, and mechanisms were created that succeeded, with great discernment, through a process of mutual education, in liquidating foci of opposition to peace. New personal friendships were established. Let me give one small example: when more than 50 Israelis were murdered last February in suicide attacks by Hamas extremists, a Palestinian friend called me from Ramallah and offered to donate blood to the wounded.

The process has been difficult and bitter and bloody. Most Israelis, and most Palestinians, are still a long way from the lofty, hopeful feeling I described. In fact, the concessions that Oslo forced both sides to make led to more anxiety for many, and to a sense that the other side was tricking them. These people were pushed one more, decisive step towards the brink.

The Oslo agreement of 1993 reflects this ambivalence. Only at first glance was it a "peace of the brave", as Arafat termed it. Anyone who read the agreements and examined the maps understood that the bravery had been enough only to break down the psychological barriers, but not to create a deep and fundamental change in relations between the two peoples. The agreement - which provided for leaving Israeli settlements where they were and which hacked the West Bank into a checkerboard of detours and roadblocks and areas of Israeli control - didn't have much of a chance from the start.

I want to believe that a rational and flexible government - like the Rabin-Peres administration in its later stages - would have been smart enough to repair the flaws in the agreement while continuing the process, in the hope that the majority of Israelis would, slowly, recognise the great blessing that real peace could bring. The greatness of Rabin and Peres was that at a certain point (not at the beginning of the process) they defined for themselves the final goal - true peace - and decided to ignore all the obstacles along the way to it, including disturbing violations by the Palestinians, and the temptations of the use of force, Israel's traditional way of communicating with the Arabs.

Netanyahu has a different final goal, one that is becoming nauseatingly clear as time goes on. Of course he wants peace. Who doesn't want peace? But everything he does indicates that he wants some sort of abstract peace, one without concessions, one without a partner. His virtual fantasy peace led us this week straight into a nightmare.

But the peace process created another new, decisive fact: Israel is today a part of the Middle East. After decades of conflict, several important Arab states came to understand that they had to accept Israel's presence. This was a huge achievement for Israel, one that makes real a dream that its leaders had always evoked. That dream carries a price tag - it requires that we grow up and start to act more responsibly. Israeli governments can no longer do whatever they like in the region and solve every problem by force of arms alone.

As long as Israel was entirely isolated here it allowed itself, sometimes with great justice, to treat all those around it as absolute enemies and to strike back with great force against any provocation. Today, Israel's ties with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians restrict and complicate its responses. Today Israel has a lot to lose in the Middle East. Worsening relations with the Palestinians will lead to a tragic deterioration in relations with Egypt and Jordan. The reverse is also true - progress in one channel will strengthen others.

Under Netanyahu's leadership, Israel is being dragged again and again into impulsive and irresponsible actions. It is humiliating the Palestinians and treating them with contempt. Netanyahu played games of prestige for weeks before finally deigning to meet with the head of the Palestinian Authority, as if only the Palestinians had an interest in such a meeting. One hundred days after the elections, Netanyahu is still refusing to honour Israel's signature on the Oslo agreement and to redeploy Israeli forces in Hebron, and government ministers are building more and more houses in the settlements and creating a situation that, perhaps, only a horrible war will be able to solve.

Netanyahu today represents all that is arrogant and belligerent in Israeli politics - those very traits we had just begun to recover from. This latest deterioration in the situation will, of course, lead his supporters to declare: "We told you - you can never trust the Arabs. We gave them guns and they're using them to kill us. Between us the sword will always rule." I, and those who think like me, also see in these events support for our opinions, but there is one decisive difference: we have already tried the way of conflict and battle, and we have discovered that violence leads to ruin. But the road to peace ... that road we have but barely trodden. And today it looks longer and farther away than ever.

David Grossman is an Israeli novelist. His latest work is 'The Book of Intimate Grammar'.