Seeking Peace in the Shadow of War

This column on the renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians might seem somewhat detached because I am writing as all of us are preoccupied figuring out if America will attack Syria – and whether Assad, Hezbollah or even Iran will take out their frustration on Israel. The rush that overwhelmed the civil gas-mask distribution depots would seem to indicate what conclusion we have drawn. But this is deceptive. While most of us are taking the basic precautions in which we are well versed, I think Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that “our finger is on the pulse but can quickly move to the trigger” has been understood clearly in Damascus. They will prefer a painful American slap on the wrist (if it ever comes) rather than a furious and perhaps extended Israeli reaction to an unprovoked attack against a non-combatant.

If it takes place, the American punitive attack should be history by the time you read this. Whatever the outcome, American action against Syria will be easily outlived by our conflict with the Palestinians.

As worrying and explosive as the implosion in the neighboring Arab countries is, the Palestinian issue is still the most complex, dangerous and toxic for us. Therefore, the announcement by Secretary Kerry that the sides will meet again to try to find some elusive common ground is important because this problem has more impact on our future than the seizures gripping the Arab world, even when these threaten to spill over our borders.

Obama’s many well-documented foreign policy failures in the Middle East include the Israeli-Palestinian issue. While he deserves credit for re-entering the ring where he already took a beating, it is not a coincidence that this appears to be the initiative and “baby” of Kerry. Obama, perhaps still bruised a bit, seems to be removed from the process, his visit to Israel notwithstanding. When Kerry announced that he had succeeded in getting Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a series of understandings to renew negotiations, I was pleased at the positive development. Still, I wonder, “If the chances are so slim, why does Obama need this?”

It reminds me of the story told many years ago by Rabbi Joshua Stampfer at Camp Solomon Schechter about the man suffering from overcrowding in his small shtetl home, who was told by the rabbi to bring a goat to live in his house. But the relief the man felt after the rabbi told him to get rid of the goat will not be felt by the White House when the Palestinian- Israeli negotiations fade away. The goat of Israeli-Palestinian relations will only create more headaches at the conclusion of the nine-month period allocated for this current round.

Like the vast majority of us, I yearn for the day when the conflict with the Palestinians will end. Even though the Palestinian problem was created by Arab refusal and has festered because it is their most effective weapon against Israel, we are perceived as the culprit and will continue to take the blame until the problem is resolved. When it is resolved, an immense burden will be lifted. It also will defuse the demographic time bomb that threatens the Jewish character of Israel until, as Yair Lapid says, “Israel gets a divorce from the Palestinians.”

But the consensus amongst Israelis is that the gap has become so immense this round will fail like all the others since the Oslo accord. Sitting down to try to negotiate is better than not talking. But it appears the overriding motivation to return to the table is that neither side wants the blame for torpedoing the Kerry initiative. Not an optimistic starting point. And an agenda has not been agreed upon.

Every Israeli forms their opinion of the peace process based on their sociological and educational background. Born, raised and educated on Jewish and humanistic values in the most powerful nation on Earth during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era in the polite, insulated and progressive Northwest, I moved to Israel in 1981. I balance compassion, a belief in the basic goodness of mankind, peace as an exalted value, giving a second chance to enemies with the expectation that 2,000 years of hatred and persecution of Jews will not disappear and that Israel will need to fight and must always be prepared to do so to defend itself and the Jewish people.

This month marked the 20th anniversary of the Oslo accords. When Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the accords in 1993, the vast majority of Israelis optimistically watched the ceremony with President Clinton on the White House lawn. We believed the way forward to peace and prosperity had been found. There was still much to be done, but a year later when the peace agree- ment with Jordan was signed, we were convinced this vision was being fulfilled.

Our optimism caused us to ignore the first early signs of trouble. On the night of Sept. 13, the day the agreements were signed, Arafat, in a speech televised on Jordanian television, called the agreement only a stage in the struggle against Israel, referring to the famous Hudaibiya peace agreement Mohammed signed with the Quraish tribe only to later slaughter the Quraish. The following May in a speech to Muslim students in South Africa, Arafat explicitly mentioned the Hudaibiya agreement in the context of Oslo, describing the accord as a temporary tactical step.

Ma’ariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote, “The list of Arafat’s anti-Oslo speeches is long. When Arafat came to Gaza, in his first speech he spoke about Jaffa and Lod. He meant every word. Not a week passed without a declaration by him or someone close to him of their true intention. They always say to their constituency what they mean. We insisted on not listening … If Israel had at least temporarily suspended the agreement when the incitement began, we might be in a different place now. We continued to hope that it would cease because Oslo gave expression to our great transcendent hope.”

Hamas suicide bombers and the assassination of Rabin, who gave needed credibility to the peace process with the Palestinians, did not derail Oslo. Even Netanyahu, who opposed Oslo, in his first term in the late ‘90s signed the Wye accords with Arafat, further implementing Oslo. Further proof of Israeli faith in Oslo was the 1999 election of Ehud Barak, who announced his determination to continue implementation.

And so at Camp David in 2000, Israel offered a proposal meeting almost all Palestinian demands. This offer was rejected by Arafat; within a month, he orchestrated the second intifada, using weapons received from Israel through Oslo. The intifada was responsible for more than 1,000 Israeli deaths, the vast majority noncombatants, including women and children.

In 2007 then Prime Minister Olmert upgraded Barak’s proposal, offering Arafat’s successor, Abu Mazen, 97% of the West Bank and sovereignty in East Jerusalem. There was no reply from Abu Mazen.

Originally optimistic and hopeful, today Israelis on all sides of the spectrum associate Oslo with terror, murder of innocent civilians, and incessant missiles and rockets on cities and towns. To continue to talk about Oslo ignores the fact that the Palestinians still have not agreed to the basic conditions that ensure complete recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people (not a Jewish state as they like to contend) and a final, end-of-conflict resolution. Fo the Palestinian Authority to continue to cling to the issue of settlements and occupation as the core of the problem is disingenuous. These are symptoms of the problem and will disappear with an end-of-conflict agreement. We have proven in Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank (Northern Samaria) our readiness to withdraw from territory by dismantling settlements and painfully uprooting Jewish homes.

Kerry’s achievement is significant. Six trips to the region and countless phone calls brought about a Palestinian commitment to stay in the negotiations for nine months, during wh
ich time they will desist from all unilateral steps at the UN. Israel agreed to significantly reduce settlement activity and release 104 Palestinian terrorists involved in the murder of Israelis imprisoned before the Oslo accords. More importantly, the Palestinians have agreed to debate all of the core issues. If an agreement is reached, it will be an end-of-conflict agreement. Kerry also provided a letter of guarantee to the Palestinians that the U.S. position is that their state will be based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps and a letter to Israel stating that the future Palestinian state will not be based on the exact 1967 borders, but will have border modifications, apparently to include large settlement blocs within Israel.

The problems are numerous: since 2007 the gaps have gotten bigger on all of the core issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees, Israeli security requirements, the settlement blocs and water); there is little trust and even less rapport between the sides; and the Palestinian Authority is a corrupt entity so weakened by its perennial conflict with Hamas that it cannot make hard decisions.

Our release of the Palestinian terrorists indicted for murder of Israeli civilians earned Israel nothing concrete in return. Interviews with the families of the victims of these terrorists was heart wrenching. Those who lost husbands, wives, brothers, sisters or children all said that if the release of these terrorists with “blood on their hands” was part of a final peace agreement, they would willingly support it, but simply as a gesture to get the Palestinians to the table, the release tramples on the memory of the victims. The first 25 prisoners were released, to a hero’s welcome. These scenes of perverted victorious euphoria and the national glorification of the culture of murder of civilians make every Israeli wonder if we can really ever make peace with a people who, as Golda Meir said 40 years ago, “hate our children more than they love their own.”

Kerry has succeeded in getting the sides to agree to discuss all of the core issues. But with little common ground, little mutual confidence, chaos on our borders and a weakened America as the honest broker, a breakthrough is doubtful. At best, this will be another small brick in the foundation that may one day be the basis for peace. At worst, the frustration of another failed round of talks will lead to a dangerous and violent explosion.

But with the resumption of talks, the biggest problem is that if they continue to be based on Oslo, they will not solve the conflict. A solution must be found. We cannot continue to drift without a sail into the sea of bi-national statehood. Yemini writes, “Without an accord, we will be led like sheep to the slaughter of a bi-national state. It will be a catastrophe because the ethnic and religious divide in this entity will be worse than in Syria and the result will be worse. But so is an agreement like Oslo, which in the minds of Arafat’s successors, is a stage in the struggle to eliminate Israel.”

While I like to think I still believe the same values I was raised with, Oslo has illustrated to me that these values are often out of place in this region. We will continue to strive for peace, but it must be done with a realistic understanding of our partner.

Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at


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