Paul Pillar

Sensible Thinking in Israel

A peace proposal released this week by a group of prominent Israelis warrants close attention, although not because it breaks any new substantive ground. Condensed into a digestible two pages, it follows the lines that countless knowledgeable observers have known for a long time would have to be the shape of any eventual Israeli-Palestinian agreement. It is consistent with the parameters that Bill Clinton laid out at Camp David over a decade ago, and it explicitly is a response to—and an embracing of—the Arab peace initiative that the Arab League advanced in 2002. The core concept is a comprehensive and permanent peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors, based on 1967 borders with provision for limited, mutually agreed 1:1 land swaps.

What is noteworthy about the proposal is that reasonable and sensible thinking like this is coming out of Israel, notwithstanding the obduracy of the current Israeli government and its apparent determination to retain indefinitely, and to continue colonization of, lands that Israeli forces seized in a war 44 years ago. Also noteworthy is who is exhibiting the sensible thinking. The proponents of the plan are to the left of Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the rest of his government, but they include the likes of a former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and a former head of the internal security service Shin Bet. These are not people who would support anything that would endanger the security of Israel.

The former Shin Bet chief, Yaakov Perry, indicated he had furnished a copy of the plan to Netanyahu, who said he looked forward to reading it. Mr. Perry is no doubt smart enough not to hold his breath waiting for any more of a response from the prime minister. In the very week that this unofficial plan is being unveiled, Netanyahu’s government is doing more not only of the colonization of occupied territory but also of rubbing the Americans’ noses in the Israeli government’s ability to get away with it. In what looks like a replay of last year’s spectacle of the government announcing during a visit by the U.S. vice president the construction of additional settlements, more such announcements are being made on the eve of a meeting between President Obama and Israeli President (and former Labor Party leader and prime minister) Shimon Peres. The newest announced construction involves both a disputed area of East Jerusalem and several settlements farther afield in the West Bank.

Probably Netanyahu’s government is feeling all the more inclined to throw its weight around following the much-noted correction by Judge Richard Goldstone of his report on damage and casualties associated with Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military expedition in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. The government is seizing this opportunity to portray this correction (made necessary by Israel’s refusal to cooperate with Goldstone’s inquiry in the first place) as discrediting all of the criticism of Cast Lead, but it did no such thing. Supposedly deliberate military targeting of civilians was never the main issue. Most of Goldstone’s report, which the judge has not retracted, is as valid as ever. Most of the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians during the operation came not from an Israeli military plan to kill them but instead from a use of force that was highly indiscriminate and highly disproportionate to whatever purpose Israeli forces supposedly were achieving with the operation. This is standard stuff in any careful inquiry into the legality and morality of warfare, in which most of the issues are matters of proportionality.

The disproportionate use of force in Cast Lead reflected an Israeli determination to seek absolute security even if that means absolute insecurity for other people. The fatal flaw in this approach is that the other people are always going to be deeply dissatisfied with that state of affairs. As long as this is the Israeli approach, there will be more anger, more rockets, more Cast Leads, and more Goldstone-type reports.

Just as regime change is often looked to for breaking destructive impasses elsewhere in the Middle East, regime change in Israel might be needed to break this endlessly destructive cycle. In the meantime, initiatives such as this week’s peace proposal give some hope. The next time the U.S. president sees the Israeli prime minister, he should press him regarding why he hasn't yet acted on the proposal, or on anything like it from the Israeli government.