Israel: Change your vision for long-term peace

By Helena Cobban©

  From The Christian Science Monitor, August 14, 2003

TOURNUS, FRANCE - How do Israelis see their relationship with their neighbors, the Palestinians, half a century from now? This is a question that President Bush and his advisers need to start asking seriously, in private and in public.

The tangled relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians is at a turning point. The road map for peace crafted by Washington and three major allies seems to be leading nowhere. Israel has continued its construction of new housing for settlers in the West Bank, its tight clampdown on Palestinian society, and its extrajudicial killings of Palestinian activists. These actions are all infractions of the road map. And they make it very hard for the well- intentioned but politically weak Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to continue doing what he needs to do under the road map.

There are two other Israeli policies of great concern. Israel is building a vast barrier snaking deep into the occupied West Bank. The barrier effectively attaches large portions of West Bank land to Israel while it encircles Palestinian communities and cuts offthousands of Palestinian farmers from their land.

Israel is also hanging onto thousands of Palestinian hostages - men who have been detained without trial, sometimes for many months.

Is this a way to build long-term peace?

I write from France, a country that was invaded and occupied by Germany twice during the 20th century. In the process of dealing with those two catastrophes, the French and their allies learned a lot about how to build long-term peace between former enemies.

In 1918, after France and its allies (including the US) brought about the country's first liberation from German occupation, they adopted policies that imposed harsh, long-term punishments on Germany and its people. Those policies helped incubate Adolf Hitler.

In 1945, after the Allies were successful in their second attempt to liberate France and the other German-occupied lands, they adopted a much smarter policy toward Germany.

By the time the Allies reached Berlin, Hitler and some top lieutenants had killed themselves. The Allies put 22 suspected top Nazis on public trial. (Some were found not guilty. Some were hanged, and others imprisoned.)

But then, at the insistence of President Harry S. Truman and his advisers, a determined effort was made to rehabilitate the rest of German society and to tie an increasingly vigorous, de-Nazified Germany back into a web of good relations with its Western neighbors.

That policy proved notably successful. France and Germany, which had warred against each other dozens of times over preceding centuries, finally found a way to build constructive, lasting ties. The two countries are now at the heart of the movement toward European political union.

The French themselves put a lot of effort into building these ties. Realizing that they would always have to live next to a Germany that on most objective measures was weightier than themselves, French officials saw that building respectful relations with Germany based on solid joint interests was the best way forward for France.

So most French people found a way to get beyond their many grievances against Germany.

It's worth noting that many Israelis have also found a way to get beyond their many even graver grievances against Germany. So it is certainly realistic to expect that, despite the many grievances that Israelis currently have against the Palestinians (nowhere near as serious as those they had against Germany) and that the Palestinians now have against the Israelis, these two peoples of the Holy Land can indeed find a way to build respectful, long-term links with each other.

But this won't happen if the Israeli government carries on trying to impose harsh collective punishments against the Palestinians while remaining deaf to the Palestinians' legitimate interests and concerns. It won't happen if Israel continues barricading off huge segments of Palestinian land, and implanting its nationals into it. It won't happen if Israel holds thousands of Palestinian civilians in detention without trial, undertakes extrajudicial killings, and commits numerous other abuses of Palestinians' most basic human rights.

Yes, there have been abuses of Israelis' rights by Palestinians, too. But these were not committed by the Palestinian Authority. And though Israel has quite legitimately requested the Authority to prevent Palestinian hard-liners from launching their attacks, it has also frequently paralyzed the Authority's ability to do this.

Because of the massive financial and political support that the US gives to Israel, Americans are deeply implicated in all Israeli actions. Now, the president and his advisers have a duty to ask Israelis how they see their long-term relationship with the Palestinians, and to spell out the alternatives as they see them. The central fact is that the Palestinians, who are deeply attached to the land of their ancestors, are not going to go away. They will always be the Israelis' closest neighbors. How will Israelis deal with this fact?

If Israelis are smart and sincerely committed to having a thriving democracy, then they should want the Palestinians to have a thriving democracy alongside theirs, and at peace with them.

But if Israelis continue trying to dominate, humiliate, and punish Palestinians, then they should know that such policies cannot bring peace. They only sow the seeds of further hatred and worse conflicts to come.

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.