How could Israel think that the life of one captive soldier, Gilad Shalit, is worth releasing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners with the blood of innocents on their hands? More than 100 of the murderers have been serving multiple life sentences for involvement in crimes such as high-casualty suicide bombings—including Nasir Yataima, who has been serving no fewer than 29 life sentences for the 2002 bombing of a Netanya hotel on Passover. How could a prime minister who has made a career of opposing any concessions to terrorism approve of the release of people like that?
The answer is that Gilad Shalit has become the child of every and all Israelis, in a country that places extraordinary value on human life. As one Israeli leader said of the exchange: "My heart says yes, but my head says no."
The case dramatically illustrates the agony of a nation repeatedly denied the peace it seeks. Go back to Israel's decision in 1947 to accept the partition resolution by the U.N. General Assembly. The plan recognized both a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state," and Israel accepted it, even though the original geographic outline of the new Jewish state was distorted and left out much of what the Israelis had hoped for. They recognized that sovereignty and independence justified any compromise, to realize the greater goal of restoring the bond between the Jewish people and the land that is so central to their historical narrative. Had they not so bravely accepted what they regarded as an injustice in 1947 and 1948, the likelihood is that the Jewish state might never have been established.
The Jewish link to this region is historic and undeniable. It is there in the Old Testament and it is underscored by a relatively recent, amazing archaeological discovery. In a burial cave southeast of Jerusalem, archaeologists have found tiny silver scrolls worn as amulets that date back to the 7th century B.C. Inscribed not in Arabic but in paleo-Hebrew are the lines: "May the Lord bless you and keep you; may He make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may He turn His countenance on you and give you peace." As Simon Schama, a Columbia University historian, has written, archaeology has unearthed a verifiable history of the Jewish presence in the land extending from ancient times to this day.
This explains why there was such distress when President Obama gave his first Middle East speech in Cairo. He attributed the existence of Israel to Jewish suffering in modern Europe, particularly the Holocaust, and failed to mention that the Jews had a 3,000-year history in the Promised Land. Did he just not understand the Jewish attachment to Israel or Israel's importance to the Jews as a people? And when the president spoke of the Arabs being displaced by Israel's founding, did he not understand that the Palestinians turned down offers of statehood in 1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008? Defenders of the president's partiality have insisted that the "1967 borders with land swaps" is nothing new. Do they also not understand that by uttering this statement Obama casually adopted a Palestinian goal as U.S. policy?
Does he not understand that there are people who mean what they say when they talk of exterminating Israel and all the Jews? Israel and the Jewish people have stood largely alone in facing existential dangers. That is what has given birth to their preoccupation with security risks, which are intensified by Israel's borders; until 1967 the country was but nine miles wide at its narrowest point, at its mid-section—wherein lies the largest portion of its population—rendering Israelis extremely vulnerable. The president may have forgotten what Israelis cannot fail to remember: that when the Golan Heights was in the hands of Syria before the 1967 war, Jewish villages and farms below were regularly targeted. Remember that and you begin to understand why the Israelis seek some kind of defensive positioning on the high ground running north and south in the middle of the country, and that is the West Bank.
Israel is a small country, roughly the size of New Jersey, looking out at a world of much larger Arab nations in a region of aggressive, violent Islamic fanaticism, whose children are taught to hate Israeli children. Millions of dollars from Europe and the United States are spent on poisoning the minds of the Palestinian young.It's a moral outrage. It explains why the Israelis know they will have to protect themselves without assistance from risk-averse Western democracies. International U.N. forces have a poor record of defending Israel; just look at Lebanon. They have thoroughly earned the derisory description of them by Abba Eban, Israeli foreign minister during the 1967 war, as an umbrella that is taken away when it rains. Hence Israel's determination that any Palestinian state must be demilitarized and be without tanks, artillery, or missiles that could be deployed and threaten Israel. It is also why Israel has consistently rejected the 1967 lines as future borders. It was Abba Eban again who epitomized what they meant: They are "Auschwitz lines."
In 1967, Israel did not face the existential menace of short- and medium-range rockets, mortars, and missiles supplied by Iran. Thousands of them were launched from Gaza after Israel's withdrawal in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and now Hamas has wrested control there from its rival Fatah. The Israelis would be committing suicide if they did not insist that the border between the West Bank and Jordan be made impenetrable. For the same reasons, they are right to insist upon a joint Israeli-Palestinian military presence along the Jordan River and the deployment of Iron Dome anti-missile batteries along the border of a future Palestinian state.
Something else has changed since 1967. As Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times has noted, Israel's regional policy had long been built around a peace treaty with Egypt, cordial relations with Turkey, a cold peace with Syria, and a shared interest with Saudi Arabia in the containment of Iran. All these arrangements have been undermined by the Arab Spring upheavals, diminishing the prospects that peace with the Palestinians would lead to permanent peace with the wider Arab world or indeed would last.
The Israelis see the Palestinians as divided into one camp that is more radical and one less. The more radical camp is led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They want 100 percent of everything and will not make any concessions to Israel's security, the Hudson Institute's Khaled Abu Toameh has written, for their goal is to replace Israel with an Islamic state. The less radical are the Palestine Liberation Organization and its main faction, Fatah, who want 100 percent of the pre-1967 lines, which would encompass the entire West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. And they too are unwilling to commit to the end of the conflict.
The PLO of today seeks not a peace agreement but a U.N. resolution in the hopes that this will give the Palestinians what Israel cannot and would not give them at the negotiating table, to wit, a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines. Opinion polls indicate Palestinian support for their own state alongside Israel, but only as a first step toward one state in which they will rule over the Jewish people.
It does not inspire confidence when President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly asserts that the Palestinians have been "under occupation for 63 years," as if the "occupation" began in 1948, with the creation of the state of Israel, and not 44 years ago, in 1967, with Israel's takeover of the West Bank and Gaza after a war that threatened its existence. He repeatedly asserts that this is the land of Muhammad and Jesus, as if Moses never existed. The PLO goal seems to be an Israeli state without peace, without security, without the end of conflict, and without the recognition of the state of Israel, rather than a Palestinian state living side by side with the Israeli state in peace and security.
To reach a peaceful solution, each side must find a way to accept the legitimacy of the other's narrative. The Israelis can never forget that had there been a Jewish state in the first half of the 20th century, there would have been no Holocaust, and had there not been a Jewish state after the Holocaust, there would have been no Jewish future. This history is the culture that affects their worldview.
Nevertheless, the Israelis must recognize the need to achieve a Palestinian state, just as the Palestinians must accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state and that Palestinian refugees will have to be resettled in that new state, the same way the Jewish refugees were settled in the new Jewish state. Obama does not help by leaving unsaid what had been stated by his predecessors: that the Palestinians who fled Israel do not have the right to return to the Israeli state but will become part of the Palestinian state.
The Israelis were fortunate that Abbas's determination to go to the United Nations rather than engage in direct negotiations with Israel brought about the opposition of the United States and many European countries. But this administration has rendered negotiations less feasible. It has nourished the higher minimum demands of the Palestinians, and these don't come close to the maximum demands that any Israeli government is capable of conceding. So a stalemate has been created.
The only glimmer of hope for resolution of the long-festering conflict is in two events that suggest at least the possibility of second thoughts by the administration: the president's U.N. speech and the willingness of the United States to veto the Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Maybe these moves will begin to resolve the contradictions of the past. But the themes will have to be repeated if we are to see any talks on a lasting peace.