If a biblical saw could carve Israel out of the Middle East and to drift toward Cyprus as an island, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would disappear. As no one wields such a mighty weapon, the antagonists must learn to survive with the neighbor they have. Since modern Israel's founding, in 1948, Arabs and Israelis have gone to war numerous times. Not counting the two Intifadas and many smaller skirmishes, Israel and its neighbors fought wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 1993, 1996, 2006, 2009, and 2014 – more than one war each decade of Israel’s short history. Over time, the faces of Israel’s adversaries have changed and Israel achieved peaceful resolutions with Egypt and Jordan. More recently though, religious and demographic changes inside both Israel and its adversaries have produced an increasingly intractable situation.
In Israel’s first four wars, its enemies were nation-states with conventional military forces – principally Egypt, Syria and Jordan, supported by other Arab countries. Adversaries and targets were clearly defined; the conflicts were relatively brief and the strategic results were unambiguous. The Six-Day War of 1967 resulted in Israel becoming a de facto regional military superpower. In the wake of the October 1973 war, the Arab countries realized that Israel could not be defeated militarily.
Today, Israel’s most ardent enemies – Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – are driven by extreme religious ideologies. The approach that Israeli leaders have deployed to counter these foes has offered but brief advantages. Israel’s reliance on “hard power” has not and, in the long run, cannot pave a road to peace. As a result conflicts erupt easily and frequently.
Each time Hamas and Israel engage militarily, any peaceful solution becomes more elusive and unachievable. The repeated fighting is increasingly costly to Gaza’s trapped population as Israel and Hamas become more aggressive in the use of lethal weapons and Hamas deploys human shields. Hamas rockets targeting Israel are more sophisticated than those used in previous wars, while Israel deploys deadly, contemporary weapons, including drones. The result is tragically high casualty-counts displayed on global networks and social media.
As Israel’s enemies have grown more ideologically extreme, so too has Israel. Israel has its own religious and ideological extremists, and the current coalition government reflects no true commitment to making peace. Seeing no historical evidence that concessions produce peace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Tea Party ties his hands and limits what he can offer to the Palestinians. Leaders on both sides of the conflict dictate policies that harden attitudes and tighten the knots at the core of their disputes.
Gaza is the tragic focus of the conflict, but it could also be the crucible through which a solution is forged. Gazans often describe their home as the largest jail in the world. With 1.8 million inhabitants living in only 139 square miles, it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Israel’s total blockade of Gaza leaves the area’s economy in shambles, with an unemployment rate approaching 50 percent. The latest war will surely make matters worse. With restrictions on travel, import and export, fishing rights and banking, the quality of life in Gaza has been deteriorating for a decade or more, yielding hopelessness and the rise of religious fundamentalism. To counter these trends, a paradigm shift to “soft power” and economic development is desperately needed.
The killings of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin left a vacuum in which few could move the needle toward peace. No Israeli leader since Rabin has had the creativity or mandate to advance toward peace in a meaningful way, while the refusal of many Palestinian to countenance Israel’s existence under any conditions has stifled serious discussion. Lacking vision, leadership, leaders on both sides have been mere guardians of the status quo.
As a nation-state itself, it falls to Israel to make the bold move to confirm its moral leadership and provide Gaza a path to integration as a member of the civilized world. Netanyahu should unilaterally propose the following actions for peace:
1. Easing significantly the blockade of Gaza.
2. Allowing and encouraging economic activity there, including the freer movement of people in and out of Gaza, fostering employment and education.
3. Removing restrictions on funds entering Gaza.
4. Providing tax incentives to Israeli firms to open plants adjacent to Gaza where Gazans might seek employment.
5. Removing restrictions on exports from Gaza.
6. Spearheading an international “Marshall Plan” for Gaza to help rebuild the economic infrastructure.
These actions would accelerate the rebuilding of Gaza. They would improve Gazans’ standard of living significantly, helping to reduce the hopelessness that drives many to extremism. Collectively, these actions would be a far better investment in Israel’s security than any weapon. What would Netanyahu require in return?
1. Hamas agreement to a truce, to disarm Gaza, and to support the above package.
2. An international plan and pledge to monitor that disarmament, including eliminating all rockets currently possessed by Hamas and eliminating tunnels.
3. An international force of about 25,000 to oversee border security between Gaza, Israel and Egypt.
While these steps alone would not achieve a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, they would significantly improve the situation on the ground and establish a framework for a future status agreement. Citizens of Gaza and Israel’s neighboring towns would have the opportunity, over time, to develop the habits of peace. Netanyahu would emerge as a visionary leader, earning the global respect shared by Rabin and Sadat. Netanyahu must be willing to make bold decisions to avert the next war.
Raja Kamal is senior vice president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, based in Novato, Calif. Arnold Podgorsky is an lawyer and president of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, a Conservative synagogue. This column states their personal views and not the official views of either organization.