For Jews, Yom Kippur is an occasion for heshbon nefesh – literally “accounting of the soul,” in which we acknowledge our ethical failings in the previous year, and contemplate strategies for tikkun, or repair, in the year ahead. This year, the Day of Atonement is bookended by a pair of historical milestones – the death of Shimon Peres, and the dubious jubilee of Israeli occupation of the West Bank – that should inspire an especially intense internal reckoning for one venerable Jewish denomination – advocates of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
For this group, the present author among them, the anomaly of the democratic state of Israel denying fundamental rights to millions of Palestinians is an injustice that conscience cannot abide. With the passing of Peres, we have now lost the elder statesman who was the most prominent global champion of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is difficult to exaggerate Peres’ role in shaping the modern Israeli state – scion of the founding generation, architect of the country’s vaunted defense and hi-tech industries, co-author of historic mutual recognition with the Palestinians, a Nobel Laureate who served as prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and president. If someone were to write an Israeli version of Hamilton, it would be about him. If a leader of this stature could not achieve a peace agreement, who will? It is no surprise that some have whether the two-state vision was buried with him.
Such skepticism can only be amplified by the inexorably approaching anniversary of Israel’s fateful victory in the 1967 War – a democratic/demographic dilemma created in six days that remains unresolved after fifty years. In Israel’s polarized political debate, there are perhaps two propositions to which all sides can agree: June 2017 will mark a half-century of military rule over the Palestinians and settlement in the West Bank, and nothing indicates any imminent change in that status.
How will Israeli society mark fifty years of occupation? Longtime advocates of “two states for two peoples” will surely seek to stir the conscience of their compatriots – modern adaptations of biblical prophets denouncing the rulers of the day and the ruin their policies promise for the people of Israel. A politically dominant Israeli right wing, by contrast, will celebrate 1967 as steps in the process of liberation, beginning with the renewal of access to ancient holy sites and the re-establishment of Jewish communities in Hebron, the Jewish Quarter of old Jerusalem, and Kfar Etzion, from which Jews were expelled in 1929 and 1948.
Both of these poles, however, represent minority points of view; opinion research indicates that . For Israel’s “silent majority,” June 2017 is likely no more than an historical footnote devoid of political consequence. Pundits may well quote Yitzhak Rabin’s famous assertion, after he missed a deadline in negotiations with the Palestinians, that “.”
A pragmatic centrist bloc is the new fulcrum of Israeli public opinion on the Palestinian issue; it tips the scales between the classic binary of right and left. On the one hand, ; they rarely if ever (knowingly) set foot in “Judea and Samaria,” and . It is no coincidence that the four Prime Ministers Israelis have elected in the 21st century have all gone on record opposing permanent rule over the Palestinians – despite each having spent their formative years in Likud.
At the same time, the Israeli zeitgeist sees scant prospects for peace now with the Palestinians, amid the chaos of the contemporary Middle East. To the left’s cri de coeur to end the occupation now, they seem to respond with the Hebrew expression that forms the title of a popular radio news program: ? What’s burning that requires risky steps now? Above all, Israelis remain wary of territorial withdrawals, in the aftermath of repeated wars with Hamas and Hezbollah in the de-occupied territories of Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
For peace and human rights advocates to successfully spark a crisis of conscience in contemporary Israeli society, we must conduct our own rigorous internal evaluation – to ask ourselves why, after decades of advocacy and protest, our messages resonate with a far too limited audience. This summer, some prominent voices in Israel’s “peace camp” spoke out in the spirit of heshbon nefesh – proposing two themes for strategic tikkun.
The first is the need to speak to the 21st century security dilemmas of de-occupation. Israeli popular consciousness has been scarred by the second intifada, Gaza, and South Lebanon precedents; Israelis now see territorial withdrawal as creating power vacuums that set the stage for unwinnable asymmetric wars against Islamist militias, sowing death and destruction, eroding international legitimacy, and achieving no decisive military or political result. The fear that evacuating the West Bank could produce a failed Palestinian state, providing a base for attacks on Israel’s coastal metropolis, looms large in the Israeli imagination – and not without reason. As the parallel “” promoted in these pages explain, it is necessary, but no longer sufficient, to simply argue the untenability of the occupation and demand that it end. Effective two-state advocacy must explain convincingly how the occupation can be ended securely, and what arises in its place.
The second theme is the urgent need to break peace advocacy out of . In the diverse, divided society aptly depicted in President Rivlin’s seminal “” speech, “two states for two peoples” remains all too firmly perceived as the cause célèbre of the Ashkenazi old left elite. Yuval Rahamim, newly appointed chair of , spoke forcefully to me of the need to communicate with a much broader audience in Israeli society: “Protest speaks to a very small and shrinking group of Israelis, who read Haaretz, who have what to eat, secular, Tel Aviv. This is not a strategy for change. I will not compromise my values, but I have to check my strategy.”
A longtime activist in the Israeli-Palestinian , Rahamim is spearheading a strategic re-orientation among Israeli peace NGOs, seeking to create “an opening for a new discourse, for a new gathering. Instead of just protesting, let’s connect to the Israeli society. Mizrachim, Russians, Haredim, Arabs, Ethiopians, traditional Jews, residents of the periphery – each group is different.” His flagship initiative has been a seminar series on engagement with conservative constituencies, the first of which included a group of . “The Haredi activists were the center of attention,” Rahamim recounted, “because no one had seen anything like them before. They said hard things – but something new started – and we hadn’t even known they existed.”
The electoral imperative of this strategy is illustrated by the greatest failure of Shimon Peres’ illustrious career – his . The Polish-accented Peres never appealed to voters beyond his classic Labor Party base – even in the bygone era when the majority of Israelis identified as secular Zionists. Indeed, the electoral struggles of Israel’s “peace camp” mirror another political party making headlines for demographic decline. U.S. Republican Party strategist , explaining his party’s string of electoral defeats, recently offered an ideologically ironic but fitting parallel to debates within the Israeli left:
“I often hear conversations in the Republican Party that are like being in a car that needs to drive 100 miles, with only 20 miles of gas left, while debating the merits of stopping for gas. The car doesn’t care. It will go 20 miles and stop. You can argue if there is a moral imperative… to reach more non-white voters in order to be a governing party. I’d say there is. But you can’t argue if there is a political imperative. It’s just math.”
To mobilize the “silent majority“ in Israel, two-states must not remain the trademark of a single “peace camp,“ but a cross-cutting agenda championed by a coalition of “peace camps,” rooted in multiple constituencies.
Promising work is already happening along these lines. Throughout this high holiday season, a are leading “” from “periphery” communities across Israel to Jerusalem, all in support of a peace agreement. In the religious sphere, figures such as and have provided public examples of dialogue and human rights and peace advocacy undertaken by prominent Orthodox leaders. Their work is paralleled by promising, off-the-record “ involving rabbinic and political leaders in the Ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist communities, including with secular left leaders and Palestinian citizens of Israel. These efforts are still nascent, but they embody the types of engagement that can motivate a broader cross-section of Israelis to take responsibility for a democratic future.