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No Palestinian partners for peace

By David Harris, Special to CNN
  • David Harris says Israel has been seeking elusive peace since founding in 1948
  • He says Palestinian activists have role but should direct call for peace at own leaders
  • Israel's compromises long rebuffed by those seeking to deny its existence, he says
  • Harris: When Palestinians ready for peaceful compromise, they will find partner in Israel

Editor's note: David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee and senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

New York (CNN) -- Peace. For Israel, it's the name of the game. It's been that way since the state's founding in 1948. In fact, it's been at the heart of the Jewish journey from time immemorial.

Jerusalem, linked to the Jewish people for more than 3,500 years, means "city of peace." The Jewish prophets repeatedly spoke of peace. Isaiah's words are inscribed near the U.N.: "And nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Jews are mandated, by our tradition, to "seek peace."

But wishing and praying for peace are only part of the equation. To make peace requires a partner. It can't be done alone or by simply repeating the word "peace" enough times. The Middle East isn't a new-age laboratory quite yet. It still has a long way to go before Woodstock comes to the West Bank. Meanwhile, firepower, not flower power, is what counts in largely autocratic societies.

That said, nonviolent Palestinian voices could have a role to play, but their impact would be felt, if at all, only if their target were Palestinian leadership. No one else in Palestinian society has the power to deliver a deal. If the consistent drumbeat was "We want peace with Israel and a brighter future for our children," maybe it would prod Palestinian leadership to get serious. Otherwise, fantasies about a "hummus-and-pita summit" between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli prime minister simply won't move the needle.

When democratic Israel was established, after a U.N. recommendation, the fledgling nation reached out to its neighbors. The response was war. Five Arab armies tried to wipe out the new country. For them, Israel had no legitimacy, irrespective of what the U.N. said or, for that matter, the Jewish people's millennia-old link with the land.

Had the Arab world opted for peace, the region today might have looked quite different. Thousands of lives would have been saved. Billions of defense dollars could have gone for development. But, alas, it was not to be.

The Arab world would not back down from its maximalist demands, and Israel would not oblige by simply disappearing.

More conflict was to come in the ensuing years, as Arab countries tried in every way to destroy Israel -- armed conflict, terrorism, boycotts -- but nothing could break the Jewish people's will to defend their ancestral home.

In 1977, Egypt's Anwar Sadat laudably turned from adversary to peacemaker. It was not out of sudden affection for Israel. Rather, it was out of love for his people. He understood that Israel was a fact of life, and that continued fighting would sap his country's finite resources from the need to build a better future for Egypt's youth.

Sadat found in Israel an eager partner. By 1979, a peace treaty was signed.

The same story essentially repeated itself 15 years later, when Jordan's brave King Hussein sought peace with Israel. Again, Israel made wide-ranging concessions for an agreement.

But when it comes to the Palestinians, tragically, it's been a different story. They could have had a state in 1948 -- their first in history -- but the Arab world wouldn't agree to the U.N.'s proposed two-state solution, as it also enshrined Israel's right to exist.

There were chances galore until 1967, when the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem were in Arab, not Israeli, hands, but no one in the Arab world then spoke of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Yet another opportunity came along in 1993 with the Oslo Accords, but Yasser Arafat later proved his word was meaningless.

Four successive Israeli prime ministers -- Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu -- have endorsed a two-state solution and end to the conflict. They have been supported in their quest by three American presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Sure, there are tough issues to be resolved -- final borders, security arrangements and refugee claims by both sides. These aren't to be minimized. Feelings run deep. The total land mass is quite small. Natural resources are few. Margins for error are tiny. Israel's major airport, for instance, not to mention its population center, would be in easy missile range of a Palestinian state. But there are possible answers for each issue to satisfy the minimum needs of both sides.

The overriding obstacle to peace, however, lies elsewhere. It is, sad to say, what it has always been.

Will a majority of Palestinians overcome 60 years of believing that the struggle will go on for generations until Israel is wiped off the map and the land is all theirs? Will Palestinian leaders have the courage to credibly pursue peace and, in doing so, lower the unrealistic expectations they themselves have ingrained in their people?

Will the Palestinians -- divided between Hamas, a jihadist group, and the Palestinian Authority, a mixed bag with some moderate elements and some recent progress on the West Bank to show for its efforts -- reject those who espouse conflict and embrace those ready for compromise?

If so, then, as the Egyptians and Jordanians before them, they will discover an Israel ready, as polls repeatedly show, for compromise and committed to regional cooperation. In other words, peace becomes not only possible, but unstoppable.

After all, for the Jewish people, the words of Isaiah ring as true today as when they were first written 2,700 years ago in the Jewish homeland.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Harris