Israel’s Partner for Peace is Part of Israel

by: Jay Lavine, M.D.

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. The root of the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is meitzar, a narrow place or strait. Indeed, Israel is now in dire straits, surrounded by terrorists and tyrants of every description as the specter of the Iranian regime looms in the background.

When you’re in such a predicament, you can develop a sense of hopelessness. You’re like a hiker wedged between a rock and a hard place, water running out, GPS nonfunctional. There seems to be no way out. This was the predicament Hagar found herself in after being sent away by Avraham (Genesis 21:14-19). She was out of water, stranded in the desert, and was resigned to the death of her son. But God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. The Hebrew word here for “opened” is “pakach,” not the more familiar “patach.” The explanation is that Hagar’s eyes were physically open all the time, but she failed to see the well that was literally right in front of her eyes because her mind was closed. God had to open her mind to the possibilities that were there all along but that were invisible because of her narrow perspective. “From the narrow place (meitzar) I called out to God; God answered by expanding my horizons” (Psalms 118:5).

How then can Israel find its way out of the narrow place in which it finds itself? Should it acquiesce and capitulate to the demands of the European family of nations it is apparently so intent on joining? Should it put its trust in American politicians who, during campaigns, pledge “an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” but later conveniently “change their mind” and chastise Israel for building in that very same city? “Distance yourself from a lie!” (Exodus 23:7). Rabban Gamliel had it right: “Be wary of the ruling authorities, who only get chummy with people in order to advance their own interests. They make it seem they’re your friend when it benefits them but they don’t stand by you in your time of need” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).

Is it possible for Israel to reach a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority when the latter says one thing to the non-Arab world and something entirely different to its own people in their own language? Or when it honors and glorifies terrorists of the worst kind? Remotely possible, yes, but the odds are strongly against establishing peace with those whose words embody bellicosity and hatred, not peace.

I would suggest that Israel can unilaterally forge a peace deal if it opens its eyes and heart and mind to the possibilities before it. A peace deal with whom? With itself! Or, more specifically, with its Arab citizens. I know what you’re thinking — with the Arabs, who hate Israel?

First, they don’t all hate Israel. Although we don’t usually hear from the silent sector of the Arab population, for obvious reasons, many are quite happy being Israelis, and some are actually Zionists. As for those who aren’t favorably disposed toward Israel, I would recount the Talmudic story (Brachot 10a) of Rabbi Meir, who was wishing that some misfits who were making his life miserable would die. His brilliant wife, Bruriah, counseled him not to wish for their death; rather, he should pray that they will change their ways. Rabbi Meir did so, and soon he had no more trouble with those who were his previous adversaries.

A real victory occurs when we can win an enemy over to our side. When no one loses, everyone wins. We all know the Biblical story (Exodus 33) of how Yaakov, seeing Eisav’s contingent approaching and fearing Eisav would take revenge on him because of the loss of his birthright, reached out to his brother with a succession of gifts in an attempt to mollify him. When Eisav arrived, the two embraced and wept. It doesn’t happen that way only in the movies.

I’m reminded of the time many Iraqi Muslim refugees, having fled Saddam’s regime and having been interned in Saudi Arabia for two years, arrived in my city. Somehow, they started coming to my medical office. I learned a little Arabic in order to communicate better with them, and their eyes lit up on hearing my attempt at communication in Arabic. Once, I heard one ask his friend in Arabic if I was a yehudi. He didn’t know it was the same word in Hebrew and that I could understand! One can imagine what they had been taught about Jews in their homeland. Yet, knowing my background, they still flocked to my office to see me. A little respect goes a long way.

Let’s start with Jerusalem, the most contentious issue on the table. A while back, dividing Jerusalem was unthinkable. Now, many think it inevitable. Is it still possible to maintain Israeli sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem and at the same time establish a permanent peace? It may be, and the answer may lie in getting rid of the divisions that persist. Israel claims to have annexed the eastern portion of the city, but its actions have not matched its words. Is it any wonder, then, that the world has not taken the annexation claim seriously?

Throwing money at a problem is not the whole solution (changing attitudes is important, too), but if Israel had put its money where its mouth was and brought the infrastructure, such as schools, of eastern Jerusalem closer to its level in the western part of the city, and did the same for municipal services, and approved more new Arab housing, and maybe even approved some housing in which Arabs and Jews could live together, we might have seen a very different perspective develop among the Arab population. They might have become so happy being Israeli citizens that, if a vote were taken, they might well have voted to stay with Israel instead of becoming part of a corrupt Palestinian state. If the Jerusalem Arabs did indeed reach that state of mind, it would have blown the wind out of the sails of the Palestinian Authority and neither they nor the rest of the world would be able to impose a Palestinian state on those Israeli Arabs. Those entities would have nothing to say regarding the status of Jerusalem.

Is there still a chance that the Arab Jerusalemites could be won over? I think there is, but Israel would need to act quickly. It’s doing better than it was before, but it has a long way to go. A number of politicians of all persuasions, including the President of Israel, Likud member Reuven Rivlin, have been strongly supportive of Arab rights, and they need to take the initiative at this critical time.

Upgrading the status of Arabs elsewhere in Israel is also overdue. Look at what has happened to many loyal Arab communities within Israel. The Bedouin, serving as trackers, were instrumental in helping Israel win the war at the inception of the state. Now some, lured by fundamentalist Islam, are straying away. Has Israel really done all it could to support them? It included them in discussions about the future status of their communities, but did it truly try to arrive at a consensus with them?

The Druze are well known for their support and contributions to Israel, even reaching high rank in the army. But a small number of them have become disillusioned, claiming discrimination, and have started drifting away.

Clearly, Israel should have been bending over backward to accommodate its non-Jewish Arab population (I phrase it that way because “Jewish” refers to a religion whereas “Arab” refers to a culture, and the two are by no means mutually exclusive), but somehow it fell short of the mark. It is not too late to turn things around, however, by striving for inclusiveness and equality. That Arabs living in Israel may be better off than those in surrounding countries or in the Palestinian territories is immaterial. If Israel wants to achieve domestic peace, it must shed the haves vs. the have-nots mentality and strive for social equality. Progress in advancing Arabs’ rights has been made in recent years, but much more needs to be done.

Finally, there is the matter of Arabs who were displaced from or voluntarily left Israel during its war for independence. Their loss of property remains a sore point for the Arab population, and the issue has not been resolved. Some advocate including the issue in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Others say it should be part of a peace deal with the surrounding Arab states that would include restitution or compensation to Jews who had been living in those lands and who had property confiscated from them. But what do the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states have to do with this issue? It’s really between Israel and the property owners who lost their land. Individuals who can provide proof of property ownership should be compensated for their loss. What’s right is right. Resolution of this major issue should help deflect criticism aimed at Israel and promote peace, but the main reason for reaching a just and fair solution to the problem is that it’s the right thing to do. It’s what we should expect from a country that calls itself the Jewish State, one that should fulfill its role as an or goyim, a light of nations.

In summary, with peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority at a standstill, Israel’s main goal should be to establish peace with itself, that is to say, with all its citizens, especially those who may have been neglected in the past. It needs to bring a halt to divisiveness and nourish a culture of inclusiveness. Only when one makes peace with oneself can one truly have peace.