A certain hope for peace

Amos Oz
Friday, March 31, 2006

The Israeli voters have provided a moderate center-left coalition, headed by Ehud Olmert. This result signifies a major change in Israeli society, perhaps even a certain shift of the Israeli psyche.

Last August, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally evacuated the Jewish settlers and the Israeli army from Gaza, he did so against the majority within his own party and despite violent resistance from religious and nationalistic groups. The dovish left provided Sharon with the political leverage for his historic move.

In Tuesday's vote, the vast majority of the Israelis -- for the first time since the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 -- indicated their readiness to give up 90 percent of the occupied Palestinian territories, including some sections of the city of Jerusalem.

Their readiness -- not their happiness.

What the vast majority of the Israelis held -- for years -- to be unthinkable, even suicidal for Israel -- they have sadly endorsed today.

The reasons for this change of heart are several harsh slaps of reality: a violent Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, a sense of international isolation and the realization that the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs might be changing in favor of the Palestinians if Israel stays in the occupied territories.

There may be an even deeper reason for this change: the Israelis have gradually changed the order of their priorities. They have moved from territorial appetites to materialistic appetites, from militancy to pragmatism, from selfish nationalism to interdependence.

Why, then, did the recent election campaign seem so low key, so restrained, even melancholy, compared to the fierce, fiery campaigns of the past? Why the relatively low voting rate? Perhaps, because not one of the campaigning parties could offer simple answers to Israel's two most pressing problems: the lack of peace and the proliferation of poverty.

Until 20 or 30 years ago, Israel was one of the most egalitarian societies in the democratic world. Now it has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor. The Israelis know that this gap is not going to be closed through a radical socialist policy, but through a long and painful process of gradual amendment. The same renunciation of hopes for a swift solution applies to the issues of war and peace: Olmert's Kadima Party now speaks not of peace with the Palestinians, but of a unilateral disengagement from them. For those of us who still believe in peace and reconciliation, a unilateral Israeli disengagement is a saddening second best, if not a desperate last resort.

The rise of Hamas, unwilling as it is to recognize Israel's right to exist, refusing as it is to even negotiate with Israel or to renounce terrorism, or to respect signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements from the past, has brought a crisis upon the Israeli peace movement. This crisis cannot be healed by the formation of a center-left government in Israel, nor even by a unilateral disengagement from occupied territories.

What the Olmert government seems to hold for us is not "land for peace" but "land for time" -- as Hamas' ambitions clearly go beyond reclaiming Gaza and the West Bank.

Is there anything the new center-left Israeli government can do for peace, as long as Hamas does not want any peace with Israel?

Israel can "take the issue upstairs," as it were: When you cannot sort out a conflict with the neighborhood's bully, you may still try talking to the bully's parents, or to his older brother. In our case, "the bully's family" is the Arab League which, in 2000, adopted a comprehensive peace proposal for the Middle East. This plan consists of Israel's withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, and an agreed-upon solution for the Palestinian refugees of 1948, in return for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and all the member states of the Arab League. Obviously, even the peace camp in Israel does not expect the Israeli government to simply put its signature on the dotted line on the bottom of this all-Arab proposal, which means practically with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But why wouldn't the newly elected Israeli government open direct negotiations with a delegation of the Arab League along the general lines of this plan? Let us not forget that almost every Arab government is as threatened by the rise of Hamas as Israel is -- which is why the Arab countries may be as eager as the Israelis to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is not at all unthinkable that a deal between the new, pragmatic Israeli government and pragmatic Arab regimes can be reached. Such an agreement could then be brought before the Palestinian people for a vote.

Considering the fact that no more than 41 percent of the Palestinian voters actually endorsed Hamas in the January elections, and bearing in mind that the majority of Palestinian people are telling public-opinion surveyors that they are still ready for a two-state-solution, there is still a chance that an agreement between Israel and the Arab League could be adopted by a Palestinian majority.

Instead of a unilateral Israeli disengagement, which is bound to leave many of the disputed issues open and bleeding -- we can work with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a comprehensive and lasting peace.

Amos Oz is an Israeli novelist and peace activist. His latest book is "How to Cure a Fanatic," (Princeton University Press, 2006).

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle