The Palestine-Israel Journal
Date: 06-May-2008 /
Sixty and Beyond
by Alon Ben-Meir
As Israelis finalize preparations for their momentous sixtieth
anniversary-a date marking ten years of consistent economic growth and
industrious expansion-there remains the underlying question that will go
unanswered yet another decade: What will be done with the West Bank and
Despite all of its considerable achievements, cross-border violence
persists and Israel's existence remains fundamentally insecure. At the
heart of this conundrum is the occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands,
a wound that if left unattended will produce a tragedy of scale we have not
yet witnessed. On May 8, Israel has an historic opportunity to celebrate
its monumental progress, but if it is to preserve any of these gains, it
must ultimately free itself from the albatross around its neck and
relinquish these occupied territories.
During its sixty years, Israel has forged full-speed ahead to build a
modern nation-state. It has absorbed nearly 3 million Jewish immigrants,
developed modern city infrastructures such as Netanya and Herzliya, and
built prestigious educational institutions. The nation has made tremendous
strides in medicine, agriculture, biotechnology, and economic development
and created democratic political institutions, all while manning its
formidable military powerhouse. Yet with violence erupting daily and the
regional death toll rising, Israel remains vulnerable. Maintaining the
occupation is sapping the country's energy and resources.
After forty-one years, many Israelis have grown accustomed (if not
oblivious) to the state of occupation, enjoying economic growth and the
illusion of security. Apart from the sheer belief of many settlers that
they are fulfilling a biblical prophecy in the West Bank, the occupation
represents much more than mere territory. Disillusioned with the
Palestinians' behavior in the wake of the second Intifada, many Israelis
tend to blame them for past peacemaking failures such as Arafat's Camp
The overwhelming weight of American support for Israel during the past
seven years has also played a significant role, as Israel has not received
much in the way of criticism from its closest and most strategic ally.
Israel has since demonstrated that it feels more comfortable maintaining a
tormenting occupation than relinquishing it-for fear that the West Bank and
the Golan Heights could suffer the same fate as Gaza and southern Lebanon.
Although these concerns are legitimate, Israel must not allow itself to
become hostage to the conditions that it has created. If regional peace is
to be achieved, it must be because Israel is willing to exchange occupied
land for peace, along the lines suggested in the Arab Peace Initiative.
The suffering that has resulted from scores of suicide bombings has made
the issue of border security a national obsession for Israelis, who have
answered with the border fence and retaliatory attacks to combat Islamic
extremism. This approach does not hold, since from its inception the
occupied territory has been breeding grounds for violence. Israel's most
implacable enemies, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad, were born in
response to the occupation.
It has also given rise to the Jihadis, Takfiries, and other radical groups
bent on Israel's destruction. Indeed, no number of security measures can
end the violence because occupation by its very nature provokes resistance.
Although Israel has a myriad of legitimate security concerns, the security
measures taken to allay them have assumed a life of their own, often
disregarding the terrible hardships they inflict on the Palestinians. The
problem of occupation has also been compounded by the construction of an
elaborate settlements network, which has itself become an obstacle to any
future Palestinian state on the same land.
While Israel has never been stronger militarily or economically than at
present, it does not have the luxury of time. The Israeli advantage will
not last because its detractors-Iran and its surrogates-are feverishly
preparing to challenge militarily Israel's existence.
Rather than reacting to its adversaries, Israel must take the initiative.
The opportunity for peace with Syria and the Palestinians, if consummated,
will dramatically change the equation of power in the Middle East and in
time secure Israel's position as an integral part of a predominantly Arab
Israel should make the strategic decision to withdraw from the territories
while it enjoys a position of strength. The Arab Initiative offers a
comprehensive peace with all Arab states in exchange for the territories
captured in 1967. Peace is the single most important measure that will
provide Israel with the ultimate security it seeks, for peace will
particularly undermine Iran's regional ambitions and neutralize its threat
to Israel's security. By working with the Initiative, Israel can establish
and pursue a secure border, retain its Jewish national identity, normalize
relations with the Arab world, and find a mutually acceptable solution to
the future of Jerusalem. As a sign of its commitment to end the occupation,
Israel should start to evacuate two or three of the numerous West Bank
settlements from which it must withdraw in any peace agreement.
The occasion of Israel's sixtieth anniversary should become the symbol of
an historic national turning point, the moment when Israel can begin to
bring the occupation to an end and enable the nation to re-channel its
energy towards peace and prosperity.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center
for Global Affairs at New York University. He teaches courses on
international negotiations and Middle Eastern studies.