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December 20, 2014 | 28th Kislev 5775

Power and Powerlessness

January 14, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

When Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, Sinai and the Golan in 1967, there was a lot of talk about "land for peace." I understood and instinctively identified with the idea that we were not interested in long-term rule over a large population of Palestinian Arabs who had no interest in becoming citizens of Israel. This occupation was to be temporary, until such time as we could release the lands (and their inhabitants) in return for an end of hostility, for acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. This seemed a pretty morally reasonable position. And indeed, the peace treaty with Egypt showed how it could work. However, with the Palestinian territories, it was not so simple, for there was no "other side" for negotiations; there was no clear authority, no entity that could sign a contract or commit to keep the terms of one.

Thirty-three years later, a generation has grown up under our occupation. And even though we might be a less cruel occupying power than many or even most the world has known, the situation seems to me inherently morally unacceptable: no matter how enlightened we might be as occupiers, the Palestinian Arab population of the lands under our control do not enjoy the most basic rights that I take for granted as universal. However, we seem to be trapped: if we continue the occupation, waiting for the Palestinians to see the light and abandon their hostility, then the hostility just escalates and we are forced to behave less and less like our image of ourselves, and the occupation seems likely to continue forever - with increasing bitterness on both sides. If, on the other hand, we simply unilaterally withdraw, without a commitment to peace, then we fought, and ruled, and waited, in vain, and might just as well have withdrawn immediately, in 1967.

We all feel this dilemma, and I think we all feel a sense of helplessness facing it: damned if we do and damned if we don’t, unable to choose a course of action which can bring us toward a reasonable outcome. There is an irony here, Zionism promised to bring us out of powerlessness and give us, as a sovereign nation, control of our own fate, so that we would no longer be at the mercy of the nations. And lo and behold, here we are, a sovereign state with allies among the world powers and an amazing economy and an army respected and feared around the world - and we are helpless to determine our own destiny.

Until a few months ago, those of us on the left believed that we still had the power to attain peace, that we could end the occupation and achieve a reasonable negotiated settlement, in which, unavoidably, we would have to "settle" for less than everything we want - but so would the other side. Those on the right continue to believe that we have the power to enforce peace, by inflicting such great damage on the other side that it will cease violent resistance, either out of fear or out of lack of manpower and weapons. What is so depressing just now is that neither path appears very promising, and it is hard to imagine any course of action that we can take that will get us out of this trap still able to look at ourselves in the moral mirror. Helpless. And I wonder how this happened to us: is it, as the right argues, that all the world is against us, still and always? Or is it, as the left believes, that we were lulled by our power into accepting the occupation, which corrupted us morally and created a generation of hatred on the other side?

I guess I am too much of a Zionist to believe that we are really helpless, and too much of a humanist to believe in the sentence "the only language these people understand is force." So I am left with no option but to oppose escalation and favor restraint, to oppose those who believe that any agreement based on compromise is inherently, theologically unacceptable; and to favor continuing to take risks on the side of conciliation - knowing that risks are by definition risky, and only brave people take them; and knowing that I might be wrong.


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