For years, smart and well-meaning “peace processors” have worked hard to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They’ve never come close.
Commentators keen on being perceived as even-handed blame Palestinian and Israeli leaders alike. But ample evidence suggests that most Israelis long for peace and would toss out any leader who stood in the way of what they saw as a real deal. Palestinians don’t have that freedom. The last time Palestinians voted for a president was 2005, and that election was hardly free and fair.
Yasser Arafat, father of the Palestinian nation, saw himself as a revolutionary and a conqueror. He never seriously considered ending the war against the Jewish state.
His successor, the genteel Mahmoud Abbas, appeared to be a peace-maker. But, now in his 82nd year, he’s made clear that he prefers to go down in history as an unwavering leader of the “resistance.”
And then there’s Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules Gaza. Its commitment to Israel’s extermination is non-negotiable. More on that shortly.
Despite all this, Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli, remains defiantly optimistic. His new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” is addressed not to the Palestinian ruling class but to those living “somewhere on the next hill, just beyond my porch.”
He aims to begin a new conversation based on the premise that there is truth on both sides; that Israelis and Palestinians need not be mortal enemies; that they can find a way to peacefully share the tiny, ancient and blood-soaked land in which both are rooted.
Mr. Halevi’s 10 letters, each a chapter in his book, were inspired in part by his experience co-directing, along with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, the Muslim Leadership Initiative, “an educational program teaching about Judaism and Israel to young emerging Muslim American leaders. So far MLI has brought over a hundred participants to the Jerusalem campus of the Shalom Hartman Institute,” where Mr. Halevi is a senior fellow.
“One of the main obstacles to peace,” he’s concluded, “is an inability to hear the other side’s story.” (An Arabic translation of his letters has been made available for free downloading.)
No such inability afflicts Mr. Halevi. For an earlier book, he became “a pilgrim” in Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities. “By the end of my year-long journey I had come to love Islam,” he writes. “I cherished its fearless heart, especially in the face of death. Westerners often try to evade an encounter with one’s own mortality. Not so Muslims.”
To his intended readers he says: “I hope you will hear me when I tell you I have no intention of denying your claim or your pain.” He is willing, even eager, to see the conflict through Palestinian eyes, to confront “the wrongs done by my side against yours,” to acknowledge the Palestinian narrative of “invasion, occupation, and expulsion.”
He manages all that while also seeing “my presence here as part of the return of an indigenous, uprooted people, and a reborn Jewish state as an act of historic justice, of repatriation.”
He wants his Palestinian neighbors to know that their aspirations for self-determination and a state of their own enjoy the support of most Israelis. But, in return, Israelis have one demand: Palestinians must stop waging a “war against Israel’s existence and legitimacy.”
He reminds them: “The worst wave of terrorism in our history came after Israel had made what we considered a credible offer — two offers, actually — to end the occupation.”
The offer made at Camp David in July 2000 would have led to a Palestinian state “on the West Bank and in Gaza, with Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Six months later President Clinton presented his own peace plan, upping the offer from 91 percent of the West Bank to 95 percent with “a road cutting through Israeli territory to connect the West Bank and Gaza.”
Israelis said yes. Palestinian leaders said no. “This was the shattering moment for many Israelis who believed in the possibility of resolving the conflict,” he writes.
Mr. Halevi’s letters will appeal to Palestinians who dream of the day when their children will not be taught to hate, nor groomed to become suicide bombers and shaheeds (martyrs). I have no doubt there are many such Palestinians.
But there also are Palestinians for whom the problem is not the non-existence of a Palestinian state. Their problem is the existence of a Jewish one. A land once conquered by Muslim warriors now governed by infidels — they find that intolerable.
They consider it their religious duty to fight and destroy such an entity. If that costs them their lives and those of their children, so be it. That, too, I’m afraid, is an expression of a “fearless heart.”
I’m of course describing Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran’s rulers and others whom we call — and who often call themselves — jihadists and Islamists.
Over the days ahead, President Trump’s peace processors are expected to unveil a new plan to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian leaders have said they will reject it.
Perhaps less powerful Palestinians, having read Mr. Halevi’s letters, will bravely rise up and say it’s time for peace, rather than victory, to be their goal; that negotiations leading to compromise and co-existence are not, according to their reading of Islamic scripture, haram (forbidden).
To believe that’s what will happen requires more than hope, more even than faith. It requires defiant optimism.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.