By Larry Gordon
It’s easy to be a hardliner on Israel policy sitting here in my office on Long Island. The planes flying overhead close to the airport only sound like they are on some kind of military exercise. In reality they are simply delivering tourists from England, France, Israel, and scores of other locales around the globe.
We are not the ones who need to be particularly concerned about Arab terror or being surrounded by tens of thousands of dangerous missiles or within minutes of a nuclear attack by a regime run by pseudoreligious madmen in Iran.
Nevertheless, my reaction on Sunday when the Israeli government voted to agree to release 104 imprisoned Palestinian terrorists was “Don’t they have any fortitude? Does Prime Minister Netanyahu not have any shame? How could they do such a thing when they know the extreme extent to which this is going to further damage the psyches and feelings of family members who lost loved ones to these savage attacks and who will never fully recover from their terrible losses?”
Once upon a time, Israel would do anything to protect its citizens or men out in the field. But it doesn’t seem to be the case anymore with a flimsy, halfhearted attempt to make the release of Jonathan Pollard part of the prisoner release agreement. Once the American government said “absolutely no” to the Pollard part of the deal, Israel cowered and said, “Okay, we will release the murderers anyway.”
I know Israeli leaders love describing the decisions that they have to make at times like these as being “hard choices” or “painful concessions.” But how and when did damaging and hurtful decisions become a prerequisite that evens the playing field when it comes to trying to arrange a peace agreement in the region that benefits everyone involved equally?
Or, is there something unequal or imbalanced here? Is it perhaps that when Jews die in wars or terrorist attacks it is a bad and tragic thing, but when Arabs die in places like Syria, Iraq, or Gaza, their corrupt leaders see it as a good thing which affords them some kind of strategic advantage? Is that why Jews are willing to make crazy sacrifices for peace while Arabs are indifferent?
Jews will release murderers as a good-faith gesture, as the price for demonstrating the extent they are willing to go to bring their people peace. If Arabs don’t get their way, well, they can just keep on murdering. No big deal.
But as some of those who voted for the prisoner release noted, in a way—and it’s an odd and even funny kind of way that one needs to think into and get used to—Israel really had no choice on a number of levels. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel is an advanced and accomplished society that by nature thinks on a different level and wavelength than those who have spent most of the last century trying to destroy her.
So talks are under way, or at least they had a minimal representation of a start this week in Washington. Essentially nothing was really accomplished other than the top priority that was the catalyst for this event, that is projecting an image of success for a president who is otherwise surrounded by failure wherever he turns.
But Israel and many of those in government feel that for a variety of reasons they had no choice but to accede to the U.S. request for talks. From one perspective, Israeli leaders feel that they cannot afford to come off as obdurate or stubborn when it comes to being forthcoming about peace.
And then there is a matter that we here in the Diaspora should have difficulty feeling too strongly about—the fact that the people of Israel are apparently willing to take chances if it can deliver peace for their children, grandchildren, and future generations.
Yes, I agree, Israel looks guilty in a sense and is too forthcoming as the onus of the peace talks’ proceeding or not, or being successful or not, somehow always seems to fall on her shoulders. Israel wants so badly to give peace a chance that its leaders are willing to take that first bold step and agree to release those who murdered Israeli citizens so as to get the process under way.
At this juncture, the talks have not really begun except for a simple and meaningless one-day ceremony. The sides had not met in any official capacity in over three years. Now that they have begun the process, they will have to first grapple with some very difficult and previously thought to be unsolvable issues.
The talks are going to be far-reaching and broad in scope. The sides have agreed to talk for nine months in the hope of reaching some agreements by that time. Secretary of State Kerry said on Tuesday that they are not limited to talk for that period and are free to talk beyond that unofficial time limit.
Here are some of the key phrases that Mr. Kerry used the other day and the concepts for the formula that will determine if the Palestinians are as ready as the Israelis might be for peace. There were three of them. He said that there were many “challenges ahead” for the parties, that there was going to be “a difficult road” they would have to travel, and that each would have to make “complicated choices.”
And this is where in the past the formula for peace was always a little imbalanced and even lopsided. We all know that for Israelis, the world thinks that those phrases mean evacuating settlements and dividing Jerusalem. Those two matters are both key as well as what they mean when they use the phrase “core issues.” Perhaps the most complicated of the decisions that need to be made by the Arab side is that peace can be achieved without dividing Jerusalem and without evacuating settlements. The Arab side today would say that this is impossible. Israel has to effectively communicate that dividing Jerusalem and moving people out of their homes in Judea and Samaria are not formulas for peace. They might be a formula for something else, but it is not peace.
For the Palestinians, it has meant in the past that all they really need do is refrain from terror attacks and stop the hateful incitement that has always been and still is a part of everyday life in the Palestinian territories. It would be surprising what speaking civilly about your neighbors could potentially accomplish. If the Palestinian leadership would speak respectfully of Jews, they would learn over the short term that it might not even be that important to demand that tens of thousands of people be tossed out of their homes for peace. I would hope that this is one of the difficult choices Mr. Kerry was referencing.
I’m on the side of not talking to the Arabs at this juncture, because there were no talks for the last few years and it really did not matter that much. There is another matter that I hope the sides discussed in private and that Mr. Kerry did not even mention. And that is the matter of the Gaza Strip, which is not even controlled by the side that has agreed to negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Arabs. Even if the talks are successful, what kind of agreement can you reach with a party that only represents barely half the people?
It’s a shame that Israel had to agree to release 100 convicted terrorists. There are a dozen Jews in prison in Israel who are there for murdering Arabs. I guess those things happen. Are they going to be released too, or is a quid pro quo on freedom for murderers unacceptable? Are we so high and moral that Palestinian crimes of murder against Jews are forgivable but similar Jewish offenses are not? And is Mr. Pollard going to be forgotten?
Israeli leaders say that the prisoner release was the best of the worst choices that they had to make to get things going. I look at the talks as being the equivalent of having your wrestling opponent in a headlock. It’s difficult for him to throw any real punches from that position or in that circumstance. And that is about what the extent of the Palestinian response to these overtures has been over all these years—throw stones and some punches. I say go ahead, keep talking, knock yourselves out. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.