Saturday, June 19, 2010

what israel can do now

The Mavi Marmara affair has, as someone put it, been a sort of Rorshach test for outside observers everyone sees what they want to see. For people who don't like Israel, it seems to confirm their worst fears of an insecure, militarist state. For Israel's defenders, it is another sign that everyone is against us, and unfairly so at that. What can people who care about Israel, but don't necessarily agree with its policies, learn?

One problem here is that many possible suggestions are either too early or too late. For example, Israel has already tried making territorial and other concessions to the Palestinians, only to find that these have whetted the appetite for further concessions. Additional compromises, involving (say) Jerusalem or other issues, seem premature without a real negotiating structure.

Still, there are a number of things Israel could do now to improve its international standing without seriously endangering its security:

1. The Israeli Arabs.--It is often forgotten that, within pre-1967 Israel, about 15-20 percent of the population (over 1 million people) are Palestinian Arabs. Yet the country remains largely segregated and there is virtually no Arab representation in decision-making structures. Would it really be so hard to change this, and wouldn't it have a huge effect on the country's international image if it did change? What about symbolic measures: would allowing an alternate national anthem or an alternate/additional flag, as in Quebec, really cause irreparable damage to the country's status as a "Jewish" state, and might it not make it more stable in the long run?

2. The Role of the Military.--In the early years of the country key political leaders (Ben Gurion, Meir, Begin) rarely had military backgrounds. Now it seems every second political figure is a former general. The phenomenon is a public relations disaster and has serious impact on substantive decisions: everything from the Mavi Marmara to the Oslo Peace Process seems to be decided in secret and involve an inordinate ratio of daring to reasoned consensus. How about a rule that bars active soldiers over the rank of colonel from elected office for a 10-year period, and from the office of Defense Minister on a permanent basis?

3. The "right of return".--No Israeli Government is going to agree to unlimited return of Palestinian refugees which would be pretty much the end of the country. But does this mean that no return whatsoever is possible? What about a "tradeoff" of (say) 100,000 returnees for an equal number of Israelis and whatever remains as Arab territory after a peace agreement? Or the payment of monetary reparations, which would at least acknowledge the existence of the problem and provide a start for resettlement?

One additional note: if Israel is going to make peace with the Arabs, it is going to have first to make peace with itself. The past week saw large and sometimes violent demonstrations by haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews against an effort to integrate religious schools in a West Bank town. Sure, the haredim were wrong on the merits, and the rule of law has to be maintained. But the things that were said by many secular Israelis--that the haredim are lazy, that they are violent, that they are outside the normative Israeli community--sound an awful lot like things that were said about Jews, all Jews, in prewar Europe. How can one expect the Palestinians to make meaningful concessions, when Israelis themselves can't treat each other with respect?


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