Must Treat Palestinians with Dignity

There will never be peace in the Middle East as long as Israelis don’t treat the Palestinians as equals, Efraim Halevy said last week, accusing senior government officials of advancing “condescending” policies toward the Palestinians.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency accused the outgoing government, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, of having violated the fragile status quo in Jerusalem. The elections of March 2015 are not merely a referendum on Israel’s leadership, he said, but constitute an unprecedented opportunity to determine Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the peace process.

Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt was made possible by the fact that both sides considered themselves the victors of the Yom Kippur War six years earlier, according to Halevy. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat could only reach an agreement because they each felt “equal” — and precisely such a framework of equality, which allows for both sides to feel dignified, is needed for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he said.

“I do not think we will make any progress until that moment arrives, and I fear that it will take a very long time before it happens, if at all,” he said. “And if it never happens, there will never be peace between us and the Palestinians. And if it never happens, we’re sentenced to a very long term of struggle.”

Israel will survive even in the absence of peace because the state faces no existential threats, added Halevy, who headed the Mossad from 1998 until 2002, before going on to serve as national security adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon. “But what will be the quality of our survival? I don’t know.”

The upcoming Knesset elections are Israel’s last chance to choose a leadership that embraces peace and reconciliation, Halevy claimed.

“The election is not just a plebiscite on the question of who is going to be prime minister. The question is what will be the policy. And by choosing A or B or C you are supporting a policy. Security is not a policy. Everybody supports security. But people interpret security differently,” he said. “The choice this time is a choice the likes of which we have never had before.”

Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem.  Photo by Kobi Gideon / Flash90Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem (photo by Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

When Israelis head to the polls on March 17, 2015, they will determine “how we treat the other side,” the 80-year-old London native said Tuesday in his Jerusalem office. “A decision this time will be not on who will do but also on what will be done. Not on who will determine the policies but on what will be the policies.”

Discussing the outcome of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Halevy suggested Netanyahu’s goal was simply to restore quiet and prevent Hamas from attaining its goals. Rather than formulating any concrete political objectives, the prime minister was content with achieving quiet from the other side in exchange for quiet from Israel.

“Our achievement was not something constructive. The achievement was that the other side didn’t get anything. What did we get? We didn’t need anything. We weren’t seeking anything political, because we don’t want to do business with them,” Halevy said.

Israelis face a difficult problem in dealing with the Palestinians, the former spymaster continued. “In our gut, we feel, some way or another, that it’s either them or us. We believe we’re superior to them. We believe that we’re better organized, better equipped, much more experienced. We know how to conduct our affairs. And actually we’re in control. And it’s almost humanly impossible in a situation like this to conduct a negotiation because for it to produce something in the end, you have to reach the point where you’re on par with the other side.”

Halevy criticized Bennett over an op-ed he published in The New York Times on November 5, in which the Jewish Home party leader promoted his vision of a one-state solution. Bennett’s plan includes annexing 60 percent of the West Bank and upgrading “Palestinian autonomy” in the remaining part. Dismissing the two-state paradigm, Bennett argued for “massive upgrade of roads and infrastructure” and for building “economic bridges of peace” between Israelis and Palestinians living in one state. “The secret is bottom-up peace,” Bennett wrote.

While Halevy was careful to avoid explicit personal attacks, he made plain his strong disapproval of Bennett’s plan.

Naftali Bennett (L), leader of the Jewish Home party, seen with Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel at a faction meeting in the Knesset on October 28, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)Naftali Bennett (L), leader of the Jewish Home party, seen with Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel at a faction meeting in the Knesset on October 28, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For any kind of peace negotiations to succeed, Israel needs to try to look at the issue from the perspective of the other side, “and not to be condescending,” Halevy argued. “What is ‘bottom-up peace’? Is it not a condescending term? Look, you’re at the bottom now. We’re not at the bottom, you’re at the bottom. We don’t need bottom-up, we’re at the top already. The use of the term bottom-up means to say you’re at the bottom.”

Asked for a response, a Jewish Home official close to Bennett said that for 20 years Israel tried to achieve a two-state solution, “but it failed and therefore it is time to open up to new ideas instead of immediately dismissing them.”

Bennett’s plan entails offering Israeli citizenship to Palestinians living in the parts of the West Bank he wishes to annex, and Halevy questioned whether Bennett also intends to grant citizenship to the 400,000 Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem who currently only have residency. “I don’t think all this has been thought out,” Halevy charged. (The Jewish Home official responded that East Jerusalemites have been eligible for citizenship since Israel annexed that part of the city, and that hundreds of Palestinians make use of this option every month.)

Halevy also took the current government to task for its policies on Jerusalem, especially for allowing nationalist Jews to move into the eastern part of the city. In October, dozens of Israelis moved into houses in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which drew much international criticism.

Beit Yehonatan, a building acquired by Ateret Kohanim in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)Beit Yehonatan, a building acquired by Ateret Kohanim in Silwan (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Bennett celebrated this as a “historic event” and Netanyahu, too, defended the move. “Arabs in Jerusalem purchase homes freely in the west of the city and nobody says that’s forbidden. I don’t intend to tell Jews that they can’t buy homes in East Jerusalem,” the prime minister said at the time. Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of Bennett’s party, even said he considered moving to the neighborhood.

“We decided that we’re going to start moving in Jerusalem,” Halevy fumed. “This is a change in policy, a change in strategy.” Israeli peace negotiators have long argued that of the four so-called core issues — borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem — the Holy City should be discussed last because it’s the most complex and passion-stirring topic of all. “What we’ve done now is that we’ve changed the strategy. We say, no, not Jerusalem at the end, Jerusalem now. Now they’re going to move in [to Silwan]. Now we’re going to change.”

Criticism of the move in Silwan united world leaders from different parts of the globe, even those usually at odds with each other. “We’ve put Jerusalem on the front burner,” he said. “Whether [Netanyahu] actually sanctioned what happened in Silwan is irrelevant. The policy is: I can build and live anywhere in Jerusalem I want because I am a Jew.”

In the eyes of any objective observer, the Israeli government was making moves in Jerusalem that are “not conducive to the status quo,” he charged.

Halevy was hesitant to delineate his own ideas about achieving peace. He merely said that the two-state solution is the most desirable but least probable scenario, while a one-state arrangement is the least desirable but most probable outcome. “In a situation like this you have to look for something in between,” all the while making sure that both sides gain something and feel respectable.

There is no word in Hebrew for dignity, he quoted a friend observing once. The Arab world has long felt deeply inferior, and Israelis are basically telling Arabs that they don’t suffer from an inferiority complex but are indeed inferior, Halevy said. “The problem we have had over the years has been that they have sought dignity and the last thing we ever thought of was addressing them in a manner that gave them a feeling of some dignity.”

Read more: Ex-Mossad chief: Peace will elude us until we treat Palestinians with dignity | The Times of Israel
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