Barack Obama on Tuesday addressed the United Nations for the eighth and last time as president of the United States. His speech was passionate, intelligent and inspiring. Despite all the criticism of Obama from right-wing circles in Israel and from the likes of Donald Trump, the world is a better place today because of him.
Aside from Obama’s direct mention of the imperative that Palestinians must reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel, and statement Israel must recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land, I found his most poignant and relevant statement to be: “Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself.” The president was not referring to Israel but in contrast to what Israeli politicians say, we are oceans apart from the inspiration of a world view that celebrates diversity and appreciates the value of being part of a global community. It amazes me that Israeli politicians and leaders think that we can make peace with our neighboring Arab states, but at the same time place walls between ourselves and the Palestinians.
Look at the “vision” that Yair Lapid presented to the Israeli public this past week. He correctly noted that Israel suffers from a “leadership vacuum” that causes extremist discourse (he is part of that vacuum), and he stated that Israelis want to feel that they are part of something big that will change the world. In reference to our Palestinian neighbors who have been living under Israel’s control for almost 50 years, Lapid also calls for regional steps “to remove the Palestinians from our lives [this, I say, is not possible], and to create internationally recognized boundaries [this I agree is possible, and urgent].”
Similar to almost all Israeli politicians, Lapid toes the populist line that “the best Israel could get from the Palestinians is a divorce, not a marriage.” Well, Mr. Lapid, I have news for you: we were never married to the Palestinians and the relations we have developed with them are characterized by mutual hatred and fear and will not be improved by walls, fences and barbed wire.
Lapid also called for promoting strategic partnerships with key allies, particularly the United States, and for promoting dialogue with Russia, China, the European Union and moderate Arab states. This is, of course a good thing and there is much work to do to improve Israel’s relations with all of the above. But, like it or not, continuing the occupation of Palestine will not allow for that to happen. Even if Donald Trump, God forbid, becomes the next president of the United States, Israel’s relations with the rest of the world will not improve without moving toward ending Israel’s control over the Palestinian people.
Israeli solutions fostered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lapid and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog that place rings of walls around us that President Obama referred to will not protect Israel from fanaticism and hatred from the surrounding states and from within Palestine (or for that matter from Israel toward the Arabs). No one will ever agree to live in a cage, even if it is a sovereign cage. The idea of walls and fences might appeal to the Israeli voting public, and Lapid’s populism follows in the footsteps of Netanyahu and Herzog, but this is not a vision for a better future, nor is it a program that will ever lead to peaceful coexistence.
The idea that the Arab states like Saudi Arabia will embrace an Israel that builds a cage around Palestine is ignorant and deceitful. The Arab world has no great love for the Palestinian people, and the Palestinians know that better than anyone, but there is no way that additional Arab states will make peace with Israel while Israel continues to occupy and to build settlements in territories that almost all of the world believes should be part of the Palestinian state. There is also no way for the existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan to ever move beyond functional peace with security and intelligence cooperation into real peace between peoples. While Palestinians are occupied, denied their basic freedoms, and placed behind walls and fences with Israeli control of their borders, no peace for Israel with the neighborhood will be real.
We don’t have to marry the Palestinian people, and no one is interested in that. We are all fighting for a recognized territorial expression of our identity and Israel’s legitimate right to exist and to self-determination, but that is no different today from the right of Palestine to exist and for self-determination for the Palestinian people. The security threats to Israel from Palestine and from Palestinians will only be limited and lessened to the extent that we both learn to live together in peaceful coexistence. That peaceful coexistence is largely dependent on our ability to engage (not for marriage) in cooperation, economic development, common concern for our shared environment and natural resources and mutual appreciation for our cultures (which share so much in common already).
We must be interested in the improvement of life for Palestinians because they will always be our neighbors and it makes absolutely no sense for us to want our neighbors to suffer. Their welfare is our welfare and with the inspiring words of President Obama to the entire world, we should seek, at least as a vision, to remove walls and not to erect them. Immediate security concerns may warrant walls for now, but as we move forward toward seeking political agreements with our Palestinian neighbors we must strive for building cooperation across our borders, not divorcing and wishing them away. By building real cooperation across those borders we would be investing in our security and in our future. We must rid ourselves from the policies of separation which isolate Israel and in its stead adopt a vision of securing a future based on being part of our region, of cooperating with our neighbors for our mutual benefit.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives.