Tom Segev
The Washington Post
January 10, 2009 - 1:00am

At the end of the 10th day of Israel's operation in the Gaza Strip, I was zapping between Israeli, Arab and international TV channels. The pictures grew more gruesome from moment to moment. Then a friend called to tell me that Mezzo, a French concert channel, had just started playing "Christ on the Mount of Olives," a rather obscure oratorio by Beethoven.

It happened that I had been on the Mount of Olives a few hours earlier with a Palestinian friend whose 11-year-old son, Ahmed, needed some treatment at the Augusta Victoria Hospital. It wasn't easy to get the two through the Israeli checkpoint separating their West Bank village from east Jerusalem. As we drove up the hillside, we had to navigate around burning tires that Palestinian protesters had left on the road. We were not hurt, but Ahmed was scared.

As I listened to the Beethoven on Mezzo for a while, I was doing what more and more Israelis tend to do these days, even as the atrocious events in Gaza continue: escaping the news and taking refuge in cultural and other non-political activities. That escapism reflects the new Israeli fatalism.

I belong to a generation of Israelis who grew up believing in peace. At the end of the Six-Day War of 1967, I was 23, and I had no doubt that 40 years later, the Israeli-Arab war would be over. Today, my son, who is 28, no longer believes in peace. Most Israelis don't. They know that Israel may not survive without peace, but from war to war, they have lost their optimism. So have I.

The latest operation in Gaza was expected and practically inevitable; the timing seemed perfect. Palestinian Hamas rockets fired from Gaza had been falling on southern Israeli towns with increasing frequency after an Egyptian-backed ceasefire expired; public pressure on the government to act mounted as the general elections scheduled for next month drew closer. Israel took advantage of the Bush administration's last days in office; the holiday season kept the international community uninterested for a few days; and the clear skies over Gaza allowed for uninterrupted air strikes.

Most Israelis believed that the operation would be short and decisive, but many feared a repetition of the disastrous adventure in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Israelis are very spoiled. We like our wars to be short and successful.

Like any other country, Israel has a duty to defend its citizens. While the latest operation may never make it into the official count of Arab-Israeli wars, it is already another round in an endless continuum of reciprocal violence. They hit us, we hit them and vice versa; they usually miss, we usually don't.

From my perspective, the immediate blame for the latest events rests with Egypt, for it was Egyptian corruption and inefficiency that enabled Hamas to smuggle its rocket arsenal into Gaza. Yet there is a sad familiarity to all this. Apart from the conflict's cruelty -- particularly toward civilians, including numerous children -- the present eruption is most likely to be remembered as yet another step in a long march of folly that began in 1967.

Following the Six-Day War, the Israeli government contemplated moving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and resettling them in the West Bank. That could have made the present situation infinitely less convoluted. But the plans remained on paper because some of the most powerful members of the Israeli government, including the right-wing leader Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, believed that the West Bank should be reserved exclusively for Jewish settlement.

This was probably the worst mistake in Israel's history. With nearly 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank today and an additional 200,000 living in the formerly Arab part of Jerusalem, it is almost impossible to draw sensible borders and achieve peace.

In addition to the staggering difficulty of pulling out of the West Bank and sharing Jerusalem, there is the Palestinian demand for "the right of return" to Israel proper for the Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven out of their homes during the fighting in 1948-49. Many of them and their descendants live in Gaza.

For many years, Israel has adhered to a number of basic assumptions that have never proven right. Some of these theories contributed to the operation in Gaza this time. According to one such assumption, inflicting hardship on Palestinian civilians will make the population rise up against its leaders and choose more "moderate" ones. Hence, when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, after a short, sharp struggle with its secular rivals in Fatah, Israel imposed a blockade on the strip, pushing 1.5 million Palestinians to the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. But Hamas has only become stronger. And here's another false Israeli assumption: that Hamas is a terrorist organization. In fact, it's also a genuine national and religious movement supported by most of the people in Gaza. It cannot be simply bombed away.

The latest violence hasonce again brought reporters from all over the world to the region. Many of them wonder why Israelis and Palestinians don't simply agree to divide the land between them. Indeed, Israeli leaders support a two-state solution, which had previously been advocated only by the extreme left. Palestinian leaders, though not the heads of Hamas, have agreed to accept this solution. Apparently, only the details of the agreement have to be worked out. If only it were that simple.

This conflict is not merely about land and water and mutual recognition. It is about national identity. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians define themselves by the Holy Land -- all of it. Any territorial compromise would compel both sides to relinquish part of their identity.

In recent years, with the rise of Hamas and the increasing militance of some Jewish settlers, this precariously irrational conflict has also assumed a more religious character -- and thereby become even more difficult to solve. Islamic fundamentalists, as well as Jewish ones, have made control of the land part of their faith, and that faith is dearer to them than human life.

So I find myself among the new majority of Israelis who no longer believe in peace with the Palestinians. The positions are simply too far apart at this time.

I no longer believe in solving the conflict. What I do believe in is better conflict management -- including talks with Hamas, which is a taboo that must be broken. The need for U.S. engagement has led me, along with many other Israelis, to harbor high hopes for the administration of Barack Obama. The Bush administration was mainly concerned with keeping alive a diplomatic fiction called "The Peace Process." But there really was no such "process." Instead, the oppression of the Palestinians continued and intensified, even after Israel had evacuated several thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005. More settlements were put up in the West Bank.

The friendliest thing that President Obama can do for Israel in the long run would be to induce her to return to her original purpose: to be a Jewish and democratic country. Rather than design another fictitious "road map" for peace, the Obama administration may be more useful and successful by trying merely to manage the conflict, aiming at a more limited yet urgently needed goal: to make life more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017