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Seeking Peace in the Middle East

Toward Mutual Recognition

By Toba E. Spitzer

It has been a hard year to be a Zionist. Peace between Israel and its neighbors seems a distant prospect; rejectionism appears the prevailing sentiment on all sides. My earlier visions of revitalizing Jewish tradition in the sunny land of Milk and Honey have been rudely shunted aside. Perhaps now is not the time for illusions of any sort, rather for a response to the immediacy of the present conflict with realistic analyses of the situation and alternatives to present trends. It is not the time to give up on Israel, rather to change what needs changing and to maintain a spirit of hope in the face of a problem that too easily appears insoluable.

Much of the conflict concerning Israel stems from the relatively simple situation of two peoples vying for the same piece of land. Both groups are legitimate entities. The State of Israel exists and has no intentions of disappearing in the future. The Palestinian people also exist, have defined themselves as a nation, and are willing to fight for the same territorial and political goals that their Jewish neighbors have attained. Beyond these two facts the situation becomes increasingly complex. There is much at stake in the struggle; the ideological nature and security of the State of Israel; the rights of the Palestinians to political representation and the concurrent controversy over the role of the PLO. Despite the large part played in the Middle East conflict by varying Arab interests and J. S. and Soviet influences, the focal point of the nation has become the Palestinian nationalist movement and Israel's responses to this apparent threat. It is clearly an issue which cannot be sidestepped on the road to peace: it has already proved to be the stumbling block to the progress of the Camp David agreements.

There are important realities which must be recognized on both sides of the conflict. The conviction and determination of the Palestinian people to live freely as a nation is one. Another, one which has significantly contributed to the formulation of Israeli policies, is the deep sense of insecurity and mistrust on the part of the Israeli people. There is no one in Israel who has not lost a relative or close friend or mate in a war against the Arabs; there has never been a time when Israelis could feel completely safe from attack. This collective experience, so totally alien to an American outlook, made a great impression on me when I lived in Israel last year. It was all the more heartening, therefore, to hear someone like my adopted kibbutz mother-a woman who lost her husband in the Yom Kippur War-stand firmly by her belief in compromise with the Palestinians. She had realized, in overcoming her sorrow, that to obtain peace, fear and rejection must be surmounted. Only in this way will her children be spared the effects of yet another war.

Too many lives have already been lost. The extremists on both sides achieve nothing but justifying violent retaliations; the entire situation has turned into a bloody vicious circle. The PLO's refusal to recognize Israel and Begin's repressive policies in the West Bank and Gaza strip collide to create an impasse that appears to demand a pragmatic surrender of all notions of negotiated settlement. This impasse will not be overcome by waiting for outside maneuvering. American policy under Reagan has succeeded only in escalating the arms race in the area, alleviating nothing and helping put the burden of excessive military build-up on developing economies that can sorely afford it. The hope lies with the voices from within, both Jewish and Arab, calling for compromise and an end to violence. These moderate voices are few and separated from one another, yet they represent a rend in both camps which could foreseeably one day affect the peace process.

Within Israel, policies of compromise and mutual recognition find support from Yossi Sarid, Shulamit Aloni, Victor Shemtov, and others in the Kuesset; their sentiments are shared by prominent persons such as Mattiyahu Peled, Lova Eliav and Un Avneri outside the government. On the Palestinian side, the voices are fewer and their position is more precarious, but a moderate trend is unmistakable. Dr. Issam Sartawi, Sabri Jiryis and Abu Mazim have held talks with Israeli Zionists: Palestinian Universities to find a peaceful alternative to Begin's handling of the situation in the occupied territories. American influence could be instrumental in helping to bring these advocates of mutual recognition together, such a dialogue would greatly influence the equally necessary discussions among heads of state. A.U.S. policy dedicated to promoting increased dialogue among all the concerned parties of the Middle East conflict will do much more for eventual peace in the region than a shifting of military aid from country to country.

The implications of the Begin government's policies concerning the Palestinian question make the issue a central one for people living in and contemplating moving to Israel. The state was founded on democratic principles and a strong Jewish tradition of social justice: these values cannot be maintained while another people with in Israel is being denied its civil and political rights. Fear and hatred as long as they continue to cloud the issues surrounding peace in the Middle East, will prevent that peace from occurring. They are very real elements of the situation but should not be dominant forces. It is often hard, in the face of anti-Semitism and Israel's general unpopularity, for we Jews to keep emotional reactions from stilling our own ethical tradition, but the severity of Israel's position today demands that we be true, to our values. Israel is not only the Jewish homeland but also the realization of a collective Jewish consciousness and spirit. We must not allow that spirit to be obscured by policies born of chauvinism, prejudice and fear.

Toba E. Spitzer founded and is a member of the Committee on Progressive Zionism.

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