As Israelis finalize preparations for their momentous sixtieth anniversary – a date marking 10 years of consistent economic growth and industrious expansion – there remains the underlying question that will go unanswered yet another decade: What will be done with the West Bank and Golan Heights?
Despite all of its considerable achievements, cross-border violence persists and Israel s existence remains fundamentally insecure. At the heart of this conundrum is the occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands, a wound that if left unattended will produce a tragedy of scale we have not yet witnessed.
On May 8, Israel has an historic opportunity to celebrate its monumental progress, but if it is to preserve any of these gains, it must ultimately free itself from the albatross around its neck and relinquish these occupied territories.
During its sixty years, Israel has forged full-speed ahead to build a modern nation-state. It has absorbed nearly 3 million Jewish immigrants, developed modern city infrastructures such as Netanya and Herzliya, and built prestigious educational institutions. The nation has made tremendous strides in medicine, agriculture, biotechnology, and economic development and created democratic political institutions, all while manning its formidable military powerhouse. Yet with violence erupting daily and the regional death toll rising, Israel remains vulnerable as maintaining the occupation is sapping the country s energy and resources.
After 41 years, many Israelis have grown accustomed (if not oblivious) to the state of occupation, enjoying economic growth and the illusion of security. Apart from the sheer belief of many settlers that they are fulfilling a biblical prophecy in the West Bank, the occupation represents much more than mere territory.
Disillusioned with the Palestinians behavior in the wake of the second Intifadah, many Israelis tend to blame them for past peacemaking failures such as Arafat s Camp David snub. The overwhelming weight of American support for Israel during the past seven years has also played a significant role, as Israel has not received much in the way of criticism from its closest and most strategic ally. Israel has since demonstrated that it feels more comfortable maintaining a tormenting occupation than relinquishing it, for fear that the West Bank and the Golan Heights could suffer the same fate as Gaza and southern Lebanon.
Although these concerns are legitimate, ultimately Israel must not allow itself to become hostage to the conditions that it has created. If regional peace is to be achieved, it must be because Israel is willing to exchange occupied land for peace, along the lines suggested in the Arab Peace Initiative.
The suffering that has resulted from scores of suicide bombings has made the issue of border security a national obsession for Israelis, who have answered with the border fence and retaliatory attacks to combat Arab extremism. This approach does not hold, since from its inception the occupied territory has been breeding grounds for violence.
Israel s most implacable enemies, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad, were born in response to the occupation. It has also given rise to the Jihadis, Takfiries, and other radical groups bent on Israel s destruction. Indeed, no number of security measures can end the violence because occupation by its very nature provokes resistance. Although Israel has a myriad of legitimate security concerns, the security measures taken to allay them have assumed a life of their own, often disregarding the terrible hardships they inflict on the Palestinians. The problem of occupation has also been compounded by the construction of an elaborate settlements network, which has itself become an obstacle to any future Palestinian state on the same land.
While Israel has never been stronger militarily or economically than at present, it does not have the luxury of time. The Israeli advantage will not last because its detractors -Iran and its surrogates – are feverishly preparing to challenge militarily Israel s existence. Rather than reacting to its adversaries, Israel must take the initiative. The opportunity for peace with Syria and the Palestinians, if consummated, will dramatically change the equation of power in the Middle East and in time secure Israel s position as an integral part of a predominantly Arab region.
Israel should make the strategic decision to withdraw from the territories while it enjoys a position of strength. The Arab Initiative offers a comprehensive peace with all Arab states in exchange for the territories captured in 1967. Peace is the single most important measure that will provide Israel with the ultimate security it seeks, for peace will particularly undermine Iran s regional ambitions and neutralize its threat to Israel s security.
By working with the Initiative, Israel can establish and pursue a secure border, retain its Jewish national identity, normalize relations with the Arab world, and find a mutually acceptable solution to the future of Jerusalem. As a sign of its commitment to end the occupation, Israel should start to evacuate two or three of the numerous West Bank settlements from which it must withdraw in any peace agreement.
The occasion of Israel s sixtieth anniversary should become the symbol of an historic national turning point, the moment when Israel can begin to bring the occupation to an end and enable the nation to re-channel its energy towards peace and prosperity.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.