By Shaul Arieli
Forty years have passed since the Yom Kippur War, the hardest war for Israelis as individuals in society and as a society regarding itself as stronger than the sum of its members. Forty years of perspective and introspection are long enough to necessitate a profound, penetrating gaze inward. So penetrating that nothing can escape it or withstand its wisdom. So penetrating that it is liable to wound. It seems that the time is ripe for saying clearly that sometimes a little hope can be worse than its total absence. For, at times, a little hope is nothing but cynical manipulation aimed at preserving the status quo, a barrier to change, no more than a handful of sand thrown in the faces of people who yearn for a better existence.
It is surprising to discover that Israel's government and prime minister have entered into a strange kind of cooperation with the country's population, for the purpose of minimizing hope. Yet, while the government is aware of the direction it is being led in, it appears that the public is largely unaware of what is happening. Benjamin Netanyahu is an active, enthusiastic supporter of minimal hope. He has never sought to spearhead change, but is quite successful at preserving the status quo. He knows that deep-seated despair, just like great expectations, are change-generating emotions. Netanyahu is so fond of the concepts safeguarding his political and social beliefs: "there's no partner", "the Iranian threat", "villa in the jungle" and "Masada will never fall again". When Netanyahu perceives that hopelessness has become less convenient for Israelis, he quickly injects a little bit of hope: some "Bar-Ilan speech" for those worrying about Israel's future, identify, and governance; a sprinkling of a Trachtenberg Committee for those driven to the breaking point by social inequality; and if it becomes necessary to ensure that his staying on at Balfour Street, why then, add a bit of coalition government with "the Movement party" and those who promised, but haven't delivered yet, to give the social protest movement "a voice in the Knesset".
Israeli society is practically in love with its reality of miniaturized hope. The cautious optimism upon Netanyahu's naming of the Trachtenberg Committee turned out also to be the supertanker that all but extinguished the social protest. The protesters regarded the Committee's appointment as justification for folding up their tents and returning to the intractable reality of warped priorities in allocation of government funds.
Similarly, declarations that Israel was willing to resume unconditional negotiations sparked hope in Israel; in fact, they easily masked a blunt refusal to recognize the necessary parameters for enabling effective final-status negotiations, and, moreover, were accompanied by increased construction in the settlements.
However, the recent European Union move concerning the settlements could not be dismissed by Israel's government as anti-semitism. Its implications are obvious to everyone. Netanyahu was forced to give in to John Kerry's demands to renew negotiations; negotiations were indeed renewed, yet it would be a colossal mistake for the public to assume that Netanyahu will likewise "be forced to concede his position" and sign a peace agreement.
At this point, the public is called upon to decide whether to opt for the scant hope offered by the resumed negotiations, or demand forcefully of Netanyahu, by any possible means, to conclude negotiations with a final-status agreement. On the eve of Yom Kippur, it is important to pose these fundamental questions pertaining to the future of the State of Israel, in their full force: the question of the right way to ensure Israel's existence with a Jewish majority as a country where all inhabitants enjoy the fruits of democracy exceeds the issue of physical existence. Therefore, the answer will not be found solely by addressing security issues. It is obvious to all that the threats are also demographic, economic, social, political, legal, and ethical. That question can be put to Netanyahu's government in the following formulation as well: is the risk of signing a permanent agreement calling for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank greater or smaller than the risk entailed in perpetuating the occupation. For us Israelis, it seems that the conflict has always been around; the long passage of time makes it difficult for us to see it as it is. Yet we must make Netanyahu and his cabinet understand that the process grows more and more acute: erosion of the values of democracy and the rule of law, deep-seated racism, religion and worship of the land set above the state.
Ultimately, it is fitting that on the eve of Yom Kippur, we Israelis must turn our penetrating gaze inward and question ourselves – even given that Israel can withstand external pressure and ensure its long-term rule over the territories without granting the Arabs civil rights. Is this the kind of society that Zionism strives for; permanent rule over another people denied its civil rights? Is this the value system that Jewish-Israeli society seeks to instill in its children? Is this the only choice we face - to survive like this, or cease?
Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli serves on the executive of the Committee for Peace and Security and studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he is active in promoting a permanent agreement. His book A Border Between Us and YOU: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Means of its Resolution ("Aliyat Hagag" Books) was published in 2013.
Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Friedman