By DONNIEL HARTMAN
Over the next week or so, the Israeli government is expected to respond to the demands of the United States regarding the confidence measures that Israel must implement in order to help jump-start the pre-negotiation negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Much ink and verbiage have been spilled around the issue of Israel building apartments in East Jerusalem since last month’s ill-fated visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph Biden and the subsequent snub of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by President Obama in Washington. One of the problems, however, is that much of the discussion on our side has been about "advocacy" and not engagement.
The foundation of Israel advocacy is that once the "truth" is presented and the "facts" are known, all will see that the current so-called crisis did not change the status quo situation in Jerusalem. Advocates for Israel roll out the facts of continuous Jewish building, by all Israeli governments, in East Jerusalem over the last 40 years. So, under the rules of advocacy, our response is simply that we did nothing wrong. That being the case, the advocacy argument continues, the fault lies not with us, and must be located elsewhere, for example, with the Obama administration for "picking a fight" and manipulating a longstanding Israeli policy in order to attack the Netanyahu government and realign American foreign policy.
Now, it is important to state that there is nothing wrong with much of the building in East Jerusalem, and in particular in Ramat Shlomo, which, as the advocacy argument correctly states, nobody, including the U.S., believes would be returned under any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
However, because we are locked into limited advocacy arguments, we have limited our thoughts and even our policies to merely ensuring that we are doing nothing wrong, and not changing the status quo, rather than asking ourselves whether we are doing something right, and maybe even trying to improve on the status quo. The Netanyahu government is not at fault, in the sense that it has done nothing wrong. It is time, however, to go beyond advocacy and recognize that we are at fault for not attempting to explore what we can do right.
When one goes beyond advocacy to engaging Israel, we search not for the relative legitimacy of Israel’s policies, in relation to the past or in relation to other nations in similar situations, or in relation to our neighbors. Rather one engages in a search for how Israel can be a vehicle for leading and expressing the best and most noble of our ideas, ideals, and values. Engaging Israel does not stop at justifying the present. It looks for opportunities for shaping the future of Israel in order to fulfill its identity as a Jewish state.
Functioning and surviving in the status quo of low-level perennial war does not exhaust our aspirations from Israel. We want an Israel where the values of peace, compassion, dignity, freedom, and justice for all are the inheritance of our society, our neighbors and indeed of our whole neighborhood. Unfortunately, however, we have learned that we do not always get everything we want, and certainly not when we want it. While we may want "peace now," we need to be prepared for the fact that it may take time, and that it requires a slow and often painful process and investment.
Even though peace may not be around the immediate corner, it does not mean that our hands are tied and that there is nothing that may be done now. While building in Ramat Shlomo may be legitimate, when it is the only the building we are doing, it exposes Israel, for it does not constitute an act constructive to building a new future between Israelis and Palestinians. It stands out negatively for it merely perpetuates the status quo. We must begin to expect more from ourselves and not be frustrated when others do the same.
Now is the time to build, massively and extensively. Not, however, only in Ramat Shlomo and in a wall to separate ourselves from Palestinian on the West Bank, but in erecting new cities and towns which will house the citizens of Israel who today live in the West Bank, and who in a future settlement will need to find their homes elsewhere.
We learned many things from the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. One is that if we want our fellow citizens to leave their homes, we can only ask them to do so after we have created the housing and economic infrastructure within which they can continue to live their lives in a dignified and secure way. To create this housing infrastructure will take years and billions of dollars of investments. The approximately 75,000 Israelis who may need to be relocated when and if the Palestinian people become serious about peace have a right to demand and expect this of us.
As we learn in Pirkei Avot (1:14): "If not now, when?" Let us begin building a new building project and lay the foundations for a future peace. Let us begin to build cities and towns in the Negev and Galil, and to expand the settlement blocs in Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel, so that almost every settler will be able to relocate no more than 30 minutes from their current homes.
Let us build a monument to the peace that has so far eluded us – cities and towns and apartments which will lie empty – waiting to embrace their inhabitants who will pay the price of relocation so that all of us can begin building a new and better future.
Imagine what such a building project would do for Israel and indeed the whole Middle East. Instead of getting perpetually bogged down in senseless debates aimed at self-justification and mutual de-legitimization or arguing over who more warrants the title of victim, we can be the leaders in charting the course toward a new future. We can serve as a beacon and an example for a country with visionary foreign policy which is not merely shaped by existing realities, but by the most noble of values and a vision of a new future.
Our dreams, vision, and fortitude enabled us to dry swamps, absorb millions of immigrants, overcome impossible odds and enemies, and lay the infrastructure for the establishment of the State of Israel. Today, we need to dream anew and call upon even greater fortitude to begin to build a new infrastructure for the establishment of tomorrow’s peace. This building must constitute the new Zionist enterprise and the courage to believe and act today to lead and shape our future, the noblest expression of our Zionist values.
Editor’s Note: The Shalom Hartman Institute is engaging in an in-depth exploration of new ways of engaging Israel beyond traditional advocacy efforts. If you would like to receive periodic updates on the progress of this project, please click here , and we will add you to the mailing list.