Israel must get the monkey of occupation off its back

Although the events that swept through Egypt in recent weeks had little to do with Israel, they still hold profound lessons for Israel.  The most important lesson is that Israel must break its addiction to occupation and settlements.

The link between the occupation and Israel’s relationship with Egypt (and by extension, the entire Arab world), dates back to 1978, when Israel and Egypt struck their historic bargain with the Camp David Accords.  That agreement delivered enormous security benefits for Israel. It meant that Israel was no longer forced to fight wars to defend its very existence.  It paved the way for peace with Jordan and for the Arab Peace Initiative, which holds the promise of full peace and normalization between Israel and the entire region.  It opened the door for Israel to truly become part of the Middle East.

But many people forget: the bargain in the Camp David Accords was not simply the Sinai in exchange for peace.  It also required Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  Even in 1978, the occupation was a bone in the throat of Anwar Sadat, just as it would be for Hosni Mubarak, and just as it will inevitably become for any future Egyptian leader.

But Israel never followed through with that second part of the Camp David Accords.  Israel relinquished the Sinai and pocketed peace with Egypt, apparently confident that Sadat (and later Mubarak) would overlook the fact that Menachem Begin’s promise was never fulfilled.

Over the decades that followed, Israel’s Camp David commitment to end the occupation was forgotten.  Over time, a status quo set in.  The occupation grew more entrenched with each passing year.  Its champions – in Israel and the U.S. – doggedly defended it as necessary for Israel’s security and insisted it could be sustained in perpetuity.

They were wrong.  They are still wrong. 

The pro-status quo crowd’s reactions to the fall of Mubarak betray their recognition of this fact.  They understand that peace with Egypt these past 30 years hung on Mubarak’s readiness to overlook Israel’s failure to fully implement the Camp David Accords and end the occupation.  They understand that any future Egyptian government that is more accountable to its population will have a much harder time doing so.  They know, whether they admit it or not, that the occupation is a constant source of humiliation, frustration, and outrage to Arabs across the region, just as ill-treatment of Jews anywhere provokes outrage among fellow Jews, wherever they may be.

Their reactions also betray how deep their addiction to occupation and settlements has become, and how frightened they are at losing one of the main enablers of that addiction.  The absence of accountable governments in the Middle East these past decades has allowed Israel to operate under the delusion that its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians need not have any bearing on its relations with its neighbors.  These governments, in effect, acted as enablers as Israel’s self-destructive addiction to occupation and settlements deepened.

No more.  The Arab world today is opening a new chapter in which governments will have to be more responsive to the views of their people.  While Israel’s concerns about the future of its peace agreement with Egypt are understandable, this change in the Arab world could turn out to be good for Israel, for a number of reasons.  Not the least of these is the fact that addictions are hard to break under any circumstances, but they are especially hard to break when the addict is surrounded by enablers.

The door for Israel to be accepted as part of the Middle East, first opened in 1978, is still open today – and with it is an opportunity for Israel to forge new relations with the region and its people on the basis of a shared interest in a stable, secure, prosperous region.  But in order to walk through that door, Israel must first get the monkey of occupation and settlements off its back.

This is a lesson that must be absorbed in Israel, where the addiction must be broken, for Israel’s own sake.  And it is a lesson that must be learned in Washington, which remains today Israel’s greatest enabler, and which has at stake not only its concern for Israel but its interests in the entire region.

Lara Friedman is the Director of Policy & Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now.