Amos Oz: Last chance for a Jewish State
At the recent eighth international conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Israeli author Amos Oz gave a landmark address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can watch Oz speak in his exacting, poetic Hebrew with English subtitles here. What follows is an excerpt, translated by Elise Shazar.
I would like to talk this morning about dreams that Israel should forget about as quickly as possible. I will start with the most important thing, that which is, in my opinion, a matter of life and death for Israel: if two states don't come into existence now and fast, there will be one state. If one state comes into existence, it will be an Arab one from the sea to the Jordan River. If an Arab state is established, I do not envy our children and grandchildren.
I said an Arab state from the sea to the Jordan River, I did not say a bi-national state.
Except for Switzerland, all bi-national or multi-national states have faired badly (Belgium, Spain) or have already collapsed into a bloodbath (Lebanon, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, FSU, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine). If two states do not come into existence immediately, it is possible that in order to delay the establishment of an Arab State from the sea to the Jordan River, a dictatorship of fanatic Jews will temporarily rise to power, a religious and racist dictatorship that will suppress with an iron fist both the Arabs and its Jewish opponents. A dictatorship of this kind will not last long. No dictatorship of a minority ruling over a majority has ever lasted in the modern world. Even at the end of this road, i.e. a dictatorship of a Jewish minority over the Arab majority, what waits for us is still an Arab State between the sea and the Jordan River, and perhaps also an international embargo, or a bloodbath, or both punishments together.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are among us a lot of wise men–perhaps some are even in this room– who are telling us over and over that there is no solution to the conflict, so they preach the idea of “conflict management.” I want to call your attention to the fact that conflict management will look exactly what last summer looked like.
Conflict management means a continuum of the Second Lebanese War, the Third Lebanese War, the Fourth and the Fifth, a continuum of Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense, Protective Edge and Stretched Bow and Iron Boots and Murderous Punches and maybe an intifada or two in Jerusalem and the territories until the PA collapses and Hamas, or another organization that is even more fanatic and extreme, rises to power. That is the meaning of conflict management in my opinion. And, I have to say in parenthesis that I do not represent anyone, no one chose me. If I prepare a good lecture, I sometimes manage to represent myself.
Let us talk for a minute or two about a solution of the conflict and not the management of the conflict. In the last 100 years or so (you can call them our 100 years of solitude) we have never had a better opportunity than now to end the conflict. Not because the Arabs have become more Zionist, not because they are ready to suddenly recognize our historical right to this Land, but because Egypt and Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the Maghreb States and even Syria of Assad have a current enemy that is more immediate, destructive and dangerous than the Jewish state.
Twelve years ago the Saudi peace proposal, which is the Arab Peace Initiative, you all know, was put on the table. I do not recommend that Israel rush to sign the dotted line of this proposal, but it is a proposal worthy of negotiations and bargaining. We should have acted thus 12 years ago, and if we had, circumstances would be different today.
If we had received such a proposal in the days of Ben Gurion, or Levi Eshkol, or the times of the three no's of the Khartoum Summit, we would have danced in the streets.
I will say now something which is controversial, and will be controversial. Since the 1967 war (at least), we have not won any wars. Not even the Yom Kippur war. War is not a basketball game in which someone who scores more points wins the trophy, the handshake and the applause of the fans. In war, as opposed to basketball, even if we burn more tanks than the enemy, fell more planes, kill more enemies and conquer more territory, that still does not mean we win. The victor in war is the one who achieves his goals, and the loser is the one who does not.
In the Yom Kippur War, the goal of Sadat was to shatter the status quo established in the Six Day War, and he succeeded. We lost because we did not achieve our goal, and we didn’t achieve our goal because we had no goal, and we could not have had a goal that we could achieve through force. Am I saying that military force is unnecessary? No way! At any point of time in the last 70 years, including this moment when we are sitting and talking in Ramat Aviv, our military force stands incessantly between us and destruction. But only if we remember this: in regard to us and our neighbors, our military force can only be a preventive one– to prevent calamity, destruction and mass attack on our civilians. But we can’t win because we have no goals that can be achieved through military force. That is the reason that I see conflict management as a recipe for trouble after trouble, and of course defeat after defeat.
Many Israelis, too many Israelis, believe –or are brainwashed to believe– that if we only take a huge stick and hit the Arabs one more strong blow, they will be afraid and leave us alone for all time and everything will be alright. For the last hundred years we have been raising a bigger and bigger stick, and it has not helped. The right and the settlers tell us incessantly that we have a right to all of Western Israel, that we have a right to the Temple Mount. But what do they mean when they say right? A right is not something I really, really, really want. A right is not something that I feel strongly about. A right is something that someone else recognizes as your right. If others do not acknowledge your right, or if only some people acknowledge what you think is your right, then what you have is not a right but a claim.
And that is the difference between Ramle and Ramallah, between Haifa and Nablus, between Beersheeba and Hebron. Most of the world, including most of the Arab and Muslim world, acknowledges today, happily or not, that Haifa and Beersheba are ours. Except for Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, everyone accepts this. But no one in the world, except for the settlers, and maybe their extreme supporters in America, acknowledges that Nablus and Ramallah are ours. And that is the difference between a right and a claim. The settlers and their supporters say that we have a right to all of the Land of Israel and of course the Temple Mount, but they are telling us something else altogether. Not that we have a right but that we have a religious obligation to hold on to every inch of it.
If I go to an ATM, I have the right to withdraw 2,000 shekels. But that doesn’t mean I have to withdraw the NIS 2,000 every time I go by an ATM. If I am standing at a marked crosswalk, I have the right to cross the road. And, if it's a green light, and perhaps there is even a policeman waving me on, I certainly have the right to cross the road. But if I see a truck racing towards me at 100 km an hour, I have the full right not to fulfill that right. Not to cross the road. I am speaking, for instance, about the Temple Mount. Why shouldn't Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount? But we have the right not to realize this right in this generation.
I want to tell you—there are those among us who have outgrown the 70 year old conflict: they are tired of it, bored with it. They want action. They want to lead us into war with all of Islam—with Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and nuclear Pakistan. They are ready to go to war against the whole world.
And I ask you and I ask myself: to die for the right to pray on the Temple Mount? There is nothing about this anywhere in the Jewish writings. Under no circumstances. To those who want a world war on the issue of the Temple Mount, I say do it without me or my children or grandchildren. Also, the war against all of Islam is not enough for them. There are those who are trying to lead us into war with the whole world.
You know, 40 years ago on the day after the 1977 rise of Likud to power, a senior editor of one of the dailies was so happy with the change of government, so euphoric, that he began his op-ed with the words, “The success of the Likud party in the elections in Israel restores America to its real dimensions.” Today I also identify an Israeli attempt to restore America to its real dimensions, to destroy the alliance between Israel and America for the benefits of an alliance between our extreme right and the extreme right in America.
We must never forget that at least twice in our history we found ourselves in a war against almost all of the world. And those two times it ended very badly. I see a day in the not too far future (and I hope I am wrong) when airport personnel in Dublin, or Amsterdam or Madrid refuse to process El Al passengers. When consumers refuse to buy Israeli products and leave it on the shelves. When investors and tourists stay away from this ostracized country. Ladies and gentleman, this is not futurology, we are half way there. David Ben Gurion taught us that Israel cannot survive without the support of at least one superpower. Which superpower? It changes. Once it was Britain, once it was even Stalin's Russia, once Britain and France and in the last decades, America. But the alliance with America is not a natural force of nature.
Let me dedicate the next minutes to talk about one of the most important differentiations that an individual or a county can make –the differentiation between constants and variables. It is dangerous to let those who cannot differentiate between these two concepts to navigate in the world. Kishon (*NOTE: Ephraim Kishon, the humorist) gives instructions to a friend “right at the post office, left at the crossroads, and right again when you get to the guy who is beating his kid.” It is not a joke. There are those who remember how, for decades, we were intimidated, told that if we return the territories, Soviet forces will turn up near Kfar Saba. I cannot tell you for sure that if we withdraw from the territories everything will be wonderful, but I can tell you with certainty that there will be no Soviet forces. That's the difference between permanence and change. Let's talk about the present. The same powers that scared us for decades regarding Soviet forces near Kfar Saba are scaring us now by telling us that if we withdraw from the territories, missiles will fall on Tel Aviv, on the Ben Gurion airport, on Kfar Saba. I can't be sure if that is true or not. But let me tell you — with all the authority of a first sergeant in the IDF — that missiles can already hit Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Kfar Saba, launched not only from Kalkilya, but also from Iraq, from Pakistan and maybe even from Indonesia. Like the Soviet forces in Kfar Saba, there is a lack of differentiation between the constant and the variables. If not today, then tomorrow or the day after, it will be easy to accurately hit any point in the world from any other point in the world too. So should we send the IDF to conquer the whole world?
The fact that America is an allied superpower can change, and may change, (if we try hard enough it will change even quickly). But the fact that the Palestinians are our neighbors and that we live in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, is a constant. Even the nuclear threat of Iran is a variable, not a constant. Because even if we — or others in our name — bomb the nuclear facilities in Iran, we can't bomb the knowledge. Because nuclear Pakistan can become tomorrow, if not tonight, an Islamic state even more extreme than Iran and it already has nuclear weapons. Because there is no one who can prevent our rich enemies from buying ready made nuclear arms and using them against us. And mainly, because in a few years, anyone who wants to obtain weapons of mass destruction will be able to. Here, too the constant has to be the power of deterrence of Israel. And the abilities of our enemies, (nuclear and other), is a variable that is not dependent on us.
Contrary to many of my friends in the dovish left, I cannot guarantee that if we leave the territories with a peace agreement, everything will be wonderful. But I believe that if we stay in the territories, it will be worse. If we stay in the territories an Arab State will be eventually established from the sea to the Jordan River.
I want to criticize myself and some of my friends from the dovish left. There are millions of Israeli citizens who would give up the territories for peace but they don’t believe the Arabs. They don’t want to be suckers. They are afraid. We should never decry that fear or mock it (and we have done this). You can try to defuse it, try to calm it and perhaps it won't hurt the dovish left to participate in this fear a bit, because there is room for fear. A person who is afraid, justifiably or not, should not be mocked or scorned. The question of peace in exchange for territories should be argued, not with mockery, not with disdain and not with anti-Semitic cartoons. People should argue as people who weigh one danger against the other.
And one more mistake that some of my leftist dovish friends make. (I did not make this mistake), something they think peace is sitting high on a shelf in a toy store—you just need to reach out and touch it. Our father Rabin, almost touched it at Oslo but he was too miserly to pay the price at the last moment and didn’t bring us the toy.
Father Barak almost touched the toy at Camp David, but was too miserly to pay the price so came home without peace. And the same with Father Olmert. We have a miserly father, one who doesn’t love us enough, otherwise he would have brought us the peace that we so yearn for. I do not agree. I believe that peace has more than one partner. A juicy Arabic saying says that, “You can't clap with one hand.” After my lecture, you can try it for yourselves.
My Zionistic starting point has been for years as follows: We are not alone in this country; we are not alone in Jerusalem. I say the same to my Palestinian friends. You are not alone in this country. There is no choice but to divide this small house into two even smaller apartments. A two family home “and a good fence makes a good neighbor” to quote the poet Robert Frost. (*NOTE: the accurate quote is “good fences make good neighbors).
We hear here and there about the idea of a bi-national state, both from the extreme left and also from the extreme right, Moshe Arens for instance. I think the idea of a bi-national state is a sad joke. Not only because the fate of bi- national states in the world. But because of a much simpler reason: you can't expect Israelis and Palestinians after 100 years of blood, tears and calamity to jump into a double bed and begin the honeymoon. If someone had suggested in 1945 just after World War II to unite Germany and Poland into a bi-national state, they would have confined him to an asylum.
I was one of the first, at the age of 28, that wrote a short time after the Six Day War that the occupation would corrupt us. In the same article, I wrote that the occupation would also corrupt the occupied. No, we and the Palestinians cannot become one happy family tomorrow because we are not one, we are not happy and we are not a family. We are two unhappy families. We need a fair divorce and not a honeymoon. Maybe with time there will be a common market, a federation, cooperation, but as a first phase this country is going to be a two family home because we are not going anywhere. We have nowhere to go. And the Palestinians are not going anywhere because they have nowhere to go either.
The long dispute between the Palestinians and Israel is not a Hollywood western portraying good against bad, but a Greek tragedy about justice versus justice, and often, unfortunately, injustice versus injustice.
Because of these views I often get called a traitor, but I ask you: What should a surgeon, if he is a good doctor, ask himself when he encounters a patient with multiple injuries: “What comes first? What is urgent? What might kill the patient?”
In the case of Israel, it is not religious coercion, it is not even accessible housing, or even the price of Milky. The continued fight with the Arabs is becoming a war between us and the whole world. This war endangers our existence.
This is the moment which I should reveal out loud, in front of hundreds of people, the biggest military secret we have, the most censored one there is. And the secret is that we are actually weaker and we were always weaker than all our enemies together. Our enemies have been soaked for years in wild rhetoric about destroying Israel and throwing the Jews into the sea.
They could have easily sent a million well equipped warriors against us, or two or three million, and we wouldn't be here today. But they never sent more than a few tens of thousands. Because in spite of the wild rhetoric, the existence of Israel or its destruction was never a question of life and death for them. Not for Syria, or Libya's Gaddafi, or Egypt, and not even for Iran of the Ayatollahs. If it was a question of life and death for them, we would not be here. We are maybe a question of life and death for the Palestinians, but luckily for us they are they are too small to overpower us in any case. But remember, the sum of all our enemies can overpower us if they have, God forbid, the real motivation, not only rhetorical motivation.
Our adventure in the Temple Mount could, God forbid, give them the needed motivation. I don’t know if we can end this conflict overnight, but I believe we could try. I believe that we could have reduced the Israel-Palestinian conflict to an Israel-Gazan conflict. I did not say to solve it, just reduce it, from an Israel- Palestinian conflict to an Israel-Gazan conflict, if we hadn’t said for years that Arafat is too much of a bloody murderer to do business with and Abu Mazen is too weak and harmless so why do business with him? We could have reduced the Israel-Palestinian conflict a long time ago to an Israeli-Gazan conflict and we can do it now too.
It is hard to be a prophet in the land of prophets—there is too much competition. But my long life experience has taught me that in in the Middle East, the words “forever”, “never”, or “not at any cost” usually mean something between 6 months to 30 years.
If someone told me when I was recruited to reserve duty in Sinai in the Six Day War to the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War that one day I would travel to Egypt or Jordan with a Jordanian or Egyptian visa in my Israeli passport, I, the dove, the optimist, the peace monger would have told him “don’t exaggerate.” Maybe my children, my grandchildren, but not me. But I have traveled to Egypt and Jordan and I have Jordanian and Egyptian visas in my passport.
In summary, I want to tell you in case you have not heard, that for decades we have been experiencing in this small country a Golden Age in literature, in cinema, in the arts, in high-tech, in science and even in philosophy. People usually talk about a Golden Age with nostalgia, after it has passed. But Israel has been for several years in the midst of a wonderful and creative Golden Age and in terms of spiritual and intellectual creativity, the status of Israel is one of a universal superpower.
And I want to tell you something, that you may have not thought of but maybe think about it now: the city of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, is in my view, a collective creation of the Jewish –Israeli people and it is a no less important and perhaps even a more important creation than, for instance, the Rabbinical Literature of the Diaspora. The city of Tel Aviv is perhaps even more important than the Hebrew Poetry of Spain. The city of Tel Aviv is perhaps no less wonderful than the Babylonian Talmud, and it is only one of the many collective creations that we have crafted here in the land of Israel in the 100 years of our solitude.
Now comes a small confession: I love Israel even in the times when I can't stand it.
You know why? A story: Stanley Fischer told me that he once went to Cyprus with his wife for a restful weekend. The flights to Cyprus leave Ben Gurion at 1:30 am and land at 2:30 am. At 2:30 in the morning Stanley Fischer and his wife are standing, very tired, waiting for their suitcases. And an Israeli passenger walks up to them and asks politely: “excuse me, are you the Governor of the Bank of Israel? Tell me, where should I exchange my money—here at the airport or tomorrow in the city?” That is what I like about Israel. This would never have happened to the Chancellor of the Bank of Germany or the Governor of the Bank of England or the President of the Bank of France. That is why I love Israel even when I can't stand it. .
I love Israel because of its directness, its bluntness. I love it because it is like this:
If I have to fall in the streets, I want to fall in the streets in Israel—not in London, not in Paris, not in Berlin and not in New York. Because someone will help me up onto my feet. I know that once I stand up, there will be many that will want to see me fall again. But if I fall again, someone will help me up again.
I am concerned for our future. I am worried about the policy of the government and also ashamed of it. I am concerned because of the growing fanaticism and violence, and I am ashamed. But I am happy to be an Israeli, and happy to be a citizen in a country where there are 8 million prime ministers, 8 million prophets, 8 million messiahs. Everyone, every taxi driver with their own personal formula for instant redemption, everyone yelling all the time and no one listening. I listen, because I make a living out of it.
It is not boring here, and sometimes even very fascinating intellectually and emotionally. What I have seen in my lifetime is much less and also much more than what my parents and grandparents dreamt about. Thanks for the patience and tolerance.