Revolutionary Leadership, Courage and Tough Decisions — Israel and Palestine’s Route to Peace
What will it take to bring about a solution with the Palestinians that meets majority interests in Israel and honours the founding principles of the state of Israel, as enunciated by David Ben-Gurion: democratic and Jewish in character, and with secure boundaries?
Just four years after a devastating war in the Golan and Sinai between Israel and its Arab enemies in 1973, a famous peace was made at Camp David by two unlikely peacemakers, one a Holocaust survivor and soldier against the British, the other a field marshal and survivor of a British colonial prison. Both displayed leadership that is sorely lacking now as Israel enters a new phase of war with Hamas.
Can the leaders, the mediators and the courage be found to bring peace once more?
Ehud Barak, who served as Israel’s prime minister from 1999 to 2001 and as defence minister subsequently in Ehud Olmert’s government, shares with two others the honour of being the most highly decorated soldier in Israel’s history. Appointed chief of general staff in 1991, he served in this post until 1995 when he retired from the military and went into politics.
“It is the role of leaders,” says the pugnacious former general, “to look beyond immediate events.” The necessary qualities hinge on “a combination of many things, being capable, understanding strategy, understanding how the world is, understanding the big picture with the capacity still to follow the slightest details. It needs certain sobriety, convictions, stable character; it needs … a readiness to take risks, the courage to make decisions, and the capacity or skills to implement and execute them.”
Barak summarises by saying that leadership, in former US president Harry S Truman’s words, is the “capacity to take the public from one place to another”.
“You need inner strength among the leadership to move away from the issues which have dominated your state from the start,” Olmert says. “In the case of Israel, we have to accept that we have enough power to protect ourselves.” Israel’s obsessions and fears, along with the obsessions and fears of the Palestinians, should not be allowed to dominate, he says.
War sometimes provides the momentum to change the direction of politics. It happened in 1973.
The Yom Kippur War
Occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan Heights is a serene landscape scarred by conflict, the area dotted with memorials from the 1973 war, launched by Egypt and Syria on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar — Yom Kippur — and the tenth day of Ramadan.
Israeli and Syrian forces lost more than 250 tanks on the Golan. Gathering themselves up from the initial Syrian thrust, in a typically aggressive and bold response, the Israelis mounted counter-attacks which would, in the east, take them from the Golan to the gates of Damascus. In the west, bitter fighting took the Israelis across the Nile and, within a few years, to the negotiating table with the Egyptians, creating a peace which, for all its imperfections, has lasted for more than 45 years.
‘We are going to make it clear to the other side, that the game of breaking the ceasefire is a two-sided one. And we are going to press. And we are going to push. And we are going to bomb. And we are going to punish as much and as long as we can until the other side does understand the rules of the game,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Aharon Yariv said on 9 October 1973.
Fast-forward half a century plus one day. Israelis were wrapping up the seven-day-long Jewish festival of Sukkot on 7 October 2023 when, amid the wailing of warning sirens, the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, launched an attack from Gaza on a music festival, police stations, kibbutzim and other targets in southern Israel. The death toll on that day was more than 1,200 Israelis, including 850 civilians. Another 240 Israelis were taken hostage.
It was the worst day of casualties in Israel’s long history of conflict.
This event, like that of 50 years earlier, will have strategic consequences. But, unlike in 1973, it is difficult to right now work out a route for peace.
It’s not only because of what happened on 7 October, and the depravity of the actions of Hamas terrorists. Or because the Israeli response has been overwhelming, turning rubble into more rubble in efforts to unearth Hamas from its maze of underground tunnels and caverns, and killing many civilians in the process.
And it’s not because Israeli politics had lurched some time before to the right, and is in the hands of a prime minister assessed as short-termist and transactional in the extreme, with himself and his political survival, rather than the national interest, at the centre of his actions.
It’s because the peace process itself has stalled, in part due to a lack of imagination and patience.
The parallels between these two October events, occurring during holy days, are painfully obvious. Both caught Israel unawares, though there had been clear warnings of a pending attack, leaving the population scrambling for underground bomb shelters and the military to mobilise for war.
Both contain mistakes by an intelligence apparatus respected for its professionalism and pose questions about how information is preferred and interpreted.
A failure of imagination
There are differences here. Whereas the Israelis had excellent intelligence inside the Egyptian system (Mossad spy Ashraf Marwan, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, was also a close aide to Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat), they had extensive signals and electronic intelligence coverage of Gaza, if not the same extent of human intelligence.
In both cases, there seem to be reasons why the intelligence was ignored: in 1973, it was out of fear of provoking the Egyptians into war. In 2023, Hamas circumvented some observation systems, and used drones, among other techniques, to avoid detection. Presumably, the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu believed that the money paid to Hamas by Israel via Qatar could forestall the worst. Netanyahu acknowledged in 2019 that this was part of a broader strategy to keep Hamas and the Palestinian Authority divided and weak.
There was in both events, a failure of Israeli imagination.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s team misread its Arab adversaries in 1973, underestimating their will and the extent of their grievances as well as their willingness to take risks. Israel overestimated its deterrence capability in both cases: in 1973, it was basking in the rapid and crushing victory of the Six-Day War; and in 2023, it thought it had Gaza covered and the Palestinians divided and thus emasculated.
In both cases, Israel missed — or misinterpreted — the assiduous preparations by its enemies and the impact of their strategic circumstances.
Meir’s government had believed that Israeli occupation of the Sinai provided security and not a cause for continued conflict (and correspondingly, an opportunity for peace). Similarly, Netanyahu’s attempts to divide the Palestinians and thereby rule badly, misread the strategic imperative. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out why the Palestinians were angry and alienated — they control just 22% of the territory they inhabited before 1948.
Netanyahu has lacked a political doctrine to bring about an alternative solution, two-state or otherwise.
In the absence of Palestinian will to compromise and settle, his plan to keep Hamas in power in Gaza and to keep the Palestinian Authority — run by Fatah — off-balance in the West Bank, was tailored to this end. Work permits Israel granted to Gazan labour also kept money flowing into the territory, some of which was used for food and other essentials; some to build the estimated 500km of underground fortifications which have made Gaza, in the assessment of Israeli experts, one of the most fortified places on Earth.
Myth of invincibility shattered
Netanyahu’s calculation involved the outside world inasmuch as the international isolation of Hamas, denoted an international terror group, would help to prevent the Palestinian Authority from advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In both cases, the Israelis were surprised by the slickness of their foe. In October 1973, the Egyptians broke down the walls flanking the Suez Canal with high-pressure hoses, under the pretext of a pre-planned military exercise. Their anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles exacted a heavy toll on the Israelis until the IDF gathered itself up and got better organised.
The sophistication of the Hamas attack in October 2023 shocked Israel. It was carried out across multiple locations, involving thousands of fighters, surprisingly well-trained and drilled, in a version of a combined arms operation. It was, however, the Hamas version of asymmetrical warfare: pitting not the militarily weak against the strong, but military against civilians, in an operation designed to intimidate and instil fear.
And it has worked. Hamas’ invasion shattered the Israeli myth of invincibility.
But there is, again, a big difference. If 1973 made the Israelis gain respect for their Egyptian enemy, 2023 has tilted Israeli politics further to the right.
The biggest difference is, however, the nature of the enemy.
The Yom Kippur War was between sovereign nations.
Hamas’ attack on 7 October was directed against unarmed civilians across 22 targets in Israel, including a music festival where nearly half the civilian deaths occurred. The military equipment employed by Hamas included assault rifles, RPGs, fuel to burn houses, cars and bodies, and kidnapping kits.
Whereas Egypt (but not Syria) wanted a limited war in 1973 to regain Sinai through negotiation, Hamas does not want to negotiate with Israel, but to eliminate the state altogether. It’s hard to negotiate with someone who does not want you to exist.
Whereas Egypt and its allies wanted respect, Hamas’ tactics weren’t designed to set the stage for negotiations. Quite the contrary. They were intended to instil fear. Hamas appears born out of hatred so deep and anger so dark it surfaces in the rape and mutilation of victims. To an extent it worked. The northern border with Lebanon is becoming increasingly depopulated by civilians, with towns taken over by garrisons. No one wants to be killed in their beds, or by one of Hezbollah’s estimated 130,000 rockets.
The government of Golda Meir may have missed the signals that portended the Yom Kippur War. But she and subsequent leaders, even the right-wing Menachem Begin, “got it”, in the sense that they understood the imperative to maintain Israel, birthed as it was out of the Holocaust, as a safe haven for Jews. Netanyahu has risked that status through his opportunism and strategic bipolarity, weakening the Palestinian Authority by Israel’s de facto support for Hamas.
Achieving the impossible
It is worth asking what it would take to bring about a solution with the Palestinians that meets majority interests in Israel and honours the founding principles of the state of Israel, as enunciated by David Ben-Gurion: democratic and Jewish in character, and with secure boundaries.
What happened in 1973 offers some hope that the impossible can be achieved.
There was a strategic goal by the Egyptians in particular in 1973, which ultimately Israel understood and acted on. President Anwar el-Sadat made it clear from the outset that all he wanted was “10 centimetres of the east … to get things back on track” as the then commander of the Egyptian Second Field Army, Abdul Monem Khalil, recalled after meeting Sadat in March 1971. Sadat wanted a limited war in 1973 to focus the superpowers’ attention, regain Egyptian military honour by avenging the defeat of 1967, and jumpstart a peace process, which he got in the 1978 Camp David agreement, which returned the Sinai to Egypt.
In 1973, Israel fought on two fronts: in the east against Syria and its Arab allies, and in the west against Egypt. Fast-forward 50 years and Netanyahu is fighting on four fronts: in Gaza against Hamas, in the West Bank against Palestinians, in the north against Hezbollah, and at home for his political survival.
The significance of the peace agreement in 1978, following the Yom Kippur War, was that Israelis felt more secure, for the first time, in leaving territory.
“The peace with Egypt is one of the greatest historical achievements in the 20th century,” reflects Olmert, the former prime minister. “Begin did something very few leaders could do — a 180-degree turnaround.”
The May 1977 election of Menachem Begin, a founder of the Zionist underground organisation Irgun Zvai Leumi, had been viewed with disquiet in Washington, which feared he would annex the West Bank. Irgun’s symbol depicted, after all, the two sides of the Jordan River as the intended Jewish homeland.
The success of the Camp David process in making peace between Israel and Egypt illustrates the dangers of caricature. Begin was portrayed as right-wing, anti-democratic and fascist, but in the process it was overlooked that he had for years in opposition kept the government honest.
A Holocaust survivor, he had lost most of his family to the Nazis in his hometown of Brest, which is now in Belarus. A humble man, living in Israel in a modest basement flat, he had spent time in a Soviet prison for his Zionist beliefs. Yet, in his own words, he yearned and prayed for peace.
As he said before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on receiving the award in 1978, “No more war. No more bloodshed. We shall negotiate and reach agreement.” It would have been too easy, and self-defeating, to see Begin as an Irgun terrorist and hardliner rather than a lawyer and committed democrat, someone who had been in the opposition for 29 years before taking office in June 1977.
The human touch
The discreet, sealed-off environment of Camp David, free from press and other external intrusions proved conducive for the negotiations, as did the single-document approach employed by US President Jimmy Carter. This method used a single document encompassing a summary of the major resolutions, reiterated more than two dozen times in its shuttling between the various camps. The delegations — US, Israeli and Egyptian — were each pegged at a dozen people.
It also highlighted the human touch in building trust and getting the result everyone desired. Carter, the host at Camp David, recalled that after nearly two weeks of tough negotiations, a peace deal seemed set for failure.
“The peace agreement that I was trying to negotiate had broken down. We were in our 13th day at Camp David and I decided that it was over because Prime Minister Begin was so adamant about not removing his Israeli settlements from Egyptian territory. I had given up,” Carter recounted.
Before leaving, however, Begin had requested signed photographs with the president for each of his eight grandchildren. “Instead of just saying, ‘Best wishes, Jimmy Carter’, I got my secretary to get their names and I put ‘With love and best wishes to’ and I put [the] names of his grandchildren,’ said the 39th president.
“He was quite angry with me at the time. He just said, ‘Thank you, Mr President.’ But he called out the name of his first grandchild, and then he called out the name of his second grandchild and he had tears running down his cheeks and so did I. Then he said, in effect, ‘Why don’t we try one more time?’ and so we tried one more time and we were successful,” Carter said.
The conclusion of a framework for peace followed on 17 September 1978, and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed in Washington in March 1979, witnessed by Carter.
Could the same spirit and method of compromise apply now?
Unlike the Egyptians, Hamas is unlikely to have had a peace goal in mind with 7 October, save to put Palestine back in the news, to slaughter Jews and provoke predictable global outrage at the Israeli response with the aim of getting rid of the State of Israel. They did not need Henry Kissinger & Associates to think this one through.
It’s certainly made Israelis feel less secure and more determined. It has also, however, made them question their political leadership. While the Hamas pogrom of October 2023 might help Netanyahu to preserve his rule, this is only true in the short term. His approval ratings fell to under 20% in the wake of the attacks.
How to end a war
“You must end a war,” says Avigdor Kahalani, the commander of Israel’s 77th Tank Battalion, which fought against the odds on the Golan, “in a position from where the statesmen can start negotiating.”
The problem is, however, that politicians are everywhere, and statemen (and women) are few and far between.
This poses the question: what will it take to make lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians? History is not encouraging. There have been multiple attempts to do so, not least the Oslo Accords, the Camp David Accords (between Barak and Yasser Arafat) in 2000, and the 2007 Annapolis meetings between Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, the two at which the boldest proposals were made by the Israeli side.
While there have been questions about the take-it-or-leave-it style of the Israelis and the relative absence of the US (at least at Annapolis) as a “bridging partner” after the event, the points of dispute appear to pale by comparison to the PLO’s internal challenges (including the fear of isolating itself with respect to Hamas), and its unwillingness to accept the existence of the State of Israel per se.
Before the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Barak had made his intentions clear, stating: “Every attempt to keep hold of this area as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a nondemocratic or a non-Jewish state. Because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a binational state, and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state.”
Eight years later, Olmert warned that if the two-state solution collapsed, Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished’.’
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Olmert was the Israeli prime minister between 2006 to 2009 and was a Cabinet minister from 1988 to 1992 and from 2003 to 2006, before his career was engulfed by corruption charges stemming from his 10 years as mayor of Jerusalem.
The extremist refusal to accept the existence of the State of Israel coupled with Israeli arrogance led to the failure of talks, says Olmert, and the events of 7 October.
“I begged him [Mahmoud Abbas] to accept the deal. I said, ‘You will never get a better deal. Let’s change history together.’ But he said, ‘I will think about it’, and never came back to me. We have many good reasons to be pissed off. At a crucial time, Palestinians failed to respond. Then, over the last 15 years,” Olmert notes, “we did everything to ignore them.”
Whatever the challenges of negotiating with the Palestinians, “You don’t have to hate Israel to know that you have to pull out,” he says.
To get there, both Olmert and Barak emphasise the need for strategic, tough-minded leadership.
Olmert says that what Israel needs is someone of the likes of FW de Klerk, “who had to be a revolutionary among his own community”. He places Menachem Begin in this category too. “Israel,” he adds, “has not been smart enough to earn the trust of Arabs.”
Can Israel and Palestine produce such revolutionary figures?
In the longer term, says Barak, a moment will come when both sides will be ripe for peace and leaders will emerge, leading to “agreements which will, I believe, look very close to what has been on the table in Camp David and in Olmert’s negotiations at Annapolis with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas].”
Here lies another lesson from 1973 and 2023: Everyone loses in war. Only some lose more. You can win only from the peace.
After 1973, Israel forged itself a new domestic path, gaining a reputation as a “start-up nation”, driven by tech, by 2023 possessing 23 of 1,361 unicorns (the term for a privately held startup company valued at more than $1-billion) worldwide, the same as France and more than Canada, South Korea or Singapore.
Israel’s achievements have, however, also seeded its challenges, the arrogance of success producing regional anger more than admiration, while eroding Israel’s value system centring on human rights, democracy and freedoms.
There has to be another way. The Israelis should start by changing what is easiest — and that is not the mind of the Palestinian leadership, or of Hamas, for that matter, or even the region. It is the way in which Israel goes about trying to make peace.
Mansour Abbas leads the United Arab List party, which he represents in the Israeli Knesset. In 2021, he made history by becoming the first Israeli Arab political leader to serve in an Israeli governing coalition, led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.
Trained as a dentist, and a practising imam, he has been outspoken in his views on the State of Israel. In April 2020, in the Knesset he spoke of the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, stating: “As a religious Palestinian Muslim Arab, who was raised on the legacy of Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish who founded the Islamic Movement, I have empathy for the pain and suffering over the years of Holocaust survivors and the families of the murdered.” He added, “I stand here to show solidarity with the Jewish people here and forever.”
Abbas identifies several factors which have influenced the (lack of) progress in negotiations. The first is leadership. “I have discovered that if you always want to satisfy your voters, you will never be able to take the right decisions, for Israelis or Palestinians.” This chimes with Israeli politician Dan Meridor’s view of Begin’s unexpected role as peacemaker in the 1977 Camp David peace process.
As Meridor says of the premium of leadership: “Leadership is not doing what your voters like, this is easy. This is being led by the voters. Leading the people means taking them where you think is right, convincing them it is right… The peace with Egypt is such a great example.”
It also highlighted the reward for boldness. Sadat’s November 1977 visit to Israel broke a taboo, for instance. Such gestures are necessary. As the Egyptian leader observed, they would achieve their ends, “through negotiation around the table rather than starting wars; we have enough”.
There was a recognition, too, that the visit was the start, not the end of a peace process. It also illustrated the importance of not making one issue (the Sinai in this instance) hostage to another (Palestine). And it exemplified the limits of translating military success — or in this instance, the perception of military success — into political action. While Sadat was honoured as the batal el-ubur, the hero of the crossing of the Suez Canal, in practice, the war was far from achieving its intended result of kicking Israel out of the Sinai.
Overall, peace processes are very tough on leaders and their beliefs. But they are elected to make tough decisions, not to form their next coalition.
Thus, says Abbas, “You have to make a compromise, accept the other, look to the future, and not stay stuck in the past.”
There are important questions of method and attitude which inform this process. The problem is, notes Abbas, that “each side ignores completely the other side, not just in terms of facts on the ground, but with respect to feelings and emotions. In this, the levels of mistrust on both sides, the sentiments of damage and fear, become the infrastructure of failure.”
It was also a lesson in the importance of not trying to settle everything at once, of being incremental and pragmatic in differentiating the Palestinian issue from that of Sinai. Now, Abbas says, in the wake of the events of 7 October 2023 and the Israeli response, “We are at Ground Zero. We have to rebuild everything from scratch.”
From an Israeli perspective, this requires thinking less about dividing and ruling the Palestinian Authority, than enduring a stronger entity through the application of carrots and sticks, placing positive pressure and strengthening its key governance attributes.
The Palestinians, in turn, should abandon the belief that Israel will accept a one-state reality, in which the slogan of “apartheid Israel”’ may become a reality unless the country is willing to sacrifice its democracy to retain its Jewish character. The Palestinians will have to accept, fundamentally, that liberation can only be achieved through peace, and its leadership will have to be willing, over time, to socialise this narrative.
Barak, who perhaps got closer, with Yasser Arafat, to making a permanent peace, says that the process failed because, “Palestinian leadership and public opinion did not internalise and develop policy around the reality that there is a legitimate role and place for a democratic Jewish state within reasonable borders.”
The answer, judging from 7 October 2023, does not lie in Netanyahu’s “solution”, which instead of finding the means to create a Singapore-like state in Gaza, produced an Isis-like state under Hamas. October 7 also diminished Israel’s self-image of invincibility, replaced by the knowledge “that if you have enough people, Israel could be invaded by pitchforks and axes”, says Barak.
Henry Kissinger, who died aged 100 on 29 November 2023, would probably have looked for gradual processes of incremental, interlinked steps, working closely with leadership. “He would have said,” smiles Barak, “that you have to look into the mirror and check very hard as to why this has failed, but never to lose sight of turning this into an opportunity.”
To find a way out of this situation, Israel has to ask itself: How did it get here?
Whether Israel can seek opportunity out of failure and restart itself by helping to engineer peace with its Palestinian nemesis will determine much of what the next 75 years of Israeli statehood looks like.
This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick