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Israel at 60 Essay from Daniel Levy

Levy served as a policy advisor to former PM Ehud Barak, an Israeli negotiator, and was drafter of the Geneva Initiative

May, 2008

On the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish State, Israelis and their friends around the world have much to be proud of. The story of modern Israel's incarnation is an uplifting one and the country's achievements are remarkable, as even the most cursory visit to the country reveals. Israel today is at the cutting edge of contemporary creativity, not only in the high-tech fields that keep the economy buzzing along impressively but also in the arts- witness the latest batch of Israeli movies winning awards and acclaim throughout the world.

Yet, sadly, the emphasis on achievements will be a forced, somewhat artificial one this year, and it will ring rather hollow, because Israel faces problems that cannot be glossed over. Celebrations cannot obscure the ever-present frame of reference that defines Israeli life-the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-and the fear, insecurity, and desire for normalcy, peace, and even revenge it engenders. This is not just the Israel of newspaper headlines, but the Israel that its citizens experience every day, tribal Israel, defined by seemingly endless conflict. It is the Israel in which an identity built on negatives, on hostility, is not just confined to the Arab-Israeli conflict but has grown to embrace an ever-growing list of societal fissures: religious-secular, periphery-center, immigrant-veteran, wealthy-poor, and more.

Thus, Israel at 60 presents a complex, and worrying, portrait. The Israel of fear and angst is not desirable (and is likely unsustainable), nor is time on the side of the peace process. It is not only the corrosive effects of the occupation inside Israel and the entrenchment of intolerance that are problems. It is not just the facts being created on the ground- new outposts, settlement expansion, and the infrastructure of control over another people. Rather, the greatest threat to a two-state solution-to momentum away from an endlessly prolonged conflict-is that Israelis and Palestinians are giving up hope of a different future.

That is why, as we celebrate the remarkable achievements of Israeli society, we must also focus on the hard choices-choices that can no longer be avoided. The absolute pre-requisite for an Israel of hope, and not of fear, is the realization of permanent, recognized and agreed upon borders, and the need to prove, first and foremost to ourselves, that Israel can move beyond occupation.

Today, to paraphrase a recent American Defense Secretary, the parameters of a comprehensive peace are not "unknown unknowns" or even "known unknowns" but rather "known knowns." On Israel's 60th birthday we know, unequivocally, that a peace deal with the Palestinians requires a territorial arrangement based on the 1967 lines with an equal land swap, a political division of Jerusalem along demographic lines (with special arrangements for the religious sites and the Old City), an agreement that provides dignity and compensation for the refugees combined with a resettlement program focused on the new Palestinian state, and detailed security arrangements. In the north, a land-for-peace deal with Syria involves security guarantees and a subsequent agreement with Lebanon.

There will always be excuses to hedge, to hesitate, to deploy the excuse of the complexity of the situation in order to avoid making a decision. But alongside these complexities, there are also real opportunities. Once Israel makes explicit its acceptance of these parameters for peace then a whole range of possibilities emerges. The Arab League could become the guarantor of any bilateral deal, making good on the Saudi/Arab Peace Initiative and on their attendance at the November 2007 Annapolis Conference. Such a declaration by Israel would have a profound effect on internal Palestinian politics and the ability to win broad consensus for a deal. It could also give the U.S. a framework around which to mobilize regional and international support, including the option of having the international community assume certain interim responsibilities on the ground, if necessary.

So, amid all the confusion, Israel's options are clear and the choice- between a future defined by hope, or one defined by growing desperation -is stark. The good news on Israel's 60th Independence Day is that Israel is truly independent, with the freedom to make choices, to reshape its reality, and to look forward to a better future.


Daniel Levy served as a policy advisor to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and as an Israeli negotiator, Levy is best known as the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative. Today, he works as a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation.