With the very real possibility of a renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process comes a revival of the possibility of polemic politics in Israel. If the peace process does advance, the divisions between the so-called left and the so-called right which have been watered down into Israeli centrism, mainly since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, will resurface as an existential debate probing matters of our raison d’etre as the nation state of the Jewish people.
A renewed peace process will force Israel to finally deal with the question of its borders, its relationship to Jewish history and heritage, and to the very identity of the state vis-à-vis its Jewishness and democratic values. The debate will come down to a divide between those who’s minds are focused on the past, roots and traditions versus those who are searching for a new future which uses the past, roots and traditions as a link to the future but not as shackles to it.
I am a neo-Zionist. I adhere to my right, my responsibility and my vision to the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. I also am a democrat whose values for fairness, equality, dignity, tolerance, and mutual respect are deeply imbedded in Jewish traditions, texts, heritage and learning.
As a neo-Zionist I genuinely understand that the Land of Israel found within our sacred texts is not Tel Aviv, but in the hills and valleys of the West Bank. But I also comprehend that Jewish survival in the Land of Israel is only possible if we give up that part of the Land so that our Palestinian neighbours can have a state of the own and live in peace with us.
There is no other way. As a neo-Zionist I am more concerned with the Jewish future than the Jewish past, and as such I recognize that we must come forth from the passages of Torah into the reality of the 21st century Middle East, and make the necessary concessions now so that our neighbours can live with the same collective and national dignity that we demand for ourselves.
In the Jewish fight over the Land of Israel it is the battle for Jewish survival between the so-called Zionists – the settlers and their supporters and those like me, the neo-Zionist, the majority of Israelis who are not blinded by a messianic dream and believe that in the ultimate balance of values, peace with our neighbours outweighs peace with our past.
Those among us who continue to advocate the Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel beyond the Green Line are in fact guilty of leading the Zionist enterprise toward its end. The settlement project in the West Bank is nothing less than an act of national suicide. The most significant and dangerous obstacle in our ability to reconcile peace with our neighbours is the continuation of the adherence to the archaic modes of our yearnings for Zion expressed by settling the hilltops surrounding Palestinian towns, villages and cities that turn the lives of the Palestinians into a daily hell.
This is not what Zionism was to supposed to be about. This is not the national liberation movement of the Jewish people that sought freedom and dignity, prophetic Jewish expression in daily life and safety and security for Jews all over.
Like the zealots of bygone days, the settlers are dragging us to our own destruction. There can be no peace with settlements. This is a fact that the history of the peace process should have taught us. Even Ehud Barak who went further than any Israeli leader before him in negotiations with the Palestinians, destroyed the very process that he wanted to conclude by his misguided continuation of an accelerated settlement program. It is impossible to comprehend, certainly from the Palestinian side of the table, how one can speak about territorial compromise and withdrawal while settlements are being built and expanded. The network of settlements, bypass roads and other systems of control and protection necessary to allow the settlers to live on their hill-tops throughout the West Bank can produce no reality other than an Israeli form of apartheid and this is as far away from prophetic justice as day is from night.
When the peace process gets underway and we will once again be forced to deal with the territorial issue, we will have to choose between settlements and peace. The only decision, for those of us more concerned with our future than our past will be for peace.
The settlers themselves will ultimately have to ask themselves where they reside, in the pages of the past or in the remaking and rebuilding of the State of Israel which will have to go beyond occupation and war.
Looking at how we dealt with the former settlers of Gaza, we must engage in a serious soul searching. There is nothing that endangers the justice of calling on West Bank settlers to come home to Israel than the way that the government has shamefully treated those settlers who already came home.
Neo-Zionism concerns itself with the people of Israel inside the State of Israel. When settlers come home we must concern ourselves with ensuring that they feel at home, that they have a place within society. The secular Left in Israel feels detached, to a large extent from the Jewishness of Israel which is perhaps why it is so difficult for them to feel empathy toward the suffering of the settlers who left Gaza.
It is a great challenge for the Israel that sees itself mainly in the context of cosmopolitan secular Western-oriented Tel Aviv to find its connection to our Jewish roots and our sense of peoplehood which goes far beyond our Israeliness. We must find and invigorate the Jewishness of Israel that takes us beyond the synagogue, prayer and halacha as interpreted by Orthodox Judaism. Yet this too is one of the major challenges of modern day Israel and a focal point for neo-Zionism.
Likewise, neo-Zionism must concern itself, now and certainly in a post-peace period even more intensively, with a new definition of Israeliness that works overtime to be inclusive to the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
President Chaim Weizmann once said that Israel would be judged by the peoples of the world by how Israel treats its Arab citizens. That could explain one of the reasons why the world is so critical of Israel. But more important than how the world judges Israel is the question of what we do to make Israel into a country where all of its citizens are proud to live, desire to take part in the building of the state, view their present with pride and their future with hope.
I cannot call myself a Zionist because those who use that term are following in the footsteps of the zealots of Masada. I am not a post-Zionist because I do believe that the Jewish people have a right to have a national homeland in the Land of Israel. I am a neo-Zionist, a proud member of the Jewish people; an Israeli patriot committed to a prophetic vision of embodied within our Declaration of Independence a believer in our future.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.