The Israeli author Etgar Keret did us all a great favor in his Haaretz interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month where the Prime Minister lowered his guard and stated what he really thinks and feels about the peace process.
In the interview, Netanyahu said, "This is an insoluble conflict." He went on to explain, "Because it's not about territory. It is not that you can give up a kilometer more and solve it. The root of this conflict is an entirely different place. Until Abu Mazen recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no way to reach an agreement."
Netanyahu's statement is revealing on many levels and helps us better understand his approach to the peace process. For one, since Netanyahu does not believe there is any real chance of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, his actions must be seen through that lens. This is very similar to understanding how a previous Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, also dealt with the peace process. Like Netanyahu, Shamir did not believe there could be peace with the Palestinians, and as he revealed after he was out of office, his main goal was to obstruct and slow down any real possibility of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians.
Both Shamir and Netanyahu have a basic distrust of Arabs when it comes to Israel. Shamir's view of Arabs was influenced by the catastrophe and horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust) and particularly the murder of his parents by the Nazis. This instilled in him a belief that Jews can never again take chances on their survival. A strong influence on Netanyahu is his father. Dr. Benzion Netanyahu, age 101, is the author of "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain," a major study of the Spanish Inquisition, which analyzed and described this very virulent strain of anti-Jewish views and murderous policy with long term implications. Related, Dr. Netanyahu has been outspoken in his clear distrust of Arabs, including in an interview he gave just two years ago to the Israeli newspaper Maariv. Writing about this influence of the older Netanyahu on his son the Prime Minister, Atlantic Magazine contributor Jeffrey Goldberg explored this dynamic last year in an article. Goldberg wrote that Benjamin Netanyahu would not be able to "look into his father's eyes" if he were to give territory to the Palestinians in a peace deal.
To dismiss the influence of the Shoah and other realities of malevolent anti-Jewish views and history on Shamir and the Netanyahus would be unfair and even irresponsible. However, by the same token, Shamir and Netanyahu have allowed themselves to be prisoners of a monolithic view of the world they live in. While there are clear dangers that Israel faces from certain quarters within the Arab and Islamic worlds, it is a failure of political leadership when immovable and petrified views become the basis for policy.
Two earlier Jewish leaders faced a similar analysis of danger when it came to challenges that the Jewish nation faced. In the Bible, we read that Moses sent 12 spies to scout out the land of Israel. They came back with reports that "it is a land that devours its inhabitants," sending terror among the people who decided it would be better to return to slavery in Egypt (Numbers 13). There were, however, two spies in that group of 12 who saw what the other 10 spies saw, but at the same time were open to see what else was there and what else was possible. They were able to see other realities and draw different conclusions. Joshua and Calev spoke up, saying that the land flowed "with milk and honey," and encouraged the people not to be afraid.
Rahm Emanuel's brother, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, writing about another insurmountable political challenge -- health care reform in the United States -- reminds us that "Losers know what they are losing, whereas winners can't exactly know what they will win since even likely projections cannot be guaranteed." He adds, "This asymmetry in the passion of winners and losers has been confirmed by the Nobel Prize -- winning research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who found that people constantly place less value on gaining something beneficial than retaining something they already have."
The Israeli Prime Minister is held captive by what is the known quantity and is unable to imagine a different outcome. This also stifles his understanding of what signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians means. He is correct when he says that this conflict is more than just about land. If it was just about land, it would be a much simpler conflict to end. His demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State (which we note was never made of the Egyptians and Jordanians) is a clear indication that this conflict goes beyond territory -- it also contains elements of different narratives and different definitions of self and perceptions and understanding of the other. These are not changed by the simple signing of a piece of paper. They will take years to address. A peace treaty is not the end game; it is the necessary first step to allow for new relationships to emerge and for those non-territorial elements of the conflict to be addressed.
Netanyahu can stay in the camp of the 10 spies and clutch a narrow, limited view and decide not to go forward. Or he can bring a more nuanced understanding to the peace process and become a true leader like Joshua, the successor of Moses.