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Shlomo Avineri on Israel and the Quest for Peace

Israel views itself as a small country engulfed by hatred and existential threats, an embattled and besieged democracy in a region replete with authoritarian and sometimes fundamentalist regimes, some of whose leaders publicly advocate its destruction. On the other hand, an increasing number of outsiders, not all of them inimical to the Jewish state, view Israel rather differently: as a military juggernaut, possessing nuclear capabilities, occupying Palestinian territories, and denying the Palestinian people independence and self-determination. Which is it? Paradoxical as it may appear, neither of the two perceptions is totally false, yet none of them represents, in isolation, an adequate picture of Middle Eastern realities and the place of Israel within them. The conundrum represented by the tension between these two perceptions is at the root of the many difficulties faced by those involved in efforts to achieve a sustainable solution to the Arab- Israel conflict, and needs to be addressed in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A failure to do so may doom such talks to the fate of the numerous previous attempts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. It wasn’t always like this. Until the 1967 Six Day War, Israel’s self- image was more or less identical with the view from outside, certainly the one prevailing among Western democracies — that of a small country threatened by its much more numerous Arab neighbors, and hence benefiting from the natural sympathy for the underdog. The fact that Israel’s immediate enemies — mainly Egypt and Syria, and, at a further remove, Iraq — were also supported by the Soviet Union (which supplied them with their huge arsenal of hundreds of attack planes and tanks), tended to bolster the view of Israel as one of “us,” with the radical nationalist Arab regimes part of “them,” the West’s nondemocratic adversaries in the Cold War. The fact that Israel’s project of nation-building was accompanied by bold social innovations, like the kibbutzim and moshavim and the powerful trade union federation of the Histadrut, endeared it to the European social-democratic left, as did the continuous hegemony of Israel’s Labor Party in the country’s politics. Read full document here.

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