What a Difference Two Months Makes

August 4th, 2014

By Flora Lazar, Advocacy Co-Chair, J Street Chicago

I confess that when we received the itinerary for our two-day mission, I was a bit disappointed that so much time had been allocated to meeting with Members of the Knesset. It had only been two months since the J Street Congressional Mission I participated in had convened our political allies in committee rooms there to get their view on what we as an American pro-Israel group could do to advance the prospects for peace in the region.

What a difference two months make! In May, as proponents of the two-state solution were still licking their wounds over the collapse of the Kerry initiative, the conversation among MKs still left plenty of room for ways to achieve a two-state solution, hovering as it did around the fragility of the governing coalition and the slim electoral changes needed to empower advocates of a political solution to the conflict. The population, we were assured by Members from several parties, strongly favored a two-state solution if only the politicians could get out of the way.

After several weeks of the latest round of hostilities in Gaza, discussions of a political solution to the conflict barely rose above a whisper. Only a single clear voice, MK Zehava Galon from Meretz, rose in opposition to continued military escalation. It couldn't help but remind me of the early days of the Iraq War when reliable skeptics in the U.S. Congress were few and far between and the vocabulary of political solutions succumbed to the de-humanized vocabulary of conflict management.

What I kept thinking about were the larger political questions about how Israel, three Gaza "operations" later, had found itself in the current situation and how it could achieve any more durable an outcome than its previous military encounters in the short strip of land to its south. Almost entirely absent in the sober analyses we heard about "the operation" was any sense of history or destiny.

The second day of the mission illustrated why public and political opinion are so unified right now. It went a long way in explaining why military objectives for the moment seemed to have eclipsed political solutions to the conflict and at the same time why we need, more than ever, to reverse this development.

No one watching the recent reporting on Gaza needs any reminders of the devastation the conflict has wreaked on the 1.8 million residents of this small strip of land choked off from the outside world. But without seeing the devastation - internal as well as external - in Israel as well, it is easy to underestimate the ongoing trauma the conflict visits on this society, too.

As Operation Protective Edge produces enormous internal strain in the concept of liberal Zionism, advocates of a two-state solution find themselves increasingly compelled to "take sides." In the international court of public opinion, inflamed rightly by the destruction in Gaza, Americans have no easy road to hoe. So our delegation's visit to the town of Sderot, less than a kilometer from Gaza and Soroka Medical Center, which proudly proclaims itself "the front-line hospital of the south," served as potent reminders that the failure to arrive at a political solution to the conflict claims victims whose numbers and faces may not always be as adequately represented in the horrific images reported by the media.

It can be easy to pay lip service to the right of self-defense when media reports thousands of miles away reveal casualties of unspeakable brutality in Gaza. But as we seek to find an enduring solution to the problem, we cannot forget that though Israel has a higher state of readiness for war, the terror waged by Hamas exacts a heavy toll on the country as well.

We saw it in the Sderot families for whom providing a "secure childhood" means taking them to a playground in a bunker, in the "shiva" notices you will inevitably see pasted on doorposts during a casual walk around town, in the Bedouin woman whose 3-month old baby sustained traumatic head trauma (and who lost her husband) when a Qassam rocket landed on her ramshackle home, and in the South's leading tertiary care center reduced to a fraction of its capacity by the need to shift its operation into secure facilities.

It is heartening on our return home to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak with confidence about the destruction of radical Islam's most recent source of terror - the Gaza tunnels. But as with nearly all recent attempts to root out terrorism, it seems clear that hostilities will resurface if not from tunnels, then from somewhere else, unless the two sides achieve a political solution where hope replaces desperation and nihilism, the breeding ground for groups like Hamas. Without a political solution, the conflict, as Amos Oz says, is a "lose-lose" for Israel.