Singer and actor Yehoram Gaon is an Israeli icon. His voice has been an integral part of Israel’s soundtrack since the 1950s. His weekly radio talk show has served him as a platform for airing mainstream patriotic views, ranging between the popular and the populist.
An interview he gave last month to the popular Israeli news site Walla started with the question: “Are you optimistic?” Without hesitation, Gaon replied, “Yes, very,” and went on talking about his singing and acting being a labor of love. Toward its end, the interview took a turn toward Israeli public life. Gaon said that, in his mind, life in Israel consists of one continuous war that will never end, and that “the right thing to do is to live with this situation, and conduct ourselves in a manner that will minimize our damage. That’s all.” He concluded “I am very pessimistic, very pessimistic. I wish it [resolving the conflict] were in our hands, but it’s not.”
An interview that starts with “very optimistic” and ends with “very pessimistic” may seem odd, but for most Israelis there is nothing more natural than the combination of individual exuberance and collective melancholy.
Considering Israel’s political environment and recent past, national pessimism is unfortunately understandable, maybe even inescapable. But is there justification for hopelessness, for the quasi-fatalistic attitude that says a political settlement with the Palestinians is utterly impossible and therefore no action should be taken to advance it?
If you ask the six most recent leaders of Israel’s General Security Service (Shin Bet) — and hundreds of other senior Israeli security officials, both current and retired — they will tell you that such an attitude is disastrous. Not only because it rests on factually wrong assumptions, but also because Israel simply cannot afford to despair. If it aspires to survive as a democracy and a Jewish state, it must continue striving for a solution to its dispute with the Palestinians that is based on separation into two sovereign states.
You may have watched “The Gatekeepers,” the award-winning documentary with the six most recent Shin Bet chiefs (if you haven’t, it’s a must). I just finished reading the book, the full transcript of director Dror Moreh’s interviews with the six. The book, published in Hebrew only, is compelling. The Gatekeepers are not cut from the same political cloth. One is running for a seat on Likud’s Knesset slate. Another is trying to unite Israel’s left and center parties toward victory in the coming general elections. Yet all of them agree that a political settlement — difficult to achieve as it may be — is not only necessary but also undoubtedly feasible.
Yaakov Peri, who headed the Shin Bet during the first intifada and the years that followed, said: “I think that the vast majority of those who served — whether in the Shin Bet, Mossad, the Israeli Defense Forces, or other intelligence agencies, end up reaching the conclusion that we cannot win this conflict by intelligence or military means. There is no alternative to a political move.”
And Carmi Gillon, who headed the Shin Bet in the mid-1990s, said: “The Shin Bet, because of its constant friction with the field, knows that nothing positive for Israel can emerge from maintaining this conflict, and that [ending it] is our own interest, not a favor we’re doing to the Palestinians, but a favor we are doing to ourselves by trying to reach a settlement.”
Even Avi Dichter, who directed the Shin Bet during the second intifada and is now a Likud leader, says his optimism about ending the conflict stems from knowing both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, and knowing that they both have an interest in normal, peaceful life with the other side.
Asked what is hindering a political settlement, all six concurred that the main reason is lack of leadership — Israeli and Palestinian — “strong, authentic leadership, that talks the talk and walks the walk,” in the words of Yuval Diskin, the most recent Shin Bet chief.
In less than ten weeks, Israelis will have a chance to elect such a leadership, which may in turn prompt Palestinian leaders to seriously engage and negotiate a political settlement. It’s going to be difficult, but certainly not impossible. Israelis deserve some collective optimism.
Ori Nir is director of communications and public engagement for Americans for Peace Now. He previously covered Washington as well as Israeli-Palestinian relations for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.