Respect, compromise only way for middle east peace

This op-ed originally appeared in The Australian.

THERE are few global conflicts, few issues across the world that give rise to heated debate more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are those with vested interests and investments on both sides that attempt to draw in the undecideds.

Both sides undoubtedly believe themselves to be in the right.

It’s an easy argument to make, they’ll say, because there’s no doubting that, when push comes to shove, the truth is on their side.

Both fervent supporters of Israel and impassioned advocates for Palestinian rights and statehood spent countless hours around boardroom tables and in community meetings brainstorming campaigns, both proactive and reactive, to try to get out their message.

I can speak only from my perspective. I grew up in a Zionist household and have dedicated almost all of my school and university life to furthering the identity of Jews and the goals of Jewish peoplehood.

Entering my term of leading the Australasian Jewish student union, representing almost 10,000 Jewish university students, I have an even greater understanding of such efforts.

During the past five years I’ve spent thousands of hours theorising, criticising and engaging one of the most divisive of conflicts the world has seen.

Every way my community looks at it, though, it leads to a single conclusion: mutual respect and compromise are going to be the only way to reach a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Australia’s Zionist community is dedicated to a fair, just and peaceful end to the conflict.

While we are steadfast in our support of Israel’s right to existence and its citizens’ rights to live safe and secure lives, we also believe the same must apply to Palestinians.

While we wholeheartedly supported Operation Cast Lead as a mission needed to halt the relentless barrage of rockets on southern Israel and the smuggling of Iranian-made weapons into Gaza, we felt deep sorrow each time a non-combatant was killed.

Even though this number was higher than it should have been, military experts held up the campaign as the best example of protection of civilians in a combat zone in the history of warfare.

Further, every main Israeli party recognises a two-state solution as the only fair and just outcome to the conflict.

In Australia this week were three key Israeli politicians. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert spoke of the need to reject the old way of thinking in Israel and the necessity, for the strength of the Jewish state, to embrace the establishment of the state of Palestine side by side with Israel.

Also among them was Avi Dichter, a former Kadima minister, who challenged the sitting Likud government to study in-depth the Arab peace initiative.

It’s hard to contend, given these comments from former Israeli hardliners, that peace cannot be achieved through a shift of rhetoric from the extreme to the moderate and conciliatory. Yet one must contrast these responses to the scenes seen on Sunday night outside the Australia Israel Leadership Forum dinner.

Palestinian activists outside the event were behaving incredibly tastelessly, rioting, hurling shoes at attendees and attempting to destroy police equipment.

Among their favourite chants is one that goes: “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.”

For the uninitiated, these protesters are demanding the establishment of a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan river in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.

The parallel between this chant and the charter of Hamas, which states that its primary objective is the obliteration of the Jewish state, is startling.

This chant, these violent protests and this ethos embodied by many Palestinian supporters are also faced by many Jewish students on campus.

The demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel is unfair and inconsistent with what should be the priorities of both sides in aiming to reach a mutually beneficial solution.

It requires both communities in Australia to adopt moderate positions and together act to persuade our counterparts in the Middle East to do the same.

I believe that is the biggest hurdle we face in the conflict today, and I challenge Palestinian activists in Australia to join my community in pursuing this avenue as a path to a lasting peace for future generations.