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From Peace to Justice

Despite what outsiders may think, most Israelis and Zionists genuinely long for peace. But peace alone was never going to be enough to end the conflict.

4 min read
Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat in a living room, with Bill Clinton reading a paper
Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 1999

This post is available in French here.

Right now, most Israelis are in full-fledged war mode. There is no holding back: people on the Israeli right are calling for outright ethnic cleansing and genocide in Gaza; those on the center and left say that civilian deaths are unfortunate but inevitable.

But it wasn't always like this. Here I want to share about how central the concept of peace is for many Israelis and Zionists, and why peace alone has not been nor will be enough to end the conflict.

When I lived in Israel, I was a “progressive” Zionist, and I was largely surrounded by progressive Zionists who had moved from Europe, the United States, and Latin America. We were secular, we were against settlements, we despised Netanyahu, and we wanted “peace in the Middle East”.

When I say we wanted peace in the Middle East, I mean that it was a central part of our political identities: we studied Middle Eastern studies, volunteered in refugee camps in Jenin or Nablus, or worked on “peace programs”. We looked back at Yitzhak Rabin as a hero and a peacemaker.

The Israelis around us had just lived through the second intifada and, unsurprisingly, weren’t as optimistic as we were. Still, any conversation about the conflict made clear that they, too, were longing for peace. This was definitely not the case for all of Israel. Plenty of Israelis thought that peaceful cohabitation with “Arabs” was some idealistic dream and some, of course, didn't even want it. But we, on the progressive end, genuinely wanted to see a peace agreement. At the time, the two-state solution was still viable (or so it seemed) and there were still sporadic peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, giving us hope that peace was possible.

In the midst of Israel's continuous colonization of the West Bank, brutalization of Palestinians, or isolation of Gaza, our self-proclaimed love for peace may have seemed cynical or inauthentic. But it wasn't—we genuinely wanted it. But I now realize that simply wanting peace was never going to be enough. The issue was, and still is, that progressive Zionism never centered justice—it never challenged us to reckon with past injustices inflicted on Palestinians nor did it push us to seek solutions that gave Palestinians genuine self-determination.

This is not an exaggeration. One of the catchy one-liners I'd hear in Israel was “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, referring to how the Palestinian leadership supposedly turns down all peace proposals. I’d also hear things like “Palestinians say they want peace, but they can never have enough”, meaning that they ask for way too much. To this day, these remain some of the most common Israeli talking points.

But we never ask: what were in these peace proposals we claim Palestinians rejected? Were the offers on the table just to Palestinians? Did they allocate land and resources equitably? Did they grant Palestinians real self-determination?

The Palestinians' rejection of the UN Partition Plan of 1947 is often pointed to as the best example of Palestinian “rejectionism”. But we never put ourselves in the shoes of Palestinians who saw the Jewish population grow from 90,000 to 630,000 in just 30 years, and then be offered 56% of the territory of Mandatory Palestine—even though they made up just 30% of the population. I don't think anyone would consider this a just proposal.

Fifty years later, Yasser Arafat's rejection of the peace plan at Camp David in 2000 supposedly showed, once again, that Palestinians were unwilling to compromise. But, similarly, when we look more closely at what happened, the proposal was anything but just. When they signed the Oslo Accords five years earlier, Palestinians had already accepted that any Palestinian state would only cover 22% of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. But the proposal put forth by Ehud Barak at Camp David offered less than a state, with no control over its own borders and a territory fragmented by large settlement blocks. It also offered less than the 22% agreed upon in the Oslo Accords, with a humiliating 9-to-1 territorial exchange: Israel would annex 9% of the West Bank while the Palestinians would receive the equivalent of 1% of the West Bank area in Israeli land. In fact, the Israeli government was keenly aware that its offer was preposterous, and went back to Palestinians with far more realistic proposals just months later at the Taba summit. The negotiations were looking a lot more promising then, until the Israeli elections of 2001 when a new right wing government was elected and Israel withdrew from the peace talks. Blaming Palestinians for rejecting Ehud Barak's offer means demanding that Palestinians accept any peace deal, no matter how unjust the offer is—it is ignoring the very idea of justice.

And indeed, when I was younger, justice was not a part of my vocabulary. Like my Zionist friends and relatives, it wasn't something I thought about. Our calls for peace were a response to violence: we wanted violence to end because our loved ones were dying, and for some of us because we thought Palestinians too deserved peace. But calling for peace was a shallow response to violence: it never required us to think deeply about what triggered the violence in the first place—about the historical and present injustices that underpin it all.

This is blatant when looking at the speeches of Yitzhak Rabin, the hero of the Israeli left and Israel's last peacemaker. From his speech at the signing of the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat by his side to his last speech at a peace rally, just minutes before getting murdered, his focus was squarely on the safety of Israelis and on ending violence. He never mentioned, not even once, the historical or present injustices inflicted on Palestinians, or the need to redress them. When Rabin and Israeli leaders before and after him pursued peace, achieving justice for Palestinians—ensuring that a peace deal gave them real self-determination and took decades of injustices into account—was never a priority.

For years, I believed that Israel held the moral high ground. It was Israel that explicitly called for peace, pursued a peace agreement, made peace proposals. But this pursuit of peace wasn't just self-interested—seeking to address the violence that Israelis face and achieve safety for Israelis—it also negated justice: Israel's vision for peace ignored the needs of Palestinians, erased their aspiration for freedom, dignity, and self-determination. Only when justice for Palestinians becomes an integral part of Israel's thinking will a genuine path toward peace open up.

If you resonate with some things in this post, think I misrepresented historical events, or have any other feedback, I'd love to hear from you! Email me at