Dear Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ihan Omar: When You Visit Israel, Speak Also to Israelis | Opinion

Dear Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar,

I understand you plan to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories later this month. Thankfully, Prime Minister Netanyahu made the correct decision (in my opinion) and waived our self-destructive anti-boycott laws, in order to allow your visit. That being said, it is my hope you intend to use this visit to genuinely gather information and learn, as is done during most Congressional visits anywhere in the worldn, and not merely as an attempt to stir up your base.

Your itinerary likely includes significant time in the Palestinian territories, where you will find much to criticize. Any occupation that lasts more than 50 years is a terrible thing—regardless of any circumstances or intentions at the start. There is no way to occupy people and land without violating the civil rights of those people. This fact was clear to me nearly 40 years ago, when I spent a summer doing reserve duty in Gaza.

While you are here, I hope you also make time to explore Tel Aviv and meet some of its people—like liberal politician Stav Shaffir, who shares much of your progressive agenda, but believes strongly in the State of Israel; or even more radically, meet with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who can discuss, why, despite all your criticism of Israel, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far more complicated than apportioning blame.

Rep. Tlaib, you recently tweeted, "My sidy taught me of the days where everyone lived side-by-side, in peace & that is what I will fight for." You are right. Indeed Arabs and Jews have lived together side-by-side in peace—as they do today in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and in other places. But, the narrative of the conflict is complicated and is often the story of one side that was willing to compromise, while the other has been consistently unwilling to do so.

At the time of the 1936 Arab Riots, the Jews were willing to accept a mini-state, while the Arabs of Palestine rejected that plan. In 1947, after careful deliberation, a commission concluded the only viable resolution to the conflicting claims of Arab and Jews was a partition, the UN adopted its Partition Plan. The Jews accepted the proposal, while the Arabs rejected that plan and vowed war. In that war, referred to by Palestinians as the "Nakbah" (literally, "the disaster"), over 600,000 people became refugees, which is indeed tragic.

It is important to note that during the same year the UN passed its Partition Plan for Palestine, the Indian Sub-continent was partitioned into India and Pakistan. As a result, over 14 million people became refugees, all of whom were resettled in either Pakistan or India.

In 1967, in a war that Israel did not want, it found itself in control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. After the war, Israel would have been more than happy to withdraw from all of the territories it captured (except for the Old City of Jerusalem) in return for peace—but no one was willing to make peace with Israel.

When the first Arab leader, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, agreed to make full peace with Israel, Israel withdrew completely from Sinai. Tragically, Sadat paid for making peace with his life. When the PLO agreed to give up its armed struggle, in exchange for a gradual return of control over Gaza and the West Bank, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed. As a result, the Palestinian Authority was born, and with it, limited sovereignty for some of the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. Rabin also paid for the steps he took toward peace with his life, at the hands of an Israeli who was against giving up any territory.

A few years later, when Ehud Barak served as Prime Minister, he too wanted to bring a total end to the conflict and reach a final peace agreement. If you meet him, he will no doubt tell you what he told me a few months ago, that it did not make any difference what he offered (which at the time was 95 percent of the West Bank), Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was simply not willing to make peace and end the conflict at that time. After being blamed for the breakdown in that peace process, Arafat destroyed the Israeli peace camp, by unleashing a wave of terror that killed Israelis on buses, in shopping malls, and restaurants throughout Israel. In total, 1,137 Israelis died in that wave of terror between 2000 and 2005 almost 80 percent of them civilians. The sight of buses, cafeterias, and restaurants being blown up convinced many Israelis that peace was not attainable. During that same period 3,135 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, also including many civilians.

If you are in Tel Aviv, you can also ask former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about his attempt at reaching a peace agreement in 2008. He never received an answer from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

All of this is not to suggest we Israelis are blameless in hindering a peace agreement. We also have extremists, some of whom are in our government, who believe that holding on to all of the Land of Israel is more important than reaching peace. They have established settlements in locations that would make an independent Palestinian State more difficult to establish. Yet, if Israelis believed there was a real chance of peace, those extremists would quickly be marginalized.
There is nothing black and white about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; it is a struggle with many shades of grey. If you return from your trip with recognition of that alone, then your trip will have been invaluable.

Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, you are younger than me, and perhaps a little more optimistic. I also wish to see the occupation come to an end, but I do not see the path to make that happen. As I stated at the beginning of my letter, I know how corrosive and unhealthy occupying other people can be.

If you really want to end the occupation, you will do two things during your visit: First, learn about all sides of the struggle. Second, seek out and find young, dynamic Palestinian leaders who can come forth and help end the conflict. If a Palestinian leader has the courage of Sadat and would be willing to go to the Knesset and say—No More War, No More Conflict. We accept the partition of the land into a Jewish State and Arab State (as the UN plans stated), and all of the refugees will be resettled into the Arab States—the conflict would end, and with it, the occupation.

Most Israelis do not want to occupy another people. They simply do not know how to end the occupation, without endangering their lives and the lives of their children. Reps. Omar and Tlaib, you are charismatic leaders. Use your charisma to achieve good, as opposed to scoring political points that will neither alleviate the suffering nor end our conflict.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​