As Israel prepares to with-draw from the Gaza Strip, the question of what to do with the houses the settlers leave behind is becoming more and more contentious. Some policy makers argue that images of Palestinians dancing on the roofs of the handsome cottages vacated by the Jews would project Israeli weakness and embolden militants in the West Bank to step up their struggle. The only way to avoid this, they claim, is to destroy the houses before pulling out. Others warn that demolishing the homes would amount to a public relations disaster; that Israel cannot afford the kind of media coverage that comes with razing entire neighborhoods in one of the world’s most crowded pieces of real-estate.
The difference between these two arguments is not as significant as it seems. Both are concerned with appearances. They revolve around the question of how we might seem, instead of asking what we ought to do. For those Israelis not yet cynical enough to collapse these two concerns into each other, perhaps some ancient advice might be useful. In 425 B.C., six years into the Peloponnesian War, Sparta made Athens a peace offer. “If great enmities are ever to be really settled,” the Spartan envoys told the Athenian assembly, “we think it will be not by the system of revenge and military success, but when the more fortunate combatant waives his privileges, and, guided by gentler feelings, conquers his rival in generosity and accords peace on more moderate terms than expected.”
Generosity!? Would those crazy Spartans recommend we hand over the keys? That Prime Minister Sharon take to the podium in the Knesset and announce that the houses are a gift of good will? That, while he is at it, he pledge that Israel would finance new construction projects to replace the squalid refugee camps in Jabalia, Rafah and Khan Younis?
In fact, yes. That is exactly what they would suggest. The idea is pretty simple: A dramatic display of generosity can change the dynamics of a conflict. Generosity is so far removed from the predictable, petty, gruesome dance of blow and counterblow, that it can cause parties to stop and think. The bookkeepers of death might be forced to look up from their desks. Once such an act of generosity is performed, the Spartan envoy told the Athenians, “instead of the debt of revenge that violence must entail, [an] adversary owes a debt of generosity to be paid in kind, and is inclined by honor to stand by his agreement.”
Hopelessly naïve? Not quite. On November 19, 1977, after fighting four wars with Israel, and in spite of violent opposition at home, Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, stood before the Knesset and addressed it in Arabic. “We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security,” he told a stunned Israeli public. Years of suspicion melted away that night. Sixteen months later, Sadat, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, and President Jimmy Carter were shaking hands on the White House lawn.
On March 16, 1997, King Hussein of Jordan stepped into a small apartment in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, kneeled before a woman sitting on the floor, took her hand and begged for forgiveness. He repeated this gesture in six other residences, personally apologizing for the killing of seven Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier. “I looked in his face and I saw that he was ashamed, and he had tears in his eyes, and he was honest,” one of the mothers told the Washington Post. The tension over the incident, which had the potential to destabilize the relationship between the two countries, was dissipated. Generosity can make a difference.
Incidentally, the Athenians rejected Sparta’s offer. They had just scored a major naval victory, and did not want to quit while they were ahead. Twenty-one miserable years later, their legendary navy all but destroyed, they surrendered to Sparta on humiliating terms. The walls of their city were torn down, the fortifications of their port were destroyed, their popular assembly dissolved. Failing to be generous, it turns out, can make quite a difference as well.