It would be easy to throw up one’s hands in despair about prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal anytime soon. Most of the news is negative except that Israeli pollsters say the vast majority of Israelis dearly want peace and accept the principle of a two-state solution, but few expect it to happen soon.
Mahmud Abbas does not sound of late like the peace-partner Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres believe him to be. In a major speech last week, for example, President Abbas made no mention of the necessity of a two-state solution and the land-for-peace formula. Instead, he called on the Palestinians to continue their struggle and he pointed to Hajj Amin al-Husseini as a memorable past Palestinian leader. Al-Husseini was in alliance with Hitler during WWII and developed plans to build an “Auschwitz” in the West Bank.
I understand why Abbas has turned to more extreme rhetoric, to counteract the ascendency of Hamas. But his doing so is a tragedy. I had hoped that after his successful UN bid he would take the opportunity to drop his preconditions and sit down with Netanyahu to negotiate an end-of-conflict solution. It is exceptionally disheartening that he did not do so.
On the other hand, Israel’s election campaign has given voice to the most extreme elements in Israeli society and politics. Naftali Bennet and his new “Jewish Home” party has called for the unilateral annexation of 40% of the West Bank into Israel, and polls indicate that he would attain between 16 and 18 mandates in the next Knesset. Likud’s Moshe Feiglin, representing the extreme wing of Netanyahu’s party, has called for the unilateral annexation of the West Bank and suggested that Israel pay each Palestinian family $500,000 to leave their homes and go to another country. The growth of the right-wing settler movement combined with the ultra-Orthodox religious parties will likely pull Netanyahu further to the right, which will make achieving a two-state solution even more difficult in the next Knesset.
Both sides are frustrated, afraid of losing face and are digging in their heels. Palestinians see Israeli intransigence, continued occupation and a denial of their human rights and a state of their own as intolerable. Israelis fear the radicalization of the Palestinians and Hamas’ potential overthrow of the PA and endless terror and war, and they worry further that the “Arab Spring” will continue its hostility to Israel. And, last but certainly not least, they regard Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as a mortal threat.
And then there are those of us in Israel and America who believe that the only solution that preserves Israel’s Jewish majority and democratic character, while being the best guarantor for the Jewish state’s long-term security and improved international standing as a progressive nation is the two-state solution.
I asked recently an Israeli friend whether he feels despair given the current trends and he said, “John, in Israel despair is not an option.”
In difficult times as these I find it worthwhile to look to history for wisdom and hope, whose ark often swings from one extreme to another. With this perspective, it is remarkable indeed that our own American founding fathers created the constitutional democracy that we have today, that the allies defeated the Nazis, that in their place emerged a new Germany and eventually a strong European Union, that the State of Israel was created at all, that the Berlin Wall fell and soon thereafter the Soviet Union crumbled, that peace came to Northern Ireland, and that an African American was elected twice as President of the United States.
History holds many surprises, and I hope that the next big one is peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught: “Remember: Things can go from the very worst to the very best…in just the blink of an eye.”
And Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we recall this week, said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
I wish the Israelis well in their election next week. Should Prime Minister Netanyahu form a new government, as he is expected to do, I pray that he commit himself to find a way to work hard for peace between Israel and Palestinians in a two-state end-of-conflict solution.
From here, thousands of miles away, we American Jews have the duty, I believe, to do everything we can to support that effort by persuading President Obama and the United States to engage aggressively and soon to help the Israelis and Palestinians achieve an agreement that addresses the yearnings of both peoples for dignity, security, justice, and peace.
None of this will be easy, but as my Israeli friend reminded me, “In Israel despair is not an option.”