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July 24, 2013

Peace-Talk Blues

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/peace_talk_blues/

Photo

Itzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton
at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony,
September 1993, photo by Reuters

A different version of this article was posted on Monday at the New York Times' Latitute blog:

After three years of stalemate, a new round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is finally coming. Had I thought these talks could succeed, I'd be as happy about them as one ought to be about any prospect for peace. In fact, while being unoriginally skeptical about the chance for success in this round of talks – simply put, because the minimum the Palestinians want doesn’t meet the maximum Israel can offer – I’m still pleased by the resumption of talks. Searching for a peaceful solution is preferable to confrontation. Talks are preferable to a deadlock, and, as Prime Minister Netanyahu explained, agreeing to this attempt is “a vital and strategic interest” for Israel.

Admittedly though, there’s a certain melancholy associated with the resumption of talks, or, to be more accurate, about Israel having to go back to the same old tedious agenda of the last twenty-five years. 

The time-out in peace processing was, of course, a misfortune, as the “conflict” won't go away and solving it is as “urgent” (Secretary of State John Kerry’s words) as it always was. However, it gave Israeli society a break in which it looked at other problems – problems that it used to neglect, having been too busy with peace talks. Experienced leaders know that they can usually waste their political capital on solving one big problem. And for many long years this problem was almost always one related to war, or peace, or both. 

In the last three years, efforts were directed inwardly. The leaders didn’t have to invest all of their time on negotiations, and the Israeli public suddenly discovered that there’s life beyond the conflict. Admittedly, there was a measure of self-denial – of burying one's head in the sand – to this change of agenda. Nevertheless, there was also something very healthy about people talking about the economy, about social justice, about domestic problems, about having to deal with ultra-Orthodox non-participation in the work force and the military. Of course the Palestinian problem looms large over everything Israel does, but taking a break from it enabled the country to do a couple of other things. It also made the conversation about politics and policy more interesting, less predictable and tired. 

But now, thanks to Secretary Kerry, our boring self is back. The are-you-for-or-against-settlements is back, the are-you-for-or-against-the-two-state-solution is back, the are-you-for-or-against-painful-concessions is back as well– important questions indeed, for which the answers are all well rehearsed and rarely change. 

The last four days have demonstrated how tired and formulated the Israeli-Palestinian ritual of talks is. The American mediator having to extend his visit because of last minute difficulties; the Palestinians attempting to gain more concessions by staging a last-minute crisis; the Israeli government agreeing quietly to concessions as long as it doesn’t have to publically admit them; Palestinian rejectionists hurrying to “reject” the resumption of talks; Israeli hardliners hurrying to threaten the stability of the coalition. We’ve all been there, and there, and there, and everywhere – so many times. We – Israelis and Palestinians – are so well trained in playing our roles in this theatre of negotiations.

Had I thought the Israeli-Palestinian process is going somewhere, having a boringly repetitive discussion would be a small price to pay. But a change of the agenda doesn't just mean dullness; it might mean a missed opportunity for Israel to fix some less-yet-still important problems. The recent Israeli focus on the integration of the Ultra-Orthodox community only became possible when a large centrist party and a large right-wing party could share one coalition – with no Haredis. And this could only happen when the Palestinian issue doesn’t become a wedge issue that constantly threatens to destabilize such a coalition.

This is all gone now, at least for a while, as Israel resumes its preoccupation with, well, the occupation. And yes, there’s some impatient melancholy involved, and possibly the loss of momentum related to other important affairs. A reason to reject the idea of talks? On the contrary: this is another reason for the parties involved to not waste time, and to give Israelis and Palestinians something tangible with which to compensate for the coming months of déjà-vu. 

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