Like prickly siblings caught in a perennial power struggle – but with lethal stakes – Israelis and Palestinians are at it again. They blame us without taking responsibility for their culture of demonization and martyrdom. We blame them without acknowledging our considerable power and our extremists.
And we all know how this ever-escalating cycle will end: with more violence, more victims, more recriminations.
I know this sounds naïve, but can’t we skip the next few rounds of fighting, avoid burying more people on both sides, and go straight to trying to resolve the impasse? Do we need more babies run over, more 20-year-old soldiers from Modi’in slaughtered, more 25-year-old women being butchered? Do they need more 16-year-olds burned, more young men from Kafr Kana shot? Can’t we just stipulate, as they do in court dramas, that each side has the ability to hurt the other, to shatter families, to inflame, and move on? The time has come for bold leadership. Although I still feel much safer in Jerusalem than the headlines suggest, we need courageous, creative guidance from the top to avoid a third wave of terror.
So lead, Netanyahu, lead. Show that you are not a Chicago ward heeler interested in perpetuating power for its own sake and afraid of your coalition but that you are a national statesman willing to take risks and make history.
And lead, Abbas, lead. Show that there is a point in remaining president far after your tenure expired, try to live up to the moderate label you wear so well and violate so frequently.
And lead, Obama, lead. Shake off those midterm election doldrums and jump-start your comeback by defusing the Middle East powderkeg. Alternatively, lead, Nir Barkat, lead. Upstage the national do-nothings around you, and fight for the city you love and lead.
Someone in charge should call a sulha, a summit. Call it the Taibe Summit in honor of the unidentified Arabs who saved a Jew from a mob the other day on Route 444 by pulling him out of his burning car on the passenger side.
The Taibe Summit should start with each leader pulling a Reuven Rivlin – what we (and the world) should call a bold act of national self-criticism that risks giving the enemy delegitimizing ammunition but accurately challenges one’s own people to stretch, to grow, to do the right thing. Netanyahu, or Barkat – or someone – should say: “Yes, Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, to settle in Silwan, to move into any neighborhood in Jerusalem with as much freedom as they would have in any neighborhood in New York or London or Paris. But having rights and exercising them are not the same thing.
Just as – contrary to the general impression – no new legal settlements have been established for over a decade, no Jews will move into existing Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. It’s too incendiary and not wise (let alone unhealthy for the children in those families to live in such hostile environments – what are those parents thinking?) Similarly, Abbas should say, “Yes, Palestinians have the right to resist, but resistance is not running over little babies at bus stops or stabbing people on the streets. I am going to stop playing my little martyrology game and loudly, clearly, sincerely condemn acts of terrorism, defined as political incidents of violence directed against unarmed civilians for the purpose of scaring others.”
Once each leader has bravely faced his own extremists, his own tendency to enable and even inflame his own pyromaniacs, together they should engage in substantive behind-the-scenes negotiations with two goals.
The, first, immediate goal should be restoring Jerusalem’s status quo of just a few months ago, when the city of peace lived up to its name. The second goal should be identifying steps – not under the threat of violence – toward going from a cease-fire toward a more permanent peace. The words “toward” rather than “to” are awkward but meaningful here – acknowledging that a direction, a process, may first be necessary before some comprehensive solution.
Let’s be honest: For Palestinians, the decades-long stasis is unacceptable; they seek movement toward an improvement in their lives and a final resolution of their predicament. For Jews, the drift toward violence is equally unacceptable.
In short, we each hold the key to something the other wants. That’s when fruitful negotiations can begin.
In an ideal world, the two national leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, would lead, being as audacious as possible in a bid to make the most recent casualty the last casualty of a conflict that has gone on for too long.
Each would do whatever was necessary to assess what his nation most needs, to concede to the other side as much as possible, and work hard to control his own side’s extremists.
If these leaders can’t do what is necessary, Mayor Barkat should try at the local level and call a Jerusalem summit. And if all the local leaders are too stuck in their current futile paradigms, the president of the United States should step in. But this time, if he or his emissary John Kerry wants to make any progress, he has to stop emphasizing that “peace is just” and that “peace is necessary.”
Someone has to make the case, somehow, that “peace is possible,” explaining to Israelis how making concessions yet again won’t repeat the deadly disasters of the Oslo peace process, the Southern Lebanon withdrawal or the Gaza disengagement.
We know the steps to follow toward more terror, more violence. The time has come to pioneer a new story toward progress, even if it’s not a full peace.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Visting Professor at the IDC in Herzliya this fall. The author of eight books on American history, his most recent book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was published by Oxford University Press.