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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel this week marked a "Day without Car Crashes." The intentions were good but it unfortunately did not manage to live up to its name. The activists wearing T-shirts bearing the date of the campaign "24/7" raised public awareness of the issue, which in itself probably saved lives, but two people were killed and almost 150 injured on that single day. Like all those Band-Aid-style concerts promoting greater consciousness of social issues - the Darfur refugees being the flavor of the month - one was left with the feeling that this was a plaster on a bleeding wound requiring major surgery rather than simple attention. Still, if just one less life is lost, it means everything to that one person, his friends and family.
While the date of the road-safety campaign was chosen for its around-the-clock connotation, it quite appropriately fell on the Hebrew date of the ninth of Av (Tisha Be'av), the date marking the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the latter falling, it is said, because of "baseless hatred." Road accidents, after all, don't just happen: Something - and more often someone - causes them, be it a lack of basic courtesy, a moment of inattention when it seems more important to reach for the mobile phone/radio tuner/pack of cigarettes or some other distraction or being in such a rush that drivers risk not arriving at all.
Tisha Be'av is barely marked in the Diaspora and here, too, is largely the province of the religious public. But, naturally, the day of commemoration for temples destroyed more than 2,000 years ago is felt here even by those who don't fast or read Lamentations or stick by all the codes of behavior for mourners. I say "naturally" for only in Israel would the radio broadcast quiet songs and forgo commercials so as not to affront the spirit of the day with tacky adverts for those consumer items considered essential to modern life - a car (however lethal), a mortgage (however draining) or even a summer special on plastic surgery. There are plenty of ancient temples around the world, but their ruin, while a cultural or historical loss, is not mourned two millennia later like the destruction of The Temples, with two capital Ts.
The centrality of Jerusalem was hard to escape this week. Although, as broadcaster Yaron Dekel noted, there was something ironic in the way the media coverage of the general strike focused on the impact of the closure of Ben-Gurion Airport, and it seemed everyone knew someone struggling to get away from it all for a few days abroad (Roman ruins, Turkish delights, rainswept Britain), nonetheless, the world seemed to land on our doorstep. Quartet envoy Tony Blair led the way, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdelelah al-Khatib, close behind.
All roads led to Jerusalem. Blair seemed to be following the road map to get there, while the Egyptian and Jordanian ministers - members of Arab League countries - seemed to be checking possible routes for the Arab peace plan, a.k.a. the Saudi peace plan.
The foreign emissaries - as aware as the road safety campaigners that poor infrastructure is a major cause of accidents - came to set down the basic foundations. The former British prime minister made it clear that his current mandate is to facilitate reform, economic development and institution-building in the Palestinian Authority. The work of the foot soldiers of peace is pedestrian for all their talk of creative solutions.
The radical path - involving Hamas as some British lords have reportedly been advocating - is unlikely to be the route to stability. Look at Hamas's supporters and partners in crime. The Syrian military is on a spending spree, while Iran is reportedly offering it $1 billion in aid not to negotiate with Israel. (This led at least one Jerusalemite to suggest that Israel match that sum not to negotiate with it and leave the northern border where it is - especially as Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is threatening that his gunmen can reach "any corner" of Israel, including Tel Aviv.) Together they threaten future vacation plans far more than any Histadrut strike.
The landslide victory this week of the Islamic-rooted AKP party in Turkey is also being seen by some as hazard lights on the diplomatic highway, although the official response in Jerusalem is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can continue on his middle-of-the-road course and shuttle if necessary between Jerusalem and Damascus.
Even a small step in the direction of peace talks could be significant for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been perceived as losing his way in the wake of last summer's war.
Olmert declared midweek that he plans to enter negotiations with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"There is a chance that in the near future contacts with the Palestinians will develop into talks which will concretely deal with the establishment of a Palestinian state," he said after a working lunch meeting with President Shimon Peres. "I am not saying that there are no risks and that the problems have ended, but I want a political process."
Peres's new home on Jerusalem's Rehov Hanassi was definitely the "in" place to be. While the lawyers of the previous resident, Moshe Katsav, had yet another day in court on his behalf, Beit Hanassi was hosting one policymaker after another - indicative perhaps of the way that Peres might have left the Knesset but has no intention of leaving the diplomatic world.
At a press conference with Peres, Jordan's Khatib said: "We are extending a hand of peace on behalf of the whole region to you, and we hope that we will be able to create the momentum needed to resume fruitful and productive negotiations."
Egypt's foreign minister said he hoped to hear a positive response regarding the Arab peace initiative.
The road to peace is definitely a better one to be on than the road to conflict - as both Egypt and Jordan have proven in their relationship with Israel. But, road safety depends not only on how cautious the driver of the vehicle you're traveling in is but the nature of the driver heading in your direction in the opposite lane. And policymakers and ordinary citizens alike should bear in mind that speed kills - particularly on bumpy, unfamiliar terrain. Drive carefully.
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