iENGAGE: A letter to President Abbas

Secretary John Kerry has opened up a small and short term window of opportunity. I expect that even if we had 30 years we still wouldn’t be able to change our past.

By DONNIEL HARTMAN
May 23, 2013 21:21
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, May 23, 2013.

Abbas and Kerry meet in Ramallah 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Dear President Abbas,

The new administration in Washington has brought to our neighborhood a secretary of state who has not yet given up on the possibilities of progress in bringing our conflict to a peaceful and just end. It seems, as well, that President Obama, while facing numerous challenges both on the home and international fronts, is willing to expend some political capital in trying to help us help ourselves. What you may not know is that many Israelis are counting on you to help waste this opportunity and contribute your share in reinstating the status quo of Obama's first-term hands-off policy.

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One of the difficult things about living in the Middle East, as you undoubtedly know all too well, is that we never really get what we want. We don’t get to shape the conditions of the starting position, who is at the starting position, or even when it really starts. As an area with so rich and troubling a history, an area contested over the millennia by so many peoples, religions and nations, we inherit the starting position and the players involved, both on our side, as well as on our opponents’.

As an Israeli and as a Jew, I love Israel, and I am quite partial to its needs. I am fully aware, however, that you could very easily imagine a starting position and an environment in which we either are not here or, if we are present, it is in a very different and diminished capacity. The significant question we all face is not whether we would choose the conditions under which we find ourselves, but what we do about them.

The Middle East is steeped in history, and we all inherit extensive and complex memories.

The strange and frustrating thing about history is that despite its profound impact on who we are, its content is very often forced upon us. My father used to love to say that he had been in therapy for 30 years, and his mother still hadn’t changed.

We don’t have 30 more years to engage in self-reflective therapy.



Secretary John Kerry has opened up a small and short term window of opportunity. I expect that even if we had 30 years we still wouldn’t be able to change our past.

No one can forget his past or the core narratives that have shaped who he is and how he sees the world. We can, however, choose how to use these narratives in writing a different future for ourselves. I am writing to you because I deeply yearn for our two peoples to make this choice and to stop living a fantasy that the status quo somehow plays in one of our favors.

In Israel, the going narrative, which serves the “status quoists,” is that you are not a serious peace partner. I call it the “Olmert Syndrome”: “If Mahmoud Abbas turned down even Ehud Olmert’s offer, then there is no offer that could be put on the table which he will accept.”

I am sure that you have a slightly different take on that scenario. As in all cases, the facts are the most difficult to ascertain.

What I do know, however, is that the consequences of the Olmert Syndrome are the creation of an Israeli narrative that is profoundly self-serving and self-congratulatory and an environment in which we Israelis are exempt from self reflection and self-evaluation with regard to the actions we must take and the policies that we have already put into place.

I am frustrated by this, and I assume you are as well. Anytime I encounter self-laudatory narratives which magically put the entire onus on the other side, I know something is wrong. As people with a deep religious sensibility, people who believe in a transcendent God who demands that we be more, do more, and when we fail, redouble our efforts, self laudatory language is supposed to be alien to us.

I am writing with a simple request and prayer: Take a chance. I know that you and I look at the present through very different eyes, and while there is always an abundance of blame to go around, and we may disagree on how it should be apportioned, and on whose shoulders it rests, I have come to a place in my life in which I realize it doesn’t really matter anymore.

I cannot change the past. I can, however, recognize that your sense of the past is different from mine. You also cannot change the past, but maybe you, too, can recognize that mine has its own coherent narrative as well. When we understand this, and deeply internalize it, we don’t forget our particular histories, but we realize that part of the process of moving forward with others is that we ask ourselves not only whence we both have come, but where we both want to go.

I am sure that you have a bagful of frustrations toward Israel and have a store full of arguments to make your case. There is one thing, however, that I know: Regardless of our policies – right or wrong – no Israeli will turn his back on someone who is willing to shape a better future for us all.

I am writing to ask you to be such a person. I am not asking for unilateral concessions on your part, or for you to shoulder any blame. I am writing to ask you to help shift the focus from yesterday to today and possibly to tomorrow.

We can meet Secretary Kerry and bring him into our respective pasts, asking him to somehow serve as a judge who will allot reparations for yesterday and awards for who is the greatest victim. Or we can meet Secretary Kerry and ask him to be a friend who helps us envision a new future. Who knows? You may even find that this may be the most effective tool to correct some of the injustices of the past.

We live in a complicated and difficult part of the world, in which the past is all too often not merely a foundation for our existence or an anchor for the present but a chain which brings us all down. President Abu Mazen, cut the chain. If you do so, you will find that Israelis will have done so at the same time.

The paradox of our conflict is that we have become so much alike. We watch each other carefully and take our cues from every nuance and subtlety that we pick up. For too long this symbiotic relationship has been destructive.

Before we can separate from each other in a manner which is just, in accordance with both of our legitimate rights, we need to use that symbiotic relationship to inspire each other. We don’t need gestures from each other in order to placate hurt feelings from the past, but rather significant parallel moves which in the context of our symbiotic relationship will motivate each other and generate movement in a new direction.

We didn’t pick each other as neighbors, but we do find each other at the starting line.

That line can either signify yet another beginning of a competition, another chapter in our no-win conflict, or a line which delineates the tragic past from a hopeful future. I and most Israelis look forward to meeting you as a partner in this future.

Sincerely yours,

Donniel Hartman Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the institute’s iENGAGE Project – iengage.org.il


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