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'Ring out the old, ring in the new," wrote the renowned British poet, Lord Tennyson. "Ring, happy bells, across the snow; The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true... Ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of Peace."
The year is going, and 2008 is waiting impatiently on the threshold. What does it have in store for us? For good or for bad, this will be a year of consequence that will affect our lives in years to come. It will be a year in which our leaders will have to show whether they are statesmen or just mere politicians, whether they have the guts and the ability to lead us into new pastures. It will be a year that may affect our relationship not only with our neighbors, but also with the United States, if it transpires that the solemn words of promise made by our prime minister at Annapolis were hollow and meaningless.
It is, of course, doubtful if we will have a full, detailed, end-of-conflict agreement on the table by the end of 2008, the deadline that was proposed at Annapolis. We will not, in all probability, see a sovereign Palestinian state celebrating on January 1, 2009. It will take longer than that. Even the Geneva Accord, the detailed virtual peace agreement that was hammered out by Israeli and Palestinian "peaceniks," took more than a year to negotiate. Yet a great deal can be achieved in one year, provided that there is willingness and leadership on both sides.
Two weeks ago I had a long conversation with one of the most senior, and the most intelligent, of the Palestinian politicians, whose name I prefer not to mention. He had this to say: "You Israelis are sabotaging the two-state solution. As long as no steps are taken 'on the ground,' there will be no trust and no hope, and we can't succeed in making peace without them. If we have a political horizon, all Palestinians will be motivated to make peace. Today the political horizon that we have is Baruch Marzel in Hebron, and new buildings going up daily in settlements. If the negotiations with you give us hope for peace, we will have new elections, which will bring a big victory for Fatah and for all Palestinians who want peace with Israel."
The latest round of negotiations this week had very little to show. It was over-shadowed by the decision to build new homes in Har Homa and the continued building in settlements elsewhere. The only change "on the ground" has been an increase in the number of roadblocks - the latest figures of the UN have it that we currently have 562 roadblocks in Judea and Samaria! Hardly a figure to evoke hope, trust, or a political horizon. In the Defense Ministry, it should be noted, there is a growing feeling that a large number of them could be taken down without any harm being done to security considerations, but the powerful settler lobby, backed by certain high echelons in the army, has so far prevented any such action being taken, despite repeated promises that the number would be reduced.
Promises that are not kept, misleading statements, falsehoods and outright lies are not taken very kindly in the US. How many times have we promised to remove illegal outposts, or to enable greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians? We are now also committed to halt building in the settlements, yet building is continuing apace.
We are about to receive US President George W. Bush in Jerusalem, the same president who broke off all contact with Yasser Arafat because, he said, Arafat was reneging on his promises and lying. Prime Minister Olmert will doubtlessly explain to him the danger of his coalition collapsing if he implemented all that he had promised. That excuse, however, will not hold indefinitely. The Americans will eventually demand that we deliver what we had pledged to do, and that includes moving the Annapolis process forward in meaningful negotiations, not of the kind that took place this week.
It does, of course, take two to tango. The Palestinians have their commitments, too. Yet as long as subjects like Har Homa and the settlement building dominate the negotiations, the onus of not progressing will be on us.
It has been expressed, even on the pages of The Jerusalem Post, that we should behave like a sovereign country and not kowtow to every demand the Americans make to us. That is, of course, true. A sovereign country, however, should not give assurances to its friends and allies that it has no intention of keeping. We have, over the years, received invaluable help from the Americans - billions of dollars in aid, airlifts of arms in time of need such as during the Yom Kippur War, diplomatic support such as the repeated use of a veto in the UN Security Council even when it was not convenient for the Americans to do so; in short, American help and friendship have been a life-saver for the State of Israel, and her continued support is vital for us.
We should not take this help for granted. It is not automatically due to us by right. It was not always given to us. A new president will be elected in the coming year. He, or she, will be greatly influenced by our performance during 2008. There is already whispering in Washington that friendship with Israel is to the detriment of US interests. In a recent article, for example, Scott Ritter, the former UN arms inspector in Iraq, wrote: With what Israel is doing to "its ostensible best friend," it is "perhaps time for the US to reconsider its decades-old policy of strategic partnership with Israel."
The Americans feel that they have "earned" the right to influence our foreign policy, and if that policy is not to their liking, to tell us so in plain language. We don't like it? We feel it impinges on our sovereignty? Fine, we can always say to them that we can manage without the large aid package we receive from them every year.
In 2008 we shall have to quit stalling. If we are serious about reaching an agreement, we shall have to negotiate through secret channels - Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in parallel to the open diplomacy of Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei - and we shall have to show creative thinking by changing the reality on the ground without endangering security.
Above all, we shall have to be honest about implementing what we had promised to do. As Lord Tennyson said, "Ring out the false, ring in the true."