A new breeze of hope

You might hear it argued that there is no partner for peace. This has become the pro forma response of the Netanyahu government in relation to the Palestinians.

June 2, 2013 22:43
4 minute read.
President Peres and PA President Abbas at the UN Headquarters in NYC, September 27, 2008.

Abbas and Peres at the UN 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Evan Schneider/UN Photo/Handout)

We need to stop distracting ourselves.

It has become unfashionable to talk about what Israelis have referred to euphemistically since the second intifada as “the situation.”

Israelis are tired of dealing with what seems to be a hopeless regional situation, and a depressingly endless and apparently intractable conflict with our Palestinian neighbors.

Indeed, the previous election was in many ways correctly focused on domestic issues. The economy, the budget and social services are undoubtedly crucial issues for the Israeli public. But these domestic issues have begun to serve as a distraction from the more long-term, slow-burning challenges that confront us. It is time to begin addressing these.

The key challenge confronting us, of course, is what none other than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself called “a durable peace.” There is a pervasive sense, in Israel and around the world, the “there is no partner for peace.” A sense that peace is an impossible dream.

There may be good reasons to be skeptical about peace. Palestinian leaders have often let us down. The Arab world’s leaders have brought us seemingly unending conflict. Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. The pro-Palestinian and “human rights” community worldwide have, since the Durban Conference, embarked on a policy of “delegitimizing” Israel (which is code for destroying the nation-state of the Jewish people.) But there are also hopeful signs. The Arab Spring has opened up new matrices in regional geopolitics, even as it has posed new challenges and brought new disappointments. Witness, for example, the difficult situation in which Hezbollah finds itself, now that its patron and ally, the Assad regime, is losing its grip on power.

Perhaps most promisingly, the Arab Peace Initiative has been ratified twice since it was initially proposed, and Arab foreign ministers recently softened their stance on borders, accepting the principle of land swaps around the 1967 Green Line. There is most certainly a strategic interest among Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, because the greater regional enemy is a potentially nuclear Iran.

Given these developments, I am pleased to chair the new Knesset Caucus on Resolving the Arab-Israeli Conflict which we launched at the Knesset last week. I envisage that this new caucus will help bring Israel into closer dialogue with our neighbors, and forge a new path to explore opportunities for, and hopefully make, peace with them.

At the launch, we were honored to host the Northern Ireland Assembly’s former Speaker, and current member of the House of Lords, John Thomas Alderdice. He pointed out that the Northern Ireland conflict was once regarded, in the same breath as our conflict, as “intractable.” The two sides there once believed that there was “no partner for peace.” Hopes for an agreement rose and fell, and cycles of violence ebbed and flowed, leading to an ongoing crisis of trust.

No doubt there are significant distinctions between the conflicts. But Lord Alderdice’s recounting of the history of their peace process, and the lessons he learned from it, are striking in their applicability here.

It will always be more unpopular to speak of peace than to trot out nationalist slogans. Our enemies seem to keep proving, time and time again, that they are not to be trusted.

But these are truisms. We will always find reasons to distrust our enemies. And we can always be assured of having no partner for peace if that is what we want.

“Trust is not a prerequisite of a peace process,” Lord Alderdice told us in the Knesset last week. “It is an outcome.”

We cannot be assured of that outcome, but we have an obligation to pursue it, no matter how violent our enemies may be and no matter how “intractable” the conflict may seem. As we are told in Pirkei Avot (2:21), “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

You might hear it argued that there is no partner for peace. This has become the pro forma response of the Netanyahu government in relation to the Palestinians.

While the Palestinians and the Arabs may not have done much to earn our trust, we must take responsibility for our own omissions. To wit: Israel has issued no response to the Arab Peace Initiative, even after the Arab League relaxed its position on borders. None – we have not said yes, no, maybe, or “let’s talk about it.”

The Arab Peace Initiative may come to naught, but we have left it sitting on the table for the better part of a decade, without even the most formal of responses. I regard this as a significant failure on our part.

While we pursue our domestic discourse about sharing the economic burden and the military burden, we can and must also pursue every opportunity to make peace with our neighbors.

We have many reasons to doubt – too many. But there are also very real reasons to be hopeful right now. Let us seize this opportunity.

The writer is a member of Knesset, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, chairman of the Knesset Caucus on Resolving the Arab- Israeli Conflict, and secretary-general of the Labor Party.

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