Counterpoint: Justice - an overworked concept

Counterpoint Justice -

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, US President Barack Obama used some form of the word "justice" 23 times. Often, it made good sense - particularly when he referred to just wars. Indeed, there were times when I felt he was quoting Moses Maimonides's Laws of the Kings. It almost seemed that he was engaging in the talmudic arguments surrounding the "law of the pursuer" (Sanhedrin 74a and b), although he only gave passing thought to the restrictions imposed on preempting an intruder who has seemingly evil intent. Maimonides's guidelines are so rigid that if one cannot be certain that the pursuer's threat would mean death is imminent, should the supposed victim kill the alleged assailant, he can be charged with a capital crime. And yet it was important for the world to hear Obama, as he pointed out the complications in pursuing peace, which at times means having to employ the instruments of war. But his use of the word "justice," while ostensibly reasonable, indicated a simplicity that was not reflective of his powerful ideological manifesto. ABOUT A year ago, a song was introduced by Israeli rap singer Mook-e, which captured the imagination of many young people in the country. To me, rap music is not singing, but someone gagging - attempting to make some deep philosophical statement in a coarse rhyme. (In Hebrew, with its guttural "ayin" and "het," the rapper sounds like he is ridding himself of phlegm!) The words to Mook-e's song are: "Everyone talks about peace; no one talks about justice." While the sentiments of the words at first glance are alluring, as was the case with Obama's use of the word "justice," on close examination it is very problematic. In the Middle East, the burden of history has often presented a formidable obstacle to peace. It seems impossible to gain a common reading of the history of the conflict. Facts, events, even statistics are manipulated to "build a case" or support predetermined positions. Selective readings of history, which appear to sustain contradictory judgments on the "justice" of one cause or another, are too easily dismissed as propaganda, even if they contain elements of truth. Indeed, two courses on the Middle East conflict - one taught by a pro-Palestinian professor and one by a pro-Israeli professor - often diverge so sharply that one wonders whether the same subject matter is being discussed. Justice is a nonstarter when trying to claim that one person's narrative is more convincing or authentic than the others. For example: The security barrier is seen by Palestinians as an elemental violation of their basic human rights. From an Israeli perspective, it provides a measure of protection against suicide bombers. Justice rests on both sides of the wall. WHILE WE can forgive an Israeli rap singer for his misuse of the word "justice," we would be remiss in not pointing out to Obama that if he is intent on securing peace in the Middle East, instead of pontificating on such a lofty ideal as justice, he would be better served concentrating on the more prosaic concept of compromise. At present, there is that proverbial "window of opportunity" that is open. If one can believe what our prime minister tells us - not an easy task - that window is open for only 10 months, as he enforces a partial settlement freeze (as staged as it may seem) that could lead to meaningful compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. It would be wise for the Obama administration to coax Mahmoud Abbas to seize the moment and return to the negotiating table. There are numerous advantages in doing so - not the least being, should there be progress in the peace talks, Netanyahu could very well be forced into expanding his partial freeze. One can understand that Abbas, like Netanyahu, has his political limitations. But Israelis and Palestinians must jettison any and all preconditions. No talk of a united Jerusalem (in any case, it is de facto divided) or a return to pre-1967 borders. WHILE THERE is little question that Palestinian intransigence and internal divisions between Fatah and Hamas are major stumbling blocks on the road to peace, Israel's settlement policy is also an undeniable impediment. Unless an agreement is reached shortly, Netanyahu's resumption of settlement-building in 10 months will render a viable Palestinian state with any territorial contiguity impossible. But the settlement enterprise is not just killing the hope of peace; it is damaging Israel's democracy, as we continue to rule over another people with all the human rights and civil liberties abuses that necessarily ensue. More so, if we want to address the idea of justice, we Israelis should be asking ourselves: What justice is there in building state-of-the-art new roads on which a few hundred people a week travel to isolated settlements like Tekoa, at the expense of building a superhighway to Eilat, whose present road is one of the most dangerous in the country? Why should the amount of money poured into a few illegal outposts in the West Bank come at the expense of virtually free college tuition for every Israeli? According to Peace Now, that is what the expenditure for these settlement projects would provide. A most reliable Peace Now tells us that if we were to take into account the overall outlay of public resources to sustain the settler community, which reaches into the billions of shekels, and apply it to domestic needs, we would be able to significantly reduce the gap between the rich and poor, improve our education system (including the physical plants of our schools) and provide proper shelters for towns in the South - to mention but a few examples. WHAT IS true for Israelis is also true for Palestinians. They should not talk about justice, but compromise, for only through compromise can prosperity and progress fend off a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. Most importantly, socioeconomic growth and improvements in everyday life for the residents would be tangibly felt. In any negotiation, no side achieves all it sets out to gain. For certain, no one will be fully satisfied if negotiations concentrate on matters of justice, which inevitably lead to worn-out historical arguments that cannot be won by either partner to the negotiations. So to all those Israeli rappers who think that they possess profound insights, and to Israeli and Palestinian politicos who are mired in the insistence of proving the justice of their cause, as well as to President Obama, who is so enthralled with the notion of justice as a moral imperative, let it be known that as we begin the secular new year, peace is still the ultimate goal for the peoples of our region of the world; and it can only be realized through compromise.