Critical Currents: More goodwill, please

Critical Currents More

Rosh Hashana ushers in a period of reflection and new beginnings - this year perhaps more strikingly than in recent memory. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will resume immediately after the holidays, now with a view to completing the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel within the next two years. If these talks are going to yield the anticipated results - an imperative for Israeli sustainability, for Palestinian self-determination and for regional stability - then they must be able to overcome the obstacles that hampered progress in the past. The most daunting of these has been the absence of goodwill. If the parties do not come to the table with large doses of this missing ingredient, with a determination to reach a lasting agreement, the revived efforts will result, again, in naught. This new chance, on the eve of the new year, is also in all probability the last one to achieve the two-state goal. Israelis and Palestinians have little trust in each other and, in light of recent experience, in any peace process. They must therefore find ways, despite their ingrained and reciprocal lack of confidence, to muster the will to bring an end to the conflict. To do so, they must establish faith in their capacity to make a political settlement happen. TODAY, WITH several exceptions, the vast majority in Israel and Palestine is entrapped in a cycle of disbelief that is continuously cultivated by circumstances and capitalized on by a progression of leaders. The roots of this numbing syndrome go back decades, but they have been exacerbated by 16 years of periodic and failed negotiations. Its features are as familiar as they are debilitating. The most striking characteristic is what has come to be known as the "blame game." Every diplomatic pause, not to speak of breakdown, has been attributed by each side to the recalcitrance of the other. The collapse of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 cemented this pattern. Ever since, every missed opportunity has been followed by another, predictable, round of official recrimination. Indeed, the discourse of Israeli-Palestinian relations has become nothing short of a series of accusations immediately followed by equally vehement counterattacks. These rarely differentiate between Hamas and Fatah or between Labor, Kadima or Likud. This rhetoric, sadly, has become one of the most salient characteristics of the conflict itself. The speakfare is vocal, all too frequently vicious and, most markedly, thoroughly vilifying. The situation on the ground has always played a major role in sustaining and entrenching the popular acrimony that is the byproduct of these exchanges. Each encounter at a checkpoint serves as a reminder of the trials and tribulations of living under alien rule, just as administrative detentions, military incursions, increased poverty and blockades have become omnipresent symbols of the consequences of occupation. Every rocket attack, suicide bombing or act of incitement confirms, in turn, the depth of Palestinian culpability in Israeli eyes. Thus, sweeping distrust has congealed into an almost simplistic mind-set, which harbors enormous enmity devoid of any sense of responsibility. And without accountability the impulse for change, and therefore its likelihood, dims. Behind this by now easily identifiable rhythm of blame and counterblame lies a lethal mixture of elusive emotional factors. The most obvious are suspicion, fear, paranoia and even blind hatred, fueled by a constant barrage of verifying incidents. These further feed intransigence and cultivate its proliferation. Thus, for many Palestinians, the burden of the occupation is intimately palpable and all-encompassing. For a growing number of Israelis, it has become convenient to use persistent outbursts of violence as an alibi for collective disdain and consequent inaction. ON THE eve of the High Holy Days, however, deeper self-reflection is in order. The maintenance of this emotionally driven and retrogressive dynamic, from a Jewish as well as a universal perspective, is not only facile, it is also dangerous and dishonest. The asymmetrical nature of the conflict, protestations aside, means that Israel holds the key to its resolution. Its citizens must ask themselves directly whether they - and the leaders they have selected - have done what is necessary to achieve a different and more livable reality. In truth, to date the answer is a resounding no. For far too long, what has been lacking is the political will to end the interminable dispute that has afflicted the region and is not only unraveling its societies, but is also eating away at Israel's democratic being. The most striking example of such bad faith in recent days is the perplexing decision to publish tenders for new construction beyond the Green Line days before a settlement freeze is declared, as if the resumption of negotiations is less important than boosting what by all accounts is one of the most obvious impediments to realizing a two-state solution. Acceding to confidence-building measures is not meaningful unless it signals a modicum of goodwill. The opening of a new year should come with a conscious, reasoned decision to embark on negotiations with a new attitude, one which recognizes and builds on Israel's own centrality and capacity to bring about that peace which it states it wants and so clearly needs. It is much too early to succumb to the deleterious spiral of recent years. It is equally counterproductive to broach the possibility of a lasting agreement reluctantly and halfheartedly. Studied passivity of this sort has been the direct cause of failure in the past. It threatens to derail all prospects for a better future. Negotiations entered into in good faith must come together with the political will to make them succeed. And while such an approach cannot dispel the prevailing deep-seated mistrust (only a political accord can lay the groundwork for reconciliation down the line), it can offer an effective antidote to the mutual wariness that has clouded previous talks. The challenge for this coming year for Israelis and for Jews throughout the world is to undertake this mind shift, to not only talk peace but to exhibit the collective courage to do it. The suspension of the rhetoric of blame and its replacement with a language of responsibility offers hope that this opportunity for a negotiated settlement that can yield a comprehensive regional peace will, unlike its predecessors, bear fruit. From this perspective, for the Israeli collective, this is truly a momentous Rosh Hashana.