Friday, March 19, 2010

Israelis and Palestinians: In Search of Peace

SPOILER ALERT: I will be exploring some of these themes and ideas in my remarks at Shabbat morning services this weekend.

The last week or so has witnessed a pretty depressing turn of events, that makes it feel like the peace process has taken a few giant steps backwards.

Have you been following the news? 

To begin....there was Vice President Biden's visit last week to Jerusalem.  Shortly after he got off the plane in Tel Aviv, word leaked out from the Israeli Interior Ministry that Israel intended to build 1600 additional housing units (for Israeli Jews) in East Jerusalem.

To appreciate the implications of this seemingly innocuous announcement, you have to know a little bit of background information.

To begin, here's the google map of Jerusalem:

Now, even if you don't know anything about the boundary disputes that have plagued peace negotiations in decades past, you can at least look at this map and notice the dashed gray line that runs sort of vertically down the right/middle part of the map.  That's the Green Line, the armistice boundary lines drawn in 1949 at the conclusion of Israel's War of Independence.  From 1949-1967, Jordan controlled everything to the east of that gray line.

In 1967, at the conclusion of the Six Day War, Israel had successfully reclaimed territory east of the line - the vast majority of which was populated by Palestinians.  Since then, Israel (or, at least, its military) has exercised various degrees of control over these "territories" - namely the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Now, depending on where one situates oneself on the Israeli political spectrum (click here for a list of the parties, their platforms, and an online tool that will help you determine where you stand on the spectrum) will determine - to a certain degree - what one's attitude is toward the West Bank.  (Gaza is mostly a non-issue at this point, given Israel's recent unilateral pullout from there.)  To what degree is Israel's security dependent on holding onto the West Bank?  To what degree does Israel have a non-security-based claim on the land?  To what degree do those non-security claims trump the rights of the Palestinians to establish an autonomous country of their own on that land?

There are no easy answers to any of those questions.  And again, how each of us answers those questions, is determined in large part but what our own political positions are.  Hence, I refer you to the aforementioned website.

At any rate, Prime Minister Netanyahu was elected, in part, because of his willingness to acknowledge that the Palestinians had a right to a state of their own.  That is certainly a position that the Israeli left has long held.  And it's one that President Bush himself famously called for and articulated (as early as the weeks immediately following 9/11).

Frustration with the Israeli government, in the current diplomatic brouhaha, stems from a seeming disconnect between their theoretical desire to support the creation of a Palestinian state, and their decision to continue building new Jewish residential communities in East Jerusalem.

(It should go without saying that there is tremendous dispute between the parties about the status of Jerusalem.  Will it be administered and "owned" as a 'unified' city solely by Israel?  Or will it be split (with the west, or predominantly Jewish, side going to Israel, and the east, or predominantly Palestinian, side going to the Palestinians)?  Again: how one answers this question will be determined, in part, by one's politics. 

But, the current diplomatic mess has resulted in friction between the parties because the Palestinians most certainly do desire a split city scenario, where East Jerusalem would serve as the capital of their newly created state.

So, thus far we have made mention of Israel, and what it has done (i.e. the ill-timed building announcement) to put the new round of Obama-sponsored peace talks in jeopardy.

Suffice it to say that Israel bears only a portion of responsibility for the current situation.

The Palestinians, of course, are to blame as well.

Where to begin?

How about the fact Palestinians continue to fail to prominently acknowledge the right of the Jewish state to exist?  That Hamas, the terrorist group/dominant political party in Gaza today (and minority party influence in the West Bank) actively calls for the destruction of the Jewish state?

How about the fact that the Palestinians - at the same moment that Israel was announcing its building of residential homes in East Jerusalem - held a ceremony honoring the terrorist who was responsible for the deadliest terror attack against Israeli civilians in Israeli history?!

And how about the fact that Israel was still theoretically prepare to enter into some kind of 'indirect' negotiations with the Palestinians at a time when the Palestinians continue to attack Jewish Israelis living in areas adjacent to Gaza by launching rocket attacks against them?  The most recent such attack occurred just a few days ago, when one innocent civilian was killed.

All of these Palestinian actions dismantle any hope of engendering the trust of the Israeli government as a new round of negotiations potentially begins.

There are some who would attempt to weigh these actions - from both sides - on some kind of scale of justice.  And from there, they would conclude who is the worse aggressor, and who is the more vulnerable victim.  And from there, they would conclude that one side has a just claim on the land, and the other doesn't.

Does that approach speak to you? 

It doesn't speak to me.  (Believe me, life would be much simpler if it did!)

But, for me, there is no solution of one side being wholly rewarded, while the other gets wholly punished.

Peace in the Land of Israel - something that I yearn for with all of my heart and soul - something that I pray for, and meditate on at length...that peace is only going to come if we can figure out some kind of approach that will allow both parties to get some of what they each want.

To figure out all of ultimately reach some kind of conclusion to this process, which has dragged on for far too long...requires that each side commit themselves to taking baby steps that will engender some kind of trust with one another.

And, as I have tried to illustrate here, both sides have done a pretty lame job of doing that in the last week or two.

Which side has been more responsible for the breakdown in trust and communication?  That's for you to determine, based on your own politics, and your own reading of what has been going down.

For me, personally, I'm not sure that the answer to that question matters. 

So what if I believe that the Palestinians have been more responsible?

Giving Israel the moral high ground...and the freedom to walk away from the negotiating table because they can't "trust" the Palestinians....from my point of view (God knows there are plenty in the Jewish community that vehemently disagree with me on this) - but from my point of view, I don't see how that's a good thing for Israel. 

Honestly, I do not believe that it is in Israel's best interest to put the final resolution of the pressing diplomatic questions (Jerusalem, status of borders, status of Palestinian 'refugees', etc.) off any longer.  Israel deserves the chance to move on with its existence, to deal with the many other pressing domestic crises that it has (issues of economics, the status of the Orthodox and the status of non-Orthodox Jews, the status of the ultra-Orthodox, etc.).  Unfortunately, it doesn't get the luxury of doing any of that, until it wraps up the issue of the Palestinians.

Wishing that this problem would just go away is not an option.

Shouldn't these guys want to at least continue talking to one another?  Laying the groundwork on some minimal level for more substantial diplomatic contact and negotiation in the future?

I've got news for you, folks.  They're not talking to one another right now.  And not just because of the various episodes on both sides in the last week or so.  It's not even clear how much they wanted to really talk to one another before everything that has happened in the last 10 days!

Praying for peace is clearly some kind of irrational fantasy right now.  So I won't go there in this forum.

But maybe you will join praying that the two sides might figure out a way to glimpse the common humanity in each other.  And, in doing so, maybe they will at least be open to the idea of talking.

Shabbat Shalom.

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