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Do We Have a Peace Partner?

What do we need to do in order to be able to identify a true peace partner or tipping point if it comes our way?

As the year 2012 began, Israel and the Palestinians sat down in Jordan and talked for the first time in more than a year. The discussions were prompted by a deadline from the Quartet and accompanied by relative disinterest in both Palestinian and Israeli societies. The conversation may have been substantive or merely warranting the diplomatic phrase, “fruitful.” On the one hand, the fact that we don’t know is fine, for really fruitful negotiations will never take place under the bright lights of public and journalistic scrutiny.
At the same time, real progress will only take place to the extent that Israeli and Palestinian societies are both interested in the outcome and prepared for its consequences. Lacking this, leaders on both sides will be standing too far out on the proverbial limb to be willing to take any real risks.
The majority of Israelis have become increasingly skeptical of the readiness of Palestinian society for such moves. Whether this skepticism is justified, I do not know. What I do know is that it has become the foundation upon or fig leaf behind which we, too, have become a society that talks less and less about peace and which has by and large removed it from the stage of our political policies and aspirations. Under these conditions, a future mirroring the current status quo will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his work, Kol Dodi Dofek, playing on the missed opportunity experienced in the biblical Song of Songs, when the lover knocks on his beloved’s door and instead of open arms is welcomed with, in essence, “Come back, later,” argues that our challenge as Jews is always to be ready to respond to the knock. While not speaking about a peace process, his argument is equally relevant to it. What do we need to do as a society in order to be able to identify a true peace partner or tipping point if it comes our way? Even more so, what must we do as a society in order to do everything in our power to facilitate such a moment?
May I suggest three areas which need transformation, one in the area of values, the second in language, and the third in policy.
Values: The defining feature of Jewish history was our ability to maintain our aspirations, to be a people of hope, regardless of the odds. “Next year in Jerusalem” was not merely a prayer but a value statement about how Jews look at the world and adversity. While we learned to live within realpolitik, we are a people who shape it and never succumb to it. The secret of the success of Zionism is that it tapped into this Jewish value, and the challenge we face today is that we are distancing ourselves from it. It is as if, if we cannot have peace “now,” we cannot sustain a discourse or political policy which keeps its place at the center. Af al pi sh’yitmahameah im kol ze ahakeh’ lo – "Even though he will tarry, I will still await him" – is the language we Jews use to talk about redemption. Whether it is the messiah or peace that is tarrying, we must be a people who place the value of waiting and not giving in to despair at the center of our consciousness. This ought to be one of the key features that define the Jewishness of the Jewish state.
Language: Aspirations can only be kept alive to the extent that the content of one’s aspirations are talked about and become a regular part of everyday discourse. When we were slaves we spoke about freedom; when we were oppressed we spoke about self-determination. Now that we are free and endowed with the gift of self-determination we need to cultivate a discourse around peace. This discourse must go beyond platitudes pertaining to peace, to real conversation about borders, security, settlement blocs, settler relocation, and Jerusalem. Under the guise of the argument that we should not talk about what we are willing to give, less that embolden the demands of the Palestinians, we have created an Israeli society which no longer knows what it is willing to give. Beyond a general consensus to institute a two-state solution in a time of peace, Israelis have no idea of the policies and processes they would be willing to accept to bring about such a two-state solution. Absent this discourse and clarity, our politicians lack a mandate to move forward and a roadmap to guide them.
Policy: One of the key lessons of the Zionist movement which founded our country was that the value of hope and a language about our future must be accompanied by action. As Israelis we are taught that the gift of sovereignty is the gift to shape one’s future. We need to start acting as a sovereign people and ask what we can do today which may encourage a tipping point. Ceasing settlement expansion in all areas – with the exception of the three settlement blocs and Jerusalem’s western neighborhoods – is self-evident and should be adopted by the Israeli government as an expression of our strength and not as a negotiating concession. If we are sincere in our preference for the Palestinian Authority as a partner, then we must institute policies which support it over and against Hamas, including releasing some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who do not have blood on their hands, nor who pose a security threat. In addition, we need to double and triple all efforts to enhance the viability of the Palestinian economy and its governmental institutions.
Most importantly, if we are to be a society open to the possibility of peace with the Palestinian people, we need to be a society which redoubles its commitments and policies to treat all of our citizens, Jew and non-Jew alike, with complete and total equality. All attempts and discourse aimed at undermining the standing of Israeli Palestinians not only destroys the fabric of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state but perpetuates a narrative of vilification and mistrust toward Palestinians which undercuts any horizon for peace. Only when Palestinians are treated as equals will they be able to be viewed by us as peace partners.
I don’t know if we have a peace partner. I do know that the possibility of renewed negotiations should be the source of at the very least great interest on our part. We don’t need to teach the Palestinians their responsibilities. We need to make sure that we are living up to ours. We need to make sure that we are creating a value system, a language, and a policy framework which will, if not put us back in the driver’s seat, at least transform us into a society which is both capable of hearing a “knock” of peace and responding to it. The question is not, do we have a peace partner, but are we a society which still awaits him even though he tarries?

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