Every car owner knows that you do not wash your car just before a downpour. In the Middle East, the forecast calls for partly cloudy to stormy, as the Arab Spring, contrary to the hopes it raised, has morphed from the promise of spring blossom into a rainy and depressing winter.
Last month, American Secretary of State John Kerry announced the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) and stated his intention to reach a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians within nine months (!!). This ambitious and optimistic announcement can be likened to the car owner who takes his expensive vehicle for an exterior car wash when the storm clouds have already started to unleash their soggy loads.
And why is that?
The basic underlying premise of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians is that the accord and final-status arrangements are vital – not just to allow the Jewish People in Zion to stop being occupiers, and not even just as a condition for allowing a Jewish majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. An Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is supposed to be the foundation stone upon which will be erected Israel’s acceptance by its Arab neighbors as a legitimate part of the Middle East. But who are the partners with whom we can reach an end to the conflict?
One glance at the countries bordering Israel is sufficient to answer that question with pessimistic bewilderment. In Syria and Egypt, civil wars are taking place amidst much bloodshed and uncertainty regarding the nature and the identity of their governments. Lebanon has never been a stable, independent country. Jordan is considered to be an island of stability in our region – but that is only relative to the others. And what about Iraq? Have we mentioned Iran? Nor have we discussed the fact that the Palestinian population is split between “Palestine-Gaza” and “Palestine-Ramallah” or that Abu Mazen represents less than 50% of the Palestinians. Who in today’s Middle East is capable of accepting us and coming to terms with our existence?
So if we conclude that reaching a final agreement with our Palestinian neighbors is neither realistic nor desirable at the moment – then what would be desirable?
I believe that at the present time, paradoxically, Israel and the PA have a joint interest, based to a great extent on the famous Arab proverb, “Ana wa’ahu’i ala ibn-ammi, wa ana wa ibn-ammi ala al-garib” (“My brother and I against my cousin, and my cousin and I against the stranger”). The various extremist Islamist factions are a threat to Abu Mazen and his people no less than they are to us Israelis. So we should change the focus of the peace talks from discussions about borders to discussions about living together as neighbors. In other words, because of the storms over the countries neighboring us, the time is not right for negotiations regarding a final status agreement that will define the borders of the State of Israel and a State of Palestine side by side. The negotiations must focus on how and with what tools we can weather the regional storm as best as possible. The discussions must look at ways to improve the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza (yes, in Gaza too) and to make them more respected, more comfortable, with more hope and an optimistic outlook, which will also reduce the security risks that threaten Israeli citizens from the Palestinian direction, and strengthen trust and cooperation between the two sides. No less important than the intention is the approach: this type of negotiation must be conducted with a broad vision, in a way that is respectful, committed, generous and creative.
At the heart of the joint decision to change the focus of the talks there must be an understanding that when the storm has passed and in due time, the discussions will return to border negotiations and the rest of the core issues, such as refugees, Jerusalem, natural resources and, of course, security arrangements.
My friend Dr. Yishai Ofran told me how his grandfather, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, would relate to the Coming of the Messiah. Professor Leibowitz declared that the Coming of the Messiah was always written in the future tense. “The Messiah will come” with the emphasis on “will” and on the future tense. Jews pray and work towards the Coming of the Messiah, but he always will come, at some time in the future.
I believe that in light of the regional storm in which we are currently functioning, we must relate to a permanent, final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as a kind of Coming of the Messiah. We must pray for it and work towards it, we must believe that one day it will come – but we should not be too hasty to change that to the present tense.
May we be blessed with a good New Year! Shana Tova!
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His first book, “Benartzi”, was published in 2012 by Achiasaf Publishing, and the English version was published in 2013 with the title “Son of My Land” and available on amazon.com. Sagi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org