The most frequently used word in Rosh Hashanah greetings is peace (usually accompanied by good wishes for health, happiness, prosperity, equality, solidarity and personal well being). This year, on the eve of 5776, this wish appears to be more elusive than ever before. Exactly twenty-two years after the signing of the Declaration of Principles of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993, this framework is on the brink of final dissolution — leaving Israelis, Palestinians and the international community without even the most minimal guidelines for how to proceed towards an agreement. Those who pray for peace — as do all Jews during the course of the High Holidays — should not expect it to happen on its own: each and every one should make a very special effort this year to decide precisely what they themselves intend to do to bring it about.
Individuals, as individuals, have an important role to play. Today, despite the turmoil within Israel and the uncertainty in its environs, defeatism is not really an option. It presumes that citizens are helpless in the face of powerful historical forces and that there is no room for agency in human affairs — just the opposite of the sentiments that have produced change in the past and continuously generate creativity and innovation.
The quest for peace — within Israel proper, between Israelis and Palestinians and in the region as a whole — depends to a large extent on the mindset of individual actors. The belief that it is possible, despite the persistence of complex obstacles, is the critical starting point for constructive transformation. Even the most pessimistic can internalize a proactive attitude — one which maintains that it is worth trying and that it just might be in their own hands.
The first step for individual action is engagement. For too many years, the promotion of peace has been, at best, either an abstract slogan for the uninvolved or a source of frustration for those who have tried and failed. But persistence, regardless of indifference or despair, can have an impact. Citizens may express opinions, open conversations, discuss, debate and even disagree on what has happened and what should be done next. They can — and do — sign petitions opposing intolerance, racism, violence and injustice on the one hand, and calling for new attempts to achieve a just and lasting peace on the other. Some comment on Facebook, post blogs, write opinion pieces, participate in panels and lecture. Some donate their time to help victims of violence, foster coexistence and protect the basic rights of the disadvantaged and the oppressed. And still others give money for these causes. Imagine what influence citizens could have should the small number of those already mobilized for peace were multiplied exponentially if every person, every day, took upon themselves to do one thing to further peace in the coming year.
Individuals can also bandy together to achieve this objective. Civil society groups, even in the darkest periods, have continued to press for progress in erasing prejudice at home and brokering peace with Israel’s neighbors. Civil and human rights groups — from the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem and Adalah to, yes, Breaking the Silence — relentlessly insist on safeguarding the human face of Israeli society. Women — under the umbrella of the newly formed Women Waging Peace, have come together to call for a negotiated settlement. They are joined, in different ways, by Mahsom Watch, by the veteran Women in Black and by scores of grassroots activities. Arab-Jewish initiatives still blossom (including Sikkuy, Hand-in-Hand and bi-lingual schools). People-to-people efforts abound under the most difficult of circumstances, such as Tag Meir, Gisha, Physicians for Human Rights, Ir Amim, Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh. Think tanks and organizations devoted to finding new ways to revive peace efforts are stepping up their activities — from the recently-formed Molad and Mitvim, to the Israeli Democracy Institute, the Center for Citizen Empowerment, Mad’a al-Carmel, the Geneva Initiative, Israel in Blue and White, Two Nations/One Homeland and Peace Now.
These — and many, many more — collective undertakings provide mobilization and advocacy frameworks which, while under constant (often pernicious) attack, continue to work towards tolerance at home and conflict resolution abroad. Their strength lies in the clarity of their message, in the values they convey and in the scope of their support. Citizens who claim an adherence to the attainment of peace yet shy away from the precepts of some of these groups would do well to either study their activities more closely and possibly reconsider or construct organizations which promote a durable peace in other ways.
Individual and collective citizen engagement in the cause of peace is especially effective when it has an impact on formal policies and actions. The Israeli electorate, vacillating between varying degrees of fear for security and desire for peace, segmented in the recent elections, allowing for the creation of the narrowest of governments headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. That does not mean, however, that — even if many have given up hope on seeing peace in the foreseeable future — the vast majority of the population has forfeited its aspirations on the peace front. To the contrary, a growing number are increasingly aware that the absence of accommodation between Israel and its neighbors has adversely affected Israel’s security, enhanced its isolation globally and set it on a collision course with its most dominant ally, the United States. Now that the Palestinian Authority is set to abrogate the Oslo accords — which have been repeatedly violated by all sides for years — the time has come for Israeli citizens to demand concrete government action.
In light of the failure of both the Palestinians and the Israelis to achieve a workable agreement bilaterally and the repeated inability of the international community to broker a deal, a new paradigm is needed. Its three main components are becoming increasingly evident. First, a clear trajectory has to be designed, one which sets a timeline of up to two years to achieve a negotiated accord. Second, a new substantive framework for negotiations must be formulated, based on the resolution of Palestinian-Israeli conflict within a regional context (the Arab Peace Initiative, which places the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel at the center of a new Middle East, provides such a model). And third, a viable procedure for achieving an understanding needs to be established — one which involves not only the major powers composing the Quartet, but also key Arab states. This is not beyond the realm of possibility — especially if public opinion in Israel — notably more effective in key matters on the agenda this past year than in recent memory — conveys the importance it attributes to this matter.
On the individual, collective and national levels people can make an enormous difference in making the hope for peace become a reality. On the eve of this New Year, Israelis and Jews throughout the world who care about the country should take up the challenge embedded in the song of peace: “Don’t say a day will come; bring about that day”. This coming year can be THE year of peace — but only if we make it so. So, definitely, a peaceful New Year to one and all — and a happy, healthy, just and prosperous one as well!