A Narrow Bridge

The whole world is a very narrow bridge.  The important thing is not to be afraid. —Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

 Rabbi Nachman’s narrow bridge is, of course, a path we walk at all times and in all situations, but there are times we are more aware of it than others.

From the collapse of the peace talks through the Gaza conflict until now, passions are aflame on all sides.  To the left, Palestinians and their supporters call out the Israelis as murderers.  To the right, Israelis and their supporters declare that no Palestinian can be trusted.  I have friends on both sides, but I must walk between them.

Although I am appalled by the death and destruction visited upon innocent Palestinians, I cannot go along with the characterization of Israelis as murderers for actions that any nation would take if attacked.

Although I am enraged at the terrorist attacks of Hamas, I cannot condone the equation of Hamas with Palestinian moderates like Mahmoud Abbas, who condemned the actions of Hamas and worked to keep the peace in the West Bank during the conflict.

The passions on both sides seem to be working to block the path to peace, but that is the path I must walk, because I care about the survival of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and because that is the only path I see that will allow that survival.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas, having concluded that negotiations with the Israelis leading to a two-state solution will not take place any time soon, is pursuing other means.  He accuses Israel of genocide and seeks a U.N. deadline.  I wish he hadn’t made his accusation.  It is untrue and damaging to his cause, but I understand why he made it.  After his years of work for a Palestinian state through cooperation and negotiation, Israel has consistently refused to give him any sign he can show his people that his efforts are paying off.  Therefore, after the thousands of Palestinian deaths in Gaza, he had to do something to save face.  As for the deadline, no U.N. resolution can bring about a Palestinian state without the participation of Israel.  And I wish Abbas had clearly condemned the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem, although Netanyahu’s attribution of blame to him seems to me to be ill founded.

Abbas has not always shown the kind of leadership his people need and he has not always made the right decisions, but in my opinion, the major cause of the breakdown in the peace talks was the Netanyahu administration’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.  I base this conclusion on a number of factors, but largely on an article by the prominent Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, the crux of which is the following quotation from “senior American officials involved in Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace push”:  “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state.”

And while the Netanyahu administration was not willing, in my opinion, to negotiate in good faith with Abbas, it has repeatedly negotiated, albeit indirectly, with Hamas.  It did so to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit and it did so to obtain the current cease fire.  Netanyahu says he does not negotiate with terrorists, but I think his record shows that he only negotiates with terrorists.  I don’t object to his dealings with Hamas, which led to the release of an innocent kidnap victim and the cessation of hostilities, but his double standard in not dealing with Abbas with the same seriousness sends the message that terrorism pays.

Israelis and their American supporters often talk about hasbara, public relations, as if that were the problem.  In the TV series The West Wing, a movie mogul is angry at his publicist for his loss of standing and she tells him, “If the movies were unknown, I could help you, but they weren’t.  They were just bad.”

The movie is bad, and it’s the same movie every few years.  Hamas attacks Israel, Israel retaliates, people are killed, cities are destroyed.

The only way out of this cycle is a real, good-faith negotiation on both sides.  And this will only happen if the settlements stop.

The settlements were illegal from day one. There is no justification for them.  I’ve heard them defended as a negotiating tactic, but that is the kind of negotiating tactic used by a kidnapper who cuts off his victim’s fingers and sends them to his parents.  Yes, true believers defend them with arguments from the Bible and ancient history, but those arguments only convince true believers and they ignore parallel arguments made by the Palestinians.

The settlements are illegal and the U.S. government must say so.  It did say so before 1980 and it is just as true now.  The U.S. and Israel are close allies and this is as it should be.  I am grateful that my country has supplied the wherewithal for Israel to build and maintain the Iron Dome defense that has saved the lives of so many innocent Israelis.  I hope we will continue to do so.  But our close friendship doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to be played by a cynical Israeli administration that insists on continuing this policy that is so damaging to Israel, the U.S., and the world.

Those of us who walk the path of peace must make our voices heard.  We must not be discouraged or intimidated by angry voices from both sides.  We must support one another.  The important thing is not to be afraid.

About the Author
Martin J. Levine is a volunteer leader at J Street, serving on the Steering Committee of its New Jersey chapter.