Beyond Gaza and the General Assembly

Last week, as we did almost four years ago during the 2008-9 Israel-Gaza conflict, Boston Workmen’s Circle – a 100 year-old organization committed to Jewish culture, education, and social justice — began to mobilize for a candlelight ceasefire/peace vigil if the recent hostilities didn’t end.  Thankfully, they did, at least for now.  A ceasefire was signed and a ground invasion of Gaza averted.  Hamas  pledged to halt rocket and mortar fire into Israel.  Israel agreed to forego targeted assassinations and will, in as yet undefined ways, relax the blockade on Gaza’s beleaguered population.  Still, far too many died – more than 160 Palestinians and 6 Israelis — or were injured in this relatively brief encounter.

In January 2009, at our interfaith vigil at Park Street Station in Boston, Jews, Muslims, and Christians together affirmed that a military solution to the Israel-Gaza conundrum was no solution at all.  The same truth applies today.

The inevitable question, of course, is where does it all go from here?  By all accounts, the militant Hamas organization gained a prominence it didn’t have before this iteration of the conflict.  Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi – whose Muslim Brotherhood has close ties with Hamas – was showered with accolades for piloting the ceasefire agreement.  (A day later, Morsi unilaterally assumed expanded powers, and has been met by vitriolic street demonstrations decrying the move as a shot across the bow of Egypt’s fledgling democracy.  Morsi claims it is a necessary, temporary measure.)  Meanwhile, moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank, was sidelined and even marginalized by these unfolding events.

For those of us who still hold out hope for a two-state solution – a safe and secure Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, and a viable, contiguous Palestine as a homeland for its people – what happens in the next several weeks will be key.  The Gaza conflict headlines have now given way to President Abbas’ anticipated foray to the United Nations General Assembly on November 29.  There, on the anniversary of the United Nations’ 1947 decision to end the British Mandate and adopt the partition plan to divide the land into a “Jewish State” and an “Arab State,” he will bring to a vote a proposal to declare Palestine a non-member state, delineated by the 1967 borders.

The U.S. and Israel are on record as opposing this move, asserting that negotiations and not unilateral action are the only path to peace.  But unlike in the UN Security Council, no state has veto power at the General Assembly.  If, as expected, the vote takes place on Thursday, the Palestinians will have the support of at least 150 states, and the resolution will pass.  What then?

Israel and the U.S. have threatened, among other measures, to withhold dollars from an already-fragile Palestinian Authority.  But does this make any sense?  Punish Abbas and the Palestinians for non-violently going to the U.N. and actively embracing two states, side by side in peace and security?  Won’t the changed landscape as of November 30, after four years of stalemate, more aptly present an opportunity to build rather than raze?

The foundation for two states is already there, solidly, in the Clinton parameters, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Geneva Accord, the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2007-8:  a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders; land swaps to keep major settlement blocs within Israel; a divided Jerusalem; and a very limited return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.   In the Geneva Accord, negotiated by prominent Israeli and Palestinian visionaries, even the details have been worked out.

An Israeli government that seeks Israel’s future as a secure, democratic, Jewish homeland needs to make this two-state solution work.  For Israel, there is no tenable alternative.  President Abbas has reiterated his commitment to it frequently.  Hamas – whose persistence needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with — has not, but Egypt’s president Morsi, and the other Arab states, reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative, can ensure its acquiescence if not enthusiasm.  Finally and most importantly, now is the time , if ever there was one, for the Obama administration, buttressed by the European Union and the U.N., to use its considerable leverage to see negotiations through to their successful conclusion.

The halt in hostilities in Gaza and Abbas’ move in the U.N. are precious opportunities not to be missed.

As our hearts reach out to the people of Tel Aviv and Ramallah and Sderot and Gaza City, here in Boston the goal is clear: no more vigils for peace at Park Street Station.  Instead, simply peace.

About the Author
Michael Felsen's op-eds on Israel/Palestine, American Jewish-Muslim relations, and secular humanism have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Boston Globe, The Forward, Common Ground News Service, and elsewhere around the world. He is an attorney who recently retired after four decades in government, and is a past president of the Boston chapter of Workmen’s Circle, an almost 120-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture, and social justice.