Friday, September 30, 2011

Peace and Loathing in the Middle East - Erev Rosh Hashanah 2011-5772

Earlier this month, we marked the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. A few days prior, I flew to Washington DC for the Midwest Rabbis Summit hosted by AIPAC, where about 40 rabbis of all denominations heard from leading experts on events in the Middle East. On my way there, my cuticles were saved from trimming by a TSA agent who found a little Swiss Army pen knife that went missing months ago, possibly on a drive to St. Louis, and my taste buds were secured when my coffee, which I purchased on the secured side of the TSA checkpoint, was deemed safe at the gate by an agent who swabbed the top of the cup. I’m not sure if they were testing to see if it was too hot or if it was not 100% pure Colombian.

I went to Washington to hear from experts on the Middle East because so much has been going on and even more would be going on in the weeks that followed, especially during past two weeks when the United Nations General Assembly would convene. It has been a hectic month. During the week that I went to Washington DC alone, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and threatened to send Turkish warships to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the Israeli embassy in Egypt was attacked by a mob and the ambassador and embassy staff were forced to flee the country, and the Palestinian Authority president pledged to go forward in the United Nations with plans to seek a vote on statehood in spite of objections by the President of the United States and threats to cut funding by a large bi-partisan majority of members of Congress. President Abbas submitted a request for full statehood this past week, seeking recognition of a Palestinian state based not upon the pre-1967 armistice lines, but upon the 1947 partition plan, something that has gone largely ignored in the media and which would put large swaths of what is recognized as Israel within Palestinian territory.

This all is occurring on the heels of the largest protests in Israel’s history, protests about the rising cost of housing due to the continued strength of the Israeli economy, as well as in the midst of tremendous upheaval in the Arab world in general. I cannot but think of the statement purported to be a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Tonight, I will address three questions as we begin this New Year. How did we get to this point? What stands in our way? And is there any light at the end of what appears to be a very dark tunnel filled with traps and hurdles? You’ll have to wait a few minutes for the explanation, but the answer to the last question is surprisingly, “Yes.”

First, how did we get to this point?

While, this month we marked the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack, exactly eleven years ago today, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walked onto the Temple Mount, an action that he believed symbolized his right as a Jew to access the holiest of Jewish holy sites and Israel’s reasonable claim to maintain control of it. The response to this action among the Palestinian people was extreme anger.

I would argue that the primary cause of the violence which came to be called the Second Intifada, and one that remains a concern today, is that it had become clear that the full goals of the Palestinian Authority were not going to be achieved through negotiations. Israel would not concede on several major issues, could not on others, and the United States was not going to pressure Israel to do so. Many Palestinians felt that the peace process had reached its end and it had failed them. I believe that the current Palestinian leadership feels exactly this way and it is taking an increasing amount of coaxing to even get the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, a majority of those Israelis who were supportive of pressing the peace process forward abandoned the idea that the Palestinians were ready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace and security for Israel. The political landscape in Israel shifted. Political parties on the left saw support begin to erode, something that has worsened in recent years with the rise of Hamas to power in Gaza.

Israelis across most of the political spectrum believe in a two states-for-two-peoples solution, but now insist on a security-for-statehood model for achieving that goal. Experience taught them that what succeeded with Egypt was not land for peace, not Sinai for peace, but security-for-peace. The Israeli-Egyptian Peace Agreement has lasted for 32 years and though threatened today, it has provided security for Israel and peace for Egypt. Israel’s peace with Jordan did not involve the ceding of any land at all. These peace agreements continue to be great sources of hope that peace is a real possibility for Israel and the Palestinians.

What stands in the way? Here are the four main stumbling blocks today as I see them:

1. Jerusalem.

In a land-for-peace model, the issues are whether or not to divide Jerusalem at all and how to divide Jerusalem if you are going to divide it. In the Camp David accords, the sides were clearly looking at a divided Jerusalem, discussing which areas would be under Israeli control and which would be under Palestinian control. This continued to be the model at work up until 2007 when Hamas took over Gaza.

The Israelis and Palestinians were amid peace negotiations under the administration of Ehud Olmert, even having produced detailed maps of divisions of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods.

Then Hamas took over Gaza. The Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas now had to deal with three major new problems: a sizable portion of the Palestinian population was no longer under their control, Hamas threatened to take over the West Bank as well as Gaza, and popular sentiment seemed opposed to compromise with the Israelis on the major issues of the peace process.

Meanwhile, Israelis began to think more about what would happen if those neighborhoods in Jerusalem granted to the Palestinians fell under Hamas’ authority.

To name a few concerns should Hamas and other militant groups be able to operate easily within the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem: secure access to holy sites would be impossible to maintain, mortars and other simple rockets could be fired with relative ease into Jewish areas of the city, sniper fire which plagued Jewish Jerusalem prior to 1967 would once again become a serious threat and the likelihood of conflict arising that might require massive Israeli military action would be extremely high. Thus sentiment among Israelis has shifted toward maintaining a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control.

It is highly unlikely that the Palestinians would be willing to accept any agreement that does not include at least some of the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in the Palestinian state.

2. Right of Return.

The idea that not only must a future Palestinian state be allowed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1967 conflict, but that Israel must accommodate millions of refugees from the 1949 conflict who are hostile to its very existence is so unreasonable a demand as to be laughable were it not a main goal of the Palestinian side. If Israel is to be a Jewish state, most, if not the vast majority, of refugees may only be afforded restitution and remain where they are or potentially to locate themselves in the Palestinian state. The latter option is also problematic because it is highly questionable as to whether or not the Palestinian state could accommodate more than a small percentage of those who are considered refugees.

3. Settlement Blocs.

Israel settled hundreds of thousands of people across the Green Line, most in suburbs of Jerusalem with the vast majority of the rest in settlement blocs along the 1949 armistice lines. Just yesterday, Israel announced the approval of the construction of 1,100 housing units in the Southern Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, which is South of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the 1949 armistice lines. I do not have all of the information yet, but it seems to me that if this construction expands the scope of Gilo, that it should not be done at this point even if there is an expectation that Gilo would be on the Israeli side after a peace agreement and if it does not expand the scope of Gilo, but only fills in empty space in its midst, that the timing of the announcement of this construction at a moment when Israel needs to convince other nations that it is serious about making concessions for peace is highly questionable in the least.

Territorial exchanges have been discussed in previous negotiations and could easily adjust the total land area in a future Palestinian state. Major settlement blocs including the aforementioned suburb of Jerusalem, Gilo, will almost certainly be included on the Israeli side, potentially with territories currently in Israel becoming part of a future Palestinian state. Settlements in the heart of the West Bank would almost certainly become part of a future Palestinian state and have been included on the Palestinian side in every peace proposal to this point.

For peace to work, the Palestinians must be granted territory that makes statehood realistic as well as having reasonable access to Jerusalem. The continued expansion of Jewish suburbs across the 1949 armistice lines around Jerusalem makes this more difficult.

4. Security.

Security is a hugely important issue, but it is also quite simple. No matter what the resolutions of the issues of borders and refugees might be, no matter what pressure Israel receives from other nations, if proposed solutions jeopardize the security of Israel to such an extent as to threaten its very existence, they are not viable. If you say, “lots of things could do that,” then you have seen the problem.

Direct negotiations are the only way to address all of these issues. As President Obama said at the United Nations last week:

I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.

So Rabbi, now that I’m really depressed, where is the light?

The light comes from several areas.

The first bit of light is a big one. Terrorism and violence have failed to achieve the radical goal of eliminating the Jewish state. Wars have failed. There are no troops massing on the borders of Israel set to invade. Neither are there frequent terror attacks occurring that kill or maim Israeli civilians, though admittedly this is as much because of the effectiveness of the security barrier as it is because of a reduced desire to attack.

A second bit of good news is that the Arab world is realizing that the existence of Israel, nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the root of their troubles. Instead, it is an absence of freedom, an absence of economic opportunity, and a sense that average people in the rest of the world are doing better. They are realizing in increasing numbers that dictatorships might make for stability, but they are not so good for prosperity or freedom. The Arab Spring is a good development.

Third, the thought process is changing. The Prime Minister of Turkey has certainly not been a good friend of Israel. In fact, he has been one of its fiercest critics of late, supporting Hamas and even threatening to use Turkey’s navy to defend ships trying to breech Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Yet, Prime Minister Erdogan noted in a speech to leaders of nations in the region that:

Freedom, democracy and human rights must be a unifying slogan for the future of our peoples. I urge all of you to protect the nations. It is right for everyone in the region – Israel too.

Many in the region have realized that not only is Israel not the primary cause of their problems, but that what Israel has done, making the desert flourish, is what they want to see in their countries. The question in the broader Arab world is changing from “How do we destroy Israel?” to “How can we be like Israel?” Not so much among the Palestinians, Syria, or Iran, the latter of which is working apace to acquire nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel, America, and its Arab neighbors. But the common people, seeing the prosperity in Israel and wanting to see it in their own nations, are seeking democratic reforms.

It is a good thing that relatively fewer in the Arab world see Israel as the primary cause of their suffering, or even as a primary cause of their suffering, however, they have not yet come to accept Israel, much less to see it as a potential friend.

Ultimately, while we have a long way to our goal of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East and there are many obstacles in our path, there seems to be a burgeoning willingness to try to get there.

And so I offer this prayer for the New Year 5772:

May this new year be a year that sees Shalom increase in our world, a year that sees freedom enjoyed by many more people than enjoyed it this year, a year that sees economies flourish—bringing prosperity, a year that sees hope rise amid despair, light burst forth into darkness.

May this new year be the one when we may stop saying “maybe next year”, when Israeli children and Palestinian children will come to know what it is like to be at peace, real peace, enduring peace.

May this year be a year of blessings.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu.

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.

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