I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such unanimity in the mainstream media when it comes to an important topic. The one I have in mind is the initiation of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis. And from what I can tell, all the commentators are saying the same things, in virtually the same order:
First, thank you to Secretary of State John Kerry for bringing the two sides to the table and taking such a personal stake in the venture.
Second, we express such gratitude notwithstanding our belief that a peace agreement here is highly unlikely.
Third, while such an agreement is unlikely, the conditions these days suggest that it might not be impossible. The list of conditions might differ somewhat, but they typically involve the idea that international pressure on Israel is increasing (e.g., the EU’s boycott of goods produced in the Israeli Settlements), or that Israel may be interested in making peace with Sunni Muslims so as to join with them against Israel’s greatest enemy, Iran. The commentators also list conditions that might increase the Palestinians’ motivations to make peace, but they are not emphasized as much as the conditions that bring Israel to the table.
So there you have it – conventional wisdom. I’m buying the first point. And I’m buying the second. As for the third, don’t kid yourself. The conditions aren’t ripe for peace. And the reason is simple: there is still too much distrust and even dislike between the parties. What’s more, this is a (mostly) cold war that both sides think they can win. So why should they make major concessions?
Sure, color me a pessimist, for the present. And yet I’m thrilled that the two sets of cousins are at least talking. I’m thrilled that they are coming together to state the obvious: that peace is holy and we must never give up the dream. And I’m thrilled that we have a Secretary of State who seems determined to make this issue the single greatest priority of his tenure at Foggy Bottom. Why does Kerry’s apparent determination seem so important? Because maybe he’ll think about the issue enough to put aside the obsession with a Final-Status Agreement – the one that has eluded all of his predecessors -- and start thinking instead about baby steps. In other words, once the inevitable happens and the parties recognize that they remain at loggerheads with respect to the Big deal, maybe Secretary Kerry will realize that those talks were just the prologue. The real work will involve bringing these two cousins together one step at a time with the goal of reaching obtainable mini-agreements that (a) can last and (b) can be built upon over time to forge even more significant agreements.
Here are some concrete examples of such mini-agreements. Maybe Secretary Kerry can challenge both of these peoples to change their textbooks so as to present, robustly, both the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives of the history of the Holy Land. We shouldn’t expect the resulting textbooks to be unbiased, let alone identical, but if both sides are sincere in embracing the task, at least they can humanize their cousins. Similarly, maybe the Secretary can challenge both sides to agree publicly that the “other” has a legitimate claim to the disputed land. That would certainly be a true statement, one that everyone who cares about the region needs to appreciate, and yet both sides can make this statement while continuing to maintain that their own side possesses the “superior” claim to the disputed land.
More examples? How about challenging both sides to agree publicly that their respective national movements are no less legitimate than the other national movements in the world – such as the claim of the German people to reside in the land of Germany, or the Italian people to reside in the land of Italy. Maybe Secretary Kerry can challenge both peoples to agree publicly that they share the experience of having been victimized by more powerful military forces and thus understandably care deeply about justice as well as peace. And maybe Secretary Kerry can work with these two peoples to agree to support NGOs that are currently on the ground striving to forge friendships between them, such as Heartbeat Jerusalem (an organization that forms ensembles between Jewish and Palestinian teenage musicians).
These are just a few examples of ways in which these peoples can come together to fight the centrifugal forces that have maintained hostility in the Holy Land for generations. Perhaps some of these “mini-agreements” are not as easily attainable as I am implying, but then again, there are surely other “mini-agreements” that I haven’t mentioned that could be substituted in their place.
You’ll note, though, that I haven’t mentioned anything about a two-state solution, what the borders should be of such a state, each other’s claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, or the Palestinians’ claim to a “right of return.” Negotiators have tried to resolve those issues over and over and over again, and they’ve always failed. As far as I can tell, the parties are no less emboldened and intractable now than they were before. So why should we think they’re ready to roll that same boulder up the same hill one more time?
Believe me, that boulder is going to fall right back down unless we try something different this time – something that will lighten the proverbial load. To be sure, that “load” is supported by the fact that these two peoples differ significantly on their visions of the Holy Land at peace. But even more importantly, it is composed of a myriad of psychological barriers led by the ever-powerful force of ignorance, which has been reinforced on both sides by decades of biased textbooks and physical separation.
Just as nobody can run before he can walk, the Israelis and Palestinians cannot make peace before they recognize that this is not just a civil war but a family conflict. These two peoples have so much in common, and yet there is also so much that separates them. They must come to grips with these realities first, before they will be willing to make the difficult concessions that a negotiated peace requires. But the good news is that as long as Senator Kerry stops swinging for the fences and concentrates instead on just keeping his eye on the ball and hitting singles, we all might come to realize just how much progress can be made. That’s a nice way of saying that the combatants have made such a mess of the situation, that there are plenty of constructive ways to clean up.
Peace is possible, folks. Sanity demands it, and both sides want it. They just need to be patient and do the hard work needed to make it happen. That begins by embracing the idea of taking incremental steps that can work, rather than focusing exclusively (or even primarily) on the ultimate prize.
Take it from a Terrapin-lover from Maryland, “slow but sure” will win this race. God knows, we’ve tried the alternative, and we’ve got nothing, and I mean NOTHING, to show for it.