Israel, History and Optimism – By Ben Leibowitz
It was 20 years ago today that, under a perfectly blue sky and a sparkling sun, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin stepped out onto the manicured White House Lawns and performed a handshake that was, supposed to be, of world altering significance.
As the hands of these two warriors met, a bushy-tailed Bill Clinton willing them together, the assorted audience of journalists and politicians let out unchoreographed peals of joy. This crowd, in that moment, represented a watching world, a word who truly believed that this was the beginning of a new dawn. Peace would come the headlines ran. Some said it might come slowly, but it would come surely.
Can you blame their optimism? What could be a more powerful declaration of peace than Yasser Arafat – the unchallenged leader of the Palestinian people, a man who had coordinated attacks from Munich to the First Intifada, himself the definitive symbol of anti-Western resistance – and Yitzhak Rabin – the Chief of Staff who had captured the territories in 1967, a man who had the battle-scars of every conflict since the birth of the State etched into his brow – coming together on the White House Lawn and sharing a peace plan and a handshake in front of the watchful world.
It has been 20 years since that handshake and 20 years of hurt for the peace process. In every failure – from Rabin’s assassination to the 5,000 lives lost during the Second Intifada, from the botched peace talks of Barak and Olmert to the exponential growth of settlers exceeding ¾ of a million today, from every human rights abuse to every rocket fired in Gaza – we seem to be taken one step further into a quagmire of thickening blood, hardening convictions and seemingly irresoluble despair.
But if we should learn anything from a survey of the last 20 years it is not that a resolution to an Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an intractable impossibility, but rather how quickly things change.
It is all too easy to get stuck in the rut of the present. To be blinkered by the salvo of articles volleyed at us that portray the conflict as a never-ending disaster with no possible light at the end of the tunnel. But a survey, even a brief one, of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is instructive in helping us realize just how dramatic and rapid changes in perception, and reality, can be.
If you had told a bright-eyed Ben Gurion in 1936, the year the Great Arab Revolt began in Palestine, that in 20 years time he would be sitting, the Prime Minister of a 2 million strong Jewish democratic state, discussing with the French and the British how to attack a quasi-socialist Egyptian state, you would have been laughed out of the Histadrut.
If you had caught him on his way out of such a meeting in 1956 and told him that in 22 years time the leader of the future Egyptian state would set foot in the very land his nation was committed to destroying and address Knesset to ask for peace, you would have been sharply and severely dismissed for impertinence.
And if you had said to someone in 1993 that the situation would, 20 years down the line, be as it is today, you would have been branded a fatalistic and totally unrealistic, irredeemable pessimist.
We cannot tell what the future holds. Today there will be a torrent of articles ridiculing the handshake, deriding the new-found peace talks and telling you all is hopeless. Not only to these articles fail to acknowledge how quickly realities can change but they fail, blinkered by the paradigm of pessimism that characterizes our approach right now, to acknowledge the specific realities that make these peace talks are from hopeless.
The personnel may just be right this time. In John Kerry there is a man of resolution and courage who has shown already an admirably dogged determination to get the negotiators in a room and to keep them there. In Mahmoud Abbas there is an experienced leader, fearful of the destruction around him but greatly strengthened by the weakening of Hamas (after the Muslim Brotherhood’s toppling in Egypt) and looking to be a reliable, reasonable figure for the West to deal with.
Then there is, in Obama, a clear-headed and sensible politician who has who has enough patience and sense not to rush things along unduly and just enough humility not to intervene in proceedings unnecessarily. And in Netanyahu, the unchallenged King of Israeli politics, a man just narcissistic enough to want a peace deal, to become the ‘strong-man’ of Israeli politics who was, at last, the quasi-messianic figure who was able to bring peace to the adoring masses.
And the time might just be right as well. With international attention focused squarely on Syria there is less pressure on Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, there are not people waiting outside their doors to scrutinize their positions and conclusions daily and proceedings have been humming along nicely in the past few weeks. Furthermore the chaos in the region, whilst many argue is detrimental to peace initiatives, leaves both Israel and Palestine as countries who want to prove themselves as responsible, mature and sensible allies of the EU, the UN and the US – something both sides have struggled with in recent years. And finally, it may just be that both sides, and the world, have realized that the situation is simply unsustainable, that there must be peace and this may just be the right time to do it.
I do not think there will be peace in 9 months time, but I do think this may be a turning point and I am not willing to discredit these peace talks because a) I think they might actually, looking at the facts, have a chance and because b) history moves too quickly and too unexpectedly to ever be so sure of anything as many commentators are that peace will not occur.
It is my sincere hope and not wholly unlikely I would suggest, that in 20 years – when a fledgling Palestinian state is coming into a peaceful and viable existence next to a flourishing and fair Jewish, democratic state, people will say ‘God, imagine what it must have been like in 2013 when they thought peace would never come’. And they will dig up the articles which are inevitably to be published today on doomed prospects of the peace process and say ‘Hah, isn’t it funny what they thought back then’.
We must do all we can to bring about that day and must remain optimistic and hopeful. The smart money is not on peace tomorrow, but it certainly cannot stay like this forever. The world is moving faster than ever and hopefully, when we send our children to camp and to Israel we will look back and think it strange, and alien, how negative and discouraged everyone seemed to be back then.
These talks may just be the unannounced and unexpected beginning of a new dawn. With the world not watchful and no longer expectant, there may just be room for something truly remarkable to happen.