A Peace Conference – Because Someone Has to Keep the Vision Alive

Never doubt that the day will eventually come when peace becomes a reality, not a dream.

 Women Wage Peace demonstrating in the Knesset Rose Garden in Jerusalem, March 4, 2015.
Courtesy Women Wage Peace

“You want to hold a peace conference, now?” “What else do you need to happen to wake up from this peace dream?” “Do you really believe we have someone to talk to?” These stinging rebukes were typical responses I’ve been receiving in recent weeks after friends heard about my involvement in the Israel Conference on Peace.

THE ISRAEL CONFERENCE ON PEACE - NOV. 12, TEL AVIV

To be honest, the same questions occasionally cross my mind, too. But they usually arise during visits to the dedicated physical therapists who got me back on my feet after a reckless Australian driver left me sprawled in the road. Overhearing the phone calls I was making about the conference, in between massaging my knee and monitoring my progress on the exercise bike, they would give me looks that mixed puzzlement and pity.

An alien eavesdropping on the conversations that sometimes developed with the young people working out with me would surely be convinced that I, too, was a creature who had landed from another planet.

These young people didn’t have the slightest idea what the “Green Line” is. Where did I come up with this story that Ariel is a “settlement”? Yes, they’d heard something about the Oslo Accords – it was a “death trap” set for us by that bastard Arafat.

It didn’t take long for people to get riled. One person spoke passionately about the parents who were murdered in front of their four children near the settlement of Itamar. Another expressed her anger at that “enemy of Israel” Gideon Levy, although she admitted she’d never read a single line he’d written in Haaretz. And no, she doesn’t care that Haaretz consistently advocates the only arrangement that will enable Israel to maintain its Jewish character and its democratic principles. And yes, they hate Arabs and love Bibi, and don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us.

In an interview with Ayelett Shani, philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Ze’ev noted that “emotion has a bigger influence on us than intellectual statements.” To illustrate his point, the expert on emotions pointed out that most political parties don’t bother to write a platform. “Why go to all that trouble when a single emotional statement can have such a powerful effect?” he asked.

So, really, what’s the point of dozens of carefully reasoned articles about the advantages of the peace initiative, when a single theatrical silence by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a much more powerful impact? And why go to all the effort of organizing a scholarly conference on the implications of the current diplomatic deadlock for Israel’s future, when the future lies in emotion?

Worth a thousand wise words

The first peace conference, in July 2014, is remembered as the conference of the Operation Protective Edge warning siren, and for the turmoil surrounding the speech by Minister Naftali Bennett. A single red alert that sends civilians scrambling for shelters is worth a thousand wise words about the importance of peace uttered in a convention hall.

Emotionally, I’m pretty much ready to hang up my keyboard and spend the rest of my life with my family and friends, enjoying concerts, the theater and reading the dozens of books I have waiting for me on the shelf. The intellect, which outbattles my emotions, will tell me when I’ve reached the threshold.

At the end of the month, I will mark my 70th birthday and 32 years since I began writing about the conflict and the occupation, about the peace process that became “the peace process,” and about the war process, which requires no quotation marks. The reservoir of bitter disappointments is overflowing. My first articles were a requiem for the autonomy talks, which died to the sounds of the drumbeats of the first Lebanon war – sorry, I mean Operation Peace for Galilee.

I eulogized the 1987 London Agreement that Shimon Peres secretly made with Jordan’s King Hussein. I followed the first intifada, which erupted not long after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir belittled it. I covered the fruitless negotiations that were held in Washington with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation (which included only representatives from the occupied territories), and with bureaucrats from Syria and Lebanon, following the 1991 Madrid Conference.

I held back tears of joy at the signing ceremony for the 1993 Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. I held back tears of sorrow upon seeing the pictures of the children who were murdered in terror attacks, or who watched their parents killed before their eyes, which turned the agreement sour. I watched the settlements that arose and continue to arise on the agreement’s ruins, and the illegal outposts (as if a settlement could ever be legal), and the crazed Jewish terrorism that grew out of them and the authorities’ incompetence in dealing with it.

I believed that Ehud Barak would return from Camp David hand in hand with Yasser Arafat in 2000, and I was horrified when the second intifada launched a new wave of bloodshed. The past 15 years have made a long list of contributions to the history of the conflict: the Second Lebanon War on the northern front in 2006; and Operations Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014) on the southern front. In Jerusalem we have what’s been termed the “stone terror” and “knife terror.” And the only thing keeping Oslo alive is the money pipeline from the donor countries to the Palestinian Authority.

These last few years, casual conversations with friends have become a source of frustration. Lectures before dwindling audiences who are willing to hear about “the conflict” have become a depressing experience. Before my eyes, the hope for peace has retreated in the face of the despair of “there is no partner.”

But then, in these tough moments, my wife, Dorit, reminds me of the days when the use of the phrase “Palestinian people” caused us to be perceived as eccentrics at best and traitors at worst. Very few people, like Uri Avnery, spoke about a “Palestinian state,” and meeting with Palestinians was a criminal offense that landed Abie Nathan in prison in the 1980s. Historic processes last for many decades, she says. The change is creeping along slowly, but it will come.

Had the Shin Bet security service guarded Yitzhak Rabin – who left us 20 years ago – the way it now keeps an eye on the current prime minister, perhaps Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu would have been spending their whole lives poolside in Caesarea.

So yes, a peace conference – because someone has to blow on the embers to keep the vision of peace burning. Someone has to believe that the day is coming when we will emerge from this state of stagnation. To believe intellectually and, yes, emotionally, too. To those who scoff, “When will you understand that this peace thing is over?” I ask, “How much more blood needs to be spilled before you understand that doing nothing is a recipe for disaster? Until when?”

The writer is CEO of the Israel Conference on Peace and a political columnist for Al־Monitor.