Israel's First Step to Mideast Peace: Opening the Door, Obama Style

Only moving toward peace with the Palestinians and engaging with the Arab League Peace initiative can save Israeli society from falling apart completely.

In the last few weeks an important event was largely missed by the Israeli media, which was busy covering the Moshe Katsav ruling, among other issues. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presented his offer for a final status agreement with Israel to the United States, and is now awaiting an Israeli response. It has been reported that Yitzhak Molcho, on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to receive this document from the Americans. His justification: making this document public would immediately destroy Netanyahu's coalition.

In other words, the Palestinian offer was not even opened because it might actually be reasonable. And that, for Netanyahu's government, would be a catastrophe. This is indeed mind-boggling: Israel's elected government cannot live with a presumably reasonable offer that would finally grant the country internationally recognized borders and, in the long run, normalization with the entire Arab world.

Netanyahu, Abbas, Obama

Let us look at a contrasting event in the United States, the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting, at which President Barack Obama gave a speech immediately hailed as historic by most pundits. His words were deeply humane, and delivered in a very simple way. For Obama, the search for common ground seems to be a natural inclination; a worldview, not a tactic. Deep down, he believes in seeking the areas where interests can meet and common goals can be formulated. And he knows that in order to bridge differences, you truly need to listen to all sides involved.

It is exactly this type of leader that Israel needs, but does not have. Leaders able to touch the humanity in us all; who remind us that beyond all differences of opinion and ideology, we all want good lives for our children; we all want the next generation to care about our society at large, and be interested not only in their own personal fortune, but in the public good.

Why does Israel, time and again, elect leaders who are incapable of promoting hope? Why is it so impossible for us to see the possibility of constructive cooperation? Why has Israel reached a point where only politicians who thrive on hate and fear are electable?

The reason is that, for many years, Israel has been under the basic assumption that there is no common ground to be found in the Middle East. This assumption is derived from the beginning of Israel's history; when it turned out that the Arab world did not accept the existence of the Jewish homeland, the basic equation became "If Israel exists, the Arabs lose, and vice versa."

The Israeli psyche was shaped by the prevalence of such feelings over several decades, and assumes that one side's well-being is the other's disadvantage. The idea of a common good, of a win-win situation, where all sides stand to gain from cooperation has disappeared from our horizon. Israelis' deepest fear is to be "freiers," the Hebrew word for suckers, losers. The very idea that you can gain from cooperation, that there is a common good, is rejected as being naive and stupid.

This postulation that the conflict is insoluble has shaped the relationship between all of Israel's sectors: First and foremost, of course, there is the assumption that Jews and Arabs are pitched in an hopeless conflict with each other - a dogma that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has turned into the centerpiece of his politics. The ultra-Orthodox assume they share no common interests with the rest of Israeli society, and largely keep out of it, in terms of cultural, education and economics. The religious believe they need to turn Israel into a religious state, which would be the end of Israel as a modern secular state. And the settlers see their interest as pitted against the rest of Israeli society, because their project undermines the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

This is the tragedy of this country's psyche: It has lost hope that politics can be anything but a zero-sum game. This is why Israel keeps electing leaders who are divisive, who emphasize power over cooperation, conflict over shared humanity. This is why the right has been gaining power steadily for a decade. This is why Israel has not produced leaders like Bill Clinton and Obama, whose trademark is the search for common ground, and instead follows leaders like Netanyahu and Lieberman who thrive on fear and divisiveness.

Not surprisingly, more and more Israelis have a premonition of doom. A society without any vision of a common good is unlikely to prevail. Paradoxically, only moving toward peace with the Palestinians and engaging with the Arab League peace initiative can save Israeli society from falling apart completely. This would counteract the basic assumption that has formed this country's political psyche: that Israel's existence and the Arab world are locked in a deadly zero-sum game. The tragicomedy is that Israel's leaders are not even capable of opening the envelope containing Mahmoud's offer for peace.