Cry Our Beloved Countries

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Obama watches Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas as they shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2009.
Obama watches Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas as they shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2009.Credit: Bloomberg

I stand with Israel in its defense of its citizens. Terror must always be unequivocally opposed. Hamas and its acolytes, through an act of cynical political calculus, once again pried open the gates of Hell and we, Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, peer into its destructive fires and are burnt by its flames.

I weep for our dead and wounded soldiers, I mourn the deaths of the innocent, I feel for those who suffered as a consequence of terror. Hamas knows that no Israeli government can stand by while missiles terrorize its citizens. Hamas’ indifference to the deaths and injuries of its own people is both obvious and unforgivable. But we also now have an obligation and a strategic imperative to help the people of Gaza to prosper.

Prior to the operation in Gaza, we had already been plunged into darkness by the horrific abductions and murders of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal and then Mohammed. We all stand in shame, Palestinian and Jew, that the unspeakable took place on our watch and in our name.

As this current conflict with Hamas continues and although we are unequivocal in our condemnation of them, we must begin to reflect on the failure of the Kerry-initiated peace talks. Riots, violence and war tell of a legacy of cynicism and despair on both sides – a tinderbox capable of igniting a raging, uncontrolled fire devastating to all concerned. Devastating to our hopes, our humanity and our future prospects. This conflict can never be resolved by the military might of Israel’s army alone, nor by political maneuverings on the part of the PA to isolate Israel, and certainly not by the nihilistic terror of Hamas.

Israel must, despite all the setbacks and all the difficulties, talk peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Even those of us not privy to the negotiations have heard and read enough to draw some conclusions about their failure. Amid all of the detail, perhaps one fundamental thing stands in the way of meaningful progress to a two-state solution: a fundamental lack of trust.

Throughout the process, elements from both sides were doing just enough to undermine trust. The Palestinians continued planning and threatening a course of unilateral measures. The Israelis continued to announce plans to build further or expand existing settlements. Martin Indyk, Kerry’s special envoy, highlighted settlement building as a key factor in the breakdown of negotiations.

Settlements are not the historic cause of the conflict, but the building or even just the announcements of plans to build are anathema to the Palestinians and this has to be understood and internalized by Israel, if it is serious about a negotiated solution. But unilateral Palestinian measures designed to achieve some form of de jure recognition of Palestinian independence in multilateral bodies and to isolate Israel are provocative and counterproductive. Neither party believes the other genuinely wants a solution to the impasse or is prepared to do what it takes to walk the hard road to peace.

The present environment bodes ill. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over a coalition of antagonists who cannot reach common cause and cannot gain the positive attention of the Israeli electorate. President Abbas has not done enough to enable the Palestinian people to embrace honestly and wholeheartedly the cause of peace.

There was a great deal in the past months that was contested: How long Israel will have soldiers in the Jordan Valley after Palestinian statehood; the equivalence of land swaps; Palestinian affirmation of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people; and, of course, the holy sites and East Jerusalem.

It may well be that the challenges are insurmountable. But we will never know what is possible unless the leaders of both sides step up and do the maximum they can to build sufficient trust so they know that, in the face of all of the obstacles and setbacks, the other will deliver.

A month ago, I was given the privilege of “hooding” President F W de Klerk when the University of Haifa awarded him an honorary PhD, in recognition of his role in bringing peace to South Africa and freedom to the disenfranchised. He and the late President Nelson Mandela formed an unlikely bond of trust between them and drove the negotiations that led to democracy and freedom.

Mandela led his people from oppression and despair to high aspiration and a commitment to progress, while De Klerk led his people from and through their fears toward constructive engagement.

Great change requires political leadership strong enough to take a people even to a place they might initially not want to go. The two leaders of the Israeli and Palestinian people must talk with each other directly, and not to or at each other. They must find that basis of common understanding which will allow them to lead when others falter, inspire when others despair and ameliorate when others provoke. It was no easy transition in South Africa. There was a great deal of violence.

Israel is not South Africa, whatever her enemies might say, and negotiations for a two-state solution are more complex. Nevertheless, South Africa’s lessons are apposite. Netanyahu and Abbas need to meet, and meet often. They should talk about what can be done right now to build the Israel-Palestinian relationship – joint power projects, joint water projects, furthering cross-border trade and investment, and working out how the hopes of both peoples can be responsibly nurtured, even in the midst of heightened risk. But, above all, they should talk peace – constantly, and when they find each other, both peoples will believe and the hard journey can begin again.

Right now, anger abounds, negative thinking has taken hold and the extremists and naysayers on both sides hold sway. Meanwhile, those of influence at the center shy away from their duty. This cannot continue: Step forward our De Klerk and Mandela; step forward before we all, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Arab, scream in our anguish the words adapted from South African novelist Alan Paton, “Cry our beloved countries." 

Mick Davis is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the U.K.’s Jewish Leadership Council. 

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