It was no surprise that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or eternal conflict, if you will) was barely mentioned during Monday’s Obama-Romney foreign policy debate. Although Israel came up 34 times, it did so in the context of Iran, promoting democracy in the Middle East, standing by an ally, and demonstrating who loves Israel more. Romney did manage to slip in that after four years of an Obama administration, Israel and the Palestinians are no closer to “reaching a peace agreement” (although it was Romney who told fund-raisers in September that “the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish”).
The candidates are angling for votes, not Nobel prizes, and gain nothing by discussing a conflict that seems so far from resolution. Obama, like every president before him, tried to assert U.S. influence over the peace process early in his term, and it only brought him tsuris. It’s not clear what else Romney could have said on the topic that would have earned him more votes in Florida or Ohio. Like global warming and gun violence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become an unmentionable topic on the campaign trail.
Not that Israelis or Palestinians are clamoring for such a debate. I was in Israel last week and it was the rare newspaper or broadcast that even mentioned the peace process, except to update its obituary. Dominating the headlines were Iran and January’s elections, in which the conflict barely figures. The Palestinians held municipal elections on Friday, and the big issues were a Hamas boycott and low voter turnout. Jimmy Carter met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Monday, and when Jimmy Carter is the loudest voice for peace, you just sense that it’s not going anywhere.
But you also sense the price both sides pay for not addressing this most intractable of issues. I was in Israel with a delegation from the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope & Peace. A lot of the Israelis and Palestinians who spoke to the group were still talking peace, although without much hope.
Although most of the presenters were on the Left, they rarely spoke about the conflict in terms of righting historic wrongs or resolving a human rights crisis among the Palestinians.
Instead, they spoke about Israel’s self-interest in helping to create a Palestinian state. And they suggested domino effects that defy the usual categories of Left and Right. Gershon Baskin, an American-born Israeli who codirects the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, spoke, as most two-state proponents do, of preserving Israel as a Jewish democracy. But he also imagined the effects of peace on other players in the region. Asked about Hamas rejectionism, Baskin said, “Let the people in Gaza see the opportunity for real peace.” If they did, he proposed, it wouldn’t be long before they ousted the extremists in an Arab Spring of their own.
In Haifa, Fathi Marshood of the New Israel Fund similarly imagined the benefits of a peace agreement for Israel’s Arab minority. Much of the tension and discrimination facing Israel’s Arab citizens — one-fifth of the population — surrounds their ambiguous relationship to the Jewish state. Do they put Israel or the Palestinian people first? Are they there to stay? When a Palestinian state is formed, “100 percent of us will stay here. We belong here, and want to stay and continue struggling for a better society,” said Marshood. When that becomes apparent to Israeli Jews, “We won’t be perceived as a fifth column, as an enemy.”
That sort of thinking is optimist, yes, but not delusional — unlike the proposition that Israel can continue to control the lives of millions of non-citizens and still preserve both its Jewish character and democratic ideals.
I also don’t remember when optimism stopped being a Jewish value. You can find it everywhere you look in Israel, if you are open to voices other than those that thrive on hopelessness. One evening the interfaith coalition hosted two members of the Parents Circle Families Forum, which brings together grieving parents on both sides who lost relatives in the conflict. Ben Kfir explained, in careful, mournful detail, how his daughter Yael, an officer in the Signal Corps, was murdered in a suicide attack while waiting for a bus near her base in September 2003. Moira Jilani, a U.S. citizen, gave a dry-eyed account of the day her Palestinian husband was shot dead by Israeli police in east Jerusalem in 2010, and her efforts to reopen an investigation into what the Justice Ministry called a justifiable response to an alleged terrorist incident.
Kfir and Jilani, sitting together, don’t ask that you take sides in the conflict, only that you consider the pain and loss on both sides. Kfir remembered loading two pistols and plotting the murder of random Palestinians to avenge the murder of his daughter. And then how he realized that the only result would be more families grieving like his own. In a newspaper ad thanking those who came to the shiva, he wrote, “Bringing peace closer will be our condolence.”
Such leaps of empathy aren’t much in fashion these days, no more so than a discussion of the peace process on the campaign trail. But if you can’t talk about peace, you are endorsing its opposite.