From Geneva to Jerusalem: Forging a Path Towards Peace | Congregation Beth Am

From Geneva to Jerusalem: Forging a Path Towards Peace

By Rabbi Chuck Briskin on
December 11, 2003

Imagine yourself as the managing editor of a newspaper. How do you decide which stories to place on the front page and which to bury deep inside. Where would you have placed the circus involving Michael Jackson? Or the search for the missing college student in North Dakota? Which stories matter? Recent Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation certainly do. Would you have covered Senator Susan Collins appearance at last week’s AIPAC dinner in San Jose? Where is Israel in your newspaper? What do you think is important in the world and what makes news newsworthy?

A week and a half ago, a major story came out of Geneva. The newspapers covered it closely for a couple of days, but most of the subsequent discussion has been on line, rather than on the front page.

On December first, two years of secret negotiations by Israeli and Palestinian delegations, led by Yossi Belin and Yasser Abed Rabbo respectively, culminated in a far-reaching, yet perhaps far-fetched plan for a peaceful resolution to the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was big news, indeed, and should be considered significant. For many it was.

Consider the reactions. Leaders of the divided Palestinian factions were unified in their condemnation of the plan. Members of the Palestinian delegation were called traitors and according to one Arab news account were accused of, “striving to please the Americans and the Zionists at our people’s expense” Prime Minister Sharon’s government called the accord, “subversive freelance diplomacy.”

These denunciations make me think that if the recognized leadership among Israelis and the Palestinians find the Geneva Accord objectionable, or even its mere creation an act of treason or sedition, then Belin, Abed Rabbo and their denizens are doing something right. In fact, many moderate political, religious and academic leaders have responded favorably to the Geneva Accord.

Notably, an American group of thirty-two prominent Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, representing moderate faith denominations joined recently to form the National Inter-religious Leadership Initiative. These clergy have created a document outlining twelve specific steps for peace, and make special mention of the promise of the Geneva Accord.

Yes, there are flaws and the vision is grand. But, the Geneva Accord does represent something hopeful; two weathered politicians, veterans of past failed negotiations steadfastly leading their representative parties and hammering out some of the most difficult issues that continue to deepen the chasm between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If nothing else, Belin and Abed Rabbo have shown that an Israeli and a Palestinian can negotiate in good faith—a lesson that Yasser Arafat could learn from, of course.

A significant problem with the Geneva Accord is that many are not taking is seriously. Many pundits, politicians, and even satirists summarily dismissed the Geneva Accords as a virtual peace plan, based in some sort of fantasyland. Despite its potential and its boldness, world leaders are not taking this plan as seriously as they have the so-called Road Map to Peace or the past negotiations at Taba, Wye River, or Oslo.

Too many people consider this most recent attempt at peace and reconciliation to be an outrage or merely a joke. I wish that more people, especially Israeli and Palestinian leaders who would be entrusted to enforce the negotiations, could see the Geneva Accord as promising. From my vantage point—albeit several thousand miles away from the epicenter—there is little doubt that the efforts of Belin and Abed Rabbo represent real courage and determined hope. Here are two moderate politicians whose voices were finally heard above the loud bombast of the extremists.

Like most of the previous documents, the Geneva Accord demands the basic tenets of mutual recognition, autonomy, and sovereignty. Unlike its predecessors, the Accord addresses forthrightly some of the most difficult negotiating points that have been hanging over all previous attempts at peace: security guarantees, the status of Jerusalem, including control of the Temple Mount, settlements and the status of Palestinian refugees.

What was to be delayed for many years has now, quite dramatically, been placed at the head of the table.

Two very thorny topics—the status of Jerusalem for Israelis, and the right of return for Palestinians—are being addressed directly. Although these negotiations offer some promise, some voices, including the prominent Jewish academic and community leader Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, believe that, “all of this can be negotiated, but not enforced.” That, of course, is the roadblock to peace.

Consider, however, that many of the proposed terms of these negotiations exist today de facto, if not de jure. For all intents and purposes, Jerusalem is a divided city. When I lived in Jewish West Jerusalem in 1990, I walked regularly through the streets and neighborhoods of Arab East Jerusalem on my way to the Hebrew University, crossing the invisible yet recognizable barrier from West to East. Street signs turned from Hebrew to Arabic, kippot became keffiyahs and all those Jews, one block away were suddenly Arabs. Yes, it was still Jerusalem, but it looked much more like Amman. When I lived in Jerusalem again in 1997, I never ventured into East Jerusalem as I had once before. The tension between Arabs and Jews, East and West had escalated to the point that I no longer felt safe walking East Jerusalem’s streets. The level of distrust between these two peoples has risen exponentially since 1997. Jews venturing into East Jerusalem are looked upon suspiciously. It is even worse for Arabs who are doing business or getting to their jobs in West Jerusalem. Do I relish the notion of turning over large sections of Jerusalem to the Palestinians? Not at all. Nevertheless, despite the absence of a wall between East and West there is certainly a barrier. And if some East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods must be ceded to the Palestinians for a guarantee of peace, and if security policies controlled and enforced by Israelis to protect Israelis in West Jerusalem can be enacted, then perhaps the status of Jerusalem can be placed on the negotiating table.

As much as the status of Jerusalem has been an emotional trigger point for Israelis, for Palestinians, the right of return has been their primary point of dispute. In 1948, during the War of Independence somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 Palestinian Arabs—accurate numbers are virtually impossible to determine—left their homes and their land. Most fled voluntarily, but others were expelled. Such is the harsh reality of war. For fifty-five years many of these refugees have bemoaned the loss of their land, a cry that Mizrachi Jews, expelled from their homes in the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa fifty years ago understand. Today, many estimate the number of descendants of those original refugees numbers at close to four million. If all of these Palestinian refugees were given the right to return to their ancestral land, in Israel, their presence would obviously negate the Jewish character of Eretz Yisrael. Jews would become a minority population in their own land, no longer safe or secure.

The compromise, of course, is to cede some Israeli tracts of land to a new Palestinian state, or offer monetary compensation. These are difficult issues indeed, however they are finally being addressed in a realistic manner. For the first time, I learned of a Palestinian leader who acknowledged the futility of a comprehensive demand for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. It was Yaser Abed Rabbo, the leader of the Palestinian delegation in Geneva who when asked why he went to the negotiating table and conceded the right of return replied, “I have lived my entire life as a refugee. I do not want my children or my grandchildren to live as refugees.”

Yossi Belin and Yasser Abed Rabbo provide moderate voices in a cacophony of extremism as they attempt to build a bridge across the chasm that divides their people, looking for a new way of dealing with old problems. Can two people, entrenched in a lifetime of bitterness, war and bloodshed come together to make peace between themselves? Could Israel and the Palestinian Authority forge ahead to a place of mutual recognition, détente, perhaps even rapprochement or, dare I say, peace? Recent lessons from our own country’s peace efforts following our past wars and ancient lessons from our sacred tradition indicate yes.

In Parashat Vayishlach two embittered brothers, angry, distrustful and fearful of each other reunite after twenty years. Jacob had been living in fear of his brother Esau, whom he had deceived many years earlier. But, at the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob and Esau embrace each other as brothers, crying tears of joy and relief, ending their two-decade period of enmity. It took strength, courage and faith for Jacob to confront his brother whom he had wronged. But he did. Did they become close brothers, friends, or partners? No. They reconciled, then went their separate ways. But they had made peace with one another.

Can this happen today, in Israel? Can two peoples overcome decades of division and deceit and embrace one another as brothers? I don’t believe that Sharon and Arafat, or Arafat and any Israeli, will embrace each other. But I hope and pray that new leaders, forward-looking visionaries, who can make difficult concessions for the sake of peace will emerge. Perhaps diplomats like Belin and Abed Rabbo, can find a way to forge real peace. The prophet Joel proclaimed; “And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions.” It may take youthful determination and optimism to find a way out of this morass. But I do hope that the energy generated in Geneva will be sustained so that two peoples, two enemies can make their way towards peace.

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