Four Thoughts for the Ten Days

Four Thoughts for the Ten Days

In his biting poem "Pink Eyeglasses," the great Hebrew poet Natan Alterman wrote of the power of illusion to distort even the most honest analysis: "The lens gives the color and the heart follows." During the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, all of us—and especially our leaders—need to look through clear lenses to examine our missteps.

In that spirit, I offer a few thoughts on recent events that are of importance to the AJC mission.

1. The Administration and the Peace Process

Seeking peace, the American administration has landed in deep trouble, much of it of its own making. The administration's charge out of the gate in May, pressuring Netanyahu for an unprecedented total freeze on construction even within existing settlements and East Jerusalem, has backfired. The Arab states did not respond to the call that went with it to begin normalizing ties with Israel, while Palestinian leaders followed the rule of unforeseen consequences by greeting the new U.S. policy with an even more hard-line negotiating position. The administration continues to have a hard time explaining—perhaps even to itself—where this is headed, but there is no evidence so far that it is reevaluating its position.
Is President Obama’s tripartite meeting with PA President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday just one more non-event? Probably, unless it comes with a significant shift in U.S. policy.

2. The Israeli Government

In its first few months in office, the new Israeli government was faced with the American demand to "stop" settlements. Major Jerusalem neighborhoods were included in that demand, effectively lumping hundreds of thousands of Israelis with the residents of far-flung settlements. This American initiative contradicted earlier understandings reached with the Bush administration. With his June 14 speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu effectively turned this pressure to short-term advantage, giving priority to upgrading the Palestinian economy while accepting an eventual Palestinian state with the major stipulations that it recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that it should not have the capability to attack Israel in the future. For now, the Netanyahu government is stable, popular and apparently able to navigate the choppy waters of Israeli coalition politics and international pressure. The government must be looking back over recent events with some satisfaction.

Yet beyond near-term maneuvering, this government has not voiced a persuasive broader vision of the peace process. Is the plan the prime minister put forth at Bar Ilan viable? Can a two-state solution be reached through economic development for the Palestinians, as Netanyahu hopes? What is plan B? The government has not answered these questions, possibly cannot, and paradoxically—thanks to the American administration—hasn't had to. But answers are essential if peace is to result from this process.

3. The Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority, as usual, throws total responsibility on Israel for the state of the peace process. American clumsiness has only made things worse: with the Americans seemingly more demanding of the Israelis than even PA officials, the latter are trapped into either appearing to sabotage the peace process by radicalizing their position, or else appearing moderate and risk losing credibility with the West Bank electorate three months before a planned PA election in which the more radical Hamas will challenge them. Pressuring Abbas to attend the New York meeting in the absence of a total settlement freeze—a precondition brought into Palestinian discourse only in the wake of the American demand for the same—may come back to haunt all of us when we tally the January votes.

Meanwhile, Gaza languishes under the rule of Hamas, an Islamist version of the KKK. It is hard to deny that the bigoted Hamas mentality is part of the long-term Israeli-Palestinian problem. It is important, however, to note that a key pillar of the Hamas platform is shared across the Palestinian political spectrum: the denial of any legitimacy to the Jewish narrative in this land. Where recognition is automatically viewed as betrayal, moderation is nearly impossible. Thus we find that after 17 years of negotiations, the Palestinians cannot even bring themselves to take the simple step of recognizing a Jewish state alongside the one they hope to establish.

4. Yom Kippur and Our Leaders

Thus we enter the Yom Kippur season with the impression that the leaders involved in negotiations suffer from a political arrogance that produces fixed ideas and leads to dead ends. But these Ten Days of Repentance reminds us that our tradition presents alternatives to this style of leadership. In Numbers 12:3, we come across Moses—revered, in one way or another, by Judaism, Islam and Christianity—being called "very humble, more than all people on the face of the Earth." This was, perhaps, the key to his inspired leadership. When an outsider, his father-in-law Jethro, offers advice to revamp the entire Israelite system of justice, Moses accepts it without concern for pride or position. Yitzhak Rabin was such a leader, as was Anwar Sadat. Both had the humility to learn and reevaluate.

A postscript about the relevance of prayer: In the confessional prayer Al Het ("For the sins we have committed"), dating to the 8th-century sage Ahai Gaon, we cite among those commonest of our sins arrogance, hardened hearts and rejection of responsibility. Human beings are, after all, only human, and our mistakes, today as in the days of Moses and Ahai, can still be corrected.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah

May we be inscribed in the Book of Life

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