July 1, 2013
Warnings of time running out, of missed opportunities for Israeli-Palestinian peace, have been uttered so many times over the years that the phrases seem clichéd.
The path to comprehensive, sustainable peace is fraught with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Yet, achieving peace is a strategic objective for Israel, and abandoning hope would be the greatest tragedy.
Keeping hope alive was the core message that a member of the Knesset brought to a global Jewish audience in a packed Washington hotel ballroom.
“The only way to keep the values of Israel as a Jewish democratic state is to enter the negotiations room and end the conflict with the Palestinians in accord with the Idea of two states for two peoples, Israel for the Jewish people and the Palestinian state for the Palestinians,” said Tzipi Livni, justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians.
“I know it is not simple, but I am not willing to give up.”
Livni spoke from the same podium that only a few hours earlier US Secretary of State John Kerry used. He delivered a plea for support of his efforts to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian talks aimed at achieving a negotiated two-state solution. “If we don’t succeed now, we may never get another chance,” Kerry declared.
Both were addressing the AJC Global Forum, attended by representatives of Jewish communities across the US and some 60 countries around the world. The actual audience was not only the nearly 1,600 in the ballroom, but the wider American Jewish community.
Kerry, making his first address to a Jewish audience since becoming secretary of state, understandably garnered immediate widespread media attention. Livni’s heartfelt address also was the stuff of headlines. No one could leave the ballroom unmoved by her message.
“Choosing between the land and Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, my choice is Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” Livni said. Postponing the decision on which vision of Israel to embrace would be a “historical mistake,” she warned. “Postponing the decision is against Zionism.”
Here was a Sabra, a veteran Israeli politician, speaking directly to Diaspora Jews about the urgency for Israel to keep trying for a comprehensive, sustainable peace, and for American Jews, in particular, to support the Israeli government’s quest.
She spoke very personally about her own political transition from a diehard advocate of “Greater Israel” to accepting the need for two states.
“I grew up believing in the right of the Jewish people to the entire land, and I still believe the Jewish people have rights to the entire land,” said Livni, whose parents met in the Irgun, and are buried, she noted, in gravesites that bear the organization’s emblem, a map of an Israel on both sides of the Jordan River.
Today, however, Israelis must make a choice between “the land” and the state of Israel’s “democratic and Jewish values,” she said repeatedly.
Livni, who previously served as foreign minister, has been deeply involved in negotiations with the Palestinians, and understands both the challenges of engaging Palestinian Authority President Abbas as well as the necessity of US involvement in facilitating the peace process.
Given her background, Livni has absolutely no illusion about the difficulties ahead. In her Washington address, she acknowledged the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, as a key part of the putative state remains under the control of Hamas, and the hesitancy of Abbas, who controls the rest, to resume the talks with Israel he abandoned more than four years ago.
Still, Livni’s praise for Kerry’s “enthusiasm” for trying is in line with Netanyahu’s outreach to get Abbas back to the table. Sadly, for Israelis and Palestinians, it may turn out that – not for the first or even the second time – the PA leadership is not playing ball with Washington’s determined diplomacy.
Livni acknowledges that some in Israel, as well as in the American Jewish community, have given up, concluding that peace is impossible.
But inaction is not an answer, she insisted. Israel would not have achieved all that it has in only 65 years of independence with that kind of hopelessness.
Yes, sustainable peace will require genuine, committed partners. And yes, Israel’s armed forces cannot for a single moment let its guard down, not now nor anytime soon.
At the same time, being on the constant lookout for those hitherto elusive Palestinian partners – and keeping hope alive – remain essential elements of the equation.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.