While the headlines occasionally tell us of some renewed attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, it is difficult to avoid the feeling of total deadlock. So many on both sides have lost faith; so few take seriously the intermittent diplomatic efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table.
Each side has built its narrative as to why peace is out of reach, invariably placing the blame at the other’s feet. Indeed, it often seems that more energy is devoted to explaining why the other side is responsible for failure than to trying to create conditions for success.
Over the years of failed negotiations, discussion of how to actually advance peace has steadily receded not only within policy circles but across Israeli society. While we may still quietly pray for peace, we seem to have stopped talking about it, stopped demanding it of our government, stopped believing it is actually possible. The public can rally to protest the cost of living, or demand social justice, but for many the cause of peace has lost its urgency and its capacity to stir the heart.
There is much that explains this predicament. Given the dysfunction on the Palestinian side, the turmoil in the region, the psychological chasm between the peoples, the violence, the shattered hopes and so much else, we can be forgiven for questioning whether peace is achievable in the foreseeable future. There is no doubt merit to conventional Israeli assessments of where responsibility lies for this state of affairs, though the story is unlikely to be as black and white as some spokesmen and advocates profess.
For the Jewish people, however, an approach to peace that is limited to explaining why it cannot be reached (however persuasive that explanation may be) is unworthy of us. This is not just because advancing peace is a core tactical and strategic Israeli interest - not a favor we do for the Palestinians or the U.S. administration. It is also because seeking peace is a fundamental Jewish value and aspiration, a part of our national character that we should nurture and cherish.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence included an appeal for peace in circumstances hardly more hospitable to it than those we experience today. And at impossible moments in Israel’s history, as we buried our dead from suicide bombings and armed conflict, and even when rebuffed repeatedly, we have had the courage to reach for peace and to take tremendous risks for it.
To take this pursuit seriously today, one need not be naive about peace nor adhere to a fixed paradigm about how it can be achieved. There is abundant room for skepticism about the prospects for imminent breakthrough, and much that is tired and deserving of reexamination in the accepted wisdom that has crystallized around the “peace process.”
One can be a genuine advocate of peace and still believe that its attainment will be gradual and have real doubts as to whether all that is required is the political will to make concessions. The real divide over peace is not between right and left, but between those for whom the pursuit of peace is essentially a nuisance - a chore we engage in to placate foreign powers - and those for whom it is a serious endeavor.
A genuine dedication to peace does not absolve our neighbors of their share of responsibility for bringing it about. It does not require any illusions about the nature of the region we live in or the obstacles before us. The question a people committed to peace must ask itself is not how we achieve peace today, but rather what concrete steps can we can take today to enhance its prospects, to empower its supporters and weaken its enemies.
In fact, peace advocates often err when they reduce the “peace process” to what happens at the negotiation table, and fail to see the efforts to effectively combat extremism and intolerance, or confront the Iranian threat, as integral parts of a peace agenda. Creating the space for peace can be as much about disempowering extremists as it is about seeking agreement with moderates.
Our tradition, places the relentless pursuit of peace amongst the highest of our aspirations. The Talmud, in Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta, devotes an entire chapter to exalting peace as a Jewish value. Hillel the sage instructs us to be “like the students of Aharon, to love peace and chase after it” (Avot 1:12). And in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:1) Rabbi Shimon Ben Halufta says, “There is no vessel of greater blessing than peace,” and quotes, in that context, the famous verse from Psalms (29:11): “May God give His people strength, may God bless his people with peace.” The list of Jewish sources embracing peace is almost countless.
For a Jewish State worthy of that name, peace cannot be a matter of tactics or lip service. For a Jewish State, the peace process can never be over. It must be fundamental to how we educate our children and primary amongst our policies. This commitment to continually strengthen the love of peace in our society is neither a concession nor a sign of weakness - it is a move toward our truer selves. “Seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalms 34:16) is our calling. It is not an obligation to attain peace - that is often subject to factors beyond our control. It is an obligation to make the unyielding, and often exasperating, search for peace an inseparable part of who we are.
This recording of "Is the Israel-Palestinian Peace Process Over?" is adapted from the live webinar broadcast on March 12, 2012. Click here to register for the sixth and final session of the Webinar series, "Israel at 64," featuring Dr. Tal Becker and Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, which is scheduled for April 30, 2012.