March 7

(With much talk about Secretary of State John Kerry's peace initiative coming to a conclusion, I wanted to share with you this sermon I delivered on March 7, which I thought I had posted but found this morning in my unsent "draft" box.) 
Prospects for PeaceThis evening I would like to share a discussion that we rabbis had with Shlomo Avineri, during the last evening of our January Rabbinic Action Mission t to Rome and Jerusalem. Shlomo Avineri is a distinguished professor of Political Science at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a highly thought of intellectual and a frequent columnist for the newspaper, Ha-Aretz, in Israel.   The topic was the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.  During this time our Secretary of State, John Kerry, was, and continues to be, engaged in a process which would hopefully yield a final peace treaty by March of this year between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  Professor Avineri spoke about four issues that keep the Israelis and Palestinians, as he says, “far from peace”. The first issue he discussed was the issue of borders. The Palestinians want Israel to evacuate Israeli settlers in the West Bank.  “How does one evacuate 150,000 people in a democracy?” asked Avineri. Although he never thought Israeli settlement of the West Bank was a good idea, it has been an idea supported by all Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, over the past forty years.  These governments were elected by the people in a democratic process and are an expression of the will of the people. Israel almost came to the brink of civil war with the evacuation of 8000 people from Gaza.  A government that would begin to evacuate 150,000 settlers from the West Bank would be a government that would soon fall. The second stumbling block for a final peace treaty, according to  Avineri, is the issue of joint sovereignty over Jerusalem. Avineri emphasized that there is no place in the world where joint sovereignty is held by two governments. “Who is going to take care of the lawbreakers?” he asked rhetorically.  He maintains that joint sovereignty is untenable and unworkable.  As an example, Great Britain and Spain both claim sovereignty over the Rock of Gibraltar.  Despite the fact that those two countries are at peace with one another, they cannot come to an agreement on joint sovereignty. How are the Palestinians and the Israelis, who are at virtual war with one another, come to an agreement on joint sovereignty of Jerusalem when Spain and Great Britain, two  country who  have an amicable relationship cannot do so with regard to the Rock of Gibraltar?  The third irresolvable area,  Avineri points out,  is that of refugees. Some 750,000 Arab refugees fled or were expelled during the fighting that was instigated by the Arabs in an effort to wipe out the nascent Jewish state in 1948. That number has grown to over four and one-half million refugees and their descendants. Avineri said that this is more than just a humanitarian issue.  It is also a symbolic issue for the Palestinians. For Palestinians, granting the “right of return” for refugees means that Israel takes responsibility for what they consider “the nahkbah” – the disaster that happened in 1948 to their national aspirations.  No Israeli government, said Avineri, will accept the right of Palestinians to choose to return to their former homes, let alone accept moral responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees. Finally, there is the issue of security. Israel will insist that any Palestinian state be a demilitarized state. Israel will maintain over-flight rights and will insist on a military presence in the Jordan Valley, which would form the border between a Palestinian state and Jordan. These conditions also would be unacceptable to the Palestinians. This, he reminds us, is not just a territorial issue. It is a conflict about occupation, about the legitimacy of the use of terrorism, about two different narratives — two very different versions of history.  There are also religious aspects, on both sides. On the other hand, the status quo is unacceptable, he maintains.  In a separate op-ed piece published in Ha-Aretz after our visit, Avineri cautions not to expect Abbas to sign any agreement with the Israelis.  He notes that his tactics in the past negotiations has been to wring concessions from the Israelis, then break off negotiations without committing to anything in return.  If Avineri is correct, and no signed agreement will come out of these talks, what is to be done?  Avineri suggests that there is a third way. This is the way of partial solutions, intermediate steps, partial agreements, unilateral steps and informal accommodations. We need to move our thinking from conflict resolution to conflict management, he says. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, yet we should not think that there is enough common ground for a final agreement.  The two sides can do things to reduce the friction and bring about significant change even in the absence of a final agreement. This is working today in other areas of conflict – in Cyprus, in Bosnia, in Kosovo.  Perhaps it can work, too, in the Middle East – for the time being. Shabbat Shalom