Monday, March 18, 2013

Obama in Israel: Peace Process Is Surprisingly Resilient

President Obama is coming to Israel next week. Among other things, I hope that he is coming to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Most pundits remain pessimistic, but I remain hopeful. The following anecdote will explain why.

Last Sunday I gave a talk at St Bart's Church on Park Ave. and 51 St., in the heart of the prestigious East Side of New York. The talk was in the format of a public interview and took place at the "Rector's Forum" in the informal atmosphere of their famous "St. Bart's Cafe." When I arrived a few minutes early, I was warmly greeted by the new rector of St. Bart's, Rev. Buddy Stallings, to whom I had been introduced by a Jewish friend in New York last fall.

Rev. Stallings was greeting many of his congregants at the end of their worship services in their magnificent historic church when I walked in, and he immediately introduced me to a congregant by the name of George Mitchell. Yes, the very same Senator George Mitchell who was instrumental in bringing about the "Good Friday" agreement between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland (in 1998 as the special envoy of President Clinton) which ended the decades old bloody conflict in that part of the world. I was, of course, greatly honored to meet him.

And when I began my talk on "The Other Peace Process -- Interreligious Dialogue in Israel in the Service of Peace," Senator Mitchell came into the room to be part of the audience. So I was even more honored. Moreover, since I knew that he had served as the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace (2009-2011) under President Obama, I knew that I had to be careful to be historically accurate in what I said.

During the public interview, I was asked many difficult questions by the moderator, Rev. Stallings, but also by the attentive and perceptive audience. Undoubtedly, the most difficult question was: "What is the most difficult challenge that you encounter in your work in peace-building through dialogue in your country and your region?" I replied that my most difficult challenge is attempting to engage in dialogue among Jews and Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) in an atmosphere of ongoing political stalemate and the resulting individual and communal despair which leads many people to believe that our conflict will never be resolved.

I explained that it has been almost 15 years since the last peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which was the Wye River agreement in 1998 (signed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which only proves that he can make a peace agreement with the Palestinians if he really wants to). Moreover, the decade that began in the year 2000 -- which was characterized by the failure of the Camp David talks in August of that year, and which was followed a month later by the outbreak of the Second Intifada (Palestinian Uprising) -- was a decade in which separation replaced normalization and despair replaced hope.

This has led most people on both sides -- Israelis and Palestinians -- to be despondent and to believe that this conflict could go on forever. Even though polls on both sides show that both peoples still strongly desire a two state solution, most people do not see it coming in the near future. This has led to a dangerous psychological and conceptual situation in which individuals see no way out of the current impasse.

Toward the end of the conversation, Senator Mitchell rose to make a comment. He told us that five days before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland, a public opinion poll revealed that 84 percent of the people on both sides of the conflict felt that the conflict would never end. And yet it ended with an agreement that has led to the cessation of the cycle of violence and the beginning of power-sharing and reconciliation among the parties to the conflict there.

So conflicts can and do end. And ours will end in the Middle East, hopefully sooner, rather than later.

And then we can get on with the real work of peace-building, i.e., of training Palestinians and Israelis to learn to live together in mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. This will be a long-term project, which will involve many sectors of civil society on both sides, including rabbis, imams and priests, educators, youth, students, young adults and women. It will be a decades long educational, religious, spiritual and psychological process in order to secure safety and wellbeing for all people in our region. We in Israel have already begun to do this through our work in interreligious dialogue and education for peace. But when the peace agreement is actually completed, we will have a lot more work to do!