Editorial: Shofar, So Good


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised him for an “unprecedented action,” especially in view of the high political risks involved in that decision. And now, on the heels of the shofar’s pronouncement of peace, in the very beginning stages of the renewed direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the moratorium has expired. Will this be the expiration of peace talks as well?

Though the cement for Israeli settlers’ new kindergarten has barely hardened, Netanyahu has issued a statement calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “to continue the good and sincere talks that we have just started, in order to reach an historic peace agreement between our two peoples.” The New York Times reports that the “U.S. is scrambling to save talks on the Middle East,” as American officials attempt to persuade the Palestinian side to remain at the table.

The U.S. is rapidly spending its chips with both corners to retain the prospect of continued negotiations. President Barack Obama used his United Nations speech to appeal to Israel to extend the settlement building freeze – “We believe that the moratorium should be extended.” – and noted the possibility that “terror or turbulence, or posturing or petty politics” could disrupt the talks, while strongly urging Arab and Muslim-majority nations to stand behind the process.

“When we come back next year,” President Obama said, “we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations, an independent state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” The President’s wise words deserve to be taken seriously by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the League of Arab States, all of which strongly endorsed the resumed direct peace talks.

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As well-intentioned as Obama and Company might be, are their hopes consonant with reality? Netanyahu and Abbas are both hemmed in by “inconvenient truths” concerning their political and diplomatic flexibility. Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition includes parties to the right of his own conservative Likud Party, which had threatened to bolt his government and force new elections in the event of an extended moratorium.

In the other camp, Abbas is dealing with the reality that his government has practical and legal control only over the West Bank.

Despite Abbas’ efforts and those of his associates, the Gaza Strip is under the rule of the terrorist group Hamas, which utterly rejects not only the peace process but the very existence of the Jewish State of Israel. Hamas’ leader, Khaled Mashaal, has threatened to kill “illegal settlers,” and has fatuously likened the Palestinian freedom movement to the American Revolution. There is some talk of the PA and Hamas coming to terms on an umbrella leadership deal, but the terms and effect on the peace talks remains to be seen.

With all this background noise, it is brave of both Netanyahu and Abbas to cling steadfastly to hope. Bibi did not bolt from the talks when a Hamas-claimed terrorist attack ended the lives of four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, just as the talks had resumed. Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas condemned the attacks and continued their negotiations. And Abbas is not yet hyperbolically using the end of the building freeze as an excuse to walk, despite previous assertions suggesting otherwise.

Brave, yes. Folly? We say no. The best hope for peace is that both leaders seem so far to be recognizing that extreme factions should not be empowered to defeat peace through threats, coercion, political blackmail or violence. To turn toward the middle (even referring to their historic enemies as their “partner”) represents a dynamic change in tone and substance.

Just as importantly, the effect of having so many of the key players in support – Israel’s major parties, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, the “Quartet” of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – is incredibly important. To have friends in place to quell the negative buzz that is inevitable when tough times befall the discussions is crucial indeed.

If the respective leaders of Israel and the PA can continue to show courage amidst tough conditions; if they can listen to both their inner voice and the many voices desiring a lasting peace; if they can focus on the narrow and windy path through the minefields, then there is hope for something beyond past failures. In the words of the late and great former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, it is time to go “not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace.”