A little over a year ago -- just before the Jewish New Year -- I published a piece entitled With the New Year Comes Hope. In it, I discussed President Obama's push to get the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and talk seriously with one another, the prospect for peace in the Middle East and the fact that at the time of a new year, there is always room for hope.
Well, here we are, more than a year later, and some things are a bit better, some a bit worse, but for the most part, things are pretty much the same:
- Nothing came of the much-hyped direct talks between Abbas, Netanyahu and the Obama Administration;
- Despite pressure from both the American Administration, and members of his own government, Netanyahu refused to extend an embargo on new construction projects in disputed areas -- a major sticking point with the Palestinians;
- President Obama got himself into a firestorm of controversy when, in giving a speech at the Pentagon, he mentioned "pre-1967 borders" as an aspect of future negotiations;
- Hamas and Fatah -- heretofore the alpha and omega of Palestinian political factions -- affected a "reconciliation," agreeing to form an interim government;
- Oppressive Arab regimes fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while Syrians and Yeminis took to the streets with their demands, and Saudi King Abdullah proclaimed that women will have the right to vote beginning in 2015.
- Young Egyptians surrounded the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, thus necessitating the emergency evacuation of all Israeli diplomats -- with an able assist from the Obama Administration.
- Despite an official UN determination that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza was both "legal" and "a legitimate security measure," the Turkish government expelled the Israeli Ambassador. In announcing his government's actions, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, "The time has come for Israel to pay for its stance that sees it above international laws and disregards human conscience. The first and foremost result is that Israel is going to be devoid of Turky's friendship."
- The 2012 presidential campaign got underway in earnest, with virtually every Republican hopeful trying to sound like the second coming of Ze'ev Jabotinsky while simultaneously portraying Barack Obama as a Muslim appeaser who doesn't know the difference between a katyusha and a falafal;
- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went before the United Nations seeking statehood; President Obama flatly stated that the United States would veto any such resolution in the Security Council. Despite what many saw as a brave and supportive stance, the president was once again pilloried -- even prior to making his speech -- for being both naive and an enemy of the Jewish State.
Yes, it's been quite a year.
In response to the Palestinian statehood proposal, the so-called "Middle East Quartet" (the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia) strongly urged that Israel and the Palestinians resume peace talks with the goal of making a deal by the end of 2012. Almost immediately, President Abbas said that while he would review the Middle East Quartet's idea for peace talks to start within a month, he is both firmly and irrevocably against any plan that does not require Israel to stop building settlements: "We will not deal with any initiative that does not contain a halt to settlement or the '67 borders."
Who amongst us can remember the last time two or more sides agreed to sit down and seriously discuss the issues which divided them without first etching prior demands into case-hardened concrete? What sense does it make to say "I will gladly talk to you just so long as you give in to me before we begin our discussion?" Yes, I recognize that a lot of this is political posturing, plain and simple; throwing some raw meat to the base, so to speak. And yet, we see this "agreement-must-precede-discussion" nonsense not only on the international stage, but in virtually every issue arising in Congress; in our local, state and national elections; in negotiations between management and labor; and certainly in most international disputes. And what makes matters worse -- regardless of whether the venue is Congress, the United Nations or the court of public opinion -- is that one side views the other -- and its attendant world view, opinions, and claims -- as being flat-out wrong . . . a mendacious evil to be denied at any and all costs.
It would appear that the further we progress -- if indeed, "progress" be the correct term -- the more our points of view are not, in fact, the products of education, experience, knowledge and contemplation, but rather believed to be matters of "divine revelation." And that which is believed to have emanated from some historic mount -- whether it be Sinai, Gerizim, Gilboa, Nebo, Ararat or Jabal Musa -- or through the mouth of God's anointed prophet -- whoever he or she may be -- is, by definition, sacred, immutable and beyond question. In a world increasingly given over to fanaticism, is the inability to reach compromise or rapprochement -- let alone even consider it -- all that shocking?
In political economics, those who favor increased government spending are accused by those who insist on cutting taxes and regulations of being Socialists; those who wish nothing more than to wreck the capitalist system. Conversely, those who insist that cutting government spending is the only way to save the American economy are tarred with the brush of heartless misanthropy; those who would steal the coal from Tiny Tim's Christmas stocking.
Likewise with the Middle East: each side sees the other as being conscious agents of evil who are incapable of perceiving even an ounce of humanity in their enemy. Both sides accuse the other of unspeakable crimes against humanity -- regardless of what the historic record may prove. How can one even hope to reach settlement when both sides say "You are wrong, wrong, wrong!" Truth to tell, there is plenty on the record to prove that over the years, Israel has gone the extra mile -- and more than once -- to accept Palestinian Statehood. And yet, for many, that record is non existent, because it was "created" by an evil people for their own evil purposes.
Back in 1848-1849, Europe went through a period known to history variously as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution. From late February 1848 through early 1849, people's revolutions spread like wildfire from France to the German States, to the Austrian Empire, the Italian States, Denmark, and many other places. In all more than 50 countries were affected. And yet, despite the fact that many of the revolutions failed in the short-run, they did set the wheels in motion for a new Europe. One of the unsung "fathers" of that continent-wide uprising was Samuel F.B. Morse, whose telegraph made it possible for people from Paris to Budapest and from Amsterdam to Warsaw, to be in contact with one another. One thing they were able to learn -- for perhaps the first time in history -- was how very similar they were in their wants, their needs and their desires. This knowledge, if nothing else, gave them hope.
Fast forward to the Arab Spring of 2011. It is possible that when the history of this era will one day be written, that the name of Christopher Isaac "Biz" Stone, the co-founder and Creative Director of Twitter will be writ large as one of the unsung "fathers" of that movement. For just as Morse's telegraph made it possible for people throughout Europe to discover how much they had in common, Stone's social networking sites are providing Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Israelis, Socialists and Capitalists, an opportunity to go a bit beyond politics and get to know one another as human beings.
If the new year brings renewed hope -- and I for one believe it does -- then perhaps this is where it will be at ... with young people breaking down the barriers raised by their elders and finally discovering that just beneath the surface, we are all pretty much the same . . .
Here's to hope in 5772!
©2011 Kurt F. Stone