WASHINGTON — One of my favorite quotations from Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) is attributed to Rabbi Hillel who said: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
This maxim on the urgency of now is particularly relevant to today’s efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to launch a renewed effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And yet we hear voices both in Israel and here in the United States saying that now is not the time to try to make peace.
The region is in turmoil, they say. Syria is in the grip of a bloody sectarian war. Egypt is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood and is in an economic meltdown. Jordan has been destabilized by an influx of Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is trying to acquire more deadly weapons from its Syrian and Iranian allies. And we remain gravely concerned about the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, in Israel, life is pretty good as long as rockets are not falling. In Tel Aviv, the party never stops. In Jerusalem, politicians have enough domestic crises to keep themselves busy. The economy has its problems, but it grew faster than almost every other major industrialized country in the past year.
Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev brilliantly captured the zeitgeist in his recent article, “Of course Israelis want peace, but now’s not a good time. Can you come back later?”
In a tone of bitter sarcasm, he wrote, “Israelis speak of peace. They dream of peace. They yearn for peace. … But let’s not be impatient. Everything comes to he who waits. For almost 2,000 years, Jews prayed ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ and in the end — God delivered. (Only after the worst catastrophe in the history of the Jewish people, perhaps, but still.)”
Of course, there is never a perfect time to make peace. And there is never a perfect partner. One makes peace with one’s enemies, not one’s friends.
But the arguments of the detractors that regional instability should deter Israel seem particularly lacking in validity. Making peace with the Palestinians would actually inject an element of stability into the region. It would bolster moderates and weaken extremists. It would be very helpful for Jordan and very unhelpful for Iran.
It goes without saying that any peace deal would have to be approved by the Israeli people and could not be foisted on them against their will. Although there has been a consistent majority for many years in Israel in favor of a two-state solution, Israelis are going to want to examine the security provisions of such an agreement very carefully and would need to be persuaded that their safety would not be compromised. But if those conditions could be fulfilled, why not now?
Kerry seems to be making progress. He has already held multiple meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is the point person for the negotiations. He’ll be going back to the region again next week for another round.
There’s a sense that things may be moving again, reflected in the premature debate that has suddenly erupted in Israel over whether a peace deal should be ratified by a referendum or whether parliamentary approval will suffice. Kerry is probing and nudging, all below the surface, but everyone knows this phase cannot last much longer.
“We are working through a threshold of questions with a seriousness and purpose that I think Minister Livni would agree with me has not been present in a while,” Kerry said after meeting Livni in Rome last week. “And we all believe that we’re working with a short time span. We understand an imperative to try to have some sense of direction as rapidly as we can.”
As Kerry pursues his mission, the voices of those who oppose any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, both in Israel and here in the United States, will grow stronger. We heard them recently when Alan Dershowitz was roundly booed at a policy conference organized by The Jerusalem Post when he proposed an idea for restarting peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
As Dershowitz wrote on Huffington Post, “The right-wing Jewish extremists who boo everyone who wants to make compromises for peace are every bit as dangerous as Jewish extremists on the hard left who also demand a one state solution — a bi-national state that will cease being the homeland of the Jewish people. Both are unwilling to compromise their ideological claims. Both make peace more difficult to achieve. Both boo and jeer any effort to offer compromise in the interest of peace.”
What happened to Dershowitz is just a foretaste of what we can expect if there really is a chance for peace. We know opponents of any deal will mobilize and seek to shout down their adversaries. I’m willing to allow them to outdo me in rudeness and boorishness, in fearmongering and intolerance. But I’m not willing to allow them to outdo me in energy and passion.
It’s going to be up to those of us who want to see an agreement to match them in desire, to out-organize and out-mobilize them and to demonstrate that we are the vast majority both here and in Israel.
(Alan Elsner is vice president of communications for J Street.)