As the latest round of peace talks begins, the feeling in the air is one of optimism, skepticism, cynicism and pessimism. John Kerry and Martin Indyk are hoping that they will be able to overcome the obstacles and sound determined to give it everything they've got. Perhaps the greatest fear is that they could succeed.
But the question remains - how do we determine success? Is it just the signing of a piece of paper proclaiming "peace in our time"? The mutual distrust - and very often hatred - between Israelis and Palestinians will remain, independent of any peace accord. The Oslo agreements of 1993 were supposed to usher in a new wave of peace. Things have certainly changed on the ground since then, but the lack of peace hasn't been one of them.
The reason I am not optimistic about this round of talks succeeding is that whatever the Netanyahu government and the United States are offering the Palestinians, it will be less than what they think they will get if they pursued the path of the United Nations and internationalization of the conflict. There are no indications that Palestinians are getting ready to end their struggle. On the contrary, they see the BDS movement and the apartheid accusations gaining strength. And most importantly, even if they get their demand of 1967 borders - which itself is highly unlikely - it will not end the conflict, because the conflict has never been about 1967. This is still a conflict over the events of 1948 and the mutual claims of both parties over the entirety of the land between the river and the sea.
Yet there is an even greater issue that has essentially been ignored since the very beginning of the process. Has it ever occurred to anyone how absurd it is to try to resolve the conflict without addressing the matters of religious symbolism? For Heaven's sake - pun intended - it's the Holy Land! The general presumptions have been that the religious on both sides are extremists that simply need to be rolled over to get to an agreement.
This has been a fundamental paradigm flaw from the very beginning. Religion has always been viewed as part of the problem, rather than as a potential part of the solution. Part of this has been a result of Western, secular biases against both Judaism and Islam. The most powerful messages of the sanctity of human life, justice and peace have always come from the Abrahamic religious sources themselves.
The roles of symbolism and honor have also been neglected to a great extent. In certain ways, this is a conflict over which flag will fly over the land and which cultures and languages will be dominant. For Jews and Israelis, the meaning of the words "the Jewish State" are matters of deep, internal conflict. The meaning of the word "Jewish" has been deliberately left undefined. Yet the symbols of the renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language, the Star of David upon a blue and white flag, and national independence in the ancient, ancestral homeland, are powerful forces that unite Israelis and Jews around the world.
Likewise, for Palestinians, whose flag is the flag of the Arab Revolt of 1916, these Jewish symbols represent the usurpation and colonization of "Arab" land, and the nakba, or catastrophe of their loss in the war of 1948. Pan-Arab nationalism has transformed over the years into Palestinian nationalism, yet the argument essentially remains the same: Western imperial powers stole Arab land and handed it over to the Jews who are basically foreigners in the region. There are varying degrees of willingness to come to terms with the reality and facts on the ground, but Israel's very existence and subsequent history are still sources of deep pain and disgrace.
Most of the negotiations over the course of the years have been conducted like the worst and most bitter divorce proceedings in history, each side arguing vehemently over who gets what and who started what with whom. The model is the British model of Partition, which is really the antithesis of anything Solomonic in wisdom (the nuclear weapons that India and Pakistan have pointed at each other should be argument enough). The land only truly belongs to the party that refuses to see it split! Yet there is another model that also involves the allocation of assets between parties, also often familial and containing vehement disputes. This is the model of inheritance.
My argument is that rather than looking at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict as a divorce proceeding, that we look at it as an inheritance dispute. For that is essentially what is. Both sides often jokingly refer to each other as "the cousins". It is impossible to deny the relationship between Arabic and Hebrew as "cousin" Semitic languages, and both Christianity and Islam recognize that Judaism is the older "sibling". Jews recognize that their ancestral father Abraham is also the "father of many nations". Muslims recognize themselves as the children of Ishmael/Ismail and Jews as the children of Isaac/Ishaq, or Banu Israil, the children of Israel.
Abraham as a unifying thread, is such an obvious symbolic choice that the wonder is why it hadn't been thought of before. Part of the problem is that the "Abrahamic Solution" was hiding in plain sight. Those who would easily dismiss this are seriously misunderstanding the power of symbolism in the region. Not only does Abraham as a constant reminder encourage more tolerant attitudes between Muslims, Christians and Jews, it also encourages more peaceful attitudes between Arabs and Muslims themselves. Most significantly, it provides a symbolic marker in a term easily understandable in the region as to why the Jews are there in the first place. The importance of this last point cannot be overstated.
Jews and Arabs already share the land between the river and the sea, and the Palestinian economy is heavily dependent upon Israel's. It is conceivable that at some point in the future, both Jordan and Lebanon could express interest in such an association. While a federation or confederation would probably be too strong a political union, the British Commonwealth of Nations could be a more appropriate structural model. (Indeed, as former British Mandate territories, Israel/Palestine are also eligible members of that body). From the Commonwealth's charter:
the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent and equal sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of our peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace, and influencing international society to the benefit of all through the pursuit of common principles and values.
The term "common wealth", is in fact the most appropriate phrase to describe the "ownership" of the land between the river and the sea. While no name is set in stone, an entity named "the Commonwealth of Abrahamic States" ("Artzot Brit Avraham" in Hebrew) could actually have a chance for bringing peace. It is also one of the few - or only - ideas that could have a chance for moderating extremism and attracting religious groups to invest in its future success.
Like New York and New Jersey; Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC; or France and Germany, each state would have its own flag, its own government and its own legal system. The political status of Washington DC could also serve as a working model for the city of Jerusalem. Bodies similar to the Port Authority of NY/NJ would need to be set up. Clearly, it is impossible to solve all problems or foresee all future challenges. Negotiations would obviously still be necessary. But such a model could provide a framework for mutual cooperation and a sense of interdependence between the parties rather than conflict.
And is it really any worse than the current model? Is the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes really the way to make peace? Hasn't there been enough expulsion and destruction? The insistence on the arbitrary "1967 border" (really the 1949 armistice line) is a strait-jacket meant to insist that - as a matter of principle (!) - Jews have no right to dwell in cities in the Biblical heartland. The greatest and saddest irony is that the name of the city of Hebron (al-Khalil, in Arabic), where our common father lies buried, comes from the root word for "friend" in both languages.
What would Father Abraham say?
Dedicated to the memory and spirit of Rabbi Menachem Froman (pbuh), who ascended to the mountaintop and showed us the way forward into the Promised Land.