I am not much of a sports fan, but I do know that a team that can only win at home will never be a champion.
Unfortunately, it seems that the three leaders most important to achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians – Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama, have all taken on a strategy of playing to win at home, while ignoring the away games. Â The speeches at the UN last month were a case in point, but they reflect a larger pattern.
Netanyahu needs to keep his coalition together, and cannot be seen to be conceding on anything (even rhetorically) for that to happen. Â Â His coalition partners Â However, this is the coalition he chose (there were and are other options), so we have to assume that this is the policy he wants to follow. Â His speeches at Congress earlier this year, and at the UN last month, were aimed at getting big applause from his supporters at home and in the US, and succeeding in doing so, but did nothing to help move the process forward. Â He made no gesture to either the peace camp in Israel or to the Palestinians that would help win them over to the idea that his government is serious about peace. Â The Foreign Ministry under Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon seems focused on putting out YouTube videos aimed at firing up the right-wing base and enraging Palestinians and their supporters, rather than reaching out to allies. Â Netanyahu is getting more and more popular among his base, while alienating everyone else in Israel and abroad.
Unfortunately, Mahmoud Abbas is taking a parallel strategy. Â Having come close to an agreement, according to many sources, with the Olmert government, he sees no purpose in starting from square one with the Netanyahu government. Â Â The Israeli right-wing takes his failure to accept that agreement as another indication that nothing short of Israel’s destruction will ever be enough for the Palestinians. Â However, it seems to me that he had reasonable concerns about concluding an agreement with a Prime Minister about to be indicted on corruption charges at any minute. Â On the other hand, since then, rather than trying to reach out to Israeli moderates, he has gone to the UN with a plan that appeals to his domestic politics, and to his Arab allies, but has no hope of actually bringing about the state he wants to build. Â He got all the applause at the UN – his home court – but could not even bring himself to refer to the holy sites as being holy to all three religions, specifically excluding Judaism in talking about Muslim and Christian holy sites. Â There was not a single crumb in that speech to appeal to Israelis.
Obama started out his administration by reaching out to the Arab world, but completely failed to connect with Israelis. Â However, now he seems to care more about votes in Florida then about making progress towards peace. Â His UN speech was an appeal to Israel supporters in America, but failed to reach out to either Israelis or Palestinians in any significant way. Â Israelis do not trust his friendship with Israel, and Palestinians see him as a tool of AIPAC.
It does not need to be this way. Â Our leaders cannot ignore their constituencies, but they need to show the other side that there is something worthwhile to sit down and talk about. Â At the very least, Netanyahu needs to get very tough about the extremist wing of the settlers who have been perpetrating “price tag” arsons and attacks on Palestinian and Israeli-Arab property. Â He should go further and freeze all settlement activity in areas Israel expects to give up in a peace agreement. Â He does not need to stop all building altogether, but by continuing to build in areas that will be part of the Palestinian state according to every draft agreement so far proposed, he signals to the Palestinians and the world that we are not serious about ever leaving those areas, and weakens our hold on the areas we do want to hold, like the Etzion block.
Abbas needs to show Israelis that a peace agreement would mean the end of the conflict. Â Â He can do this by acknowledging that this is a struggle between two peoples with different but legitimate claims to the land, and not a struggle over colonialism. Â He must publicly recognize the Jewish people’s connection to the land, and guarantee that Jews will always be given access to our holy sites.
No one needs to make any substantive concessions before meeting at the negotiating table – they each just need to signal to the other side that negotiations are not a waste of time.
In an election year, Obama’s focus is inevitably going to be on domestic politics. However, he needs to take some time to come visit us. Â He needs to publicly show Israelis that America will never give up their security – which is a condition for Israel to feel comfortable making concessions. Â For the Palestinians, he should back off his objections to their UN bid. Â The US has the power to make the UN declaration of Palestinian statehood a positive move rather than a negative one. Â On the other hand, Â if the US withdraws funding to the PA as retaliation for the UN bid, then America will lose any ability to influence the future shape of the peace process.
All the players are trying to just win the game at home, while waiting for the other teams to just fold up and leave. Â They are hoping that the next set of teams they need to play will be more to their liking. Â Sports teams do not get to choose against whom they play. Â Neither do our leaders. Â If they start playing an away game to win, everyone can come out a winner.
Shawn Ruby is a veteran Israeli immigrant, who recently left hi-tech to pursue a career in the Rabbinate.