Sunday, January 04, 2009

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Problem

When I watch news reports of Israel's invasion of Gaza and listen to spokespersons from both sides justify themselves and condemn the other, I feel overwhelmed with frustration, anger, and sadness that the violence and excuses continue and that human beings in that godforsaken part of the world are suffering terrible lives and dying terrible deaths because they can't escape the awful grip of stupidity and hatred.

Israel says they're attacking Gaza to stop Hamas from bombarding Israel with rockets. Hamas says it's bombarding Israel with rockets to stop it from blockading and abusing the impoverished people of Gaza. Israel says it's blockading Gaza and killing and arresting people there to punish terrorists and stop terrorism. Hamas says it commits the kind of violence it does against Israel because this is the only way it has of opposing the oppressive tyranny of a superior military force. Israel says it wouldn't need to exercise this force if Hamas would acknowledge Israel's right to exist and leave it alone. Hamas says that Israel has no right to exist because it seized its land illegitimately. Israel says it has a right to its land and to exist and protect itself. Back and forth the two sides go, irreconcilably justifying their own actions while condemning those of the other side, and showing no empathy and compassion for the other.

Several interviewers asked these spokespersons yesterday, "What will it take to stop the violence?" Each side said that the other side must first stop doing what it's been doing. Yet, neither side is willing to take that first step without assurances that the other side won't exploit it and that there will be lasting change for the better. And no such assurances seem forthcoming.

Into the breach steps psychotherapist and rabbi Michael Lerner with a detailed plan for bringing lasting peace to the Middle East. He argues that Israel, "as the militarily superior force," should take the first steps. They should consist of a "massive Marshall Plan in Gaza and the West Bank," dismantling all Israeli settlements in these areas, allowing controlled immigration of Palestinians into Israel, formally apologizing "for its role in the 1948 expulsions of Palestinians" and working with the rest of the world to compensate Palestinians who were inordinately harmed by the Occupation, and recognizing a Palestinian state as defined by the Geneva Accord of 2003. Then, Lerner suggests, the Israelis and Palestinians can get down to the business of implementing a plan in which each makes major concessions and where both sides are scrupulously monitored by an impartial international force that rigorously enforces the agreements between them.

But all of this needs to take place within a framework of each side acknowledging the humanity and the human needs for peace, safety, and prosperity shared by both sides of the aisle. Says Lerner:
The basic condition for creating peace is to help each side feel “safe” enough to ignore those within their own community who claim that peace is impossible and that no one cares about the safety of “the Jews,” or “the Palestinians.” A first and critical step is to speak in a language that is empathic toward the suffering of each people. Rather than try to prove that the Palestinians are “nothing but” terrorists or that Zionism is nothing but an elaborate scheme for continuing and escalating Western colonialism and imperialism, we must create a climate of discourse in which both sides’ stories are genuinely heard and undertstood.

As for what the United States can do to bring all of this about, Lerner writes:
The most significant contribution the new Obama Administration could make to Middle East Peace would be to embrace an alternative strategy: that homeland security is best achieved through generosity and caring for others. If the US were to announce its embrace of a Global Marshall Plan, beginning with the Middle East and backed up with money and the conscious articulation of a Strategy of Generosity, it would do more to help Israel than all the armaments it can promise and all the shuttle diplomacy it might facilitate. If this new way of thinking could become a major part of US policy, it would have an immense impact on undermining the fearful consciousness of Israelis who still see the world more through the frame of the Holocaust than through the frame of their actual present power in the world.

Is this the "pie-in-the sky" idealizing of some radical liberal intellectual hopelessly out-of-touch with the bleak realities of today's world? Many would say that it is. But what is the alternative to listening to people like Lerner and doing our best to transform their ideals into reality?

On Fareed Zakaria's show this morning, an Israeli spokesperson explained that the ground incursion into Gaza was designed to inflict such damage on Hamas that they could not credibly claim any kind of victory and which permanently removed their capacity to rain rockets down on Israel. But it seems to me that not only will Hamas survive to make claims of victory that will be embraced by the many who want to believe them, but also that Israel, without permanently and disastrously occupying Gaza, will not be able to keep Hamas or some other radical group from acquiring more rockets and moving them into position to fire them into Israel, and that, in any case, Israel's actions in Gaza will take many lives, maim many more, and stir up even more hatred resulting in more violence against Israel and its supporters. Conversely, the Palestinians will never be able to defeat Israel and take over all its lands. Therefore, unless the madness in the Middle East is to continue indefinitely, both sides must strike out in a bold new direction together. It might be the one outlined by Lerner. It might be someone else's.

But something different must be done if a different and better result is to be achieved. And neither side can coerce the other by rockets, bombs, or troops into settling for anything less.

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