Aaron B. Cohen
Updated: July 25, 2013 5:30PM
With the possibility of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a blip of hope on the horizon, the question returns: Does resumption of the “peace process” have any chance to resolve this particular conflict in the Middle East?
While Chicago-area Jews try to view the resumption of peacemaking efforts with optimism, the “Arab Spring” offers a sobering reality check.
The “Arab Spring” — that once-hopeful term — has come to represent bloody and intractable dispute more than the blossoming of peace and democracy.
It begs the question: If conflict within the Arab world itself is so resistant to resolution, how can it be otherwise when it comes to making peace with Israel?
Despite the best efforts of Democratic and Republican presidents and other would-be peacemakers, the emergence of a Palestinian state co-existing peacefully alongside the Jewish state — something Israel desires — seems perpetually stymied.
The answer might have everything to do with the mode of conflict in the Arab world, which appears gripped in the throes of zero-sum games (“If you win, I lose; if I win, you lose — and I’m not going to lose or compromise.”)
From its beginning, Israel’s very survival has rested on its ability to fend off the kind of unspeakable brutality that has long characterized the zero-sum approach to conflict in the Middle East. Only Israel, with the help of the United States, has tried to change the zero-sum pattern by seeking to promote a win-win paradigm. At times it’s worked, be it in territorial concessions to Egypt or Jordan.
In the 1990s, Israel tried, through the Oslo peace process, to reach a win-win solution with the Palestinians. That experiment ended when the Palestinians launched a zero-sum terror-war, a.k.a. the second intifada. Israel tried again in 2005, when it withdrew from Gaza, with the understanding that a West Bank withdrawal might well follow. That win-win proposition ended in the ascendance of Hamas and its zero-sum game of missile warfare against Israeli civilians.
All this is not to say that war is outside the lexicon of the Israelis, or that there aren’t times when the just way to deal with an enemy is to defeat him totally. That said, the truth is that Israel, fighting in self-defense, never has engaged in the kind of zero-sum game — involving the wanton slaughter of civilians — that has been the hallmark of Middle Eastern conflicts, whether Arab against Arab; Muslim against Muslim; Arab against Persian; Muslim against Christian; Arab, Persian and Turk against Kurd, and so forth.
Due to Israeli restraint, extensive efforts to protect its citizens, and its desire to achieve win-win outcomes, fatalities in the conflict with the Palestinians since Israel’s founding in 1948 — some 15,000 people on both sides, by many estimates — pale in comparison to the estimated 100,000 killed in just two years of Syria’s civil war, and the up to 175,000 dead in Iraq.
The bloodshed now occurring in the Arab world is a contest among fundamentalists and liberals, democrats and autocrats, soldiers and terrorists. So far, the only winner seems to be death. So far, the losers are those willing to embrace compromise, to break free from the traps of ancient hatreds and superstitions, and to accept the “other” for the sake of mutual benefit, progress and peace. For peace to come, societies plunged into extended cycles of violence must find ways to mediate differences other than demonization, agitation, terror, retribution and slaughter.
How can Israel make peace with the Palestinian cause when so many forces, including Hamas, hijack that cause and plot the day when they can exact against the Jewish people a catastrophe at least as horrifying as what we see unfolding, for example, in Syria?
The vast majority of Jews here in Chicago and worldwide have no blinkers on when it comes to that possibility. The deep scars of Jewish history prevent us from harboring illusions when it comes to reading the intentions of those who spout genocidal rhetoric, as do many of Israel’s enemies.
Like her own citizens, we Chicago Jews want Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. For that to happen, the Palestinians, and those on whom they depend and with whom they ally, also must make peace with Israel. Alas, the Arab Spring is proving that the win-win model for such peacemaking has yet to take root and that, tragically, much more blood is likely to flow before it does.
Aaron B. Cohen is vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.