By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
The officials are warning not to expect too much of the announced visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan by President Barack Obama, probably next month. In view of the failures of his predecessors, notably Bill Clinton, to push Israelis and Palestinians into making peace, it’s a reasonable and understandable warning. Nevertheless, it’s hard at least not to fantasize about a more tangible outcome.
Though by no means an optimist I take seriously the pronouncements of those who say that it’s inconceivable that Obama is only coming to Israel to make nice. They hint at – or hope for – preparations in hand that may result in something substantial. Had he only come for ritual purposes, he could have waited till the summer when Israel may celebrate President Peres’ 90th birthday as a PR exercise in grand style.
But even optimists believe that to make the visit truly significant, each side should take important positive preparatory steps. Thus Israel should release some Palestinian prisoners, particularly Marwan Barghouti, now serving several life sentences.
Barghouti is said to be very popular among the Palestinians and the most credible successor to the current president of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen. Unless the 78-year old Abu Mazen is succeeded by someone like Barghouti, the West Bank is in great danger of falling into the hands of Hamas. That would, of course, make negotiations let alone a settlement with the Palestinians quite impossible.
By all accounts Barghouti may be enough of a realist and have enough authority with his people to compromise for the sake of peace with Israel. He wouldn’t be the only terrorist leader in history to turn statesman and peace maker.
But is Netanyahu enough of a statesman to persuade the government , when it’s formed, and the people to let Barghouti free and thus pave the way not only for negotiations but actually for peace, even if that’s bound to entail sacrifices on both sides?
The fact that officials don’t want us to hold out such hope may, indeed, mean that all that’s possible in the foreseeable future is the management of the conflict to which Obama may make a contribution, but no more. On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to assume that, determined not to disappoint us again, this time he has more up his sleeve.
There’re even those who say that the announcement of his impending visit was made now, in the early stages of the coalition negotiations in Israel, in order to influence their outcome. The more centrist parties are in the Netanyahu government, the greater the possibility for bold steps by Israel.
Once again, in the absence of hard facts all we have are speculations. In view of past experiences and because of what we seem to know about the intentions of those who govern both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it would be foolish to paint a rosy picture. Indications are strong that both sides may prefer the uneasy and precarious status quo to dramatic sacrifices.
But there may be enough leaders on both sides who realize the obvious: this isn’t tenable in the long run and without some bold steps today, tomorrow will look ominously bleak. As such steps can only be taken upon the urging of the United States and the guarantees it’ll have to provide, the visit of its president may give it the historic significance that so many are yearning for.