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Rabbi Arthur Waskow Headshot

The Nature of Negotiation

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We sometimes think of diplomacy and negotiation as merely political efforts
to match up different political or economic interests. But at their root is
a deeper spiritual hope: stretching ourselves to broaden the circle of
community.

Through negotiating, through diplomacy, at best we become able not just to
compromise, to "split the difference," but to stand in someone else's shoes
and figure out how to meet that person's needs while not abandoning our own
need. (As Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and probably others have said, the
whole point of a circle dance is that everyone gets to stand in everyone
else's place.)

The only alternative to that process of broadening community is violence.
War. Over and over and over and over.

Israel and the US need to enter negotiations with Syria and Iran, not
because the negotiations are sure to be fruitful of peace ­ they may or may
not lead there -- but because the refusal to negotiate is sure to be
fruitful of war.

Opposing such negotiations from the git-go ­ as some in America and in
Israel have urged -- means accepting that war, war, war, and still more war
is the future of Israel and the US.

Is a future of repeated and permanent wars really the best protection for
Israel/ and for the Jewish people? The 1982 invasion and years-long
occupation of Lebanon created Hezbollah. What will the 2006 invasion create,
thirty years from now?

When Syria's President Assad warned that the "third generation" of Arabs
hates Israel even before than those before, he was not talking about a
genetic inevitability. He was connecting the stronger hatred he and his
people are feeling with his and their perception of Israel's behavior. He
was warning that continued warfare does not make Israel more secure, but
less secure. And he was acknowledging that he and his country also have much
to lose from such repeated wars. He was urging that peace be made before a
fourth generation is filled with even more hatred.

He was warning that in every generation, it will take still more force to
smash the force that rises from that hatred. Is Israel prepared to shatter
Syria as it did Lebanon? Iran as it did Lebanon? Is it prepared to deal
with the next generation's advanced version of a far bigger and stronger
Hezbollah? And then, as the hatred rises, to destroy Egypt --- and when
does this end? Do we imagine that this will not shatter Israel's own
physical security, let alone its moral sense and its value to God and the
world?

What I have just said about the POSSIBILITY of peace is the over-all reason,
and the most important reason, for opening negotiations. In addition, there
are specifics:

Some opponents of negotiation have said Assad of Syria was "immoveable"
about demanding the return of the entire Golan to Syria in exchange for a
peace treaty and full relations with Israel. When that negotiation was under
way, Barak of Israel was "immoveable" about demanding to keep a sliver of
land that had been Syria. Why call the one "immoveable" and the other not?
And is all 'immoveability" a warrant to reject negotiation?

No. Negotiation is precisely about finding out the true bottom lines ­ the
"immovable" requirements ­ for both sides, and making arrangements to
satisfy, not to denounce, the immoveable bottom lines of all the parties.

If Israel's need is for peace and Syria's is for the wholeness of its
territory, why not trade the one for the other? That is not a "compromise,"
or "splitting the difference." It gives each the whole of what it needs and
wants. That is what it means to dance in someone else's shoes.

It worked with Egypt, even though Menachem Begin faced a great deal of
Israeli opposition to returning the Sinai. There were many many Israelis in
those days who thought that Egyptians just wanted to kill Israelis, and
giving them control of the Sinai was suicidal. In fact it has kept Egypt
quiet even during such moments as two invasions of Lebanon.

If one Palestinian proposal for peace required giving over to Palestinian
control EVERY INCH of EVERY PART of Jerusalem taken over by Israel in 1967,
including the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I cannot
imagine an Israeli government that would not be "immoveable," and I would
agree --- as did Yasser Arafat, who agreed at Camp David and Taba that those
areas would be Israeli. So whether we approve of "immovable" or sneer at it
depends on our own values and perspectives, not on an a priori notion that
ALL immovability is a bad thing.

Some opponents of negotiation lean on an angry quote from the President
Assad to prove his immovability : " . . . the nation opting for a just and
comprehensive peace is capable of forcing the occupier to withdraw using
the weapon of force, if the enemy does not respond to the voice of reason
and does not surrender to the legitimate resolution of the return of rights
to their owners." But this outcry is BOTH a threat and an offer. It is
exactly the way in which almost all nation-states, including Israel, speak
and behave when their territorial integrity or vital interests are
threatened.

From Syria's standpoint, it makes sense to achieve wholeness of Syrian
territory in exchange for peace, just as it did for Egypt. Indeed, to
accomplish less than Sadat of Egypt did would be shameful.

And recitations of Assad's "atrocious" past behavior ignore that from his
standpoint, an important chunk of Syrian territory is under foreign
occupation. From his standpoint, he has no reason to make nice until he gets
an opening to deal with that fact.

Am I saying that -- whatever Assad wants, Assad gets? No, of course not.
Negotiation is about BOTH sides seeking a fit of different needs that
permits the shaping of a broader community. Maybe the negotiations will open
broader community; maybe not.

What I AM saying is there are only two solutions for Israeli security:
either negotiation or endless ever-victorious war. But the war option at
some point will have created so many enemies in and beyond the Arab/ Muslim
world that ever-victorious wars will no longer be possible. -- Already the
recent Lebanon war was not a victory; both sides lost. And a great part of
what Israelis lost was that the invasion created more hatred among more
Lebanese. So the war track cannot continue to contribute to Israeli
security.

The trouble is that Israelis have been so deeply imbued with fear, and have
so often found that the war track has been just successful enough on just
enough occasions to make them feel safe for just long enough, that they have
become habituated to it. But as the world changes, what was a useful tool in
one generation may become self-destructive in another. Continuing to use
that self-destructive tool may become a habit, an addiction. The tool may
become an Idol.

Today, out of that history Israelis are in great danger of making an idol of
military force. But as we are taught, idols have a nose but cannot breathe,
have ears but cannot listen, have hands but cannot touch ­ and those who
make them become like them: untouched, unhearing. Unbreathing. Dead.

It is not only Israelis who face that danger. The Baker-Hamilton study
group has now explicitly faced Americans with their proposal to open
discussions with Syria and Iran. But the Bush Administration has refused.
Indeed, in the Syrian case it has leaned hard against those in the Israeli
government who have wanted to explore the Syrian possibilities. And the
Israeli government has so far acquiesced, obeying US dictates more than
pursuing Israeli needs.

Meanwhile, "official" American Jewish established organizations have fallen
into line against negotiations. American Jews - the actual "Jewish
community" of real live human beings -- are almost certainly much more
favorable to negotiations, just as -- and this we know for sure -- they
urgently want an end to the US occupation of Iraq while almost all their
formal organizational structures refuse to call for any end to the war.
(The Renewal rabbis, the Reform movement, and the Reconstructionist
rabbinate have recently called for an end to the war. It is not yet clear
how much energy any of them will put into organizing to press for that
goal.)

The "Jews in the street" have it right; their official organizations have it
wrong. The idolatry of force is a spiritual and physical danger. Jews rooted
in the Spirit must renew their contact, and that of Israeli and American
societies, with the One whose name is: "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will be Who I
Will Be." The God of Possibility, of Becoming, always beckoning us into new
forms of community, as the Voice from the Burning Bush beckoned Moses. .

From the worlds of Spirit, Thought, and Feeling to the world of Action. In
the world of Action today, it is of course necessary to argue over what the
content and results of negotiation should be. But to argue against the
very notion of negotiating at all is to argue against the possibility of
Possibility. That cannot benefit Israel, the Jewish people, or America in
the practical, the ethical, or the spiritual world.

___

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center and the author of many books­ some on military strategy and foreign policy, some on Jewish history and practice. Most recently, he is co-author with Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

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