April 1865, September 2011... Tony Blair, Abraham Lincoln, generals in blue and grey, modern-day Israeli and Palestinian ones in green and black, seminal dates, profoundly interesting people. Since the negotiations track between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down last September, the disparity of views proffered by members of the current government of Israel and those expressed by current and former members of Israel's security establishment have been striking, as have the differences in the spirit and tone of the various deliveries.
It comes as no surprise that even as they prepare for the "worst," members of Israel's defense establishment are yet again at the forefront in making the type of positive recommendations that contribute to Israel's long-term strategic need for peace with its Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank, instead of joining those on the hamster wheel "invoking thoughts of the past and fears of the future." It further comes as no surprise, in the wake of U.S.-Israeli diplomatic squabbles and their sad but seemingly inherent domestic political reverberations, that the "ball" has been passed to Mr. Blair to find a solution to the seeming befuddle of "September" and beyond.
Author Jay Winik wrote in April 1865, "There are dates on which history turns and that themselves become packed with meaning. The story of April 1865 is not just one of decisions made but also of decisions rejected" -- much the same could be said about the events that will reach a seeming culmination later this month.
In considering the war that ended a little less than 150 years ago, it is easy to forget that its conclusion and the manner of the peace that followed were anything but inevitable. Lincoln set the tone, and Generals Grant and Lee, Sherman and Johnston played their critical roles, and in the aftermath of "victory" and the President's assassination, it was left to the soldiers, both "Yankee" and "Rebel," by dint of moral authority, to impose upon the politicians the will of Lincoln's spirit. Had Lincoln taken counsel of his "lesser Angels" and heeded the calls, within his own cabinet and within the Radical Republican faction in Congress, for revenge and harsh treatment of the South, the outcome may have been dramatically different, for, as Lee himself stated, "I surrendered as much to Lincoln's goodness as I did to Grant's armies."
Lincoln believed the "hard" War's close must be characterized by reconciliation, "with malice towards none," vice vitriolic retribution, wondering often whether such a thing was possible. History records the answer for the United States but revives the question today for Israelis and Palestinians. It is clear that the security services of both peoples believe that it is. Rather than waste time seizing upon reasons not to negotiate, or creating ones that convince the other side that further meetings are pointless, it is the uniformed "they," all the more incredible in the aftermath of the second Intifada, who have forged an answer and example and have provided the calm, reasoned rationales for peace. For reasons inexplicable, their professional judgments have been lost or ignored in the cacophony of partisan political rhetoric -- Israeli, Palestinian and more than a few internationals, to include many within the U.S. Congress and Senate.
Robert E. Lee's rebuke to disgruntled post-Civil-War ex-Confederates seems equally applicable today to many within Israeli, Palestinian and international-body politics:
It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.
Though the Israelis and Palestinians have more than a few willing to walk in the footsteps of the Civil War's "great" generals, their national political equivalents of Lincoln seem absent the field. As for Mr. Blair, say of him what you will, but there is something Lincolnesque in his vision, tenacity in the face of disparagement and the marriage of speech with action, which today, more than in any other "outsider," embodies the spirit of reconciliation that Lincoln sought to render in another time. If neither party can surrender to the logic of peace, perhaps they can surrender to the "goodness" of Mr. Blair, for the day they should both fear is the day Mr. Blair and people like him decide that neither is worth any more of their time.
April 1865 is the story of the marriage of courageous vision with leadership and resolve to heal a most vile national tear. To date, September 2011 is the story of the local desperation of one party coupled with the ideological obstinacy of the other, and with American strategic mismanagement to the point of questionable relevancy, and so we find ourselves in Churchillian speak, where, "[t]he era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences..." Regardless of what does or does not happen Sept. 20, 2011 and in the days that follow, let us hope those responsible for decisions taken and not taken in the run-up to that day handle this period of consequences with greater vision and profoundly more decisive leadership than previously demonstrated.