In 1994, I was studying in my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. I naively believed that peace was in the air. I watched on the television as Israel made peace with Jordan as it had done with Egypt, and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin begrudgingly shook hands with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Listening to those speeches now 20 years later, it feels like a world away.
The peace movement in Israel has been severely weakened. When Arafat walked away from a peace deal that gave him everything he asked for, without making a counteroffer, it revealed he was never serious about peace in the first place. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a radical Jewish settler took away the Israeli peace movement's leader. Israel'a complete withdrawal from Gaza, ending occupation there and effectively creating a Palestinian State, was followed by the Palestinian election of antisemitic Hamas as their leaders, whose charter seems to come from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yet another incredibly generous peace deal, which included sovereignty in Jerusalem, was rejected in 2008 by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. War, including rockets from north and south and tunnels into Israeli homes, has created more terror. While without question there have been provocative acts on the Israeli side (including the building and timing of announcements of settlements, acts of violence, and destruction of property by radical Jewish settlers), it is a historical fact that the Israeli government has reached out with peace initiatives multiple times, but on the Palestinian side there is no real partner for peace.
In addition, today, Israelis -- correctly -- are most concerned about the rise of Iran as a nuclear power. Iran openly arms and encourages Palestinian militants. Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei has released a 9-point plan to destroy Israel by arming the Palestinians. He promoted this plan on Kristallnacht -- the anniversary of the beginning of the Holocaust. The timing was not lost on Israel.
Despite everything, in poll after poll, a majority of Israelis want peace talks with the Palestinians. On the other hand, Palestinians appear more divided. The majority favor Hamas' leadership while simultaneously 53 percent say they want a two-state solution. This is a far cry from U.S. President Obama's claim that the "overwhelming majority" of Palestinians want peace.
Peace will only come to Israel when new leadership arises from the Palestinian people. When a Palestinian Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi rises up and is able to lead the Palestinian people in non-violent action, the Israeli peace movement will also rebound. This Palestinian peace activist, who has yet to appear and capture the Palestinian people's imagination, will need to reject the arms of Iran and move her/his people beyond 1947. This leader will also need to be a religious leader, giving new spiritual direction and meaning to the Palestinian people. Until then, we can only expect more of the tragic status quo.
Recently, Middle East analyst Thomas Friedman and UN official Nader Mousavizadeh tried to simplify the conflict in the Middle East with this helpful bifurcation: there are arsonists and there are firefighters. Too often we confuse the two, hoping an arsonist will really be a firefighter.
Let us pray for real firefighters.