Last Thursday, comatose former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon took a significant turn for the worse. And at virtually the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Israel for talks with its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. I’m sure the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone: a Mideast peace process on life-support, survival unlikely, just like the man who proved more than any Israeli or Palestinian leader since his tenure how far he would go in pursuit of peace.
In Jerusalem, Kerry spoke of “tough decisions” facing Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but neglected to mention that neither side appears willing to make them. Indeed, the days leading up to Kerry’s 10th visit in pursuit of peace saw both sides blatantly undermine the process. The jubilation in the West Bank and Gaza at the return of 26 Palestinian prisoners, convicted killers among them, was disappointing, even if entirely predictable. Meanwhile, the Israeli government followed up the prisoner release by leaking plans for new construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Kerry never stood a chance.
And then Sharon’s condition deteriorated to critical: multiple vital organs ceased functioning, and family gathered at Tel Hashomer hospital by the bedside of a warrior engaged in his final battle. Talk quickly turned to Sharon’s fighting spirit and astounding political transformation, and one couldn’t help but compare him to the current main players in the peace process.
What stands out is that Netanyahu, Abbas and Kerry, and even U.S. President Barack Obama, all lack Sharon’s fearlessness. He proved he was willing to stick his neck out for peace – none of them has done the same. Sharon’s 2005 Gaza disengagement plan was difficult for Israel, but it was also bold and innovative. He did the riskiest thing he could – make the first move – and when the disengagement was over, most Israelis were still behind him. Sharon understood that making peace will always require “tough decisions,” and instead of pushing them off until someone else blinked or it wasn’t his problem anymore, he took action. Israelis trusted him because of that.
It’s tempting to wonder if things would have been different had Sharon not fallen ill almost exactly six years ago. Maybe the Palestinians’ puerile response to the Gaza pullout – stepping up rocket attacks, not to mention demolishing synagogues, torching greenhouses and looting homes – would have soured Israelis on making any more concessions in the vain hope of reciprocation.
Then again, maybe Sharon would have wrested something from Palestinian leaders. Maybe his conviction would have scared them into getting serious about peace or risk being left behind. And maybe we wouldn’t still be locked in this stalemate.
January has only begun, but both sides need to show more courage if 2014 is to be the year Israelis and Palestinians finally make peace. Unfortunately, it seems more likely Netanyahu and Abbas will continue to play for time, posturing about lack of trust while at the same time fomenting that distrust – and while they stall, Kerry and Obama will keep pretending they’re making headway.
New year, same old story. There is no one to bulldoze this process forward.