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Can there be Middle East peace without real leadership?

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t specific and doesn’t exactly endorse the upbeat news that comes from Cairo, and perhaps also from Washington, that speaks not only of the imminent resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians but also the possibility of a deal within a couple of years. But he doesn’t deny it either, and the tone of what he does say suggests that he’s on the same page as the optimists.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Lieberman tells all and sundry – including Tony Blair the other day – that, whether or not Palestinians and Israelis sit down together again, it’s unrealistic to expect peace soon. As he put it recently: not in the next decade and not in the decade thereafter.

Are the two men playing the good cop-bad cop game on the international arena (and in front of Israel’s ambassadors at their recent conclave in Jerusalem), or is the Government of Israel suffering from schizophrenia? Whatever the diagnosis, the cure would need to include inter alia:

            1. A much broader government in Israel that allows the Knesset to pass a peace agreement despite the ranting and raving of the rightist parties. Lieberman and his party, for example, may turn out to be more of an obstacle than an asset in the process.

            Of course, Netanyahu is counting that whether or not the party that could secure broad support – Kadima – is in the government, it’ll vote for peace. However, the acrimony between him and the leader of Kadima is so patent at present, and the divisions within Kadima so strong, that such a vote cannot be taken for granted.

            2. Though in his second incarnation as Prime Minister, Netanyahu has emerged a much stronger leader than the last time around, and stronger than many of his predecessors, there’s still a feeling that, in order to make peace with the Palestinians, Israel needs a much more acceptable leader, not just a skilled politician, but one who can prevent a potential civil war when it comes to ceding territory and evacuating settlements.

            Last Sunday was the fourth anniversary of Ariel Sharon’s coma. There’re still people who believe that he could have been that leader. It didn’t seem so at the time. In any case, alas, the speculation is pointless. And there’s nobody else on the horizon.

            3. Not only does Israel need a strong leader, so do the Palestinians. Abu Mazen isn’t the man, especially as Gaza is in the hands of Hamas. It still seems that the only person who could unite the Palestinians and become a credible partner in negotiations is Marwan Barghouti. But he’s in jail and there’s nothing to suggest that Israel will include him in the prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit, even if there’ll ever be a Shalit deal.

            Lieberman, therefore, may have reason to calculate that peace isn’t on the cards. So Netanyahu will continue to say one thing and he something else; there’s no national leader on the horizon; the Palestinians will go on fighting each other; and Barghouti will remain in prison. All this is, of course, in Lieberman’s interest for he wants his prognosis (prophecy?) to be self-fulfilling. Israel at peace with its neighbours will have no room for him in public life and, by all accounts, public life is what he craves, whatever the cost.

            On the other hand, President Obama is also reported to speak about peace within two years, and he ought to know more and can do more about it than Lieberman.

            When in doubt, therefore, let’s put our money on the optimists.

Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He divides his year between Canada and Israel


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