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Does Israel Need A National Program of Healing and Reconciliation?

After five weeks in Israel this summer—much of it spent watching the tragedy of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, day by day, news cycle by news cycle—I left for home with dark shadows under my eyes and a deeper appreciation than ever for what Israel represents, and the challenges it faces.

As a former reporter, I am a news junkie. I read 3-4 newspapers a day (including Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post). I watch the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. I listen to NPR while I’m driving. And yet, this summer in Israel, for the first time in my life, I had to censor my intake of news. It was just too painful, to watch day after day the wailing mothers, the crying children, the angry settlers, the distressed soldiers. Then I would go teach my graduate students Negotiation, Mediation and Conflict Management. All my students had children or boyfriends who were in the army in Gaza, so I would absorb their fear and their pain. It was too much for me and, I’ve come to believe, it was traumatizing for all of Israel, regardless of what you thought of the politics of disengagement.

In conversations with hundreds of Israelis throughout the summer, I heard no one rejoice at the events in Gaza. Rather, Israelis seem roughly divided into three camps:

First, there are those (“hopers”) who are crossing their fingers in the desperate hope that turning control of Gaza over to the Palestinians may be the first step in what even they acknowledge will be a difficult path to peace. Only Prime Minister Sharon, the architect of the settlement strategy, had the moral and political authority to end settlement in Gaza, and he needed to do something to change the stalemated paradigm, they say.

Second, are those (“doomers”) who seem convinced that this disengagement is Israel’s greatest folly—to unilaterally relinquish territory without reciprocal promises from the Palestinian Authority, they say, will lead directly to an increase in terrorism and more Israeli deaths. The PA’s continuing inability to control terrorism, they say, will inevitably lead away from the path to peace, not toward it. As preliminary evidence, they point to August’s suicide at the Beersheva Bus Station, which only narrowly missed killing dozens of Israeli Jews and Arabs, and more recently, renewed Kassam rocket attacks against Israel and the Hadera suicide bombing, which killed five Israelis.

Last, there are those (“cynics”) who believe Sharon’s disengagement was intended to provide “cover” for his real intention which is (take your pick): 1) to expand settlements in the West Bank, 2) To divert attention from the ongoing corruption inquiries which plague his administration and his family, 3) to garner sufficient international support so that when (not “if”) the Palestinians increase their violence, he will be justified in taking whatever actions are necessary to further subjugate them, or 4) to create the strongest possible political position for himself in advance of new elections. The deepest cynics, of course, pick “all of the above.”

It’s the tone of the debate about the disengagement and its aftermath that I noticed most. It has a hysterical quality to it, with each segment demonizing the other—calling each other names—“traitors,” “ hopelessly naïve,” “quitters,” are charges you hear every day. The escalating rhetoric has deepened and aggravated the divisions, polarizing Israel more than ever in recent memory.

The last thing anyone in Israel needs to hear right now is unsolicited advice from well-meaning Americans, but here goes: everyone in Israel—the hopers, the doomers, and the cynics—needs to slow down and take a long, deep breath.

I know, I know. This is a very un-Israeli thing to do. The Israeli Jewish and Arab students in my graduate seminar reminded me daily: It’s not in us, they told me, to be reflective after a major upheaval like the disengagement. We’ve got to push forward, to get ready for the next phase of our lives, whatever that may be. We don’t “breathe.” And we certainly don’t talk to THEM.

I am suggesting this breathing space for a specific reason—there’s work to be done in Israel, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

It is time for Israelis to come together and deeply listen to each other. In my view, a national program of Healing and Reconciliation needs to be undertaken. Sponsored at the highest Ministry and Rabbinic levels, this program needs to bring together the fragmented segments of Israeli society, to focus the collective will on one essential question: what is our vision of ourselves as the sole Jewish state on the planet? We can worry about how to get there later. For now, in the wake of a traumatic disengagement, Israelis simply need to begin talking with one another again, to come together and deeply listen to each other. To engage in t’shuvah (repentance and return)..

I also believe that such a time of Israeli reflection may have a dramatic impact on Palestinian society. My Palestinian colleagues tell me they watched the disengagement this summer closely, with a mix of joy and skepticism. Most Palestinians seem convinced that Israel is trading the tiny Gaza Strip for a tighter hold on large sections of the occupied West Bank.

When I hear this, it makes me sad. Why? Because this means the Palestinian community, despite the disengagement, is still waiting for Israel to take the lead, leaving Palestinians in a responsive mode, reacting to whatever Israel unilaterally chooses to do. Perhaps if Palestinians saw Israelis in a process of soul-searching, of t’shuvah, they would be encouraged to undertake a similar process, to define for themselves their own destiny, and determine for themselves the character and profile of their emerging nation.

Perhaps this will be the real legacy of disengagement—the opportunity for both Israelis and Palestinians to take a hard look at themselves. As a colleague of mine recently observed, without some minimal Israeli consensus on what a “Jewish state” ought to mean, and without some minimal Palestinian consensus over what a “Palestinian state” ought to mean, the two nations will not be able to reach a mutual agreement between them that will hold.


Jonathan W. Reitman

Jonathan W.  Reitman is a practicing attorney since 1978; full time mediator, facilitator and arbitrator since 1990. Practice concentrates on mediation, training, conflict resolution and consulting. Substantial experience (1000+cases) in the mediation and arbitration of a variety of complex civil disputes, including business, commercial and insurance matters; employment, labor relations… MORE >

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