I keep hearing in the press and in popular discourse about the “two sides” in the Middle East conflict, with the sides being the Palestinians and the Israelis. I understand that there are indeed a number of “sides,” but I believe that the Palestinian people and the Israeli people are generally on the same side.
I do not see the two opposing sides being the Palestinian people versus the Israeli people. Rather, the opposing sides represent many of the leaders verses the peace loving Israelis and Palestinians who truly want to live in harmony with one another.
Many of the Israeli leaders desire to maintain and expand current borders and territories and to impose harsh penalties (for example the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza) upon the Palestinian people, which has resulted in a great humanitarian crisis, while the Palestinian leaders, primarily members of Hamas, vow to destroy the Jews, fire rockets on Israeli civilians, and are committed to forcing all Jews into the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, those who want peace are being held hostage by their leaders.
I visited Jerusalem last year, and I talked with Israelis and Palestinians who truly desire peace, who truly desire an era in which they can live alongside one another in trust and in harmony, but they are feeling that the continuing politics of hate and fear, war, and division are preventing this peaceful coexistence.
I believe now is the time — actually, it has been the time for decades now — to consider new forms of leadership, not only in the Middle East, but around the world. We need to get away from the leaders who demonize the other, who use fear and threat and engagement of war as tools for their own maintenance of power. We need leaders who are interested in negotiating without a laundry list of preconceived inflexible conditions. We need to get away from the language of hate for the “other”: “Islamic Terrorists,” “Zionist Oppressors,” “Faces of Evil,” etc.
I see Barack Obama setting the bar higher, and setting a great example of what leadership can be. As we all know, during the U.S. presidential campaign, he asserted that he would negotiate with leaders throughout the world, “anytime, anywhere,” to make a start at real engagement and for a new relationship. As we also know, Mr. Obama was roundly criticized for his so-called naiveté, not simply by conservative Republicans, but also from members of his own party, some of whom consider themselves politically progressive.
And herein lies the challenge, the risk, and the danger for leaders who reach out to the so-called “other side” or to their so-called “enemies.” A number of our great world leaders were not only criticized by members of their own ranks, but some were tragically assassinated by their own people for their courage to negotiate and reach out in the name of peace. These great leaders include Mahatma Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Malcolm X, and the list goes on.
I am a “child of the ’60s,” and I will always remember one of the phrases we promoted during the height of the Vietnam War. It went: “WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR, AND NOBODY CAME.” Well, what if world political “leaders” continue to engage in the politics of fear, who demonize the “other,” who call for and enact war on their so-called “enemies”? And what if nobody came?