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Iraq Study Group report calls on the United States and Israel to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
News and Opinion

The Nature of Negotiation

-- Rabbi Arthur Waskow

We sometimes think of diplomacy and negotiation as merely political efforts to match up different political or economic interests. But at their root is a deeper spiritual hope: stretching ourselves to broaden the circle of community.

Through negotiation, through diplomacy, at best we become able not just to compromise, to "split the difference," but to stand in someone else's shoes and figure out how to meet that person's needs while not abandoning our own need. (As Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and probably others have said, the whole point of a circle dance is that everyone gets to stand in everyone else's place.)

The only alternative to that process of broadening community is violence. War. Over and over and over and over.

Israel and the US need to enter negotiations with Syria and Iran, not because the negotiations are sure to be fruitful of peace -- they may or may not lead there -- but because the refusal to negotiate is sure to be fruitful of war.

Opposing such negotiations from the get-go, as some in America and in Israel have urged, means accepting that war, war, war, and still more war is the future of Israel and the US.

Is a future of repeated and permanent wars really the best protection for Israel and for the Jewish people? The 1982 invasion and years-long occupation of Lebanon created Hezbollah. What will the 2006 invasion create, say, thirty years from now?

When Syria's President Assad warned that the "third generation" of Arabs hates Israel even before than those before, he was not talking about a genetic inevitability. He was connecting the stronger hatred he and his people are feeling with his and their perception of Israel's behavior. He was warning that continued warfare does not make Israel more secure, but less secure. And he was acknowledging that he and his country also have much to lose from such repeated wars. He was urging that peace be made before a fourth generation is filled with even more hatred.

He was warning that in every generation, it will take still more force to smash the force that rises from that hatred. Is Israel prepared to shatter Syria as it did Lebanon? Iran as it did Lebanon? Is it prepared to deal with the next generation's advanced version of a far bigger and stronger Hezbollah? And then, as the hatred rises, to destroy Egypt --- and when does this end? Do we imagine that this will not shatter Israel's own physical security, let alone its moral sense and its value to God and the world?

What I have just said about the possibility of peace is the over-all reason, and the most important reason, for opening negotiations. In addition, there are specifics:

Some opponents of negotiation have said Assad of Syria was "immoveable" about demanding the return of the entire Golan to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty and full relations with Israel. When that negotiation was under way, Barak of Israel was "immoveable" about demanding to keep a sliver of land that had been Syria. Why call the one "immoveable" and the other not?

If Israel's need is for peace and Syria's is for the wholeness of its territory, why not trade the one for the other? That is not a "compromise," or "splitting the difference." It gives each the whole of what it needs and wants. That is what it means to dance in someone else's shoes.

It worked with Egypt, even though Menachem Begin faced a great deal of Israeli opposition to returning the Sinai. There were many Israelis in those days who thought that Egyptians just wanted to kill Israelis, and giving them control of the Sinai was suicidal. In fact it has kept Egypt quiet even during such moments as two invasions of Lebanon.

If one Palestinian proposal for peace required giving over to Palestinian control every inch of every part of Jerusalem taken over by Israel in 1967, including the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I cannot imagine an Israeli government that would not be "immoveable," and I would agree --- as did Yasser Arafat, who agreed at Camp David and Taba that those areas would be Israeli. So whether we approve of "immovable" or sneer at it depends on our own values and perspectives, not on an a priori notion that all immovability is a bad thing.

Some opponents of negotiation lean on an angry quote from the President Assad to prove his immovability: "...the nation opting for a just and comprehensive peace is capable of forcing the occupier to withdraw using the weapon of force, if the enemy does not respond to the voice of reason and does not surrender to the legitimate resolution of the return of rights to their owners." But this outcry is both a threat and an offer. It is exactly the way in which almost all nation-states, including Israel, speak and behave when their territorial integrity or vital interests are threatened.

From Syria's standpoint, it makes sense to achieve wholeness of Syrian territory in exchange for peace, just as it did for Egypt. Indeed, to accomplish less than Sadat of Egypt did would be shameful.

And recitations of Assad's "atrocious" past behavior ignore that from his standpoint, an important chunk of Syrian territory is under foreign occupation. From his standpoint, he has no reason to make nice until he gets an opening to deal with that fact.

Am I saying that whatever Assad wants, Assad gets? No, of course not. Negotiation is about both sides seeking a fit of different needs that permits the shaping of a broader community. Maybe the negotiations will open broader community; maybe not.

What I am saying is there are only two solutions for Israeli security: either negotiation or endless ever-victorious war. But the war option at some point will have created so many enemies in and beyond the Arab/ Muslim world that ever-victorious wars will no longer be possible. -- Already the recent Lebanon war was not a victory; both sides lost. And a great part of what Israelis lost was that the invasion created more hatred among more Lebanese. So the war track cannot continue to contribute to Israeli security.

The trouble is that Israelis have been so deeply imbued with fear and have so often found that the war track has been just successful enough on just enough occasions to make them feel safe for just long enough that they have become habituated to it. But as the world changes, what was a useful tool in one generation may become self-destructive in another. Continuing to use that self-destructive tool may become a habit, an addiction. The tool may become an idol.

Today, out of that history, Israelis are in great danger of making an idol of military force. But as we are taught, idols have a nose but cannot breathe, have ears but cannot listen, have hands but cannot touch, and those who make them become like them: untouched, unhearing. Breathless. Dead.

It is not only Israelis who face that danger. The Baker-Hamilton study group has now explicitly faced Americans with their proposal to open discussions with Syria and Iran. If the preliminary noises coming from the "official" American Jewish-established organizations are any indication, those organizations may well also fall into line against negotiations. American Jews -- the actual "Jewish community" of real live human beings -- are almost certainly much more favorable to negotiations, just as, and this we know for sure, they urgently want an end to the US occupation of Iraq while their formal organizational structures refuse to call for any end to the war.

The "Jews in the street" have it right; their official organizations have it wrong. The idolatry of force is a spiritual and physical danger. Jews rooted in the Spirit must renew their contact, and that of Israeli and American societies, with the One whose name is: "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will be Who I Will Be." The God of Possibility, of Becoming, always beckoning us into new forms of community, as the Voice from the Burning Bush beckoned Moses.

From the worlds of Spirit, Thought, and Feeling to the world of Action. In the world of Action today, it is of course necessary to argue over what the content and results of negotiation should be. But to argue against the very notion of negotiating at all is to argue against the possibility of Possibility. That cannot benefit Israel, the Jewish people, or America in the practical, the ethical, or the spiritual world.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center and the author of many books. Most recently, he is co-author with Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Editor's Note: For more on the complexities inherent with negotiating with Syrian, see the Israel Policy Forum.

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