They’ve faded into blurry memories by now, those two periods in the history of the modern state of Israel when it looked as if peace was just around the corner. They were moments of euphoria for the millions who desperately want to see peace. But, as we later saw, they stoked fury among those who cannot countenance the idea of Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, living together as good neighbors.
It’s hard to believe now that twice before — completely by surprise — we discovered, and believed, that peace was at hand. Hard to believe now, when peace looks so distant, that the situation can change when you least expect it.
On Nov. 19, 1977 — almost 37 years to the day before the recent massacre of rabbis at a Jerusalem synagogue — the world held its breath for a scene no one thought would ever come: The president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, landed at Ben Gurion Airport, breaking what had been an ironclad refusal by Arab countries to have contact with Israel or accept any possibility of peace.
Sadat went to Jerusalem and spoke to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Israelis listened to his speech, broadcast live around the world, with tears streaming down their faces. The conflict between Arabs and Israelis was finally ending, or so it seemed.
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The second era of hope came with another startling announcement. On Aug. 20, 1993, an astonished world discovered that Israeli and Palestinian delegations had been holding secret meetings in Oslo, Norway, and had a deal to end the conflict once and for all. On Sept. 13, the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn, in a moment immortalized by the picture of President Bill Clinton, arms extended, gently coaxing an awkward handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The two peace processes, both conducted initially through secret negotiations, achieved real gains. They certainly produced many Nobel prizes. But they also ended in tragedy.
Sadat negotiated with Menachem Begin at Camp David and, with Jimmy Carter’s help, they reached a deal that has survived until now. Begin and Sadat won Nobels. And then Sadat was assassinated.
Today, Egyptians do not celebrate the signing, or the trip to Jerusalem. They don’t honor Sadat. But the peace treaty holds. After four wars, Israel and Egypt have not fought anymore.
The Oslo deal created the Palestinian Authority, granted autonomous rule to Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza, formalizing a reluctant mutual recognition. The Nobel went to Rabin, to then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and to Arafat. And then Rabin was assassinated.
Progress was made, but the promise of comprehensive peace failed to materialize.
Still, Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews are still neighbors. Like it or not, their fates are linked.
Recent weeks have brought horrifying attacks aimed at Israelis: the synagogue massacre, a man stabbed in the back with a screwdriver, cars deliberately driven into crowds. Extremists are destroying hope. Politicians are badly mishandling the crisis. Palestinian radicals hand out sweets to celebrate. Israeli ultra-nationalists say, “We told you so.”
Ultra-nationalist Jews want the right to pray on the Temple Mount, a demand that plays into the hands of Muslim extremists and other enemies of reconciliation.
Palestinians are now frightened of Jewish vigilantes; Jews are anxious about Palestinian attacks. And the millions who want to live in peace are about to give up hope.
If Jerusalem explodes, it will be a calamity for Muslims, Jews and Christians.
But an explosion does not have to happen. History shows that real statesmen take risks for peace; that sometimes, when we least expect it, we discover that politicians had been working behind the scenes. Then we find who was a small politician and who a true statesman.
It’s time for Palestinian leaders to end calls for “days of rage” and stop fueling baseless accusations of secret plans to destroy or take over Muslim places. It’s also time for Israeli leaders to end provocative announcements of new settlement construction, especially when done in response to terrorism. It’s time to reaffirm the rules for the sacred sites.
At a time when the rest of the Middle East risks falling to vicious religious extremists, Israelis and Palestinians still have a chance to show the rest of the region that reasonable behavior is possible, that people who disagree over difficult issues can work together and learn to become neighbors living in peace. We’ve been surprised before.