Responding to a question from journalist Jeffrey Goldberg about the Mideast peace process, President Obama quoted the ancient Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, asking “if not now, when?” Then the president added his own follow-up: “And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”
President Obama deserves praise for applying Jewish text from the second century to the contemporary challenge of solving the century-old Jewish-Arab conflict. But to achieve this lofty goal, which nearly all Jews desire, peace must be pursued with the same integrity by all sides.
Israel has answered President Obama’s charge in the affirmative. It has proved its willingness to compromise to achieve a lasting peace. Settlements have been uprooted, Palestinian prisoners released, roadblocks removed, visas for Palestinian workers issued, and building materials shipped to Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated already that in order to achieve peace, Israel would be willing to remove Jewish communities east of the security fence.
Next week, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits President Obama at the White House, will Obama pose the same question? Will he ask Abbas to be a leader with vision and courage? Will he ask Abbas if his refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People also means he denies that Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jews? Will Obama tell Abbas that, for Israelis, the Palestinians’ rejection of Israel’s legitimacy means a continuation of claims against the state? Will Obama tell him that if he truly wants an independent Palestinian state, Palestine, not Israel, should be the homeland for their refugees? Will Obama tell Abbas that continued Palestinian incitement against Israel and the glorification of terrorists poisons his people’s minds and perpetrates hate?
For the sake of peace, let’s hope President Obama issues Hillel’s charge to President Abbas. “If not now, when?” means Abbas needs to become a leader who speaks honestly to his people about the compromises they must make to achieve statehood. He must be a leader who glorifies those Palestinians working toward reconciliation and normalization with Israel. A leader who works to end government corruption and nepotism. A leader who tells his people that acknowledging the other side’s narrative does not mean denying their own.
President Abbas, the time for war has passed. Can it now be the time for peace?