It was a few weeks after I had moved to Israel and started what would be a challenging but enriching experience as a high school student in Jerusalem.
I remember it like yesterday, watching the Oslo ceremony at the White House on a small TV screen.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO head Yasser Arafat were wrapped in the arms of US president Bill Clinton at the Rose Garden. It seemed like a historic event.
Here I was, a newcomer to this country, witnessing the creation of a new Middle East, one we were told would bring peace, security and economic prosperity.
A quarter of a century later, we know how well that worked out.
Instead of peace, the sides seem to have never been more distant: the last time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was at Shimon Peres’s funeral two years ago, and then just for a fleeting moment.
Instead of having security, Israel has spent the last 25 years engaged in a non-stop battle against terrorism.
While it has brought relative quiet to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip still remains Israel’s most volatile military front, one that the IDF brass believes has the greatest potential of exploding sometime in the coming year.
And while Israel has achieved economic prosperity – mostly due to its thriving hi-tech sector which is largely left alone by government intervention – the same cannot be said about the Palestinian territories.
In the West Bank unemployment is at 18%, while in Gaza it is almost 50%. Due to the ongoing conflict with Israel, and the internal strife between Hamas and Fatah, the World Bank projects that the Palestinian economy will continue to decline in the years to come.
I mention all of this since on Sunday night, when we sit down with our families and friends to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the onset of a new Jewish year, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what we want to change in our lives – as individuals, as families, and as a nation.
Are we happy with the events of the past year? Do we see room to improve during the year to come? And if so, how? The Oslo Accords are a good example of what happens when one fails to self-reflect. This newspaper has long been in favor of a two-state solution, but we would be wrong if we fail to ask ourselves if it is even possible anymore.
Are there leaders on both sides – in Jerusalem and Ramallah – who are really interested in a deal and prepared to make the tough decisions and painful concessions to achieve one? To me, it sadly seems there are not.
But even if there was the right leadership, is it even practical? Can Israel today withdraw from enough of the West Bank to satisfy Palestinian demands? It seems that no matter what we offer, it will never be enough.
And finally, is there even a Palestinian state to talk about at a time when the Palestinian people are divided between Hamas and Fatah with no reconciliation in sight? These are all worthy questions, but sadly, Israelis do not get answers. The last time Netanyahu laid out a vision for an end to the conflict was in his famous Bar-Ilan speech of 2009 where he embraced a two-state solution.
But that was almost 10 years ago. Since then he has said that he is against a one-state solution, but that he also would not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. So which is it? It would be only natural that after 25 years of doing the same thing, people would start to think differently and try to come up with a new plan or try a different tactic. But very few have offered anything.
One of the rare exceptions is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who talks about annexing large swaths of the West Bank while giving the Palestinians an “autonomy on steroids” in Areas A and B.
This might not be ideal, but at least it is an attempt to think out of the box.
Others, like Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, talk about a regional peace deal, a concept we’ve been hearing about for years. What does it mean though? No politician is willing to say.
Politicians on the Left will tell you that Netanyahu is the problem, and that if they were in power, they would freeze settlement construction, bring the Palestinians to the table and hammer out a deal. That’s unlikely to happen, but it would be interesting to see them try.
Either way though, when the Left fails it will make up excuses and blame its coalition partners or the Palestinians.
Anyone but themselves, similar to the way the Right consistently blames the Palestinians and doesn’t consider the possibility that maybe its own policies are also at fault.
Netanyahu has the political power and capital today to pretty much do whatever he wants. If he decided to annex all of the West Bank, he has the coalition to pass the needed legislation through the Knesset.
If he decided to annex just the settlement blocs, he would probably receive support from parts of the opposition. So why not do it? Because not deciding means no political fallout, and no political fallout means no risk.
In the meantime, regular Israelis have lost faith in a solution. According to the Peace Index published this week, 89% of Israelis don’t believe peace is possible in the coming Jewish year of 5779 – and 71% of Palestinians agree. So, is there even anything worth doing? The answer might be no, but this coming year is an opportunity to demand more from our leaders – and most importantly, to expect answers. Israelis deserve answers on a wide range of issues, from the conflict with the Palestinians to the contested IDF draft bill and the condition of our hospitals and medical system.
We deserve to know why classrooms are so full, why our children’s teachers are underpaid and why their schools are not being renovated.
We should get answers to why, despite years of political wrangling, the ultra-Orthodox continue to evade the draft even though everyone knows that they should serve in the IDF.
We deserve to know why 400,000 Israelis can’t get married in the country, and why Reform and Conservative Jews cannot pray freely at the Western Wall.
With a national election expected in the first half of 5779, Israelis have an opportunity to demand answers to these questions. Most political parties in Israel today don’t even bother publishing a political platform, since it doesn’t really matter to voters. Anyhow, politicians jump from one end of an issue to the other on almost a daily basis. But again, voters seem not to care, so why should the legislators? And that is the root of the problem: apathy. For things to change and for the situation to improve, we have to care. If people want progress on the Palestinian track, they have to demand it of their leaders.
If they don’t, why should their leaders do anything if no one is asking them to? The same applies to schools, hospitals and the nation’s infrastructure.
We have gotten so used to being disappointed that when the Transportation Ministry, for example, announces another delay in the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, we seem to not even notice. Sadly, our expectations have dropped too low.
This holiday is an opportunity to bring them back up. We shouldn’t forget: the government works for the people – and the people deserve the best.