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Kerry and the Peace Process: The Tenth Man

Here’s a contrarian opinion in the circles I run in: US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to revive the Israel-Palestine peace process actually have a good chance of succeeding.

The overwhelming “conventional wisdom” among Israelis is that the newest round of peace talks has virtually no chance of leading to peace. The standard thinking is neatly summarized by a quote from David Horovitz in a piece by Jodi Rudoren in the NYTimes:

David Horovitz, a 30-year journalistic observer of the peace process who now runs the news Web site Times of Israel, said that given Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative government and Mr. Abbas’s political weakness, he did not see how the new negotiations would succeed where previous rounds had not. In particular, he said, he could not imagine Mr. Netanyahu offering “anything close to” what his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, proposed in 2009, “and Abbas didn’t take that.”

“To me, the big issue was not whether Kerry would drag them back to the table,” Mr. Horovitz said. “The question is how can they reach an agreement. I just don’t see viable parameters that both sides could agree upon, to my great sorrow.”

But it’s always worthwhile to challenge the “conventional wisdom.” In fact it’s a longstanding Jewish tradition to be skeptical of the “herd mentality.” In World War Z, the character played by Brad Pitt asks why Israel was the first place in the world to take counter-Zombie measures. The Israeli explains: “From 1973 onward, if nine intelligence analysts came to the same conclusion, it was the duty of the tenth to disagree. No matter how unlikely or far-fetched a possibility might be, one must always dig deeper.” 1973, of course, is when Israel got caught asleep at the switch when the Arabs launched a surprise attack and almost wiped us out.

But that “tenth man rule” actually has its roots in the Talmud and Jewish Law. 2000 years ago there was no such thing a unanimous verdict to convict someone charged with a capital crime: if there wasn’t at least one dissenting vote, one person arguing for the person’s innocence, it was declared a mistrial.

So despite the fact that I share the typical Israeli’s skepticism, let me be the tenth man. Here’s the case for success.

Yes, the Israeli government is very right wing; but it has also been the case that it’s right wing governments that can actually manage to make progress when it comes to be peace – a fact that goes back to Menachem Begin making a peace deal with Egypt.

There are those who say that if Netanyahu moves too close to actually doing a peace deal, it will cause the government to collapse: Bayit Yehudi, the “settler’s party,” will bolt and cause a coalition crisis. This is actually not a big problem: if Bayit Yehudi leaves the coalition, there is no shortage of parties willing to step in to join the coalition to make peace. But Bayit Yehudi won’t actually leave: Naftali Bennett will just tell his supporters, “look, the peace deal is going to happen whether we’re in the coalition or not. Who do you want sitting at the cabinet table as the negotiations are conducted? Me? Or Shelly Yacimovitch?”

As to Abbas turning down Olmert’s offer, that may not have been because Olmert’s offer wasn’t good enough – it may have been because Abbas miscalculated how much time he had. The Palestinian negotiating approach seems very similar to something I encountered doing business in China 30 years ago. They wouldn’t sign an agreement until I was at the airport ready to board the plane – literally. They believed if they agreed before the last possible instant – when I showed I was serious enough to walk away – it meant they weren’t getting the best possible deal. Abbas thought he could squeeze a little more out of Olmert, but Olmert lost his job before Abbas had the chance.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas have served as leaders of their governments for a long time. They are both thinking about their legacy. Does either one of them really want to retire from the political scene without resolving this 45+ year old conflict? Wouldn’t Netanyahu love to go down in history with a real accomplishment, securing the future of the Jewish state by removing the threat of having a bi-national state shoved down our throats? Wouldn’t Abbas love to go down in history as the man who brought into being a real Palestinian state? They both have an incentive to get it done, and further delay will not serve any useful purpose. Might as well get to work and make an agreement.

The basic “formula” for that agreement has not changed since the days when Ehud Barak, Yassir Arafat, and Bill Clinton tried to put a deal together in 2000.  Everyone knows what it takes to make a deal.  All that’s left is to haggle over the details.

OK. I’ll admit I’m not 100% convinced by my “tenth man” argument. But it IS a plausible argument. It is possible. There is a chance that this is the time when it will actually happen, and Israel will be able to stop worrying about being an international pariah, and Palestinians will be able to lead normal lives.

Though he may tarry, I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah…

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Kerry and the Peace Process: The Tenth Man

  • I have a question regarding paragraph 4.

    The author says, “if there wasn’t at least one dissenting vote, one person arguing for the person’s innocence, it was declared a mistrial…” and it, “has its roots in the Talmud and Jewish Law.”

    What is the exact source of this? I’ve tried to find it on my own but my research only seems to turn up religious duties of minyan, and not any sort of judicial duty.

    Thank you.

    • Barry Leff

      Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17a:

      R. Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously find [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? — Because we have learned by tradition that sentence must be postponed till the morrow in hope of finding new points in favour of the defence. But this cannot be anticipated in this case.


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