Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

At the start of the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority the other week at the White House President Barack Obama reminded us of the similar introspective messages of the months of Elul and Ramadan.

These Jewish and Muslim months, born in the shared landscape and sky of the Middle East found themselves, this year, in a soft embrace and touch, as they overlapped in their respective lunar and lunar-solar orientations. The president drew attention to the contemplative message of these two holy months that patterns, viewpoints, and actions need not remain frozen or stuck with no exit to a better reality.

In the Jewish calendar another layer of meaning is added to this period as it is believed that Moses was on the top of Mount Sinai during this 40-day period from the first of Elul until the 10th of Tishri, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of that calendar. What was he doing during those 40 days? Rather than give up and turn away, Moses, even though the text tells us that he was 80 at the time, returns to the mountain and once again climbs up her long steep path, retracing his previous steps.

There are scores and scores of Israeli and Palestinian people-to-people NGOs who have been modeling partnership for decades, such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies that trains future Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian environmental leaders. In a corner of the world where being the adversary is too often how Jews and Arabs label each other these grassroots organizations have overcome that paradigm. In these partnerships none of them deny the strong feelings they have toward their own identities — national, religious, and political. But they all understand that there are other values, orientations, outlooks, and concerns that also are vital and important to the existence and survival of the Israeli and Palestinian people.

The lesson of these NGOs is that that the best way to preserve oneself is to embrace the other. This model creates relationships by building and focusing on what they share and not what divides them. This conflict will not end when all agree, this conflict will end when both sides learn to live with their differences; their different narratives, and their different stories.

They do not bury those differences, but at the same time they do not allow those differences to chain them to patterns that hold them back. The Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would do well to glean from these insights.

In some ways this conflict, as dehumanizing and tragic it is, is a known quantity to both parties. In such a reality it is difficult to see another way — the unknown possible better future is eclipsed by the known, as terrible as it may be. Yet poll after poll continues to show that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis favor the reaching of such an agreement — a step into that unknown. The task of the negotiators is to bring the two peoples into that new relationship.

There will be impasses around the negotiating table — there will be moments when the task will seem impossible. At those moments they should draw upon the wisdom and tenacity of Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Kranz’s team who acted, while time and options were running out for that ill-fated flight to the Moon, as though failure was not an option. They utilized imagination and creative improvisations and models. It is easy to say that reaching a peace agreement is impossible; the work of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is to make it possible. What is now is not what has to be.

Like Moses, the negotiators have begun that long climb up the mountain again. From that mountaintop they should not forget the lessons from those in the valley who have already created models and a vision they can draw upon. As they carve an agreement they should remember the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: “Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.”

— Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the author of “Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul” and a member of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.