Zero-sum thinking has distorted our reality by the Forward

The real thing that’s missing from Trump’s peace plan

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In years of relentless vitriol attacking my coverage, myself and my family while I was Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, the most distressing was a short text from the spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization on Israel’s Memorial Day in 2015.

“Your lack of empathy for Palestinians is unbelievable,” it said.

At first I was confused. The only story I had published that day was a profile of an American-Israeli woman whose son, Gil’ad, had been killed in the Yom Kippur War. The piece was about the intimacy of Israel’s annual observance honoring its fallen: After more than four decades, Gil’ad’s former classmates and fellow soldiers still gathered around her for a special ceremony; 23 had named their babies after him. The story had nothing to do with Palestinians; Gil’ad was killed near Egypt’s Suez Canal.

Opinion | The real thing that’s missing from Trump’s peace plan

Then I got angry. I had taken so much flak for writing empathetically about Palestinian prisoners, Palestinian teenagers who throw stones, Palestinian artists who felt imprisoned in the Gaza Strip, but he was ignoring all that because of one little profile.

And then I just got sad. I realized that this Palestinian official was suggesting that the very act of having empathy for this Israeli woman — for a mother who had lost her only son — inherently meant I lacked empathy for someone else, suggesting that empathy itself is a zero-sum game.

This is how deeply the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has distorted reality. Of course empathy is not a finite commodity. The very definition of empathy is that there’s always enough to go around. Because empathy is, simply, the act of seeing something from someone else’s perspective, analyzing a situation based on their values, trying to understand their experiences and emotions and ideas.

Empathy is the essential tool of good journalism, the essence of fair and full reporting, the key to compelling storytelling. It’s why I tried to spend as much time as possible in people’s homes and workplaces, traveling their roads, listening to their words, eating their food, experiencing their world.

Opinion | The real thing that’s missing from Trump’s peace plan

Empathy is also the most critical tool in any negotiation. And it’s absent from President Trump’s peace plan.

I’m sure the PLO spokesman who texted me back then would have harsher things to say about the plan announced on Tuesday, but his message is appropriate for the administration officials who put it together.

Not having any Palestinians at the White House this week betrays a serious empathy gap. The plan itself shows little evidence that its authors actually talked to many Palestinians; it seems President Trump has not spoken with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority since 2017. As many others have said, this may be a plan but it cannot be for peace if only one side is consulted.

A lot of Jewish organizations who have praised the plan have acknowledged the serious problem of trying to broker peace without both parties — by saying they hoped Trump’s announcement would force the Palestinians back to the table after years of refusing direct talks. This is empty rhetoric: pre-Trump, Palestinian leaders already had deep suspicion about America’s ability to be an honest broker given its abiding closeness to Israel, its empathy for the Zionist project. Now, it’s clear the White House is not even trying to be a broker in any meaningful sense of the word.

They’re not going to come to the table that doesn’t even have a place set for them. Not without an invitation. Not when it’s clear the administration has no empathy left for their perspective, their people.

Opinion | The real thing that’s missing from Trump’s peace plan

It’s actually not that difficult to empathize with multiple sides of a conflict; it’s a natural human response. How many times have you said to yourself about a personal or professional situation, “I empathize with both sides”? Yet somehow in politics, its increasingly zero-sum.

Which is not to say that reaching peace isn’t incredibly difficult. Of course it is; this is a small place with limited resources, two peoples with legitimate claims to it, and decades of terrorizing each other (no, I’m not saying in equal measure; I’m not keeping score; it’s not a zero-sum game). But before the terribly difficult challenges of capitals and refugee resettlement and secure borders and water can be tackled there is a much more basic one, which is to know that empathy is the essential agreement to moving forward.

The deal of the century will only come when Israeli Jews and Palestinians show empathy for each other, and when there is a broker who has enough for both.

Jodi Rudoren is the Editor-in-Chief of the Forward.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

The real thing that’s missing from Trump’s peace plan


Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, the nation’s oldest independent Jewish news organization, in September 2019 after more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. She is helping lead a transformation of the storied 123-year-old institution, a nonprofit that went digital-only in early 2019.

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The real thing that’s missing from Trump’s peace plan

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