Jerusalem, Israel – November 16th 2014 – Traveling once again through this land, we are reminded of David Ben Gurion’s famous musing, “In this land, anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.”
Then again, miracles can take a long time coming, and waiting for another miracle in this region can be like, well, waiting for Godot. Eerily similar to Samuel Beckett’s 1953 brilliant (though often misunderstood) masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, there does, indeed, seem to be a certain futility about this intractable and dangerous Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
And so the parties to the stalemate go about their business. The Palestinians, it seems, devote the totality of their energy to undoing a reality that was born two-thirds of a century ago, a reality they call the Nakbah, or the Catastrophe. They are strongly motivated by a sense of injustice — an injustice that has become their obsession. The Israelis, on the other hand, have been propelled by their unbridled freedom — freedom to discover, to create, to invent, to innovate and the freedom to grow.
The Palestinian sense of ire was (and is) not without cause. There were certain to be winners and losers on both sides, when this swath of land that had no true national identification for nearly half a millennia was partitioned by the United Nations sixty-six years ago. And even today the greater Middle East is in turmoil largely as a result of the disarray created when the Ottoman Empire (Caliphate) collapsed nearly 100 years ago, and the land was then sliced and diced at the whims of the victors of the Great War.
A coterie of nations in the immediate region was created during the 20th Century. In fact, all of the nations in what we think of as the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq) are creations of England and France. Only Israel, of course, was created by the United Nations.
Today, there is no meaningful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and the resulting vacuum best serves the interests of the rejectionists on both sides. The second Intifada, which began in 2000 and lasted for five years, effectively ended nearly all routine contact between Israelis and Palestinians. Prior to the second Intifada more than 200,000 Palestinians entered into Israel everyday and worked among Israelis. There was contact between the two peoples. Now, there is virtually none, except among the Palestinian Authority security forces and their Israeli counterparts. They do work together to try to keep a lid on what is boiling beneath the surface. Formal peace talks are moribund. No one is talking, and almost no one seems interested in talking. Israelis and Palestinians are, today, living in parallel universes.
I am reminded of a meeting I had on the West Bank during the first Intifada with the late Elias Freij, the Palestinian Mayor of Bethlehem. I was doing research for my novel, Heirs of Eden, and he agreed to meet with me in his office during a very trying and tense time. Mayor Freij, a man of peace, described what he called the two great tragedies of the Israeli-Arab conflict. He described the first tragedy as an Arab tragedy — the Arab refusal to accept the UN partition plan that would have created an Arab and Jewish State living side by side. The second tragedy, he believed, was an Israeli tragedy – the decision in ‘67 to hold onto essentially all the land Israel possessed following the six-day war, and Israel’s concurrent total lack of interest in pursuing negotiations with Palestinian leaders to establish a meaningful and (Freij believed) achievable and constructive peace between the two peoples. Ironically, two of the three Arab belligerents in the ’67 War have established peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan) and the third (Syria) is rapidly disintegrating into who knows what. Violent extremism over the issue of Palestine has, over the intervening years, coalesced into a variety of violent and well-armed factions, most notably Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
The Palestinians seem locked in a tragic time warp. Israel, meanwhile, has evolved, during its nearly seven decades of independence, into a success story of historic proportions. The young country excels in just about everything. It’s people and institutions are among the world’s leaders in science, basic research, agriculture, high-tech innovation, medicine, economics, literature, every aspect of art and even aerospace. Prominent military analysts in America rate the Israeli Air Force as the best in the world, and its Army as one of the best in the world and the best in the Middle East.
With few exceptions, every high school graduate (men and women) is required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) – three years for the men and two years for women. It is a rite of passage in Israel and the IDF is uniformly viewed as one of Israel’s most important and uniformly respected institutions. The young men and women of the IDF are the pride of the nation and they, in turn, take great pride in their country. Their sense of duty is palpable.
Sad narratives fill the air in this part of the world. Israel is referred to as an occupying nation. The notion is widely accepted here and, indeed, throughout much of the world, even though the circumstances of Israel’s presence in the territory in which it maintains a presence do not conform to the definition of “occupation” as defined by the 1949 Geneva Convention. The UN and its constituent affiliates have simply redefined “occupation” (after the fact) to encompass Israel’s presence on the West Bank (and previously in Gaza). When Jordan controlled the West Bank following the end of the British Mandate period and up until the ’67 War, no one thought of that territory as being “occupied” by Jordan, nor did anyone ever think of Egypt as “occupying” the Gaza Strip. And, indeed, neither Jordan nor Egypt was an occupying power as defined by the Geneva Convention.
And, of course, there are even more toxic narratives. There is the narrative Arafat promoted that Israeli’s (Jews) have no historical or cultural ties to the Middle East, or that the Holocaust that annihilated so much of European Jewry was a Zionist fiction. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Kahmenei, has weighed in on the conflict with his version of a final solution to the conflict. Israel he has written must be annihilated. Its fate should be decided by referendum including all of the people involved — with the exception, of course, of the Israelis.
The timing of the Ayatollah’s tweeted message is curious and, perhaps, revealing having been released precisely two weeks before the deadline for agreement between the so-called P5 + 1 and Iran on limiting Iran’s nuclear development to non-military purposes. It seems, to us, very likely that he chose this incredibly delicate time to issue such an inflammatory and unwelcome statement to send a message. If so, it was a very troubling message indeed.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians continues to be elusive. And just as there are those on both sides who are dedicated to keeping peace elusive, there are those who will keep searching for a way. Meanwhile, like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, we wait.