now for a clich้. After filming a documentary on both sides of the
fence Israel is building in the West Bank, I can report the following:
Israelis and Palestinians really don't understand each other.
Yes, they actually
pay me for such observations.
not quite as trite as it seems. You see, there has always been a
certain lack of understanding between the two sides, but they have
often overcome that to strike minideals and even Oslo. But the last
three years of the Palestinian uprising, suicide bombs and Israeli
settlement expansion have blown away any remnants of that. Both
sides are now convinced there is absolutely no one to talk to on
the other side.
now believe that Palestinians only have unquenchable passions
not interests that can be nurtured to counterbalance those passions.
With Israelis hit by a sickening 100 suicide bombers in three years,
who could blame them for feeling this way? And most Palestinians
now believe Israelis, with their relentless settlements, only have
insatiable appetites for Palestinian land, not interests for peace
that could be nurtured by a credible Palestinian overture.
When you actually
talk to people on both sides, though, you find that they still desperately
want choices even if their leaders tell them they have none. I
interviewed young fighters from Yasir Arafat's Tanzim militia. What
I remember most was when one of them, Anas Assaf, became emotional.
Once was when I asked him what would happen if Israel threw out
Mr. Arafat. Palestinians would turn the area into a "hell" for Israel,
he shot back. The other was when he talked about his dream of going
to the University of Memphis, where his uncle lived, "to study engineering."
That is the
whole story: Anas is ready to die for Yasir Arafat but wants to
live for the University of Memphis. He has interests and passions,
and it is possible to alter the balance between them.
It's time for
Israel to try that yes, yet again. Israel has incredible strength.
I saw that in how individual Israelis responded to the suicide bombings
by defiantly riding the same bus lines and going to the same cafes
the day after they were blown up. But while individual Israelis
behave with great strength, their current government behaves as
if Israel is a weak little victim.
It is time
for Israel to use its overwhelming strength to take some initiative.
The only people who can stop the suicide bombers are the Palestinians.
They won't do it overnight and can't do it with a decimated Palestinian
Authority. It can happen, though, if Israel works with a new Palestinian
prime minister, makes tough demands but doesn't expect perfection
overnight, doesn't let itself be goaded by Hamas into freezing everything,
takes its own initiative to dismantle settlements and taps what
is still there: Palestinian interest in going to Memphis, not just
force the Palestinians to be reasonable, to pursue their interests
and not their passions, but it can create a context where they are
more likely to do so than not," said the Middle East expert Stephen
P. Cohen. "But with its relentless settlement activity, and responding
to every Hamas provocation by smashing the Palestinian Authority,
Israel has not done that."
If the Palestinians
are going to miss another opportunity to miss an opportunity, let
it be a real opportunity one that any fair-minded person would
deem fair. At best, Israel would enable the real interests of the
Palestinians to emerge, and at worst it would create a moral clarity
where Israel can fight a permanent war with the Palestinians, without
27 Israeli Air Force pilots going on strike, saying justice isn't
on their side.
Who is Yasir
Arafat? He's a terrorist bum, but not a strategic threat to Israel.
Which is why, for me, the real question is: What does Israel want
to be? Does Israel, as the Israeli philosopher David Hartman asks,
"want to be a country defined by Torah and values or by which
hill and rock it controls" in the West Bank? Will Israeli idealism
be defined by more new settlements for a fanatical minority or by
the quality of the society it builds for the sane majority?
I know a vast
majority of Israelis want a decent, normal society, but their ideologically
driven leaders are lost in space, squandering their people's great
strength rather than channeling it into creative options. And the
Bush team, which should be acting as a reality check, has fallen
so deep into the pocket of Ariel Sharon you can't even find it anymore.