Nobody invested more faith in the peace process than Hirsh Goodman, the tough little South African journalist who founded an excellent magazine, The Jerusalem Report. He's a professional skeptic, but he bet his reputation, and set his heart, on learning to live comfortably with the Palestinians. That's why the summer of 2002 finds him angry, baffled and mortified, like so many of his kind. It's hard to be so wrong for so long. And it's much harder when the failure of hope leads straight to social chaos and the blood of innocents.
Over many years he knew, just knew, that the appropriate concessions, offered in the right way, would surely bring peace. He and his friends became the peace generation, writers and scholars who argued that a land-for-peace deal would replace the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians with tolerance if not affection. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s, vague though they were, promised an end to terrorist killings and the beginning of a better life for both Jews and Arabs.
Mr. Goodman believed that Yasser Arafat himself had given up terror, though radicals close to him were still encouraging it. Even when P.M. Ehud Barak's generous territorial offer was rejected by…Arafat following the Camp David meetings in the summer of 2000, Mr. Goodman's faith didn't weaken. In the Oct. 10, 2000, issue of Jerusalem Report, he wrote: "I think this peace deal is done...even if the sides do not sign a final-status agreement before President Clinton leaves the White House, they have, essentially, already made their peace."
That column, less than two years old, now looks like an artifact of history, suitable for exhibit in the museum of lost causes. In fact, it was dead almost as soon as it came off the press. In his column dated Nov. 6 (he writes his magazine pieces well before they are printed), Mr. Goodman abruptly reversed himself. He insisted that when a separate Palestinian state is born (just about everyone agrees it will be, eventually) Palestinians should be treated as foreigners with "enemy status." He demanded sharp separation between Jewish and Arab communities--"Divorce, not marriage." He even argued that Palestinians should not be allowed to work in Israel, because they constitute a security threat.
In a twinkling, his politics had turned upside down. During the harsh weeks between those columns, his confidence was destroyed by the worst catastrophe in Israel during this generation: the start of the second intifada, a wave of killing that may not be over yet.
On Sept. 28, Palestinians rioted in protest when Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party leader, having acquired permission from the Palestinian authorities, visited the Temple Mount, a site that both Jews and Muslims consider sacred. In the next few days, a P.A. policeman killed an Israeli policeman on joint patrol, a Palestinian mob defiled Joseph's Tomb in Nablus and Palestinians lynched two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. A new intifada, long planned, was picking up speed. Ever since, it has been the central fact of Israel's existence.
In recent days, I've visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramallah and Nazareth to talk with writers and academics about their ideas and their experience. After 22 months of horror, they remain traumatized, the leftists in particular. Conservatives never trusted the Palestinians and never imagined Chairman Arafat could be an amicable peace partner. As one right-winger put it, "We aren't angry. We aren't disappointed. This is what we expected. The leftists are angry because they expected something else. Hell hath no fury like a leftist scorned."
In Israel, the terms "right" and "left" seldom refer to economics or the welfare system. "Right" usually means approaching negotiations with suspicion and supporting settlements in the disputed lands. "Left" means a good-hearted eagerness to negotiate with the Palestinians, an attitude that may be revived eventually but has now become so unpopular that it seems almost quaint. According to the polls, Prime Minister Sharon's response to the intifada (terrorize the terrorists by occupying the West Bank and Gaza while establishing rigorous checkpoints and strict curfews) has 80% of the Israeli public behind it--in a country where, as one astute political writer notes, "Nobody ever gets 80% support for anything."
Israelis may not love their Prime Minister, but his policies have become the national consensus. His Labour Party predecessor, Mr. Barak, has said that in Mr. Sharon's place he would have been even tougher. The government now wins grudging, irony-laden approval even from leftists. Two years ago they couldn't imagine saying a kind word about Mr. Sharon. Now they admit, in many cases, that they voted for him in the February, 2001, election that brought him to power.
Put plainly, the ideology of the Israeli leftists has crumbled beneath them. It would be hard to think of an intellectual class anywhere that has been compelled to change its thinking so rapidly. Mr. Goodman always considered himself on the left, but no more: "I believe now in negotiation from strength." David Hartman, the former McGill University professor and Montreal rabbi who created the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, tries to reconcile Jewish, Christian and Muslim views through study and research. Even so, he summarizes his politics in two sentences: "If you are powerless, you invite destruction. If you have power, you invite discussion."
Even A.B. Yehoshua, whose brilliant novels circle the globe in translation, changed under the pressure of this intifada, though not so quickly. A leader in the Israeli peace movement, he remained willing, as late as July 25, 2001, to join scores of Palestinian and Israeli colleagues in signing a declaration headed "No to bloodshed, No to occupation, Yes to negotiations, Yes to peace." But another six months of suicide bombings ground him down. He saw the future destroyed and he took it personally. Last winter he announced: "I hate Arafat from the bottom of my heart. The dream which we have been trying to realize since 1967--the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel--amounts today to fiction."
Over coffee in a Haifa hotel, he talked about this long night of disillusionment and about the possibility that conflict in Israel could turn into war across the Middle East: "Perhaps Arafat, in his crazy and sick way, thought he could set it all on fire." He admitted the peace movement is in distress and incapable of imagining its future role. He predicted that there will be a Palestinian state, but that Israel will have to draw its borders without Palestinian participation. Before Camp David, Israelis hoped that handing over almost all the West Bank and Gaza would persuade Palestinians to abandon their demand that the refugees from the 1948 war (with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) must return to Israel. But after years of talking, "the right of return" still seems only simple justice to many Palestinians. Unfortunately, it would mean the death of the Jewish state. Refugees, once counted in the hundreds of thousands, now number more than three million. If incorporated into Israel, they would fairly soon make it an Arab state with a Jewish minority.
Mr. Yehoshua spoke with nostalgia of happier times, chronologically recent but culturally distant. In wistful tones he recalled the effort expended over the years on co-operative Arab-Israeli projects. He acquired many Palestinian friends and colleagues and watched them benefit from the rising Israeli economy. Somehow, Israel had pulled off the astonishing feat of absorbing a million Russian immigrants without missing a beat. "We were growing fast, economically. The prospect was glowing, three years ago. There were local [Arab] people you could work with, until Arafat paralyzed the system. I was always a dove, also a social democrat." With a start, I realized he was now speaking entirely in the past tense.
In the 1990s, Shimon Peres, the Labour Party chieftain who is now Foreign Minister in the Sharon coalition Cabinet, liked to speak of "the new Middle East." He imagined prosperity blossoming across the whole region as soon as a workable peace treaty was in place. As Michael Keren of Tel Aviv University put it at a breakfast meeting last week, the peace process was grounded in plans for economic growth. Unfortunately, that was a dream the Palestinians never embraced. It expressed Israel's desire to share in globalization, but it had little meaning for the many Arabs (perhaps especially Arab leaders) who want only to distance themselves from Western ways of life. Now Israel finds itself, as Mr. Keren said, "all of a sudden in what we thought was the world of the past."
Mark Heller, a specialist in Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Jaffee Center in Tel Aviv University, was also caught by surprise. As he said, "Israel under Barak did what everyone always told it to do." The world said, "Be generous," and the Israelis were generous. But on this point "the international community" proved wrong. Mr. Heller helped to advance the peace process in 1991 when he and a Palestinian colleague, Sari Nusseibeh, wrote No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
In conversation at the cafeteria of the Tel Aviv museum, he recalled that in the 1990s what he calls "Islamo-fascism" was on the decline. The revolution in Iran appeared to be running down and an extremist victory in Algeria was looking less likely. He imagined that globalism was coming, inevitably, to the Middle East. If free trade and technology were influencing Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, why couldn't they apply here too? It seemed obvious. But the Middle East acts slowly and reluctantly in all matters, not just peace negotiations. In 1951, the Arab League proposed a regional free-trade zone. Today that idea remains a proposal, on the agenda for a conference in 2008. Israelis and Palestinians are separated by more than disputes over land and power. They also move at different speeds and speak of different goals in different language.
Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, carried that idea further and argued that the peace process was crippled by elitism. It was an attempt by two leadership groups to make an agreement without much discussion among their populations: "We never had a societal meeting of minds." On Israel's side it was the work of the "the Zionist secular elite." (Mr. Steinberg is modern Orthodox.) On the Palestinian side the negotiators came from the tiny and unrepresentative circle around Chairman Arafat.
The Americans were little help. They put all their effort into what Mr. Steinberg called "grand signing ceremonies," which seemed easier than trying to deal with the Palestinian populace. The peace process was all documents, no understanding. Still, he remains an optimist. He imagines starting over by creating small, specialized interest groups that will find reasons to work together: "We did it the wrong way, but I think we can do it the right way."
Religion will be a key to that right way, Yossi Klein Halevi believes. He's the Israel correspondent of The New Republic and the author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, a much-admired study of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious practice. Over dinner he explained that the politicians who developed the negotiations made a point of ignoring religious beliefs: "The Oslo process was the work of secular elites on both sides. They thought they could circumvent all these nasty religious differences. They could make peace together, but back home they had these two powerful mythologies." He thinks the argument will go on for another thousand years if both sides don't learn to speak of peace in the language of faith.
Rabbi Hartman believes Palestinians have only the sketchiest knowledge of Judaism, and therefore no understanding at all of Israel's position: "The Palestinians do not know we have come home. They have been taught to see us as temporary." They imagined that terrorism would break Israel's will, but the Israelis cannot afford to be defeated: "Because we are at home. This is the last stop of Jewish history."
Mr. Klein Halevi imagines that the next peace initiative must start with an offer from the other side. Recent events "buried the idea of land for peace and replaced it with peace for land." If Palestinians want to reclaim land they will likely have to provide peace first. For now, he sees Israel recovering from parallel delusions: "The fantasy and delusion of the right was that we could be occupiers and remain a decent society. The fantasy and delusion of the left was that we could simply hand over the territories and win peace." He always considered himself a political centrist and tried to suspend his skepticism during the peace process. In 2001, he and his wife voted for Mr. Sharon. She, a peacenik at Stanford in ancient times, said, "I can't believe I did this."
While recent events have surprised her, they have astounded Benny Morris, a history professor at Ben-Gurion University and the most influential critic of Zionism in Israeli academic life.
If Palestinians translated and read Israeli books, which they don't, Benny Morris would have long ago become one of their heroes. In 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, he presented the Palestinian cause with such sympathy that he altered the study of modern history in Israel. He and the academics he influenced, "the new historians," emphasized the Palestinian narrative, and quickly reshaped the school curriculum. As the peace process grew more popular, Israeli schools increasingly taught a Palestinian view of the last half-century, sometimes going so far as to shove aside the Jewish story.
It says something about daily life in Jerusalem that Benny Morris did not agree to meet over lunch until he determined that the chosen restaurant had a security guard. It says something more that he was ready to admit that his convictions about recent history had been altogether wrong. "I thought the Palestinians had changed their ideological course, but no. I thought something had changed in the Palestinian mentality." He thought they were preparing their people for peace and that Chairman Arafat could sell it. Instead, they were teaching their children from schoolroom maps that didn't even mention Israel. He discovered that among the Palestinian leadership, "Everybody lies all the time." He was more appalled when he understood that Palestinian society endorsed suicide bombing. Now, "I believe there is no partner for peace on the other side." Mr. Morris exemplifies the tone you sometimes hear in the conversation of Israeli academics, melancholy and despair mingled with anger and self-disgust.
Often you hear strong personal feeling behind their words, and nowhere more than with Hirsh Goodman. "I supported Oslo," he said. "I supported talking with Arafat. The greatest disappointment was to discover that despite everything I've believed, everything I've promulgated, that asshole never gave up terror." Both of Mr. Goodman's young children have seen the devastation of suicide bombs; one of them saw a man without a head. Like others, he sometimes wonders whether Israel is the place to have his children grow up. He always decides that he does, despite everything: "One thing about this place. It's real. It's alive." Yossi Klein Halevi agrees. "You feel alive here every moment. In Israel, you feel alive until you're dead."
©2002 - National Post