The following statement was not shouted by a long-time Peace Now activist into a megaphone outside the prime minister’s house:
You have to understand that a very large population of Palestinians lives here…
Take a 50-year-old man who lives here. A man who has spent most of his life – 40 years, since he was a 10-year-old child – under the watch of the Israeli soldier. The same soldier who carries a rifle, for all the most justified reasons in the world. But this is that man’s narrative. Take those who were stripped at the checkpoints only because there might be terrorists among them. Take those who stand for hours at the checkpoints for fear that a booby-trapped car could pass through…
No, those words were Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s, speaking to brigade commanders in the West Bank, telling them to show “understanding” and to “act wisely” in the time before Israel withdraws, so that they do not leave damage that “casts a shadow over our lives” for generations. So Ha’aretz reported on the weekend. I admit I checked to make sure I was reading correctly, and then checked to see if I’d forgotten the date and this was an April 1 spoof.
It wasn’t. That was really Ehud Olmert, whose father was in the Irgun and afterward represented the hard right in the Knesset, Ehud Olmert who went into politics around the time he started shaving and who represented parties irrevocably and eternally dedicated to Israeli rule of the Whole Land of Israel – until just over four years ago, when he called off eternity and declared he was in favor of giving up most of the West Bank, as long as we could do it unilaterally, imposing whatever borders we chose on the Palestinians. Even knowing he’d made that shift – more dramatic than Milton Friedman accepting socialism – I didn’t expect to hear him talking like a fiery Machsom Watch grandmother about the suffering of Palestinians at roadblocks.
In his talk to the brigade commanders, Olmert said, “I am a Jew who was raised all his life to believe that this is the Land of Israel” – meaning, really this is our homeland and it all belongs to us “and I haven’t changed my mind.” Except, as much as it hurts him, he knows we’re going to leave. And in the meantime, the brass should look at Palestinians as people.
Now, don’t start shouting at me – you there, the divestment activist in Ann Arbor with the angry twist of muscle near your mouth who knows that there is a good side and a bad one in every conflict, the bad one defined by having more power, and who is about to click on “comment” to tell me about Olmert’s crimes. I can outdo you at listing what Olmert has done wrong, down to the latest approval for new settlement construction. I know how weak Olmert can be. I once described him as “Willy Loman with a vision: a glad-handing hack politician who was ambushed one day by a truth” – the truth being that our rule of the West Bank will lead us first to apartheid (his word) and afterward to the end of the Jewish state.
I still assert we can learn two outrageously hopeful lessons from Olmert’s comments about the roadblocks: First, people are not stones, and politics isn’t geology. People can change, and accept difficult truths. Second, in doing so, they often hold onto the previous truth. Someone can believe that the whole land belongs to his side, and be willing to split it. The discovery that we have been made to live with such dissonance is reason to shout hallelujah.
I, Marwan Barghouti, tell you that I, along with the vast majority of the Palestinian people, am ready for a historic conciliation based on the international resolutions which will ensure two states, Palestinian and Israeli, living side by side in security and peace, which will give our children and your children a life without the threat of wars and bloodshed.
Now, you, the other one, living in Efrat or wherever it is, with the angry twist of muscle near your mouth who knows that there is a good side and a bad one in every conflict, and that the Palestinians unlike the Jews are unchangingly, geologically steadfast in their beliefs, and who is about to click on “comment” to tell me about Barghouti’s crimes. I know. He’s in jail for murdering five Israelis. As leader of Fatah’s Tanzim during the second intifada, he was an advocate of violent resistance, willingly seduced by the old siren call of liberation through bloodshed, a strategy which failed both morally and politically by convincing many Israelis that there was no chance of peace. I have no doubt he believes that before the divine court of justice, not only Jenin but also Jaffa rightfully belongs to the Palestinians.
And nonetheless, he declares his desire to put aside divine right, live with dissonance and make peace with us.
True, there is still a substantial gap between Olmert’s conditions for peace and Barghouti’s conditions. But that gap is a narrow crack compared to the abyss that existed between Israelis and Palestinians a generation ago.
Sometimes it seems we are caught in a politicized rewrite of Zeno’s paradox: To get to peace, each side must first traverse half the distance to a compromise. Then it must traverse half the remaining distance, and then half of what is left, and therefore it is impossible ever to arrive. Motion itself is an illusion. Real life, however, has never cared about the sophistry of Zeno or other fanatics. It is possible to move, and possible to arrive.