It was at my Uncle Mark’s fourth grade parent-teacher conference in 1970 that my Bubbe and Grandpa began to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mark had brought home his Chapter 2 math test, pressed with a ripe, shiny “78%.” There had been no teacher’s note, no call home, no indication that Mark had been struggling. The C+ wasn’t a failing grade, but it certainly signaled a fundamental misunderstanding of the material at hand. Why, my grandparents wondered, was there such a glaring lack of constructive follow-up?
By the time the conference came around, my Grandpa – whose charming frankness has bolstered a long career in business – was prepared to leave any sense of evasion at the door.
“Why did my son get a C on the last math test?” he asked Mr. Johnson.
The teacher explained that math grading was on a numerical basis, and the test had been worth a total of fifty points. Mark had scored thirty-eight of them, a C+. “We just present the material,” Mr. Johnson told my grandparents, “It’s up to the students to grasp it.” The teacher, it seemed, viewed his own reasoning as sound and effective.
My grandparents, however, saw a stark and damaging problem – one that could lead easily to more severe problems: Mark hadn’t been asked to study again or re-take the test, nor had Mr. Johnson made an effort to remediate the lessons of which his student had demonstrated such misunderstanding. Mark had likely not been the only fourth-grader to perform at a sub-par level. And yet, the class had continued on to Chapter 3.
There was no mention, at that fateful conference, of either Israel or Palestine. When I hear my Grandpa recount the story, I imagine the walls of the room being plastered with alphabet posters, shelves stacked with The Wind in the Willows dioramas and sheets upon sheets of smudged cursive letters. Admittedly, never, upon hearing that story, have my thoughts turned to the Middle East.
Until last week, when I sat in the back of a jam-packed ballroom at the Beverly Hilton hotel. There, I listened as Shimon Peres, Israel’s celebrated and articulate president, addressed a crowd of hundreds of supporters of Los Angeles’s Jewish Federation. The moderator of the discussion asked Peres about Palestinian feelings of irrelevance. “Peace is a process,” Peres said, “not just a decision.” As I thought about that, my mind flashed to the parent-teacher conference. The following is where my mind wandered.
“Peace,” as an ideal, is Chapter 7, where all key figures – political entities, leaders, militaries, religious and societal groups – wear Mark’s shoes, hardly keeping hold of chapter two. Pushing them toward peace is akin to asking an out-of-shape toddler to swim the length of an Olympic pool. Peace, its very essence abstract, nondescript, and romanticized, connotes almost nothing concrete. By its nature, it is conceptual, not tangible. Its pursuit has propagated seasons of volatility, unrest, frustration, and regression on which the sun has yet to set.
In early 1775, on the eve of the birth of a nation that would become the world’s flagship demonstration of progressive thinking, one colonial leader conceded that the notion of “peace” was naïve – that his revolutionary brothers were better off acknowledging antagonism as an inevitable constant. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Patrick Henry told his compatriots, “But there is no peace.”
History dictates that diplomatic agreements in the Middle East serve to carry out specific regional tasks, almost never an inkling of broad, blanket “peace.” Camp David created a military and economic alliance between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Oslo curbed the First Intifada in 1993. The disengagement from Gaza was a step toward Palestinian independence, even if at the cost of Hamas’ rise. In each case, the ideal of “peace” fell victim to its abstract nature, instead moving toward a concrete, more humble, and feasible goal. Peace is too vague to attain.
When dignitaries allude to “peace in the Middle East,” they do so with an equivocal pseudo-idealism – a diplomatic irony of sorts. Any “necessity” for a peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an illusion. Reaching for peace is futile. The Middle East needs a stability process.
Stability begins with the agenda. A Palestinian government, Mahmoud Abbas wrote in his application for admission to the United Nations, would devote itself to continuing talks on “final status issues” once a state existed. In his purview, those constitute “Jerusalem, the Palestine refugees, settlements, borders, security and water.” But, through an Israeli lens, a comprehensive resolution will ride on negotiations that seek to rectify the Jewish state’s own distinct existential challenges, most of them demographic.
A “two-state solution” is achievable only where stability exists; stability will exist where the raging fires that are the above issues are quenched. If they continue to burn even after the allowance of Palestinian state, a two-state solution will not have been reached; rather, the region would take on a two-state existence with perpetual two-state troubles.
Suppose that the agenda for the stability process had room for only two issues. One must be a primarily Palestinian issue, one a primarily Israeli issue, and one that truly requires bilateral policy decisions. Those two issues – which, if resolved responsibly and with a necessary degree of compromise, could usher in the beginnings of regional stability in this era – are that of Palestinian national governance and Israel’s West Bank settlement policy.
There are those who call themselves “Palestinians” living in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank – a disunited constituency. In the aforementioned document, however, Abbas refers to the Palestinian Liberation Authority (PLO) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
For the last several days, the towns on Israel’s southwest side have fallen prey to an incessant rocket barrage by terrorists. On Sunday afternoon, two of the weapons fell in Be’er Sheva; one struck a school, and the other a car parked just outside of a home.
Hamas governs Gaza. A separate parliamentary coalition governs Israel. Under whose sphere of influence do those terrorists fall? Which leader, which government, is responsible for punishing those who commit such egregious acts, for deterring Palestinians from carrying out future attacks? Indeed, another state will come – stability will come – once all Palestinians know whom to call “Mr. President.”
By no means are settlements in the West Bank the sole roadblock to peace, but building and extending them only further agitates an ever-agitated people. House renovations in East Jerusalem needn’t end, but the Israeli government’s slews of new housing projects continue to edge more and more deeply into the West Bank and, thus, into the collective Palestinian psyche.
There is a legal statute in many American cities that states that if two neighbors have lived by certain property lines for a number of years, those lines become the lawful boundaries – even if they weren’t originally articulated as such by city plans. If Palestine is to be, effectively, the West Bank, then, before the state is established, Israel must act as though those lines already exist, and, accordingly, stop preemptively infringing upon national sovereignty. As of now, Israel has the right to establish its own housing projects in the West Bank, but it also has the power to cease.
This conflict is rife with more perplexing contortions than is an Escher painting, more hidden crevices than the canyons of Yosemite. I would never claim that this is the one and only way to solve this. That would reflect an arrogance that could have unsafe repercussions in this debate. For those reasons, I don’t call this a plan for peace; it is merely a few steps that might lead to more stability in a world in which “there is no peace.” Bubbe and Grandpa were right: Where we are Uncle Mark, a stable region is Chapter 3.