But There is No Peace – Why the Mideast “Peace Process” Needs to End

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.

A Rickety House – Why a Science Museum in Oregon Matters in Tomorrow’s UN Vote

On the east bank of Portland, Oregon’s Willamette River sits an expansive complex of buildings. The mostly-brick complex, which welcomes about a million visitors each year, is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or “OMSI.” As a child, I made many a trip to OMSI, spending hours exploring the cracks and crevices of center every time I visited my family in Portland. I have vivid memories of ducking my head to gain entry into the submarine exhibit and sending foam balls flying into the air in a giant room full of experimental wind turbines. To an inquisitive youngster, the place seemed like playground with something new around each corner.

One exhibit in particular always caught my attention. On the second floor there was a display that covered the natural sciences. But being little and easily distracted, I would often abandon the tiny writing on the information panels and instead turn quickly to the earthquake simulator. (Now they were speaking my language.)

My brothers and I would hop up onto the platform and underneath the wooden house frame that also rested on it. We would click the red button and a radio would being to omit static, we would hear the sound of shattered glass, and the platform would start shaking vehemently. Just sixty seconds on the platform, and my brothers and I would learn the basic consequence of building a structure on quivering ground: things fall apart.

Perhaps UN delegates never visited OMSI.

Tomorrow, if it so chooses, the United Nations will ignore the basic principle represented by the simulator: a rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Any basis for political communication or – for that matter – national existence is lacking. There are no guidelines in place for economic interaction between Israel and a Palestinian state. There are no guidelines in place for trade between the two nations. There are no diplomatic agreements. There are no military agreements. There are no parliamentary rules. There are no conditions, no concessions. The Palestinian Authority has agreed to nothing, nor has the Israeli government. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

The Palestinian Authority has continually received substantive and effectual aid packages from the United States. President Obama has remained staunch in his approach to the Middle Eastern conflict. Just yesterday, he told the General Assembly that “a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves,” and that he will not grant the Palestinians the United States’ support on this latest undertaking. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Settlement issues remain wholly unresolved. Israelis have built lives throughout the West Bank in regions that have been in question for years, but that still technically lie within the lines of the Jewish State. Violence, even only in past months, is an innate, knee-jerk impulse. Last March, politically motivated Palestinian terrorists broke into the home of a family in Itamar, a West Bank settlement. The terrorists stabbed to death the mother, the father, two children who were asleep, and one who was reading with a lamp on. Whether the land belongs to the Israelis or the Palestinians is inconsequential. If the Palestinians are granted a state tomorrow, it will become debilitatingly harder to make this incident an isolated one. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

The world has been touched by an upswing of the human spirit that has caused millions to escape the tight grip of oppression. The Israeli government – while it has indeed pondered, if not grazed unjust policy – holds no such grip. A Palestinian state tomorrow runs the risk of both appearing to equate to other upstarts of the Arab Spring and, on the flip side, itself waging a ‘revolution’ against that which it has just been relinquished from. A rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

Yes, this is an issue of Zionist significance: in Israel (and in the Diaspora) there exists a religious contingent who believes that Palestinians should not have a sovereign state – ever – because of an age-old doctrine. It is also an issue of diplomatic imperative: many others would contend that Palestinians don’t deserve a state; they have, the argument goes, been offered deal after deal by the Israeli government, but have always failed to bite on comprehensive, workable peace agreements.

They do deserve a state.

In truth, Palestinians need a state. Bibi Netanyahu has said it, just as AIPAC has said it, just as Abbas has insisted upon it. They have the right to declare themselves sovereign. Israel needs Palestinians to have a state. But Palestinians cannot have a unilaterally declared state at the risk or expense of Israel, the United States, or general international accord. Not without concessions, not without agreements, not without Israeli assent, and not in the midst of an earthquake.

Israelis need Palestinians to have a state. But a rickety house will topple on a quivering foundation.

60 Minutes: A Response

Several people have requested an article on Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes piece last night. The following is my response to the piece:

Lesley Stahl’s reporting on the City of David during last night’s 60 Minutes was an almost-flawless example of categorically irresponsible journalism. Her points were soft, her assertions were one-sided, and her facts were, quite frankly, missing.

No contention that Stahl put forward went unrebutted. In fact, even the fundamental premise of her argument — “No one has found any evidence that Abraham was ever here” –has some major holes. Let’s start with the basics.

Religion, as a basic idea, is based off of speculation and unsubstantiated “fact”. Religion–even if rooted in some sort of historical truth–is inherently ambiguous. While religion is a means of connection, community, and culture for billions of people worldwide, it is not wholly rational. This is true of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Gospel, the Torah, and the Qur’an, Jesus, Muhammad, and, of course, Abraham. So, it is ill-advised to counter a theological argument with a rational one, based in concrete reality.

Stahl claims that organizations like Elad are using archaeology as a “political tool.” This may be true–and perhaps improper in the current Middle Eastern political climate. But she uses words like “indoctrination” to describe Israeli soldiers’ visits to historically relevant sites (like the City of David). Imagine someone claiming that the US Army was “indoctrinating” its soldiers by bringing them to the Alamo or, on a simpler level, Washington D.C. It’s simply hyperbolic and accusatory (to an unnecessary degree).

Stahl says, very matter-of-factly, about a man who opposes any settlements in East Jeruslem, “He’s angry that Elad bought his grandmother’s house and moved a number of Jewish families into it.” As stated in previous posts on this website, however, Israel is a free country, (the only one is the Middle East), and functions through several markets. One of those markets is the housing market and if a Palestinian family puts a house on that market, and someone expresses interest in buying that house (and offers an appropriate amount of money), then what is the point in being angry? His grandmother (or his family) sold the house to a Jewish organization. They could have sold it to an Arab organization or family if they’d wanted to. What’s that problem?

In another segment of the piece, Stahl herself says that “boys were throwing rocks at passing cars.” This is said in passing. She moves on to make a point about the leader of Elad, and his failure to stop after hitting a child who had just thrown a rock at his car. Obviously, it is not acceptable that the man hit the boy (accidentally or otherwise motivated–as the boy appeared to have run into/in front of the car), and he most likely should have stopped and gotten out of the car, but focus was shifted to the result of their rock-throwing, from their rock-throwing.

This of course brings us to the ultimate issue: even if all of this digging and building on controversial land is justified and legal, is this the right time for Israelis to be doing it? As Stahl asks, “Why not wait until the peace talks are settled?” Well, that’s the question.

Will the peace talks ever be settled? No one knows. And even if the talks, themselves, are settled, can Israelis and Palestinians practice what they preach? Can they turn theory into actuality? Probably not. Agitating Palestinians should not be the motive behind any of this–though it may be. The goal should not be to evict people from their homes or to turn public opinion against any particular group.

Tourism is a factor, religion is a factor, history is a factor, culture is a factor, safety is a factor, politics are a factor, settlements are a factor. Is this the right time to be expanding? That’s for you to decide.

What’s the ultimate lesson we should derive from this? Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, said it best: “Get your facts right before you bash Israel, before you bash Jerusalem.”

The World Is Going To End

Why are Jewish Americans so angry?

Last week, Karl Vick’s article (see shortened version here) was published in Time magazine. It explains that average Israelis have become intrinsically indifferent to the peace process and, in essence, have begun moving on with their lives– the “good life,” as Vick calls it. The article is not an offensive one, nor is it an erroneous one.

What Vick has written is not explicitly or implicitly anti-Israel. He doesn’t try to illustrate an Israel that is actively avoiding the peace process or one that is violent in its nature. It is a factual, investigative piece that strives to put together pieces of the very convoluted Middle East puzzle.

Vick writes (quoting Israeli political scientist Tamar Hermann) that Israelis have “no sense of urgency” about peace with the Palestinians. My opinion? Frankly, who can blame them? The modern State of Israel has been around for more than sixty-two years and it is still facing similar problems to what it was facing at its origin: enemies from all sides, a flailing media war, and an opinionated group of people who — despite much rhetoric — is still attacking on an almost daily basis. No matter how many times the leaders of all parties meet at the White House, the prospect of a full ceasefire and an exhaustive peace will always be bleak. Israelis are justified in moving on with their lives.

The article is warranted.

So, why are Jewish Americans so angry?

Because of the cover (“Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace”).

Time magazine is a for-profit organization. They are in business to sell magazines. Whenever I write an essay for school, my dad, a journalist, tells me to start by writing the body of the essay. Then, he says, write a catchy beginning that will bring in the reader. Then, write the title.

Are you more likely to read the story with the headline ‘Scientists Believe that Pollution is Harming Environment and May Eventually Lead to Detrimental Effects’ or ‘The World is Going to End’? My guess is the latter.

It’s not irresponsible or insolent of Time to put such a controversial statement on its cover. In fact, because the article is so pertinent and informative of Israeli culture, I applaud Time for its business acumen, and I hope more Americans read the article and grasp a fuller understanding of the current Israeli mindset.