In the latest issue of the Nation magazine,
Jonathan Schell has written a piece, "Obama
and the Return of the Real," that should stand as a manifesto for sanity
in our times. In it, he considers just how self-inflicted our present catastrophic
situation, from economic meltdown to foreign policy disaster, actually is.
Of Iraq, for instance, he comments, "The invasion … was the American empire's
self-inflicted wound – a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do
to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands
rises up to strike us." He also considers the unnerving way in which we have
"been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not
killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their
food, cutting down their cherry orchards."
In the Bush era, no country was more eager to follow our president into its
own regional version of a "global war on terror" than Israel, which has, in
a sense, been a U.S. Mini-Me for eight long years. As David Bromwich wrote
recently at the Huffington Post, the two countries in these years "shared
a fantasy. The fantasy says that the Arabs understand only force. It says we
can end terrorism by killing all the terrorists. The neighbors of the terrorists
will be overawed. No new terrorists will be created."
In the process, Israel's leaders have mirrored the Bush administration in
destruction to others as well as in the category of self-inflicted wounds,
of which the most recent was certainly their December-January offensive
in Gaza. Forgetting the morality of essentially attacking a civilian population
in that heavily populated, heavily urbanized strip of land and purposely destroying
civilian infrastructure, it was, in Schell's terms, one of those utterly unnecessary
decisions – taken up in part for domestic political reasons, in part simply
because Israel's leaders seem to have seen the moment before the Obama administration's
arrival as a bizarre window of opportunity. Undoubtedly, their decision to
invade Gaza will, in retrospect, be seen as a rash blunder and an act of cannibalizing
You can feel the shame
over Israel's most recent destructive acts spreading in the Jewish community
(or rather communities) here and among policy thinkers more generally, further
eroding support for the present Israeli government and perhaps even opening
the way for some new thinking and new policies. The recent offensive also seeded
years, even decades, of further
bitterness into an already desperate, explosive situation – and all for
nothing, or less than nothing. It's certainly time for Israel to end its version
of the Bush years. In the meantime, Sandy Tolan – author of The
Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, an indispensable
book that traces the tragedy at the heart of the Middle East through two families
and a single house – suggests why the old thinking may be at a dead end and
what some of the questions leading to a new policy might be. Tom
After Gaza, five questions about Palestinian and Israeli realities
by Sandy Tolan
The deep irony of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace
process" first struck me in 1996 as I was driving through the West Bank from
Hebron to Jerusalem. I had turned off the potholed main road that passed through
Palestinian villages and refugee camps and headed west into Kiryat Arba. In
that Israeli settlement, admirers had erected a graveside monument to Baruch
Goldstein, the settler from Brooklyn who, in 1994, gunned down 29 Palestinians
in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs. From the settlement's creepy candlelit
shrine, I cut north and soon found myself on a quiet, smooth-as-glass "bypass"
road. The road, I would learn, was one of many under construction by Israel,
alongside new and expanding settlements, that would allow settlers to travel
easily from their West Bank islands to the "mainland" of the Jewish state.
How strange, I thought naively, as I traveled that lonely road toward Jerusalem
on a gray winter afternoon: Isn't this part of the land that Palestinians
would need for their state? Why, then, in the middle of the Oslo peace process
– barely three years after the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White
House lawn – would Israeli officials authorize construction that was visibly
cementing the settlers' presence into Palestinian land?
Twelve years later, these post-Oslo "facts on the ground" have all but doomed
the traditional path to peace. The two-state solution, the central focus
of efforts to end the tragedy of Israel and Palestine since 1967, has been
undermined by the thickening reality of red-roofed Israeli settlements, military
outposts, surveillance towers, and the web of settlers-only roads that whisk
Israelis from their West Bank dwellings to prayer in Jerusalem's Old City,
or to shopping and the beach in Tel Aviv. So dense had the Israeli West Bank
presence become by 2009, so fragmented is Palestinian life – both physically
and politically – that it now requires death-defying mental gymnastics to
imagine how a two-state solution could ever be implemented.
Five Questions for an Israeli-Palestinian Future
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Obama's respected, fair-minded
Middle East envoy, will bring his considerable skills to bear on this ever
more daunting problem. It is Mitchell's widely acknowledged fairness that
has prompted jaw-dropping
comments from some hard-line pro-Israeli lobbyists and Christian
Zionists who became accustomed, under George W. Bush, to getting whatever
they wanted; this in itself is a signal that Obama's approach to the region
may represent a genuine break from the past.
To an honest witness like
Mitchell, for whom the facts and the aspirations of both peoples seem to
actually matter, it may become quickly evident that the traditional two-state
solution is now on life support. Seeing that, he would do well to keep an
open mind and be prepared to ask some hard questions. Among them might be:
1. What does the unending march of Israeli construction actually
mean for a "viable, contiguous" Palestine?
The only way anyone can viscerally understand the thousand cuts inflicted
on the two-state solution is by driving through the West Bank. I've crisscrossed
this landscape a hundred times since 1994, and never has the hardware of
settlements and Israeli military control been so dense. Since the beginning
of the Oslo "peace process" in 1993, the West Bank Jewish settler population
has jumped from 109,000 to 275,000 – and this doesn't include the Jewish
"suburbs" in East Jerusalem, which bring the total settler population to
nearly half a million. Some 230 settlements and strategically placed "outposts"
are now strung along hilltops across the West Bank, towering above whitewashed
The ragtag outposts, technically
forbidden under Israeli law but encouraged by some within the government,
are meant to connect with larger settlements to form an everlasting Jewish
presence on Palestinian land. It's no longer possible to drive any significant
stretch of the West Bank without encountering a settlement, military post,
settler road, surveillance tower, roadblock, stationary checkpoint, or "flying"
checkpoint. The number of West Bank barriers (roadblocks, checkpoints, and
other obstacles) has increased nearly 70 percent in the last three years, and
now exceeds 625 – this in a land about the size of Delaware.
this could be removed in order to create a "viable, contiguous" Palestinian
state seems, increasingly, a question without an answer. During the Camp
David talks in 2000, and in more recent discussions between Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas, there was much talk of large, consolidated "settlement blocs" and
land swaps to facilitate a contiguous Palestine.
To the extent an unbroken Palestine was ever possible – and there was much
behind-the-scenes debate about this, even among American negotiators at Camp
David all the way back in 2000 – the facts on the ground, placed there deliberately
by Israel, have by now made the issue virtually moot. Maps
of many would-be "solutions"
show the West Bank fractured into pieces,
cut up by walls, settlements, military posts, and "security zones." Far from
the two-state solution envisioned in the wake of the 1967 war, today's maps
tend to look like advertisements for a sci-fi movie entitled The Incredible
2. How can a viable Palestinian state exist when a city of 20,000
Israelis sits in the middle of it?
In 1978, Ariel,
the city of Jewish settlers, was founded, over U.S. and international objections,
in the heart of the West Bank district of Salfit. Fully one-third of it juts
onto Palestinian land. Israel's "security barrier" (known as the "apartheid
wall" to Palestinians), which ostensibly follows Israel's border with the
West Bank, in fact doesn't; at Ariel it veers east 11 miles to enfold the
full settlement in its embrace. For this reason, Ariel's leaders say confidently
that their settlement, essentially a bedroom community for Tel Aviv with
its own university and industrial park, is "here to stay."
Indeed, the removal of Ariel – a red line for the Palestinians – has been
mandated in almost none of the peace plans going back to Camp David, including
the 2001 informal Geneva
peace plan much heralded by the Israeli and American peace camps. That
is why Ariel's city fathers feel comfortable in sending its young "director
of community aliyah
[Jewish emigration to Israel]," Avi Zimmerman, raised in West Orange, New
Jersey, across the U.S. to recruit more American Jews to move to the settlement.
"It's the ingathering of exiles," Zimmerman told me, standing on a hilltop
above Ariel. "You have to make sure there's a constant flow of people."
For Palestinians who live nearby, the existence of Ariel and other settlements
makes traveling anywhere a nightmare. Osama Odeh, born in the village of
(which means "olive grinding stone" in Arabic), told me that, if he wants
to visit friends in a village five miles away, he must drive east, then south,
then west, crossing multiple Israeli military checkpoints where he will have
to show documents, open his car's trunk, and face questions about his intentions
and past whereabouts. The journey could take an hour. Or two, or three. "It
becomes forty kilometers, instead of three or four," he points out. "It's
ridiculous. In the name of security, they can turn your life to hell."
For the many villagers without a car, the trip simply becomes impractical,
thus encouraging political and social disconnection. "All the time they are
expanding," Odeh says of the settlements. "You feel trapped. Villages that
have been there for hundreds of years, now they feel like they are fragmented."
According to UN
maps, Palestinians are restricted from entering some 40 percent of the
West Bank, while the major Palestinian cities now essentially function as isolated
Some Israeli negotiators, including deputy speaker of the Knesset Otniel
Schneller, a longtime leader of the settlers' movement, have called upon
Israeli engineers to design workarounds. Their answer: a network of tunnels,
"flyover" ramps, and bridges to ferry Palestinians under and around the settlements.
For Schneller, these concrete fixes would keep a prominent Jewish presence
in "Judea and Samaria," while allowing Palestinians ostensible "freedom of
movement" through tightly controlled funnels: Not exactly what Palestinians
had in mind during the decades of their liberation struggle.
3. What kind of Palestinian state would have its capital in a
village far from Jerusalem's Old City and virtually sealed off from huge
portions of the West Bank?
Palestinians have always insisted on having East Jerusalem, including portions
of the Old City which encompass the Muslim holy sites, as their capital.
At Camp David in 2000, PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused an American-Israeli
offer of a "sovereign presidential compound" beside the Muslim holy sites.
He derided it as "a small island surrounded by Israeli soldiers." More recently,
Israeli negotiators have reiterated
their intention to hold onto the Old City and its holy sites. They have suggested
that the actual Palestinian capital should be located in some of East Jerusalem's
Arab "neighborhoods" – actually, small villages never considered part of
Jerusalem by Palestinians, but now incorporated into greater Jerusalem, thanks
to the redrawn administrative boundaries of Israeli city planners.
Even were the Palestinian capital to be located in the Old City, its ability
to govern the rest of Palestine would still be hamstrung. Since Israel's
capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government has built a ring
of Jewish "suburbs" around Arab East Jerusalem. Nearly 200,000 Israelis now
live there. This ring essentially seals off East Jerusalem from Bethlehem,
Hebron, and Palestinian villages to the south.
One of the last pieces to snap into place was Har Homa, a settlement built
between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on a hill known to the Palestinians as Jabal
Abu Ghneim. I recall seeing the hill from Bethlehem in 1996. By then, Israeli
chainsaws and earth-moving equipment had already sliced lines into the hill's
conifer forest, giving it what looked like a bad haircut. Palestinian activists,
desperate to hang onto this part of the West Bank, had set up a 24-hour emergency
camp, pledging not to abandon their peaceful protest until Israel withdrew
Today, the trees are gone, replaced by long rows of new white houses for Israelis.
"This is the last resort from which you can establish the umbilical cord between
Bethlehem and Jerusalem," said Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research
Institute, a Palestinian think-tank in Bethlehem. "So the construction of Har
Homa destroys the peace process. Unless Har Homa is totally destroyed and returned
to the Palestinians, there is no peace."
For Bethlehemites like Isaac, the wedge of Har Homa and the other East Jerusalem
"suburbs" effectively renders moot Palestinian aspirations for a contiguous
state. If any doubt about this lingered, Israel's separation wall put an
end to it.
Driven into the land at the northern end of Bethlehem is the 25-foot-high
concrete curtain with two narrow, single file pedestrian lanes running beside
it. Each is about 150 feet long, framed by steel bars from concrete floor
to metal ceiling. These give the few Palestinians with permits to travel
from Bethlehem the inescapable feeling of moving through a cattle line. (Actually,
Palestinians prefer a poultry analogy, calling the lanes ma'aatet al-jaaj,
the chicken-plucking machine.) When I walked through the line, emerging near
the southern edge of Jerusalem, I gazed back on the northern face of the
wall, stunned at a banner unfurled beneath the gun turret and watchtower.
From the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, it proclaims in Hebrew, English, and
Arabic, "Peace Be With You."
4. How can you build a viable state by negotiating only with the
weakened representative of one Palestinian faction?
Even if the obstacles outlined above were to miraculously disappear, George
Mitchell's work could be badly crippled by an outdated American strategy of
dealing only with Fatah and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Long backed by Americans
as a Palestinian "moderate," in the wake of the recent Israeli offensive in
Gaza Abbas has lost virtually all credibility among his people. (As of Jan.
9, he also technically ceased being the Palestinian president.)
Despite the death and destruction of these last weeks, Hamas is increasingly
seen by observers in the region as gaining strength in the West Bank, while
firmly holding power in Gaza. "The Islamist movement is going to come out of
this war strengthened politically vis-à-vis its rival Palestinian factions,
including Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah," wrote the shrewd
political analyst and former Palestinian labor secretary Ghassan Khatib in
a commentary for BitterLemons.org,
a Web site run by Israeli and Palestinian analysts. He added, "The Israeli
war on Gaza, which increased public sympathy with Hamas … [has] further shifted
the balance of power against Fatah in the West Bank and left the Palestinian
Authority politically very vulnerable."
Indeed, some West Bankers, who hold no brief for Hamas, are echoing the
words that many Lebanese said of Hezbollah in the wake of the 2006 war in
Lebanon: "They put up a resistance for 22 days – Fatah leadership did and
said nothing," the Palestinian-American journalist Lubna Takruri wrote me
from Ramallah this week. "People in the West Bank are still smoldering that
while they were watching all these worldwide protests here, Fatah forces
were preventing the Palestinians from protesting against the Israelis at
checkpoints. This was huge. It made people feel like the PA [Palestinian
Authority] was doing Israel's work for them, while Israel handled business
Early signs strongly indicate that the Obama team will continue the strategy
of propping up Abbas, with credibility-destroying "help" from the CIA, while
refusing to deal with Hamas until it recognizes Israel. Clearly the Hamas
charter is despicable: It describes the Jews as aspiring to "rule the world,"
and declares that the elimination of Israel would be a historic parallel
to the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin.
American and Israeli officials have, however, ignored more subtle signals
from Hamas – which was, after all, brought to power in free and fair elections
– that it would abide by the expressed will of the Palestinian people for
coexistence with Israel. One of the strongest signals was the 2006 "Prisoners'
Document," initiated by leaders of Hamas and the imprisoned former Fatah
leader Marwan Barghouti, that called for negotiations with Israel in pursuit
of peace. The Bush administration, siding with the Israelis, who insisted
that there was "no partner for peace," chose to ignore such signs and so
undermined any efforts toward a Fatah-Hamas unity government.
It would be disastrous for Mitchell to go down this same road. Hamas is
here to stay. These last weeks, Israeli dreams of defeating it in Gaza have
been shattered, and any attempt to deal only with the rickety shell of Fatah
will ensure that the U.S. obtains the same bleak results. The fact is: engaging
Hamas will be a much better way of keeping the rockets silent.
5. Given these immense obstacles, is a viable, contiguous, sovereign
Palestinian state even possible anymore? And, if not…
Given the overwhelming odds facing a two-state solution, a strong American
negotiating presence will be necessary, of a sort not seen since… well, ever.
The hallmark of the last eight years (and to a large extent the previous
eight Clinton years) has been an utter lack of American pressure on Israel.
This has been in no one's interest, including Israel's.
Ehud Olmert, who in 2008 spoke – apparently sincerely – of Israel's need
to withdraw from "most or all" of the West Bank settlements, received no
support from Washington for saying so. In the vacuum of American leadership,
Olmert capitulated to the settlers' bloc in his ruling coalition. Hence,
the arrival of yet more Israeli facts-on-the-ground on the West Bank. This
American administration has to do much better.
The last 16 years have also been marked by an inability to see the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict through anything but Israeli eyes. Now, Mitchell will, hopefully,
bring a willingness to understand six decades of tragedy through two sets
of aspirations: this will be essential if a just, lasting piece is to be
forged. This will also have to include confronting one of the most vexing
issues of all, that of the 4.4 million Palestinian refugees and the insistence
of many of them that they be allowed to return to their original homes in
what is now Israel. This is, of course, a red line for Israelis who insist
that the "right of return" would mean the end of their state.
Essential for George Mitchell in all of this will be an openness and a creativity
absent from American diplomacy since the violent birth of Israel and the
Palestinian catastrophe in 1948. Increasingly, small groups of Palestinians,
a handful of Israelis, and even motivated outsiders like Libyan leader Muammar
Gadhafi, are looking at coexistence anew, by exploring the possibility
of a third way. The alternatives differ sharply: some call for a one-state
solution; others for a binational
state; others for an Israeli-Palestine
confederation or a Middle
The words "single state" spark a visceral fear among many Israelis who see
this, too, as the end of the Jewish state. But the dreams of what Albert Einstein
called the "sympathetic cooperation" between "the two great Semitic peoples"
are rooted, in large part, in the history of progressive Zionists, who, like
Einstein and the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, believed in their bones
in a just coexistence. Buber advocated a binational state of "joint sovereignty,"
with "complete equality of rights between the two partners," based on "the
love of their homeland that the two peoples share."
For many, the two-state solution remains, in the words of former U.S. Middle
East negotiator Aaron Miller, author of The
Much Too Promised Land, "the least bad alternative." But should George
Mitchell take an honest look at the immense obstacles now involved in a two-state
solution and determine that they are insurmountable, he would do well to remain
open to other possibilities, and bear in mind the words of Albert Einstein.
"No problem," said Einstein, "can be solved from the same level of consciousness
that created it."
Tolan is the author of The
Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East and associate
professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern
Copyright 2009 Sandy Tolan