Pessimistic Optimism in Israel and Palestine

by on January 17th, 2005

A month in Israel and Palestine hasn’t shaken my underlying pessimism about the prospects for peace and justice. When I return to the United States in a few days, I won’t bring enthusiasm about Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, or Mahmoud Abbas’s ability to create a viable Palestinian state, or George Bush’s faulty road map to peace. I remain horrified at the likelihood of escalation, now personalized for me even more than before.

Despite pessimism about the final outcome, though, I’m glad to find myself feeling good from time to time, even flirting with optimism about smaller aspects of the broader morass. There are good people here, decent people, thoughtful people like you and me who yearn for lives free of violence and injustice. I have met many of them, in Tel Aviv and Nablus and Haifa and Ramallah, in kibbutzim and refugee camps and schools and laundromats. On both sides of the Green Line, Israelis and Palestinians are appalled that both sides’ obstructionists make optimism untenable.

I write this in my hotel room on the dividing line between West and East Jerusalem, across from the Old City’s New Gate. When I go outside later for lunch, whether I turn right or left I’ll soon pass children at play, young mothers with babies, old men making their way from one place to the next. Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem are different in many ways, but in both directions I’ll see shoppers and students, secretaries and bureaucrats, teachers and doctors trying to live normal lives despite whatever bad news they’ve come to expect to jar their day.

For much of my visit, there was something of a lull in bad news. In the weeks preceding the January 9th election for Palestinian Authority president, the violence was subdued and optimism grew. On the West Bank, the hope was that Abbas’s expected election would lead to a comprehensive settlement that would restore a sense of justice and dignity to Palestinians deprived of both for far too long. The fear was that, without quick Israeli willingness to help Abbas demonstrate real progress, the public — especially the impatient young — would turn even more strongly toward Hamas and other groups opposed to negotiated compromise.

In Israel, despite the greater cynicism, many were also willing to give Abbas a chance. For them, the test would be his ability to stop attacks on Israeli civilians, especially civilians living within the 1967 borders. Even Israeli leftists worry about friends and relatives living in range of Qassam missiles fired from Gaza.

It was no surprise that Gaza militants attacked a checkpoint just days after the election. And it was no surprise that Sharon responded by closing all of Gaza’s checkpoints, blocking passage of goods as well as people. What surprised some — though not those who have paid attention to his record — was Sharon’s immediate dropping of all ties with Abbas’s brand-new government-in-formation until he stops terrorist attacks. Given Israel’s inability to prevent those attacks despite years of experience and mounds of high-tech gadgetry, Sharon’s demand that a weak, newly installed Palestinian president do so immediately without being able to demonstrate simultaneous progress in negotiations will more likely prevent than facilitate a comprehensive outcome. It’s not unreasonable to think that just such a result is one goal Sharon shares with Hamas.

The Qassams continue to rain down on Sderot, their range gradually increasing. Soon they’ll reach Kibbutz Dorot, where I spent four months in 1972, the last time I was here. This has to stop, one Israeli after another tells me. They’re right.

The Occupation continues in Gaza and the West Bank, making daily life difficult at best and unbearable too often. This too has to stop, one Palestinian after another tells me. They’re also right.

Both sides have justified grievances and fears, but I don’t mean to imply that the solution is simply to lay down arms and compromise down the middle. Majorities on both sides might support such a solution, and if that’s the case I’d gladly see it come about. Sometimes accepting less than what seems just is better than the pain caused by holding out forever. I’ve met both Palestinian and Israeli parents sickened by what their children risk, and what their children too often intentionally do to innocents on the other side, when they take up arms against the enemy. Peace depends on justice, but if it requires perfect justice it will never arrive.

But to say that no solution can be perfectly just is not to say justice doesn’t matter. Israel, not Palestine, has the power to end the Occupation, whose details most Israelis never see for themselves. That some Palestinians resort not just to defensive militancy but to terrorist attack, though morally repugnant and more counterproductive than not, is understandable and inevitable. The ability to change conditions so that support for missile attacks and suicide bombings dwindles lies not with Mahmoud Abbas as much as with Israel itself.

My visit reinforces my sense that too many religious and nationalist fundamentalists on both sides still have the power to prevent a stable outcome. But it reassures me that people of good will, if this majority controlled events, would likely work things out well enough. Political activists abroad should work to strengthen those on both sides who, despite the odds and the imbalance of power and responsibility, are willing to work together toward justice and reconciliation.


Read Dennis Fox’s regular postings from Israel and Palestine on his blog.

Dennis Fox