I watched Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu address the United Nations General Assembly this morning. I listened to both speeches in their entirety. How different things look when you see international politics at this personal level, as a struggle between two men fighting to be heard.
Most of the time, for those of us not personally invested in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, each news item that captures our attention comes across like a recurring toothache. You want a quick fix and at some level, you’re tempted to sweep it all away with “a pox on both your houses.”
But then, every once in a while, you see the human side of the conflict up close, and you know the struggle cannot be dismissed so cavalierly. That’s what happened at the UN yesterday. I found myself giving both these men my total sympathy, in turn.
I once heard Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem for almost thirty years, put his finger on what makes this conflict so difficult. “When you go to a marriage counselor,” he explained, “one of the most common tools the counselor has for getting at the root of your problems is to ask you to role play each other. You, the husband, take the wife’s perspective. You, the wife, take the husband’s perspective. What usually happens, almost from the start, is that one person says, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not what I think. You’re misrepresenting me!’ and you can begin to repair the relationship.”
The problem with Arabs and Israelis, Kollek said, is that they don’t have that problem. Both sides see the other’s perspective perfectly clearly. They just don’t agree. There is no place to build on, no misunderstanding to correct.
That might be oversimplified, but it rings true and helps me explain to myself why, try as I may, I just cannot take sides in this issue.
That means I sat down to listen to the two addresses yesterday with what I think was an open mind. OK, not entirely, actually. I was leaning more toward the Palestinian argument, and I was persuaded that Netanyahu was simply stalling for time and not acting in good faith. That view is all over the place, incidentally, including in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” That article resonated, because for some time I have been paying attention to Israeli friends making the same point and I had an anti-Netanyahu framework already built up to hang that information on.
But when I listened to Netanyahu, I found his arguments powerful, his fears credible, and his ability to marshal the facts of history masterful. He came across not as a right wing ideologue, but as a man of powerful convictions worth taking seriously.
I also listened with some emotion to Abbas, and when he was done, I was ready to vote instantly for recognition of Palestine.
The cynical response to this is readily available, of course. Both men are politicians, with vested interests and strong powers of persuasion. I have always suffered from an inclination to take the perspective of the last book I read, favor the latest cause that captures my attention. For that reason, I have stopped giving to charities on the spot and I try to wait 24 hours before responding to people who say things that make me angry. When I can.
And for that reason, I listened to Abbas first. It wasn’t just because he spoke first. It’s because I wanted to give Netanyahu a fair chance. It worked. Tomorrow I may go back to knocking Netanyahu, but today I am impressed.
The non-cynical response is that I simply got another close look at two incompatible world views. Two good men espousing two legitimate claims to truth who simply have trouble being good together. I can certainly be faulted for all the gaps in my knowledge about the history of the conflict. But I’ve listened to Israeli friends tell me what it’s like to have to put gas masks on your children and I’ve listened to Palestinian friends tell me what it’s like to watch your community dismantled before your eyes, and I find it very hard to see a moral high ground.
I spend a lot of time with Jews in my close chosen family. I know what being Jewish means to them. I also grew up among Irish and Italians in New England and know how inseparable language, religion and culture can be from one's personal sense of identity. I don’t have it. I am strongly identified with Germany and with Japan, almost took on German nationality at one point in my life and still today hold permanent resident status in Japan. But I am not German and I am not Japanese. Nor am I American, except by default. When I was leaving to live in Germany in 1960, I caught my grandmother crying. "Don't cry," I said. "I'll be back in a year."
"I'm not crying because you're leaving, I'm crying because you're repeating my mistake. You're going to live your whole life in one place yearning for another, and your life will be hell."
She was wrong about the hell part, but right about the cost of not being totally grounded in place and national community. I feel real pain when I think of the disasters in Japan. I feel real pride when I see how Germany has transformed itself. And I feel real shame in recent years at what America has become. And none of these feelings define who I am or make me belong more or less to these three places on the planet.
So I see life through a very different lens from the one Israel-identified Jews look through. I love the English language. I hate to see it used badly and I would hate to see it go. But I know I could live in another one if I had to. I have absolutely no loyalty to my Caucasian race, and would be perfectly happy to have children carry on my name with black or Asian features. Or take a different family name, for that matter. I don’t understand in my gut why one has to have a Jewish state. Why one has to marry Jewish (marry Italian, marry Japanese). Why one has to live in Israel, other than that’s where one calls home.
It wouldn’t take much for me to espouse the view that since religion leads us to such irrational decisions, we should simply refuse to let it jerk us around. We could play king of the world, for all I care, put the Jews and the Arabs of all religious backgrounds together on the land and say, “There. There’s only one sandbox. Play nice, or get out. Go live in America. England, any number of places where people are happy to have you. Make a go of it and stop squawking, or leave.”
Arguments like that one were not unusual back in the day when I would stay up late at night in college bull sessions, and I’m sure I held that view at one time myself.
But I have come to understand that my lack of connection with the kind of race and ethnicity identity markers some take seriously but I call accidents of my birth is not a value to espouse. It gives me not moral superiority but one perspective among many. And if others feel they are Jewish, or Muslim, or Japanese to the marrow in their bones, I see that it “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” to let them use that lens rather than mine. In fact, I am now inclined to want to pull up a chair and say, “Tell me more about what the world looks like from where you sit.” If I am to have a right to call ethnicity irrelevant, others, I think, ought to have the right to take it seriously.
I am troubled by Zionism, the nationalism of the diaspora. I can imagine what it must feel like for a Palestinian to have to contend with the argument that the right to the land Jews feel is also a right to exclude. But I can also feel the pride of Jewish accomplishment that is today the State of Israel. At each pass, each go-around on the issues, I always seem to end up unable to take sides.
It struck me, listening to those two men yesterday, that I was watching the equivalent of two tectonic plates rubbing against each other. We were looking at the workings of an earthquake, and the best we can hope for is that we have built on enough solid ground to survive. Abbas could not be persuaded to hold off any longer. He knows he has the world on his side. Many times his remarks were cheered by a packed house. And when Netanyahu spoke, on the other hand, it appeared the house was half empty. The signs of how this event is moving are clear.
It looks like Obama is going to veto the application for statehood, and the U.S. is going to fall further back into pariah status, along with Israel, as the world sees us more and more as a nation who speaks of democracy with ever decreasing credibility. We invade Iraq on false premises, we openly ignore the Geneva Conventions, we train the troops used by Latin American dictators at the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), then refer to them as “freedom fighters.” And now, many in the UN will maintain, we’re going to add another shame to the pile – failure to recognize the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people to statehood.
We think of ourselves as the good guys, but the facts reveal that view is overblown. Israel seeks international recognition as a beleaguered state, but it can’t explain to the world why their settlement of occupied territories makes them good guys, either. It was never a defensible policy. And now, it appears that time has run out.
Nigeria, apparently, is going to join the veto, and at the moment it would appear the tiny state of Gabon holds the key vote to whether Palestine becomes a nation. How ironic that the fate of a nation could hang on such a tiny thread.
When nationhood comes, it is possible that Netanyahu’s worst fears will come true and they will shoot planes out of the air taking off and landing at Ben Gurion airport, and we will all cluck and say, “See, they’ll never change, those Middle Easterners. Probably should have stuck to our guns and defended Israel.” It is also possible that the Palestinians will do their new nation proud, and this fear of attacks on the cities and airports of Israel will be shown to be paranoia.
We have been ruled by fear for so long. We’ve been duped into thinking we have enemies called “terrorists” and that we have to remain on a permanent war footing. Israel has more reason to fear than the U.S. does, but they too might make a leap of faith. Netanyahu spoke to the UN almost in a scolding tone. With justification. But being right about the UN’s past failures is of little consolation now. When faced with what looks like historical moment, does one really have a choice?
There are indications that overcoming fear may be the new zeitgeist. Here in the U.S., the mind-numbing ignorance of the Tea Party and the cowardly decision of the Republican Party to play into it rather than stand up to it is bound to backfire. The Republicans may very well implode before the 2012 election giving Obama an open road to reelection. Not because he deserves to be president for another term (maybe he does – I can’t decide on that issue, either), but because the Republicans are eating each other alive at the moment.
I’m going to guess that Netanyahu is wrong, that Israelis will not have to fear the same kind of killer authority in the West Bank they do in Gaza and Lebanon, because others will stay involved, and Israel will not go it alone. Abbas has not enjoyed the popularity Arafat did, but the more he starts looking like a founding father, the more we might expect him to grow in stature. His administration is not Hamas and his fledgling nation will not want to lose the international support it has today by lobbing rockets at planes at Ben Gurion.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the UN will accept Abbas’ proposal. If you don’t believe me, watch the speech. But watch Netanyahu's speech as well and listen to him point out the failings of the United Nations, and hear his frustration, knowing he's swimming against the stream. Netanyahu is by far the more effective speaker, and not just because he speaks in native-speaker English and Abbas sounds long-winded by comparison. (There are two YouTube links to the Netanyahu speech. Both cut off the start of his speech, unfortunately. I suggest starting off on the second, which has more, and then switching to the one from the Fox Network, which has the better sound quality.)
If this were a public debate being judged by neutral observers, Netanyahu's superior articulateness and attention to factual detail would win the day. But against an idea whose time has come, cleverness, it would seem, is no match.
The tragedy for the United States is that Obama seems to feel he cannot avoid vetoing it. America, the first nation to recognize Israel on May 14, 1948, will now be remembered as the first nation to not recognize Palestine in 2011. The connection to the Arab Spring is unavoidable. In both cases, we appear to be on the wrong side of history once more.
A recent BBC poll of 20,446 persons in nineteen countries showed that 49% are in favor of Palestinian statehood, 21% opposed. Even in the United States, those figures are 45% in favor, 36% opposed.
We're arguing now over when and how, not if.
And, if the applause Abbas got in the UN is any indication, it's no longer even an argument.