The reopening of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders sounds like a dreadful rerun of an old B movie for many in Israel. Nearly everyone I met on my recent 10-day trip there was pessimistic about the two sides coming to any substantial agreements. Most of my conversations suggested that the Israelis and Palestinians were "stuck" with one another. No one could imagine anything but a repeat of past talk failures, and no one seemed to have any idea of how to move forward unless the other side changed in some fundamental way.
I felt the same way during my trip, at least until the last day.
My trip began the day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he had convinced Israel and Palestine to talk about talking again. It ended on the day when they actually agreed to talk about peace. I met a variety of people—West Bank Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, common citizens in Bethlehem, Jewish settlers in occupied territories, Jewish peace and interfaith activists, Palestinian activists in Israel, members of the Israeli government, Christian leaders, military officials on the Lebanon and Syrian borders. The trip was planned for me by the Jewish Federation of Chicago, but they did as good a job as can be imagined for a 10-day trip if one is to get exposed to the variety of opinions in this troubled land.
I asked nearly every person I met about their hopes for the talks, and as I said, not a one was hopeful. And neither was I, until I had a conversation with a well-respected and influential rabbi. That's when a glimmer of hope sparkled ever so briefly.
First, some personal reflections of a non-expert after a second trip to this most controversial area. These are admittedly impressionistic, and will no doubt be nuanced as I continue to learn more. But I believe there is some value in immediate impressions, granted their limitations, and I would summarize mine this way. The situation day to day is not nearly as horrific as we are sometimes led to believe, and if something isn't done to solve the disputes, they could lead to catastrophe in the long run. What I mean is this.
Regarding day-to-day life in Israel and the West Bank: The West Bank clearly suffers more poverty, and all the problems related to it. Some of that is due to the occupation, no doubt. But if Israel were to pull out tomorrow, nearly every problem the residents of the West Bank face (water, trade, education, and so on) would remain for years or decades to come. Life in Israel, meanwhile, is flourishing and democratic, an extraordinary achievement for a nation that was born sixty-five years ago (especially compared with other Middle Eastern and African nations that, after decades of efforts, struggle to create flourishing democracies).
The security fence and checkpoints are clearly an annoyance, but no more of an annoyance than the security checkpoints in American airports—the difference being (and this is no small difference) that these checkpoints have huge symbolic value to the Palestinians—the word "humiliated" came up more than once. But as a practical, day-to-day matter, after going through and observing a number of checkpoints (with my hosts and on my own), I did not see the extraordinary problems I've read about. But I will acknowledge my limited exposure.
While Israelis are not permitted in the West Bank, many Arabs live in Israeli territory, where Jews and Arabs rub shoulders every day. One can see signs of resentment between them here and there, and yet one also sees signs of extraordinary cooperation—working together in equality in institutions from grocery stores to high tech companies to medical facilities. It's the sort of tension and cooperation one would find in any country of mixed ethnicities.