Go to Gush Etzion

By Leonard Fein

Published January 13, 2006, issue of January 13, 2006.
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Facts and figments. As ever, Jerusalem is a riot of figments. Camp David, Taba, Geneva, back to Clinton, the road map, on and on, and trying to grab hold as each buzzes past is like trying to catch a mosquito: You’re sure you have it but when you open your hand there’s nothing there, so you try again and this time you’re really sure but no luck — still empty-handed.

Even so, that is ever so much more satisfying than dealing with the facts. With figments, you can delude yourself, and this has long been a city of delusions. But the facts are not tractable. Your only recourse is to avoid looking at them.

So when I return from Gush Etzion, the settlement bloc just south of Jerusalem, and tell my friends how awful it is — even my leftish friends who have no use for the occupation, who fully understand the peril it has brought on Israel — they look at me blankly: Awful? What do you mean?

What I mean is that I drove on bypass roads that have been built to bypass other bypass roads. Bypass roads are two- or three- or even four-lane highways for the safety and convenience of the settlers. Often, Arabs must use other and older roads — when they live in villages that still have access to roads.

What I mean is that you stand on a hilltop and can see the ring of Jewish neighborhoods around Jerusalem, cutting off the West Bank from the Arab sections of the city — a city that is, notwithstanding pledges and slogans, plainly divided, some of its Palestinians neighborhoods effectively quarantined, technically part of the municipality but isolated within it, caged.

What I mean is that there is no status quo to defend.

One still unpaved road climbs scenic hillsides, twisting upward for several kilometers. It will save about 10 minutes for the 350 or so settlers who live where, for the time being; it ends when they commute to their jobs in Jerusalem, where most of them work. Its cost already, sans paving, is in the millions of shekels. It was not there last year. Status quo?

Now the checkpoints are being transformed, modernized. Presumably, there no longer will be the insufferable wait, the dehumanizing bottlenecks. These new border crossings between the West Bank and Israel will doubtless draw praise. But some observers — not cranks, not Israel bashers — will insist that the new facilities are less about humaneness, less about blunting criticism of Israel, than they are about demarcating what is intended as an international boundary. Status quo?

All this could be a textbook titled “How To Destroy a Dream.”

My friends here, save for a very few, have not made the trip. They would not know what has been added this week, this month, this year. They would not know the bypass roads to take, let alone the still rutted paths, and, unlike the small truck in which I traveled, their cars could not survive the ruts and rocks on the way to a sudden illegal outpost.

Nor is it clear that they would want to, for to make the trip is to bid farewell to the figments. It is to realize that every day negotiations are postponed is a day that further complicates the negotiations that someday must happen.

It is to accept that while diplomats talk about a peace process, about a road map, there is no process and the only road map is the one now lost somewhere in poor Ariel Sharon’s head. The broad contours of that map have been known for years; they do not allow for anything resembling a viable Palestinian state.

Good people here, people devoted to decency and who know that real security can come only in tandem with justice, labor mightily to create their own alternative facts. Some go out to replant olive trees that settlers have uprooted; others file court cases that challenge the illegal construction that is a daily occurrence.

But the settlers, with the connivance of the government, work faster. They plant facts on the ground, and the fruit of those facts will haunt the peacemakers when their time comes again, as surely one day it will.

No, there is no partner for negotiation. It has been Israel’s sad lot that the other side is so corrupt, so inadequate to the task. But a sad lot is not necessarily a destiny. If the other side is not up to the task, what might you do to bolster it?

Yet that is not the question Sharon asked. Instead, by withholding support from the Palestinian Authority, he created the excuse for unilateral action as state policy, not merely as the personal predilection it always had been for him.

The withdrawal from Gaza put that excuse to the test; the test passed and praised, unilateralism was now to be Israel’s way.

In the post-Sharon era, as attention transfers to the West Bank — the cantonized West Bank from which only one or two rockets have so far been fired into Israel — the urgent question is whether Israel will seek to find a better and more productive way.

The campaign slogan until Sharon’s fateful hemorrhage was “Only Sharon Is Able.” The sentence was intentionally incomplete: Able to do what? No one knew, perhaps not even Sharon himself. More of the miserable same? Or was he really ready to break with his thundering past?

Suddenly, it no longer matters. What matters now is that my friends and also Israel’s new leaders go to Gush Etzion to see for themselves, gasp as I did at the absurdity of it, its uselessness, foreswear the seductions of unilateralism and choose a more perfect peace process.

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