Under the Mideast Knife

By Leonard Fein

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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And so the Bijani twins died after all. The world watched as a valiant team of 28 doctors and 100 medical assistants at Raffles Hospital in Singapore sought to separate the 29 year-old women conjoined at the back of their heads, an operation rarely undertaken on adults, never before — and not this time, either — successful.

The young women knew the risks, but knew at the same time that life for them had become simply intolerable. There was no guarantee the operation would succeed, but there was an absolute certainty that with no operation, they would live out their lives in growing misery and despair.

Israel and the Palestinians are joined no less intimately. And, oddly, the surgeon who now seeks to separate them and give them both life is none other than George W. Bush. In a sense, the surgeons in Singapore had it easier than does the president: after some 28 hours, they got to go home and rest up before their next effort at healing; the president, by contrast, will have to wait many months, holding his breath most of the while, before he can breathe easy regarding the Middle East — and, he does, after all, have a few other things to worry about, ranging from America’s economy to the situation in Liberia and on and on, while the Israeli-Palestinian peace process unfolds (or unravels, as the case may be).

The analogy between medical surgery and political and military surgery has some value. For years now, the Israelis and the Palestinians have been unable to act independently, each movement by the one begetting a (usually predictable) action by the other. Intertwined as they have been, life for both has become unbearable, and both, unable on their own to disentangle, may at long-delayed last be ready for the surgeon’s scalpel. For years now, thoughtful observers have commented that only with sustained outside intervention — meaning now, more than ever, American intervention — might peace be achieved. Even after the Oslo accords, that remarkable initiative undertaken by the parties more or less on their own, America’s good offices were required to make real the promise.

What does the “road map” propose that Oslo did not? Among other things, that there will be an independent Palestinian state at the end of three years. Among other and more proximate things, that the process of disentangling — the process already cumbersomely under way — will be “monitored.” If that turns out to be so, it will represent a major shift from the Oslo years, in which both parties violated their commitments blithely and repeatedly.

Unfortunately, however, the initial American monitoring team includes just 10 people, nowhere near a sufficient number to render ongoing detailed assessments of the parties’ performance.

There is one way in which the medical analogy is useless: Unlike the Bijani twins, the Israelis and Palestinians will not have the benefit of anesthesia as the effort at separation proceeds. To the contrary, they must be not only awake but also alert throughout, for far longer than 28 hours or 28 days or even 28 months. And unlike the Raffles Hospital, where we received periodic announcements regarding what was happening behind the very closed doors of the operating room, here we may expect daily commentary from just about everyone with a stake in the outcome. Delicate surgery — in public, without anesthesia.

Here comes the hard part: So far, Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush — and, for that matter, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas — have been doing better than anyone was entitled to expect. Sharon’s words the other day, when he and Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, appeared together on a stage before journalists, were beyond remarkable; they’d have been though elegant even if delivered by Israeli senior statesman Shimon Peres.

Reiterating words he spoke — and few took seriously — back in April in the Knesset, the Israeli prime minister turned to Abu Mazen and said, “On behalf of the people of Israel, I tell you: we have no quarrel with you. We have no desire to control you or to dictate your fate. We want to live side by side with you in peace, as good neighbors, helping and respecting each other.”

I say this is “the hard part” because nothing in Sharon’s past inspires the confidence that he genuinely means what he says. But who knows? The truth is that there’s no such thing as a Middle East expert these days since no one can read Sharon’s mind, and it is even possible that he himself does not yet know what he truly desires by way of an outcome.

Enter, of all people, Bush, from whom we ought by now to have learned to expect even less than we expect from Sharon. Afghanistan? Botched. Iraq? A morass. The economy? Yeah, sure. On the whole, we are learning that far from compassionate conservatism, this presidency is an exercise in passionate radicalism.

But in the Middle East, the United States and its president seem embarked on a serious and thoughtful endeavor. What a stunning surprise if on this issue this president manages to succeed where his predecessors have all failed, if he manages to separate the conjoined twins and bring them to a new life, a life of productive sibling relations as the often bitter and always awkward memories of the past begin to recede. Clio, the muse of history, will chuckle; the rest of us, save for a tedious collection of soreheads who will not ever take “yes” for an answer, will cheer until we are hoarse.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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