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Is There Still A Chance For Peace In The Middle East?

Not long ago, I strolled along the spotless streets of Rawabi, a new Palestinian city being built near Ramallah, with Jack Nassar, the project’s development manager. He is an educated young man, smartly dressed and well compensated. We walked past the impressive amphitheater, strolled through expansive parks, saw the church and the mosque, and viewed upscale three-bedroom apartments selling for US$150,000 apiece. No one lives here yet, but the city planners have already declared that Rawabi is the future.

“Talking about the future,” I asked Nassar, “do you support the two-state solution or a single state?”

“Both,” he replied. “My father was banished from the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem in the ’48 war. My desire is that there be peace and that I go back there one day.”

“I believe with all my heart that everyone must have the right to return to his home. Jews and Arabs.”

This young man — not an extremist, neither a left-winger nor a right-winger — was not particularly interested in questions of sovereignty, borders or a Palestinian state. As far as he was concerned, he could live in Israel or Palestine, as long as he went back to his father’s house in Katamon. I don’t know whether he would really want to go back to Katamon were he to be offered the choice. Conceptually, among the Palestinians I met, the ’48 war is the point of departure for every discussion of the conflict.

All the known peace initiatives address the ’67 occupation and view discussion of ’48 as an obstacle to peace. And yet all of those initiatives have failed to achieve any sustainable solution. Why is that? Perhaps because the solution must embody a historical continuity that encompasses both these dates. It is essential to do away with the artificial disconnect between ’67 and ’48 and create a framework in which there is mutual acknowledgement of the decisive events that occurred in both wars.

Except that, as the negotiations dragged on and the years passed, and the more bloodshed and death and wars and operations and settlements we witnessed, the clearer it became that it is impossible to ignore the past or to stow ’48 up in some attic, certainly when the consequences of that war are engraved on the walls of every Palestinian town, refugee camp and family home.

People asked me, during my journey, which peace plan I support. My answer was: Any agreement that changes the situation is acceptable to me. I would happily support a peace accord along the lines of the familiar model offered in the past few decades, namely two states for two peoples, but I am extremely skeptical that such a resolution could ever be viable.

I do not know if the land can still be divided. If we examine the intervening decades since the occupation of the West Bank, we will be forced to admit that any division today would be more complicated and difficult than ever before. The number of settlers has increased dramatically, to well over half a million if we include East Jerusalem; the “settlement blocs” encompass broad areas (these are not the blocs discussed at Camp David in 2000, and even then the Palestinians refused to accept the annexation that Israel demanded); and besides, it is difficult to envision a real separation between Jews and Arabs on the West Bank, and even less so in Jerusalem. All that, without even beginning to debate 1948.

There is a reason why the negotiations have become a charade that clearly cannot bring about results. Israel does not have a government that is interested in implementing any of the steps discussed, even if international pressure is turned up a little, and the reality is that Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke the truth in the 2015 election campaign when he said that he had abandoned the two-state vision, while the Palestinians on their part have despaired (justifiably) of negotiating with Israel and they pin their hopes on international entities. For many years we have been moving in the opposite direction from the two-state vision, sitting on a boat that sails further and further away from land, yet still believing that some daring initiative or formative historical moment will somehow make us reverse course and get back to where we were heading.

The year 2017 marks 50 years since the occupation and the prevailing winds in Israel changed. Today you will find many well-intentioned people here who have been defeated by the consistent reality of the occupation, who have accepted the fact that change will not occur in their lifetimes. In fact, perhaps to protect themselves from the frustration and anger, they no longer talk about the occupation and the future.

So how, after all this, do we act to bring about change? Some claim — and have been doing so for about 30 years — that we must wait for international intervention to impose the two-state solution. But to me this is a grave mistake and a false hope: the international community has disappointed the peace-supporters and done little to solve the conflict.

There are other ideas, of course, such as “Two States, One Homeland,” meaning two separate states within the 1967 borders that maintain free movement between them, where settlers do not lose their homes (which would albeit be under Palestinian sovereignty), and where Jack Nassar of Rawabi could theoretically live in Katamon in Jerusalem. Each political organization presents its own model, but the truth is that in recent years, at least in the main political arena, there is no serious discussion about the future. What we see is lazy thinking, lack of courage and an avoidance of any positive vision for change. The terror of the future has paralyzed us. Seven decades into Israel’s existence, the country still has no permanent borders, still encompasses territories where the sovereignty is vague and still cannot offer any viable political resolution.

Of one thing I am convinced: the separation paradigm is collapsing — geographically, demographically, politically. What political model can replace it? The answer must begin with a brave and sober grappling with the 1948 war and the Palestinian Nakba, then with the 1967 occupation, and finally with the present reality on the lands of the West Bank.

What is required now is no less than a revolution in Israeli society’s value system, predicated on one simple principle: in two states, in a confederation, in a single state — the Jew and the non-Jew must be equal in every sense.

Lots of people I meet in Israel, on the West Bank and around the world, fear the moment when the conflict becomes unsolvable.

Over the last couple of years I have wondered more than once: are we already at that point and we just haven’t noticed? Do we know this to be true in our hearts but are afraid to admit it? That is possible. Only history will tell. We who examine the present from street-level (and not from a mountaintop) recognize our limitations; we see the fog that always obscures our view, and we must persist in the effort to end the occupation in our lifetimes. We may discover in the coming decade whether we have the power to change this momentum, to shape our future, or if we will have to recognize that phantom time is the only time we have, and that the corridor we are walking down has no end.

The end, perhaps, goes back to the beginning: there is not much time left, and we must believe that we can achieve reconciliation between the two peoples even if the models we once believed in are no longer valid. Do we have any other option?

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Copyright Jessica Cohen. Adapted from © A Land Without Borders by Nir Baram, 2017, published by Text Publishing.

Nir Baram is the author of A Land Without Borders, available now where books are sold.

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