Don’t Step on the Toes of Peace

When you have been dancing with the same partner for many years, you can anticipate his moves, your body rocks in just the right direction with just the slightest pressure from his hand and you know which way to bend just from the nod of his head. I have been in a marathon dance ordeal with a partner I will call “Peace in the Middle East” for so long that fatigue is no longer a question-numbness has set in, my mind moves automatically from the first paragraph to the last and I can anticipate the roll of any argument, my side or their side; the tap, tap, tap of the fear; the pound of the overburdened heartbeat as hope rises, as hope once again crashes; the tidal rhythms of yes and no, bomb and retreat, promise and threat.

I have learned not to relax, not to smile, not to expect any enemy within or without to die or fade away. I know that the settlers on the West Bank and their fundamentalist supporters will place such pressure on the peace process that the deal may collapse. I know that the Arab fanatics will try everything in their power to keep peace from their door because its arrival would signal the end of their dream: a perfect and total return to a Judenrien land of olive groves and minarets. I know that the politicians of the Jewish right will play on our ancient and recent fears of betrayal; “never again,” they will whisper in our ears and stir our nightmares out of sleep. I know that real security concerns will mingle with bogey men and that I and most other ordinary people will not be, cannot be, quite clear-will planes with radar protect the borders? How long will it take for Israel to mobilize against an invader? What of scuds and poison gas, what of anthrax smuggled into the King David Hotel in a silver chafing dish? Is Syria apt to cross the Golan and eat up little Jewish children learning their alphabet in Tel Aviv or will everyone stay put and tend to their own gardens (which need some tending indeed)?

Years ago, those of us who thought we ought to talk to Yasir Arafat were considered traitors to our people. In Israel you could be jailed for meeting with the enemy. Years ago, the return of land for peace, compromise with the Palestinians (who were said to not even exist, a fabricated peoplehood serving the purpose of the hostile Arab brotherhood), was considered weak-headed, anti-Jewish. Then, gradually it became clear. If you occupied Lebanon, you lost men in Lebanon. If you insisted on all the land, you could never have peace in any of it. If you denied your neighbor some part of the orchard, he would forever try to set fire to the whole. The idea of peace, of compromise, of building bridges of trade and education between the peoples took hold. But not such hold that peace has been achieved-not yet.

The same folks who supported the most stiff-necked, give-them-nothing approach are still at it, trying to convince the rest of us that giving an inch will lose us the entire body; that the dangers of compromise are so great that we ought to retreat behind our walls and wait for the Arabs to fold their tents and quietly slip away. William Safire has all but accused Ehud Barak of cooperating in betraying Israel’s interests to aid Al Gore’s bid for the American presidency. He asks that “Israel seek evidence of Arab trustworthiness before rolling its security dice.” The problem is that, as in a dance, if one partner stiffens, the other must also. If one partner steps on the toes of the other, the dance is over. Palestinians unsatisfied, outlaws among nations, will continue terrorism, proving in doing so that they are not trustworthy, so the cycle of violence will continue unbroken. The longer peace waits, the more acts of terrorism will occur, reinforcing the idea that we cannot have peace because of terrorism. What a stupid bind.

The only hope is not to be a shtarker , as Mr. Safire proudly labels himself, “hard-line, insufferably resolute,” but to take a risk, to take a leap, to offer an open hand where tear gas has failed. Ariel Sharon wants no Arab-controlled sections of Jerusalem, no Palestinian state. He expects that history will wash the Palestinians away to a place where the dinosaurs still roam-this is not tough thinking, but wishful unrealistic thinking. Strength, shtarker strength, does not always lie in denying others their place. Mr. Safire’s is a schoolboy version of the strong guy, not one for the real world in which you have to be nimble to protect your own back, gain what you want and yet live among other people whose well-being will, must, does, impact on yours. To be a shtarker in certain situations is to be no more than the playground bully-“Nah, nah, na, nah na, I’m bigger than you are.” Mr. Safire implies that those of us who support Mr. Barak in his efforts are soft-headed, the opposite of shtarkers . I am not irresolute or naïve or ready to roll over and die. I simply believe that a fight to the death is out of the question because it will be my death too. I believe that friendship and cooperation and imagining the other is a sign of maturity and strength. Nationalism is a good thing for Jews, but we can learn from the nasty nationalisms and religious divisions of Europe in the last century and make our state balanced, humane, long lasting, without 100 years of war for every two minutes of peace.

Mr. Safire said that Mr. Barak was calling for a lesser Israel. This is mean-spirited indeed. In recent months, Israelis have begun wandering into the West Bank to buy refrigerators and other goods, to go to jazz clubs and have dinner in Arab restaurants. Many millions of dollars have crossed the borders. Is it so lesser to live with your neighbor in peace? What kind of lesser is this when you have a more secure world in which every mother does not have to anticipate a battlefield death for her son.

This argument about Arab untrustworthiness is a shrewd cover for the underlying right-wing wish to have all the land-to remain as is, to give nothing. This was a Zionist formulation rejected by Ben Gurion a long time ago. It is still with us-issues of safety, while real enough in themselves, also serve to disguise the desire to take all, no matter what.

There are real questions of security and I assume that Mr. Barak’s military men are not suckers or dupes. It won’t be easy since the terrorism won’t stop just because more agreements are made. The fundamentalists in Israel will not give up any part of their particular Zionist vision easily. But stepping forward, trusting, is essential so that this dance, as exhausted as it leaves us, at least continues till a new dawn.