Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Salaam, shalom, peace
I wish I could be optimistic about the newly launched Middle East peace process. But I can't help feeling that yesterday's meeting in Annapolis, Md., was simply, as The New York Times put it, "a moment of diplomatic theater."
While I generally maintain a healthy dose of pessimism about nearly everything, on this issue, I desperately want to be optimistic. After the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians were signed in 1993 and the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan a year later, it truly seemed like a historic moment.
I went to Israel for the first time, in August 1995, largely because of the peace process. I wanted to show my support for the steps Israel and its Arab neighbors were taking. I later lived in Tel Aviv for a year. And I do believe that most Israelis and Palestinians simply want to live their lives in peace.
On my first trip, I'll never forget how moved I was when our Israeli tour guide talked about how Israel was gaining more international acceptance, coming out of its isolation. He said that before, “it was like we were on another planet. Now, we can breathe like a normal country.''
On that same tour, I also spent three days in Jordan, and I remember our Jordanian guide pulling a business card out of his pocket with the name of a kosher restaurant that had opened in Amman, in expectation of the Israeli tourists who would soon be visiting. (I also remember buying a map of the region, in which Israel simply did not exist.)
Since then, things have not worked out so well. This week's meeting in Maryland, indeed, very few of the meeting since the early 1990s, have had that same sense of optimism and history in the making. I'm among those who seriously doubt whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can rein in extremists who seek the destruction of Israel, and whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can convince Israelis to take difficult, risky steps.
If you want a sense of the attitudes among Israelis and Palestinians today, there's a very sobering documentary currently airing on HBO called "To Die in Jerusalem." It looks at the conflict through the eyes of two women, one the mother of an 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber, and the other, the mother of a 17-year-old Israeli killed in the attack on a Jerusalem market in 2002.
When the two mothers finally get a chance to speak to each other, over a video hookup, there's very little common ground. The Israeli mother can't understand how how an 18-year-old could decide to end her life, and kill innocent people in the process. The Palestinian mother, while not supporting her daughter's actions, expresses pride that she was willing to die for what she believed was a worthy cause.
Frankly, their conversation was kind of depressing. Still, at least they spoke. Despite my deeply ingrained pessimism that's come from watching events in the Middle East unfold over the past decade, I always feel more hopeful when both sides are talking to each other. It's better than the alternative.