A Middle East analyst seeks, through many conversations and a bit of offbeat humor, a resolution to the conflict.
Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, are set to resume in two weeks’ time. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says reconciliation is “difficult but possible.” That was last month.
The same week, a young woman posted photos of herself on Facebook, broadly smiling in her Israeli army uniform in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners. In the ensuing media maelstrom, Eden Abergil acknowledged that her album was “thoughtless,” then, in a display of either pitiful naiveté or the arrogant confidence of her convictions, stated: “I still don’t understand what wasn’t OK.”
Day after day, year after year, the Israeli-Palestinian tumult continues. Occasional highs, such as the 2003 road map, have been marred by frequent lows, including the two intifadas. Constantly confronted with the region’s struggles, everyone, regardless of lifestyle or location, seems to have an opinion.
Gregory Levey has an antidote to our nonstop cajoling, decrying, and arguing. He’d like us to read his affable memoir, How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment, in which he methodically examines a multiplicity of attitudes, to keen effect. “Don’t be a Fundamentalist,” he counsels in his Author’s Note. But he discovers that such advice is easier given than put into actual practice.
As a former employee of the Israeli government, an experience he chronicled in the funny, warmly regarded memoir “Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government,” and as a graduate of a Zionist Jewish elementary school, this 30-something author has spent a long time thinking about the Middle East. Admittedly consumed yet utterly exhausted, he decides to find a solution, so that not only will he fully understand what’s at stake, he’ll never have to talk about it again.
First, Levey orders special “PeaceMaker” underwear off the Internet. On a serious note, he also sets out to speak with as many people with as many points of view as possible, “from the biggest players in the Middle East debate to the cranks who kept bombarding my email in-box.” Each interview generally follows a pattern: Levey explains his project, acknowledges its inherent preposterousness, recommends that the person read or, at the very least, buy his first book, and then asks for his or her thoughts.
Interviewees include Yossi Beilin, who helped draft the Oslo Accords, and Stephen Walt, coauthor of the controversial “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Levey meets with a representative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful lobby better known as AIPAC, and takes a paramilitary training class offered by the Jewish Defense League. He visits Samar Assad, head of the nonprofit Palestine Center. Later he attends a Zionist–Evangelical Christian rock concert. The more hawkish (hawkish and dovish being Levey’s two favorite epithets) or entrenched the politico, the more pessimistic the outlook.
Everyday encounters provide their own insights. At the risk of angering his wife, Levey repeatedly brings home fetid produce, purchased so that he might become friends with a Palestinian grocer.
After several visits, he finally broaches the subject with his grocer. “ ‘[The Middle East is] a big catastrophe ... full of people who just want to make it even worse every day,’ ” the grocer says. Sadly recognizing that pessimism plagues ordinary citizens, too, Levey leaves without buying the icky avocado he’d been fondling.
A former Mossad agent named Michael Ross echoes the grocer: “[A]cademics love this conflict ... and the media thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. And even the diplomats love to work on this issue. If you work on something more bland, what are you going to brag about to the girl at the local party?”
Levey admirably refuses to countenance such cynic-speak. For all his complaining, he simply doesn’t want to give up. Plus, he nearly falls head-over-pen for J-Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace group that espouses an enticing two-state fix. It sounds like a good idea – in fact, it’s favored by most moderates, including President Obama. Unfortunately, the only thing Levey can do is urge people not to be radical (and make sure the White House knows he’s available, should his assistance be required).
Although Levey often analyzes the Middle East for such publications as Newsweek and Salon, his best metaphor compares it to “a festering wound, only without all the charm.” His funniest line – about whether he successfully solves the crisis – opens the book; too often, however, the jokes are repetitive or merely meh. Put another way, he really, really loves those boxer shorts he buys.
What Levey does learn, in conversation after conversation, is that everyone, including the crazies, sounds sane in his or her own head. Despite the ways in which emotion threatens to overtake logic, we need to keep talking. Rational dialogue, free of extremism and preferably with those who hold contrary positions, remains a vital component of the peace process. It won’t always be hilarious, but it beats the alternative.
Jessica Allen writes about food, culture, travel, and New York City, where she lives.