For Arab and Jew, a new beginning

After generations of strife, the holy land yearns for people with heart and vision to think in a different way, to heal in a new way, and to make real the vision for a just peace.

Photo Illustrations by John Kehe/Staff; Photos by AP
While revolt across the Arab world makes the process of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians less certain, it makes their outcome more urgent. Can the revolutionary spirit sweeping the region open the door to fresh ways to resolve the Middle East’s most troublesome conflict? This is the first essay of "Peace within Reach," a three-part commentary series that explores why peace may be closer than you think.

With each child shot down with a stone in his hand, or on her way home from the bakery; with each cafe turned to carnage when a young man explodes himself upon the innocent; with each shot and countershot, crude rocket launch, or barrage of missiles sent in retribution – with each terrible burst of anger and pain, something beautiful is lost.

Life, of course; that's what's been sacrificed, more than 100,000 times by some estimates, since the tragedy unfolded six decades ago.

But more than human life has been lost in these tragic years. Also diminished are immeasurable quantities of creativity, curiosity, joy, openness, and possibility. Imagine the other paths that might have opened had so many lives not been cut short – and so many dreams not been smashed into shards across a broken landscape of Arab and Jew.

After generations of strife, the holy land yearns for people with heart and vision to think in a different way, to heal in a new way, and to make real the vision for a just peace.

The status quo is unacceptable

For now, the decisions of diplomacy are in the hands of the hardened, the unimaginative, the angry, the weak, the fearful, and the near-defeated. The truth, for the moment, is not encouraging.

For Palestinians, this June marks 44 years under occupation. Their hope of a state to call home has shriveled, along with the land base itself. It began with a vision of a single secular democratic state of Arabs and Jews on the area that now comprises Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. It became a historic compromise for a nation on 22 percent of that land. The reality is limited autonomy and movement on just 10 percent – a "state of leftovers" amid expanding housing projects and segregated roads.

For Israelis, the dream of feeling truly safe and secure, accepted as a neighbor by historic enemies, is scarcely more real than it was in 1949, when the armistice was brokered after the first of many wars. Now a wall has arisen, and security guards no longer stand at sidewalk cafes. But a sense of genuine safety and acceptance remains a desert mirage.

For one people, an endless occupation upon their shrinking land base; for another, an illusory calm, as the winds of revolution blow in from the West and East. For both peoples, and for us on the outside, there is one thing to agree on: The status quo is unacceptable. Real change may seem impossible, but it must come. And if the recent past is a teacher, it may come more swiftly, and more unpredictably, than any self-styled leader or expert could say.

What form this change will take is also unknowable. The international community still calls for two independent nations separated by an international border. But six decades of partition have not worked. Today, half a million Israelis have colonized the lands of a would-be state of Palestine; Israel's population is now one-fifth Palestinian. Arab and Jew are mixed together.

Fresh thinking

Now, with a revolutionary spirit in the Middle Eastern air, with momentum building for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations this September, and a virtual certainty of a coming Palestinian majority on the lands "between the river and the sea," plans discarded long ago are reemerging. Some call for the creation of a single secular democratic state in which ethnic and religious identity are preserved, and whereby Palestinians have a right to return to their old homeland. Others envision a federation or binational state, as dreamed of by the Jewish visionary Martin Buber. Some fondly recall the "tripartite" proposal by the British in 1939, for a government divided between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Other models envision a Middle Eastern Union, a region of open borders in which commerce, technology, and labor flow freely.

Many in Israel, whose friends, neighbors, and very own families have made the ultimate sacrifice to create and maintain a Jewish homeland, shudder at such ideas. Some prefer the politics of ultimate separation, whereby many Palestinian citizens of Israel are deported, or expelled to Jordan.

A middle ground, which acknowledges Israeli fears, is worth considering.

Ambassador Mathias Mossberg of Sweden proposes "parallel" or "dual" states, "superimposed on top of one another. Citizens could freely choose which system to belong to.... The Israeli state would remain a homeland for Jews, and at the same time, become a place in which Palestinians are able to live freely." Israelis are not likely to look well upon this plan, either. But the tectonic plates of democracy and demography are shifting in ways that could change the political landscape dramatically.

Principles of peace

A just and durable peace need not be based on love or appreciation. But it must be based on dignity, equality, and mutual respect. It should include these principles:

Domination is not an option. Life under military occupation is humiliating, enraging, and emotionally damaging. On the 60 percent of the West Bank occupied by Israel, Palestinian children must sometimes be escorted to school by soldiers, lest they be stoned by nearby Jewish settlers. Intimidating checkpoints sometimes require a three-hour wait. Others simply emphasize who is in control. At a checkpoint near Jenin, Alá, a 10-year-old Palestinian music student, was forced recently to remove her violin from its case and play a song for a soldier. This dehumanizes not only the Palestinians forced to endure such encounters, but also the soldier who, consciously or not, is evoking his own people's tragic history.

In a future at peace, occupation must be scarcely imaginable. To hasten that day, some West Bank villages hold weekly, mostly peaceful, protests to confront the occupation, and some of the checkpoints have recently come down.

Security means feeling safe. As barriers fall, trust must rise. This means all people deserve the right to feel safe from the attacks, incursions, and threats. The Palestinian villager must know she can send her child to school in utter safety. And the Israeli city dweller must be free from fear of the random explosion or rocket attack. It is true that the deaths of Israeli citizens of Sderot were but a tiny fraction of the casualties of the 2008 Gaza war, in which 100 times more Palestinians died than Israelis. But Palestinian militants knew full well they were exploiting a terrible wound, born of the Holocaust and rooted deep in the Israeli psyche. Pricking the collective fears of an entire nation is not a good way to achieve freedom. This is why the Palestinian hudna, or truce, which has been largely in place in the West Bank, is such an important development. It is the hudna, perhaps more than the separation wall, that has silenced the suicide bombers. Palestinians are seeing that their own future security and freedom can be gained through nonviolence.

Truth and reconciliation are crucial. Genuine witnessing of each other's tragic history, as fostered by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, points a way forward. Small groups of Israelis and Palestinians are holding such meetings on a private scale: Palestinians who witness the lasting horror of the Holocaust; Israelis who come to terms with the Nakba, or catastrophe, in which 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out upon Israel's founding.

Dalia Landau, who grew up in the Israeli town of Ramla, has spent much of her life coming to terms with a terrible truth: that her life in a house of Jerusalem stone was made possible by the expulsion of the al-Khairis, the Arab family who lived there before she and her parents arrived from Bulgaria in 1948. Now that old house is a kindergarten for the Arab children of Ramla, and a place of safe meeting between Arab and Jew. Dalia endorses the "Three A's" – Acknowledgment, Apology, and Amends – as a kind of mutual witness, a wrenching encounter based on understanding the past and embracing the future.

A model of reconciliation

Such lofty ideals may seem unlikely now, but so they did for generations in Australia, before former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd addressed his nation, including the Aboriginal people whose children were taken from them by government decree. The nation's hopes, he said in 2008, lay in "righting the wrongs of the past."

It was time, Mr. Rudd said, "to remove a great stain from the nation's soul and in the true spirit of reconciliation to open a new chapter in the history of this great land...."

It may be a while before the holy land is witness to such restorative justice on an official or widespread scale. But consider the fruits that would come from replacing the sense of ever-present dread with a sense of safety, security, and freedom.

The fruits of settlement

With no checkpoints – and eventually no wall – Arab and Jew alike would enjoy the right to travel and visit family members freely, to swim in the sea, and to pray without fear at Jerusalem's holy sites, in Hebron, and at other sacred places.

The flow of culture and commerce, today increasingly hampered by campaigns of nonviolent resistance including boycotts and international condemnation, would take off with vigor and worldwide support. Artists, writers, and musicians would flood the holy land, bearing witness to the truths of peace. Leaders from the emerging democratic Arab world would come too, connecting economies and even infrastructures: Some dream of a new Orient Express going from Haifa to Saudi Arabia. Solar power, farm technology, and water conservation efforts would multiply. Israelis could visit Lebanon and other Arab neighbors – not as soldiers but as welcomed visitors. Arabs from the Levant to the Gulf could set foot in the holy city and pray at Al Aqsa Mosque.

Jerusalem could be a truly open city, where faith, art, culture and commerce would blend into an international mélange. Nongovernmental organizations could follow, and Jerusalem could become the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

US policy would no longer need to be the focus of derision and rage in the Arab "street." With a just peace in place, Al Qaeda and other militant groups would have lost their greatest recruiting tool: the unresolved conflict in Palestine.

And in the midst of this, no one in the Holy Land would need to instinctively check over his shoulder. No one would be stopped with her violin at a checkpoint. Arab and Jew would be free to meet as equals; to look each other in the eye, and move their separate ways. Or to stop and share a glass of sweet mint tea and listen to the sound of footfalls on the ancient stones, the voices in a dozen languages wafting up from Damascus Gate at the entrance to the Old City.

Sandy Tolan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, is a longtime radio documentary producer and journalist. He is the author of "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East."

Editor's note: This is the first essay of "Peace within Reach," a three-part commentary series about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No. 2 - The Geneva Accord: a breakthrough model

No. 3 - A holy city's peaceful purpose

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