Officially, we were a delegation from Churches for Middle East Peace, a noble but desperately underfunded Washington group created to represent mainstream Christian churches on a vital issue. In more banal terms, we were 12 Americans following a tight schedule through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and “Palestine”—forever getting on and off a bus, shepherded from one meeting to another, following a daily rhythm not unlike children on a long elementary- school fieldtrip.
The meetings devolved into a familiar pattern: CMEP’s director Corinne Whitlatch described the group and its point of view—boiled down to support for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine and a status for Jerusalem that reflects the city’s importance to two peoples and the three Abrahamic faiths—our hosts made a presentation, we went through some questions, exchanged gifts, posed for a photograph. And then back on the bus, to the next place. Eventually one began to speculate how CMEP might appear to our hosts: why, they must have wondered, do America’s most established churches have so little influence on America’s actual policies? But they were never so tactless as to pose this question directly (though virtually every Arab intellectual we encountered brought up without prompting Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s now famous essay).
Our first stop was Damascus, the capital that has nearly achieved full “axis of evil” status in George W. Bush’s Washington. Syria is under sanctions legislation rushed through Congress in 2003, the American ambassador has been withdrawn for “consultation,” and the charge d’affaires tells us that American policy is to “freeze” the country. An official Syria resistant to being frozen is delighted to welcome a group like ours and to demonstrate to its citizenry its ability to do so.
So on our first morning we had an audience with President Bashar al-Assad, a motorcade to whisk us up the mountain to a white marble presidential palace, our photograph on the front page of the next day’s paper, our comings and goings chronicled on the TV news. Tall and gangly, educated in London as an ophthalmologist, Assad is articulate and well-informed. He is unassuming for a head of state (much less a dictator), a man who might pass for a wonkish professor of biology or computer science at an American university. Assad essentially inherited his post from his late father, Hafez al-Assad—posters of the two together are ubiquitous in Damascus—who had come to power in a 1970 coup. He is an Alawite, a minority Sh’ite sect, and his regime is vulnerable to ethnic pressures as well as political ones. Christians, who make up 10 percent of Syria’s population and a much higher share of its professional classes, are in a similar minority position and are probably more at home in cosmopolitan Damascus than anywhere else in the Middle East.
Assad is worried about Islamic fundamentalism; he acknowledges that Islamists would do well if elections were held. Before democracy, he says, Syria needs an “upgrade”—more education, literacy, Internet expansion—and then Islamic extremists would have less of an audience. No doubt this is a self-serving argument but not necessarily an incorrect one. There are genuine liberals in Syria’s opposition, but the chances that they would emerge from the chaos if Assad were toppled are unlikely.
Half a million Palestinians dwell in slum-like refugee camps around Damascus, and they are a political wild card, a potentially volatile element in Syria’s politics. Assad says they could return to a Palestinian state on the West Bank; he postures not at all about their possible return to ancestral homes in Haifa. Official Syria is altogether realistic about Israel’s existence and eager to reap the practical benefits of a peace settlement.
Damascus is not wealthy but seems quite sane. We saw no troops in the city, virtually no beggars, and the streets felt safe. The traffic flow reminded my (veteran world traveler) wife of China in the 1970s, jammed with motorbikes and little trucks. Black-and-white TVs were visible in businesses open late but not selling very much. In the Christian neighborhood where we stayed, the sidewalks were full of young men and women milling about in same-sex groups, eyeing one another but seldom mingling.
The head scarf is making inroads—about half the women in the city now wear it, and as there are no religious police enforcing dress codes, it is a style freely chosen. While this surely reflects the growth of fundamentalist Islam, in Damascus at least it seems more a fashion statement and certainly not an effort to put a lid on female sensuality. Many “covered” Damascene women wear tightly fitted outfits and provocative eye makeup.
As CMEP is in part a religious group, several of our meetings were with archbishops of the Christian churches and prominent Muslim clerics. The interest of our Syrian hosts in putting on a real reception for a group that is hardly a powerhouse in American politics was remarkable. Sheik Kuftaro’s Islamic Foundation, for instance, a huge institution with some 8,000 students, assembled, at 10 in the morning, a middle-school girls’ choir and a group of about 20 clerics and professors to “dialogue” with us. Eight were women, tightly wrapped, unable to shake hands with the men in the reception line, smiling and touching their hearts as we passed. But, they avidly informed us, they are professors of comparative literature, doctors of medicine and pharmacy, and were eager to talk, especially to the women in our female-led delegation. Alas, we had only an hour, and once we got through the choir, the introductions, the now familiar presentation about Syria being a country of many faiths and how the Jewish and Christian prophets are honored in Islam, it was time to go. The women seemed visibly disappointed, anxious perhaps to dispel for their American guests preconceptions about women in Islam being powerless ciphers (or perhaps to illuminate them). But as always, the bus awaited.
We spent part of an afternoon at the American ambassador’s residence, hearing our diplomats explain how they are keeping economic and political pressure on the Assad regime and about Syria’s lack of progress towards real reform. Off the record, around a table of drinks and snacks, the tone softened. They all loved being stationed in Damascus and were delighted with their encounters with unofficial Syria. I told one diplomat that the evening before we had attended a concert at the city’s largest Greek Orthodox church, hearing men’s, women’s, and children’s choirs perform religious and folk songs. It was a large and formal event, a milestone in the Damascene Christian calendar. Watching the young choir boys fussing shyly with their uniforms or their mothers coddling younger brothers and sisters or gathering the kids together after the event, one could easily imagine this as a pre-Easter break convocation at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York or any large parochial school in the Western world. I told the diplomat that there are many in the corridors of power in Bush’s Washington who want nothing more than to smash the Syrian regime in the service of the “global democratic revolution” or whatever is the slogan of the moment at the American Enterprise Institute, and this smashing would have incalculably tragic consequences for the community whose celebration we had witnessed the night before. He nodded with a look of weary resignation.
We spent a day traveling through Jordan, stopping at the ancient Roman city of Jerash. Ruins don’t move me, but none of us could ignore the shock of re-entering the “global marketplace.” As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were accosted by ragged bands of little boys shouting “Mister, Mister” and trying to sell us postcards and umbrellas, followed immediately by grown men trying to do the same thing. In Damascus, one might receive a smile and polite expression of interest about where one came from, or occasionally, in the souk, an invitation to “please come in and take a look at my pottery.” But Syria’s isolation means the reflex of falling over oneself to accommodate the West’s purchasing power has not taken hold.
It’s a cliché, the short distances between Israel and its neighbors. Beirut and Damascus are only several hours’ drive away. Once we cleared Israel’s Allenby Bridge checkpoint—a six-hour ordeal—we were no more than an hour on mountain roads from Jerusalem, which along with its close suburbs of Bethlehem and Ramallah would fit comfortably into New York City’s geographic limits.
Modern nationalism has inflicted a wound on a region once culturally diverse but geographically united, and it is not surprising to hear Christian clerics make wistful reference to “the Roman period” or “even the Ottoman” as better than the present. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine any Mideast solution that does not follow the logic of the nation-state, or as CMEP puts it, “two viable states, Israel and Palestine … side by side, with secure and recognized borders.”
It is late afternoon by the time we arrive, pulling into the Lutheran World Federation on the Mount of Olives. The day is cool, the sun is bright, the hills are shimmering, the Dome of the Rock glistens below us. It is a scene of extraordinary beauty. But the human and political situation, as we would hear from virtually everyone we spoke to over the next week, is ugly and deteriorating rapidly. Two months prior to our arrival, Hamas had won the Palestinian election, and no Palestinian who met with us—none of whom were Hamas voters—failed to express pride in the vigorous and fair electoral process. “A successful delivery, but a sick baby” remarked an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Sick and near death, too, is the peace process that had infused the region with hope in the early 1990s.
In retrospect, it may be that these hopes, which glowed so brightly among the Israeli Left and center and among virtually all Palestinians, were based on a misunderstanding: the Palestinians believed that in return for their recognition of Israel and renunciation of their claim to historic Palestine, they would achieve a viable and fully sovereign state on the West Bank and Gaza, the territories seized by Israel in the 1967 War; the Israelis believed they could give up nothing they really wanted for themselves and be rid of their Palestinian problem once and for all.
The geography in and around Jerusalem brings into sharp relief the difference between the two geographic visions. With many other Americans, I had my moments of impatience with the seemingly endless talks in the late 1990s, when “final status” was at least nominally under discussion. The Israelis, one read repeatedly after the Camp David talks had broken down, were prepared to give Arafat 97 percent of the West Bank, or perhaps merely 94 percent. It seemed nearly the whole loaf, plus territorial compensation for the remainder, taken from “Israel proper.” While the actual acreage offered to the Palestinians varied from account to account, it led to the same conclusion: why did the Palestinians need to haggle over a few hectares of land, a nominal percentage of the West Bank, when the prospect of a real independent state was within their grasp? I was, of course, aware of Israel’s construction of a separation wall that stretched beyond Israel’s internationally recognized borders and tried to read with necessary care the articles in the New York Review of Books, with their detailed maps and their many footnotes from Peace Now’s Settlement Watch and B’Tselem, with their myriad references to new Israeli settlements whose names I couldn’t pronounce. But this seemed more than one really needed to know if one was committed, as a matter of justice (and, not incidentally, of convenience to America) to a “two-state solution.”
But this casual attitude toward a few percentage points of West Bank acreage here and there cannot survive a visit to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah. When we arrived, Israeli voters had just given Ehud Olmert’s centrist Kadima party a narrow victory, while Hamas was trying to put together a cabinet. As several Palestinian intellectuals and American church officials mentioned to us, Hamas was the perfect foil for the Israeli Right. Because of the group’s terrorist past and its caginess about recognizing Israel, the Olmert government has a credible excuse not to negotiate with the Palestinians and is under no American pressure to do so. As it happens, throughout the previous year Israel had also refused to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for reasons that were less apparent, as Abbas clearly recognized Israel and sought a peaceful path to Palestinian statehood.
The essence of Olmert’s convergence policy, a path initiated by Ariel Sharon, is for Israel to determine unilaterally its borders by withdrawing from isolated settlements in Gaza and some in the West Bank and building a wall—in places a 30-foot high concrete structure—on the boundaries of its choosing to separate itself from the Palestinians. Halfway constructed, the wall has clearly been something of an impediment to suicide bombers, and no one could plausibly object if Israel decided to build a wall along the 1967 boundary line—Israel’s internationally recognized border. But the wall’s route expands Israel’s territory considerably in key areas. It takes in the entire city of Jerusalem, including those sections that are historically Palestinian, and it thrusts eastward in various peninsulas and salients into the West Bank in order to gather in various newly constructed Israeli West Bank settlements. Routing the wall so that the settlements fall on the Israeli side, ensuring they have space for further expansion and access to all the water resources they might need, and satisfying the supposed requirement that the wall be constructed on “high ground” requires Israel to annex far more land than is taken by the settlements themselves.
The impact of the wall’s construction on the major Palestinian towns of the West Bank is dramatic. For example, Bethlehem is now flanked on two sides by the wall and on the rest by a highway built for exclusive use by Israeli settlers. Cut off from its agricultural hinterland, lacking room for expansion or even parks, Bethlehem, in Olmert’s vision, is to be surrounded by concrete, a walled-in urban ghetto.
To the east of Jerusalem, visible from the Mount of Olives, is the new settlement of Ma’ale Adumin, connected to Jerusalem through its own hinterland, called “E-1.” This complex of vacant land and new suburb stretches eastward into the West Bank as far as the eye can see, dividing the future Palestinian state, in effect, in half. Meanwhile, in the interior of the so-called Palestinian area, Israeli military checkpoints are everywhere, fixed and floating. Even if one were to put aside the religious significance of Jerusalem for Muslims, the eastern parts of the city are the economic and cultural hub of the West Bank—as connected to the Palestinian towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem as McLean, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland are to Washington, D.C. But the wall effectively severs Jerusalem to Palestinians from Bethlehem and Ramallah. If a man from Bethlehem were marry an Arab Jerusalemite, the couple would face years of bureaucratic wrangling to get a Jerusalem residency permit, and until that time they could not live together.
The wall cuts off Palestinian farmers from their land and workers from their jobs, separates families, and prevents access to hospitals where they traditionally have gone for medical treatment and places where their children can pursue higher education. In Ha’aretz, the liberal Israeli paper that prints news that seldom appears in the American mass media, columnist Amira Hass writes, “Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation are imprisoned in a thicket of physical, corporeal barriers of all types and sizes (checkpoints, roadblocks, blockades, fences, walls, steel gates, roads prohibited to traffic, dirt embankments, concrete cubes) and by a frequently updated assortment of bans and limitations.” The wall and checkpoints mean that Bethlehem University, the Catholic school founded 30 years ago with Vatican support, has increasing difficulty educating its students because travel to and from the school has become so arduous.
Among Palestinian activists and intellectuals, one often hears the word “bantustan” to describe the various cantons the West Bank has been divided into, cities where the Palestinians may practice “self-rule” while needing Israeli acquiescence for any movement of people and goods. It is clearly a polemical word, linking Israel to South African apartheid, and surely another term is needed. But it is clear that the boundaries Israel is now drawing for itself do not leave room for a viable Palestinian state. Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi of PASSIA, a Jerusalem-based think tank, says that Palestinians have taken up the term “Palestan” for their areas—the zone around the northern town of Nablus, one around Hebron, one around Ramallah, the Gaza Strip—four circles, surrounded by the Israeli security zone along the Jordan River, separated by the Ma’ale Adumin/E-1 complex and network of Israeli-controlled roads and checkpoints.
The Palestinian economy was in a freefall even before the election of Hamas and the cutoff of Western economic aid. The out-migration of the Christian middle class is accelerating: students we spoke to at Bethlehem University talked of having no job prospects in Palestine. One young man exclaimed with mock defiance, “We will never leave our homeland!” and then smiled, explaining that is just “an emotional slogan.” If he wants to work, he will have to leave.
The Israelis welcome such a result. If educated people are denied the possibility to travel, to pursue a profession, to raise a family in normal circumstances, they will seek other options. The policy that envelops the Palestinians in a maze of restrictions can’t quite be called ethnic cleansing—it is milder, and always carried out under the sheen of legality. But the result is the same.
This anyway was the dire impression our group received during a week of meetings in Bethlehem and Jerusalem with Palestinian intellectuals and activists, Israeli human-rights organizations, the archbishops and officials of the main Christian churches, and international relief workers. Except for an Israeli brigadier general who was an eloquent advocate of his government’s point of view and the American consul general, who was a caricature of smugness and nonchalance about the looming humanitarian collapse of the West Bank, everyone we spoke with was somber. “I wish I had better news for you” was a phrase we must have heard a dozen times. The core of the lament was that Israeli actions over the past ten years are effectively foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution, and Palestinian society is approaching a state of collapse, with the intensification of every social ill—and all this before the American-organized cutoff of funds to the Palestinian Authority had its predictably disastrous impact.
It is a sociological truism noted by Tocqueville that there is no more dangerous period for a social system than when a time of gradual improvement suddenly ends: “Evils that have been patiently endured when they seem inevitable become intolerable once the idea of escape from them is suggested.” The Israeli occupation that Palestinians endured through the 1970s and 1980s seemed, after Oslo, on its way out. And then, with the withering of the peace process, the idea of escape was suddenly foreclosed. The second intifada, inevitably crushed by Israel, followed, leaving nothing in its wake except deepening despair. As the Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal put it, “When you don’t have money to buy bread, death becomes more worthy.”
And so one can imagine that Palestine might yet become what it has never been, a recruiting ground for al-Qaeda, or, as B’Tselem’s executive director, Jessica Montell, puts it, “a swamp for breeding terrorists around the world.” The California-born Montell is young, dynamic, still seems American—and leads one to wonder how it happens that a liberal Jewish woman who made aliyah has a better sense of the strategic realities of the war on terror than 99 percent of those in the U.S. Congress. B’Tselem may be the foremost purveyor of research and documentation of the impact of Israeli policies on the Palestinian Arabs. Its point of view, of course, is not widely shared in Israel. Indeed, Montell explains, the dominant attitude is that the Palestinian problem is over as far as Israel is concerned. “They voted for Hamas” and Israel has “no partner” are the phrases one hears repeatedly.
So what are the options, beyond despair and waiting for the situation to deteriorate further? Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian Lutheran who has created the International Center of Bethlehem. He is a theologian, slight, balding, intense—an intellectual who can find new things to say about a situation that generates millions of words of commentary every week. His center, built with funds raised in Europe, is a testament to his vision: it is time for Palestinians to “stop whining” and begin to build their own institutions. It is hard, he acknowledges, to build a state under occupation—no society has ever been asked to do it before—but the Palestinians have no other choice. His center has an exhibition hall for student artwork, job-training programs for unskilled workers, conference centers, college-level classes —an effort to raise Palestinian political and social consciousness. “Our role as Christians is to give a foretaste of what Palestine will look like — to build facts on the ground that are as real as the wall.” Go back to your churches, he exhorts us, and have them help us build a state. Israel, too, could never have been built without American help. His talk takes some surprising detours into self-criticism: Palestinian Christians put their eggs in the basket of Arab nationalism, which has proved a failure in a time when all the pre-20th-century identities are asserting themselves. He quotes Tony Blair, who recently described his vision of “two states side by side, one Muslim, one Jewish”—perhaps Blair just made a slip of the tongue, he says wryly.
Raheb remains, just barely, an advocate of the two-state solution, but his mild demeanor softens what is an edgier analysis. “The state called Palestine has failed,” he says, but “whenever Jewish leaders come, we tell them the whole project of Israel has also failed. The ghettoizing of Palestinians cannot be the fulfillment of the Jewish dream. … If you read the Bible seriously, a project called Israel never succeeded. Its leaders sinned against God. A national state can never be the answer to people’s aspirations. … It is a time for repentance. Israel has been calling for churches to do repentance for years. Now it is time for Israel to do repentance. I know this is tough to say in the U.S., but most church people are cowardly and won’t speak the truth.”
Our group had some difficulty digesting this. “Uh, Mitri, are you suggesting that CMEP give up its advocacy of the two-state solution?” one of us asked. He replied, in the end, no, not yet, there is perhaps a tiny little window for a two-state solution still open. But he warned what was ahead: Israel would use its great marketing power to sell its unilaterally drawn boundaries as “a two-state solution,” with boundaries giving Israel Ma’ale Adumin and the Palestinians the holes within the Swiss cheese, with tunnels connecting the various Palestinian areas so they can move between them underground like rats.
Other prominent Palestinians are also contemplating the end of two-state diplomacy. On our last day, we drove in our bus out to Ramallah, over rutted and dusty roads, so the 10-mile trip took nearly an hour, arriving finally at the Presidential Palace where Mahmoud Abbas exercises what power he has over the Palestinian Authority. This was mid-April, and the European and American financial freeze on the new Hamas government was just getting underway. We met there with several members of the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit set up to give legal and strategic advice to Palestinians engaged in negotiation with the Israelis—except there are no negotiations to support, nor the prospect of any. So we sat in a room with able, Western-educated, secular Palestinian professionals, drinking tea in a newly constructed administrative office building—all with the sense that either humanitarian disaster or civil war is but months away and there is nothing we can do forestall it. Issa Kassissieh says that the West has taken a “kill quickly” decision regarding Hamas in hopes that an aid cutoff will lead to a quick collapse of the newly elected government. He blames the West for Hamas’s election, noting that during the year in which Abbas led the Palestinian Authority he was not able to negotiate the removal of a single Israeli checkpoint.
There is a consensus for a two-state solution with Palestine, a consensus that includes most Hamas voters, but Hamas has been given no room to climb down from its historic positions, no time to explore ways in which it can come to terms with the reality of Israel.
Kassissieh tells us the Palestinian Authority has begun discussing the option of simply dismantling itself: the PA has no intention of managing an Israeli occupation of a non-sovereign and non-viable Palestine. One can see how this choice—something akin to going limp when facing arrest at a civil-rights demonstration—would have an appeal after other avenues have been cut off. Israel as the occupying power would have responsibility for the humanitarian crisis it has created, and the Palestinians could begin to agitate for voting rights in the country that governs them. It is not clear whether this option was being presented as a rhetorical point for our benefit or is a serious alternative. But it clearly has the appeal of a real reset, a way of abruptly reversing the tempo of a losing game.
Midway through our trip, we spent a hurried hour with Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem, a courtly Catholic of about 70. He was, as almost all Palestinians were, eager to see us, as if he believed that Americans—if we could somehow convey to our countrymen what was going on—could tear down the gates that imprison the Palestinians. And, typically, just as the conversation was getting going, it was time for us to move on to our next appointment. My wife dawdled in the mayor’s antechamber as the group filed out, and I waited with her. She approached him and said, “My father worked for the United Nations, in the Office of Peacekeeping, for many, many years. He was here in 1967, and in 1973, and many other times—it was his life. He retired in 1987, and just a couple of years ago, he was dying. He was Chinese, and had no religion really, but my mother, who is English, thought he ought to have a minister come.
“When the minister came, my father, who was very lucid and knew what was happening, was very polite. He chattered for a while and then turned serious and said to the minister, ‘If there is a God and I meet him, I am going to ask him why he has been unjust to the Palestinians.’ That night, he died.” Margaret started to choke up as she finished, and Mayor Batarseh also began to cry. They embraced each other; he said he was very glad that she had told him the story.
There are many wrongs in the world, most with complicated histories. But the Israeli–Palestinian impasse is a special one for Americans, in part because of Jerusalem, holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and in part because of the role the conflict plays in generating Muslim hostility to America and the West, but mostly because it is a wrong that the United States has done so much to create and perpetuate, a wrong that the United States has the power to set to right—not by bombing anyone but simply through the normal tools of aid and diplomacy.
It is not a question of the creation of the state of Israel, a country born in tragedy and hope and one with numerous extraordinary accomplishments to its credit. It is a question of the continued dispossession of the Palestinians, an unnecessary act and yet one that Americans sustain every day with their tax dollars. Unlike many other injustices, it is one of the easiest in the world to put right: everyone knows the parameters of a just solution, what the shape of a fair settlement would be.
My fear, and it is the fear of everyone who went on the trip and a great many of the people we met with, is that the failure to achieve a just peace will come back to haunt us in terrible ways.