The Great Divide

Israeli novelist David Grossman is the author, most recently, of "Be My Knife."

I might begin this piece, now that the second anniversary of the second intifada has come and gone, with the day that Ariel Sharon made his entry into the Temple Mount and set off a conflagration in the occupied territories. But the story could actually begin in any of the seven years that preceded September 2000. During that period, Israel and the Palestinians did everything in their power to disrupt and confound the fragile agreement they cobbled together at Oslo. Israel doubled the number of its settlers in the territories, and the Palestinians smuggled in weapons, hoarded ammunition and prepared for war.

Those who were attentive then to the Palestinians' complaints and warnings about the Oslo agreement and the reality it was supposed to make permanent could have seen something was amiss. It offered the Palestinians a tiny state, sliced into segments by a massive Israeli presence. More than anything else, this reality served Israel's stringent security needs. The prescient could have understood then what would happen.

Few in Israel were capable of listening to the warnings. The Palestinians joined in the march of folly by responding to Sharon's provocation with an outbreak of unrestrained violence.

Now two years have gone by. Two years of unlived life for both peoples. Two years of living with our senses, our reason for living, our habits, our hopes, dulled and constricted.

More than 600 Israelis have been killed in more than 14,000 attacks in the last two years. Nearly 1,400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli military forces. Yet each side is certain that the other side has not suffered enough.

That being the case, it's clear that the conflict has yet to exhaust the reservoirs of hatred and has yet to bring both peoples to the state of exhaustion that will be necessary for them to begin making concessions. Indeed, almost the opposite is true -- the Palestinians' bloody terror attacks have led to a metamorphosis. Israel's decades of repression in the territories that it occupied in 1967 (an occupation that was instigated, let's not forget, by the hostile acts of Arab countries against Israel) have nearly been expunged from Israeli consciousness. It's very easy for most Israelis to believe that blame for the current situation rests entirely with the Palestinians.

That may well be the root cause of the prevailing despair over whether any mutual understanding can be achieved. The Palestinians begin their timeline for the conflict in, at the latest, 1948, when the state of Israel was founded. Israelis, for the most part, place the starting point of their timeline at September 2000.

According to this Israeli perception, there is no chance of compromise now, because "there's no partner," because "the Palestinians are all terrorists" and because "they rejected the generous offer that Ehud Barak made them." The Palestinians also despair in advance of any compromise. In their perception, any agreement that could be achieved in the current international climate would favor Israel and would not meet even the minimal requirements of the Palestinian people.

In hindsight, the Palestinians' strategic choice to use terror as their weapon worked like a boomerang. It severely weakened the moral force of the Palestinian struggle and branded Yasser Arafat as a terrorist in the United States and elsewhere in the West. It also provided a not-insignificant justification for Israel's harsh and massive military response.

For its part, Israel is worse off than at any time in the last 35 years. Its security, economy and national mood are in decline. Yet Sharon, its failure of a prime minister, remains an overwhelmingly popular man in the country, even after the collapse last week of his coalition government. There's a simple explanation. He has succeeded -- with no little help from Palestinian terrorism -- in getting the Israeli people to restrict their view of their complex conflict with the Palestinians to a single question. Israelis now think solely about their personal security. It's certainly an issue of decisive importance, especially in the current state of affairs. Yet Sharon's political cunning is such that he has succeeded in reducing it to a single dimension, so that the only answer to the great and complicated question, "How does Israel make itself secure?" is: "By force."

That is the field of Sharon's expertise. Force, more force and only force. The result is that any time some small spark of a chance appears, every time there is a decline in violence, Sharon rushes to carry out another "targeted liquidation" of another Palestinian commander, and the fire flares again. Any time that Palestinian representatives declare their willingness to renew negotiations and halt violence, the response from Sharon's office is dismissal and derision.

Sharon has loyal allies -- the extremists among the Palestinians, who are also quick to incite the street and send more and more suicide bombers to Israel's cities each time there seems to be a respite. Each side is thus playing on the fears and despair of the other, each chasing the other around the familiar vicious circle: The more violence increases, the less chance there is of persuading people on either side that there is any chance of an accommodation, and that makes the violence spiral up to an even higher level.

So two years have passed. Who has won and who has lost?

On the surface -- and this is true only for this moment -- Israel has undoubtedly won. Arafat is losing his international legitimacy. Until the latest Israeli move on his Ramallah compound, he was losing his hold over his own people as well, as they became more and more aware of his corruption and his failure as a leader. The senior command level of most of the Palestinian organizations has been liquidated or trapped by Israeli security forces. The people on the second and third levels are inexperienced in combat, in organizational skills and in field security. The result is that Israel has been hugely successful in preventing most of the terrorist attacks that the Palestinians have tried to commit.

Yet Israel is paying a high price. Two years into the intifada, Israel is more militant, nationalist and racist than it has ever been before. The very broad national consensus, notwithstanding the Labor party's recent defection from the Sharon coalition, has placed all criticism and minority opinions outside the bounds of legitimacy. Anyone who opposes the brutality of the Sharon government's actions is suspected of disloyalty bordering on treason. Sanctimonious self-righteousness, disdain for the "gutless" values of democracy and calls for the expulsion of Israel's Arab citizens (in addition to the Palestinians in the territories) have became an accepted and legitimate part of the public discourse.

The power of the extremist religious parties is increasing. A wave of crude and sentimental "patriotism" is sweeping through the country. It wells up out of the authentic, historic and almost primal sensibilities of "Jewish destiny" in its most tragic form.

The Israelis, the citizens of the strongest military power in the region, are once more, with strange enthusiasm, walling themselves up behind their sense of being persecuted, vulnerable victims. The Palestinian threat -- ridiculous in terms of the balance of power, but effective in its results -- has returned Israel, with depressing speed, to the experience of living in fear of utter destruction. That, of course, justifies a brutal response to the threat.

Israel has won for the moment, but what does a victory mean when it brings no hope for a better future, not even a sense of security and relief? The Palestinians have lost for the moment, but they are now fighting with their backs to the wall, and it is hard to believe that they will surrender and accept Sharon's diktats.

It may turn out that, as with the first intifada, the Palestinians have no stamina for interminable struggle and that, as they did then, they face a period of social disintegration and bitter internal struggles. It would behoove Israel not to rejoice if that happens, because in the end Israel has, or at least should have, an interest in a strong and resilient Palestinian society guided by a leadership with a broad base of support. Only such a Palestinian society can sign a stable peace agreement with Israel that will include historic concessions. But this kind of complexity cannot today penetrate the dullness of the Israeli spirit and mind. And since the Israelis are stronger than the Palestinians, the conflict appears doomed to go on as it is for an unpredictable period of time.

Two years have gone by, and there is no hope. The situation can be summed up in a number of ways. I will do so by citing two facts that jumped out at me from recent reports. The first: According to data provided by U.N. agencies, nearly a quarter of Palestinian children now suffer chronic malnutrition as a result of the military situation. The second: Israeli schoolchildren will soon be receiving lessons in early identification of suicide bombers.

Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to see the connection between these two facts ensure that for many years to come we will all be each other's hostages, agents of gratuitous and pointless death.

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Translated by Haim Watzman.

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