A characteristically absurd exercise is about to unfold for less than 24 hours at Annapolis, Maryland, where Americans, Israelis and Palestinians are gathering on Tuesday to make believe that they want peace. Characteristically absurd, because look at the players: An American president who’s done less than all his predecessors to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and more than all his predecessors, going back to British colonials, to plunder the prospects of peace and Arab redress in the rest of the Middle East; an Israeli prime minister whose corruption and sleaze are rivaled only by his unpopularity, which is more dismal than Bush’s; and a Palestinian president who has no Palestinians to rule, Palestinians having decided once again to fulfill Israeli fantasies and play the self-destruction card.
Everyone seems eager to make Mr. Bush believe that he can make an olive tree bloom out of the crater he enabled by sitting on Israel’s side of the wall for the last seven years. But it’s a parting gift from two lame-duck leaders to another. (You can read my complete briefing of the Annapolis follies, player by player and issue by issue, here.) The absurdity of the exercise is underscored by the realities on the ground. We hear about them so often that they’ve become clichés strung indifferently like yesterday’s barbed wire. We risk forgetting that the wire still shreds skin on contact.
Take, on this approach of Christmas, Bethlehem. Town of 35,000 where Christ allegedly was born, where the sacred and the humble once rubbed shoulders, if not lamps, in hopes of letting out the genie of everlasting peace, where Jews once ambled about in search of the best shawarma and falafel sandwiches and Arabs could walk down to Jerusalem, six miles away, for coffee and a narghile, and where, since 2003, the Israeli separation wall looms higher than the walls of Israeli prisons, where the posters of Palestinian suicide bombers are the most prominent form of public art, where Palestinians aren’t allowed beyond the wall that surrounds them on three sides except, ironically, to work at $35-a-day construction jobs, building illegal settlements for Israelis or building the very wall that imprisons them, and where even the priests of the three Christian sects laying claim to the Church of the Nativity—Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox—act like animals, pissing their perimeter to prevent the others from encroaching on their corner of relics.
Has there ever been a more miserable symbol of religion’s toxic presumptions?
In his “Bethlehem 2007 A.D.,” a National Geographic profile of the town and the vines of hostility that root that “wind-scoured, water-starved, rock-strewn bit of ground” it to Palestinian and Israeli resentments, Michael Finkel quotes Aviv Feigel, a lieutenant colonel in the eternally misnamed “Israeli Defense Force,” justify the murder of a 13-year-old boy who’d wandered away from his father’s restaurant to have a look at an Israeli incursion: “We were in the midst of a pinpoint operation, to arrest a most-wanted terrorist [sic.], Feigel sayd. “It was very intense.” He claims Molotov cocktails and grenades were thrown at the Israelis. “Maybe that boy was just watching. Or maybe he was participating. We didn’t investigate. It’s a complicated situation; it’s not a classic battlefield. With them, everyone is in civilian clothes.”
In bigotry, in arrogance, in sheer coldness, it’s the quote that keeps giving. “We didn’t investigate.” Of course not. Why should they? It’s just Arabs they’re killing, and Arabs, for Israel, aren’t even worth three-fifth of an investigative thought. But it’s that them that rankles most. With them, everyone is in civilian clothes, the line that justifies killing all civilians because they’re indistinguishable from “terrorists,” including 13 year olds.
But don’t assume that Palestinians think of the Israeli them any less violently, coldly and demeaningly. Finkel visits one of Bethlehem’s three Palestinian refugee camps and finds 28-year-old Adel Faraj, owner of a shop that sells toiletries and lamps and CDs. “If a Jew came walking into this camp, he’d be killed,” Faraj says. “With a rock. Or a knife. Or a gun. It doesn’t matter who he was. A Jew is a Jew.” It doesn’t even matter whether he’s wearing civilian or military clothes. A Jew is a Jew. I can hear the pronouncement of that word, Jew, I can hear it ring still in my ears, the way it did when I was a boy in Lebanon and the word was pronounced with all the hate and contempt its speaker could muster. The intonation alone was a condemnation. That’s how it sounds in this quote. Them and A Jew is a Jew: no difference in the will to dehumanize. Faraj is proud of his best friend, a suicide bomber who blew himself up next to a synagogue, killing 11 people, including two infants and a toddler. “I’m proud of him,” Faraj says.
This is what the corrupt congregants of Annapolis hope to wash away? When, one wonders, has either Bush or Olmert ever dared take a walk in a Palestinian camp, any Palestinian camp, even if just for show—the way, say, Jimmy Carter walked the grounds of the South Bronx in 1976 to claim sympathy for the fourth-worlders living under Manhattan’s wealthiest noses. When, for that matter, has either of them been willing to take a walk alongside that obscene separation wall, which will eventually run 450 miles inside the West Bank and steal yet another 10 percent of that beleaguered place from Palestinians?
A rabbi that Finkel, the National Geographic writer, finds in the illegal settlement right next to Bethlehem (I keep saying illegal because by convention, inattention or willful distortion, we in the western press always refer to Israeli settlements as just that, “settlements,” a word that conveys something positive and pioneering, something Americans can identify with and love, something with the Nebraska wind and Alaskan courage at its heart, when in reality by every international convention, including the Geneva Conventions, the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the position of the European Union, the “settlements” are, first and last, illegal) a rabbi that Finkel finds, then, tells him that “the Jews’ deed to Judea and Samaria is spelled out in the Old Testament.” Jews, therefore, are the landlords, Jews have “the right, granted from God, to live here.”
But since when is the Bible, let alone the Old Testament, let alone the books of the Old Testament written purposefully as a hagiographic history of the Jews, for the Jews, and to the exclusive benefit of Jewish realtors, the authority on human rights and Palestinian claims? Since when is religion, any religion, to play a part in the parceling out of dignity and civil rights? Since always, of course. That’s just the problem: the fantastic, the mystical, the absurd, is what poses as geopolitical fact, the way that silver star at the bottom of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem poses as the spot where Jesus was born.
Before the men of Annapolis lay claim to breakthroughs, before they pretend to know what their people want and how best to break seven or eight decades’ worth of barbaric enmity, they’d have to start with honestly dispensing with the Holy Land’s worst mine field. They’d have to agree, once and for all, that peace is made on secular grounds, that the gods only muck things up, and men’s religions even more so. They’d have to agree that the Israeli lieutenant colonel, the rabbi, the Palestinian shopkeeper, and the cat-fighting priests of the Church of the Nativity are all the very mad and maddening examples of what Israelis and Palestinians both cannot accept, must not accept, if they’re ever to make peace. They have to begin there. Barring that, they might as well be exactly where they are: in Annapolis, a tourist spot and a military town that has as much in common with Bethlehem as Manhattan’s Upper East Side did with the Bronx of Carter’s days.