By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Peace process


Before we were disturbed by a dust-up among Jews about the Western Wall and conversion, we were befuddled by another delegation of ranking Americans prodding Israelis and Palestinians to sit around a table and make peace. What these worthies do not grasp is that there already is peace. It ain’t perfect, but it’s close to the best that’s possible. Alongside the well-known constraints in both Palestinian and Israeli politics in the way of agreement on all the issues that would allow a celebration of formal peace, there are ample signs that both populations get along reasonably well.

In recent days, with Ramadan coming to a close and reaching a peak celebration of Eid al Fitr, there were several indications of the integration in what is described by the superficial as the divided city of Jerusalem. Our neighborhood supermarket and grocery store weren’t working up to snuff, because a substantial number of workers were on halftime or less, due to fasting and family gatherings. Jerusalem buses weren’t running on schedule, on account of a large number of Arab drivers not working full time. Should we view those inconveniences as problems we should not tolerate, or as positive signs that Arabs and Jews work alongside one another and depend on one another?

Fridays during Ramadan, and especially the last Friday of the month, were occasions for Jews to avoid the Old City. More than a hundred thousand Muslims came each Friday from throughout East Jerusalem, and on buses from the West Bank, and Gaza to pray on what Jews call the Temple Mount. In order to accommodate those prostrating themselves, much of its extent becomes part of al-Aqsa Mosque. Is this another inconvenience for Jews that should be viewed as intolerable, or as the price of sharing a city with more than two millennia of being sensitive to many?

To be sure, there remains a lack of harmony and a surplus of bitterness, memories of insults and offense, as well as daily attacks by Arabs against Jews and a few attacks of Jews against Arabs We can compare the feelings, the violence, and fears with those of other contentious locales, including European cities with growing Muslim populations as well as multi-racial American cities. 

The first objection we’ll hear is that it isn’t the same. Of course not. There are always differences in detail between settings with unique histories. The comparison of Israeli-Arab relations today (both locally and region-wide) with those that prevailed in years past will show improvements along with assertions that the improvements are superficial, and expectations that there is another uptick in violence waiting to occur. With all the cynicism that it is appropriate to direct against a peace process comes a sentiment that it’s a good idea. As Winston said, “Jaw Jaw is better than War War.”

And there are a lot of diplomats who have to be kept busy, and away from more serious problems they may make worse. Ideally, they’ll focus on adjusting the pragmatic arrangements, well below anything approaching a formal peace accord, but useful in keeping tensions at a manageable level.

It’s appropriate to list some of the prominent minuses and pluses of where we are in these detailed accommodations. Perhaps most prominent are the fears and tensions faced by Israelis concerned about the possibilities of violence, and the tensions felt by Palestinians and Arabs at the checkpoints, the documents required for Palestinians to enter Israel for work, medical treatment, family visits, or religious observances, the wall that meanders through the West Bank, the presence of numerous police and security personnel at points of contact between Arabs and Jews, the occasional closures of Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem in response to violence, and the ethnic profiling that subjects Arabs to greater scrutiny than Jews.

As in other countries, not all Israeli security personnel handle their tasks with the delicacy and courtesy that would be ideal. Arabs feel constrained, and occasionally murder those among themselves who are said to be informants of Israeli security services, while Israelis endanger themselves by working with the Arabs of Israel, Palestinians, and in other Muslim societies formally closed to Israelis. Pressures brought on potential informants might not be pleasant, but are among the details of national security we do not have to discuss. 

Both Jews and Arabs suffer from memories of historical injustices associated with wars that caused losses in both communities. Jews complain about budget and tax distortions, compared to other western countries, justified by expenditures on security. Arabs complain about limitations on their localities’ budgets and services within Israel, and occasional destruction of buildings said to be illegal in Arab towns and neighborhoods, which they say are brought about by the government’s failure to provide organized planning and building permits for Arab areas.

Israeli Arabs admit to higher levels of violence among themselves than among Jews, but blame Israel for not providing police protection to their communities, while the Israeli police complain about a lack of cooperation from Arabs in identifying perpetrators. Jews complain about the lack of cooperation from Arabs with respect to the payment of taxes and compliance with a host of laws and regulations, ranging from those against polygamy to building standards and highway safety. 

Jews question the wisdom of Arabs selecting uncompromising nationalists as their representatives in Knesset, and the refusal of Jerusalem Arabs to vote, and thereby use their political potential to select a third of the municipal council and to choose a mayor in the chronic competition between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

High on the Jews’ list of complaints is the incitement coming from Arab and Palestinian politicians, distortions of history in Palestinian school books, and routine assertions of innocence and reverence paid to those who attack Jews.

The symbols of accommodation are less prominent than the tangible indications. Israeli and Palestinian flags seldom appear alongside one another. Gazans and West Bankers have their complaints against Israel, but the living standards and political opportunities in both sectors do not fall below those available in other Muslim or Third World countries. Social indicators show that Israeli Arabs live as well, and according to some indicators better than minorities in the U.S. and Europe.

Sure, the glass is only half-full, but half-full ain’t all that bad. We can hope that Trump et al will focus on detailed adjustments that improve things for both Israelis and Palestinians. In all probability, we’ll have to do without the full glasses of champagne to mark the culmination of a peace process along with a ceremony of public signing and celebration.

Jews will continue quarreling among ourselves, as we’ve done from the get go. Yet unlike extremist Muslims or Christians obsessed with abortion or some other abomination, we haven’t killed one another in significant numbers on account of religious or political disputes since those wars that Josephus wrote about. Yitzhak Rabin was a significant exception. That’s something to remember, while we’re quarreling about whatever is in the headlines.

Comments welcome.


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