This week I found myself missing the good old days – not that they were so “old.” Just under a year ago, in fact. I am nostalgic for that time before US Secretary of State John Kerry decided he should try to bring peace to this particular part of the Middle East, perhaps because he had so spectacularly failed in Syria and Iraq among other places.
I’m not accusing Kerry of deliberately setting off the chain of events that led to this week’s missile onslaught from Gaza or the senseless murder of the three abducted Jewish teens – Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. And it was with tremendous pain and sorrow that we discovered that it was despicable Jewish youths who police believe kidnapped and killed 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, apparently in a revenge attack. But this time last year, or even a few weeks ago, we were somewhere else completely – still in the Middle East, but a much calmer, saner version.
As Lee Smith noted in an article in Tablet Magazine on July 8, a few days after I’d posted a similar observation on Facebook, there was a status quo that was working in a region in which peace is sorely absemt.
As Smith recalled, last May in Jerusalem Kerry said: “People in Israel aren’t waking up every day and wondering if tomorrow there’ll be peace, because there is a sense of security and a sense of accomplishment and a sense of prosperity. But I think if you look over the horizon, one can see the challenges.”
He then jumped in where so many others have failed, trying to get a peace agreement to his name. Aggravating matters, Kerry announced a nine-month time frame for the negotiations. The stopwatch acted like the timer on a bomb, ticking down to an inevitable explosion.
Similar to what happened following the Oslo Accords and the Camp David negotiations, the harder the US pushed, the greater the number of terror incidents. Not only did a peace agreement seem more distant, even the modus vivendi was badly wounded.
I get no joy out of saying “Told you so.” And I really hope that Kerry is not grinning in vindication having warned in a self-fulfilling prophesy last November that failure to agree to his initiative would result in a third intifada.
I find myself sad not only at the tragic loss of lives, I mourn the intangible things that we lost, things that Kerry shuttling around in helicopters and limousines didn’t even see.
A month ago, for instance, I saw Jews and Arabs on the overcrowded Jerusalem Light Rail give each other seats and acknowledge each other’s existence as normal human beings. In the rioting that followed Abu Khdeir’s murder, local thugs in the Arab neighborhoods in the north of the city burned down the rail stations and pulled up the tracks so the trams can’t carry passengers to and from their homes any more.
Until last month, too, tourism was booming, adding prosperity to the unofficial peace. Among the towns enjoying an unprecedented boost was Nazareth, which was attracting Jewish Israelis and not just Christian pilgrims, marketing itself as a window onto a different culture while the art gallery in Umm el-Fahm was being reviewed in mainstream papers. Both cities suffered severe rioting in recent days.
Trying to find at least some encouraging signs among the violence, I noted that there were some mayors – the Nazareth city head among them – who, unlike the Arab MKs, called for calm and an end to the self-destruction.
MAINLY THE calls for restraint were aimed predictably at Israel, leading me to wonder what counts as a proportionate response when more than 100 missiles fall within 24 hours. I concluded that it depends on how far you live from the rockets’ radius.
One of the reasons Kerry’s initiative failed was that it became apparent to all American allies in the Middle East that they could not rely on the US to protect them if push came to shove (and shoves in this part of the global village can be very rough).
Until the failure of the Kerry negotiations Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had hated Hamas and its leaders more than he loathed Binyamin Netanyahu.
Following the demise of the talks, and boosted by the prisoner releases he had already achieved, Abbas weighed his options and made a pact with the devil.
Hamas, weakened among other things by the evaporation of its support from Syria – which has all but disappeared as a state – elected to boost its status the usual way, by attacking Israel and undermining Fatah.
US President Barack Obama seems to be oblivious to the mayhem he helped create. In an article written specially for a much-publicized peace conference sponsored this week by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, Obama wrote: “As Air Force One prepared to touch down in the Holy Land last year, I looked out my window and was once again struck by the fact that Israel’s security can be measured in a matter of minutes and miles. I’ve seen what security means to those who live near the Blue Line [the Lebanese border], to children in Sderot who just want to grow up without fear, to families who’ve lost their homes and everything they have to Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s rockets.
“And as a father myself, I cannot imagine the pain endured by the parents of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, who were tragically kidnapped and murdered in June. I am also heartbroken by the senseless abduction and murder of Mohammed Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose life was stolen from him and his family.
At this dangerous moment, all parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution...”
The intense irony of the participants of the peace conference having to seek shelter at the Tel Aviv hotel venue because of a missile attack from Gaza brought a painful smile to the lips of even self-professed ultra-liberal friends on a night when so much of the country came under attack.
Jerusalem also came under fire on Day 1 of Operation Protective Edge (who comes up with these names?). We learned in November 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, that Hamas chants its desire to liberate the Holy City but doesn’t worry that its missiles might destroy the holy sites. Perhaps it thinks that Israel, no matter what, will be blamed. Maybe they just want blood, be it of Jews or Muslims, who will become instant martyrs.
So I sat with my neighbors in the stairwell that we use as a shelter waiting to hear the boom. And like so many others I acutely identified with residents of the South, who have been suffering from far worse attacks for more than a decade. (The distant thud I heard turned out to be the sound of a missile landing in the garden of friends who live outside the city, although fortunately nobody was injured.) Shortly after the attack, I heard neighbors groaning: I jumped to the worst conclusion (missiles can make you do that), but it seems they were writhing in pain as Germany slaughtered Brazil in the World Cup semifinal.
(“It’s too much that Germany and Hamas should score so many goals on the same night,” moaned one wag, while others suggested that the Brazilian goalkeeper employ the soccer equivalent of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile missile system.) With the alert in my area and so many friends all over the country under fire, it took me a while to realize that something was missing: The noise of fireworks. Usually during Ramadan, residents of the nearby Arab neighborhoods celebrate the end of the fast each evening with fireworks. This year there had been riots and arson attacks but the festive fireworks were missing as the rockets passed overhead.
And then it dawned on me that something else had changed: Last year, Jews wished Muslims “Ramadan kareem”; this year the traditional greeting was absent, a sense of unease had replaced the feeling of goodwill and hope. Whatever happens next, it will take time to rebuild the trust. The last thing it needs is Kerry’s stopwatch and more confidence-building measures.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.