Middle Israel: Dawn of an old era

The failed Israeli desire to do away with borders continues the historic Wandering Jew's failure to be accepted.

October 25, 2006 13:58


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The following is a 'Middle Israel' column published on April 23, 2004 Bringing down Jerusalem's partitions, June `67. The very concept of borders transformed overnight. Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres with Yasser Arafat, Gaza September `01. Logical lessons from the end of the Cold War. A vendor lowers merchandise from a watchtower on the Great Wall of China. Beijing has broken through its walls. Of the many things that impressed us children of Jewish Jerusalem the morning after the Six Day War - the battle sites, the Old City, the jets overhead, the general sense of catharsis - none compared with the fall of the wall. After June 1967, 'the Wall' was, of course, the one that has fortunately not fallen, the Wailing Wall. But before then, 'the wall' was that 10-meter tall barrier of wood, cement and metal which stood on the corner of Jaffa Road and Rehov Shlomtzion Hamalka, and which had shielded City Hall from Jordanian snipers for much of the previous 19 years. We knew it well because Bus No. 15, which we took to school every morning, passed by it, making a very forced 90-degree left turn. And when we passed there for the first time the morning after the war, we saw beyond its former location not only the bullet-scarred Notre Dame Monastery and the majestic Mount of Olives, but a whole new era. The very concept of borders had transformed overnight from menace to challenge. What used to be only a few minutes' walk from home had suddenly moved far beyond the horizon and largely lost its air of menace. In later years, as war persisted and we found ourselves patrolling border fences from Eilat to Mount Hermon, carrying guns and wearing helmets, we realized that the wall that had fallen was but one of several, most of which had yet to follow suit. Yet the aim - tearing down border fences - seemed obvious to all. That is how we, the children of Israel's wars, arrived at the Oslo era, which began in fall '93 and which - between last week's events in America and next month's in Israel - is now drawing to a close. OUR QUEST to defeat the border was first enhanced by local developments and then by world events. When Lebanon's civil war broke out in 1975 and Israel announced the opening of the Good Fence - which began with an offer of medical assistance and then turned into day- laborers' admission into Israel proper - it seemed like the most natural initiative, an extension of Moshe Dayan's decision in 1967 to allow Palestinians two-way passage across the bridges of the Jordan River, and into Israel's labor market. Obviously, the biggest boost to the idea of tearing down border fences came with the signing of the peace accords with Egypt. Surely, we said to ourselves in 1979, if our biggest enemy has opened up its gates to Israeli tourists, entrepreneurs and diplomats, then sooner or later the rest of the Arab world will follow suit. Anwar Sadat said it best: 'Let's see what Egypt can do without the Arab world, and what the Arab world can do without Egypt.' When the Arab world failed to follow Egypt's example, we deeply identified with Ronald Reagan's cry in Berlin in spring 1987, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.' Then, when that mother-of-all-walls came tumbling down, our old belief that all borders were destined to ultimately collapse, no longer seemed mystical: it was realpolitik. Several months later I rode a subway through Berlin's Unter-den-Linden area, where stations once stranded in no- man's land had stood eerily abandoned for decades. It was a reminder of everything we Israelis hated: the needless and ugly barriers that had cut so many young lives short. It was a reminder, too, of everything that waited beyond, a universe of possibility, reconciliation and development. IN AUGUST 1993, I found myself standing atop another great wall, this time in China, and it occurred to me that the fall of the Berlin Wall was no accident of history. For one thing, China had been a prominent member of the anti-Israeli internationale that, together with major powers like India and the USSR, had laid siege to the Jewish state by refusing to establish with it diplomatic, commercial, and cultural ties. Now, I said to myself, those walls, too, have fallen. China, in fact, not only knocked down the walls it had once helped build around us, but its own famous wall was a monument to wall-building's futility. The physical wall may have been partially effective along the centuries, but the legal and mental walls within which China had imprisoned itself - banning foreign travel and punishing violators with decapitation - were so effective they condemned a great nation to catastrophic economic, cultural and political backwardness. Now, with China embracing everything from fast food and designer clothes to business schools and basketball, it too is effectively saying 'never again' to walls. I was reminded of this even more powerfully on a return visit to Berlin in fall 1999, when I saw how Potsdamer Platz had been swept of its wartime rubble, giving way to malls, skyscrapers and theaters. That, in a nutshell, was the state of mind with which so many ordinary Israelis had entered the Oslo era. The conviction, eloquently and confidently expressed at the time by Shimon Peres, that the Middle East was ripe for the kind of change generated elsewhere by the end of the Cold War - was shared by thousands of battle-weary Israelis who had grown up along walls and craved to see them removed. YET THE Israeli desire to do away with borders had an additional dimension, one that ran much deeper than the mere hope of making peace with one set of enemies at one particular moment. It was about abolishing, once and for all, the historic Wandering Jew's rejection by the world around him. To the early Zionists it went without saying that, in Zion, the Jews' confinement, as experienced physically in Czarist Russia and socially in Central Europe, would end. 'We have tried our best to resemble the nations whose affinity we sought from the depths of our hearts,' wrote the founders of the Bilu group of Odessa in their founding manifesto of 1871. 'We have had enough of wandering through foreign lands and hearing nothing but curses, we have had enough of being trampled by and listening to the pontifications of tyrants... It's time we brought an end to our bitter Exile and that after two thousand years of wanderings we find rest in the Land [of Israel] for our exhausted souls.' More than a century later, the yearning remains. It's what Oslo was about: Not the particulars of a land-for- peace swap with the PLO, but the vision of a New Middle East, in which the Jewish state's borders might be slightly shrunken but its effective horizons would be enlarged from Rabat to Doha. This was the vision which so many Israelis bought as they followed Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to the White House lawn on that fateful day in September 1993. THE COLLAPSE of mainstream Israel's Oslo-era optimism did not come overnight. Shimon Peres's electoral defeat in spring 1996, which was preceded by a spate of particularly bloody terror attacks, was still followed by Binyamin Netanyahu's de facto endorsement of the accords, by his ceding of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, by the relative absence of terror, and by Ehud Barak's landslide victory in 1999. When Moshe Katsav became the Likud's first-ever president in 2000, even he conceded, very shortly before the outbreak of the current war, that the Oslo Accords had become an inescapable reality. The expanding ties between Israel and a growing number of Arab countries also convinced people that the border-breaking project was proceeding more-or-less on schedule and merited continued investment. Since then, of course, Israelis have become so disillusioned that they handed one-time political pariah Ariel Sharon back-to-back electoral landslides. Why they became so disillusioned also needs no explanation: The systematic and indiscriminate massacre of Jews convinced even some Meretz voters to vote for Sharon. The question, therefore, is neither whether, nor why, Israelis lost hope, but what they lost hope of. And the answer is that they lost hope of the prospect of seeing the walls that separate them from their region go the way of the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall. THE FENCE, the construction of which is now rapidly proceeding southward from Samaria to Judea, had initially more political opponents than supporters. Today, people on the Right like Avigdor Lieberman still think that Israel could indefinitely sustain Palestinian wrath even without a border, and people on the Left like Yossi Beilin still refuse to concede that to have a New Middle East one must first have New Arabs. Yet in between these two extremes, the wall emerged as the embodiment of a new consensus, and it burst out from below, like a geyser. The wall started off not as a national plan, but as a grassroots initiative of Green Line-area residents. From the Gilboa Mountains near Beit Shean to the Bat-Hefer area east of Netanya, people had grown fed up with attacks on them by nearby Palestinians, and began fencing their attackers out. The government, initially too confused to join such initiatives and ultimately too overwhelmed to ignore them, soon came up with the construction plan that is now being implemented. It was in these circumstances that George Bush and Ariel Sharon now entered with their one-two punch to the Oslo vision: Bush, by endorsing the unilateralist approach that is the antithesis of Oslo's regionalist vision; Sharon, by bringing this plan to a vote, a move he believes will make plain Israelis' new conviction that Arab-Israeli walls have not only survived the Oslo years, but in fact emerged taller and thicker. NO PLACE better demonstrates this new disillusionment than the Erez industrial zone. Located at the northeastern edge of the Gaza Strip, the place where today some 4,000 Palestinian employees eke out a living that feeds some 40,000 of the Strip's mostly jobless 1.5 million Palestinians, was originally part of a grand scheme that epitomized the New Middle East vision. If it had been up to its planners, this industrial area would have been half in Israel and half in Palestine, along with seven other such zones along the Green Line, all the way up to Jenin in the north. In these zones - according to the plan that was backed and financed by the US, the EU, Japan and the World Bank - the Palestinians would have become a gainfully employed nation, at peace with its Jewish neighbor. The zones, we believed, would blanket the old political borders, and undo the emotional walls that once separated Arab and Jew. As it was, no such zones were built outside Gaza, and this one too now faces repeated suicide attacks, waged by Hamas and unchallenged by the Palestinian Authority. Likelihood is high that in the aftermath of the prospective withdrawal from Gaza, which will deprive the zone of its Israeli entrepreneurs, it will collapse. Some, led by novelist A.B. Yehoshua, have tried to rationalize their transition from regional-cooperation believers to wall fans, saying that the historic Jew provoked non-Jews because he was borderless. Most Israelis, however, think more prosaically, and appear to be merely building a physical wall because their neighbors will not tear down their mental walls. It took a while for reality to sink in, but now most Israelis understand that the days when they will cease to be caged in assorted pales of settlement gazing from below at protective walls - the way we did as children through pre-'67 Jerusalem's Bus No. 15 - will have to wait an unknown number of years, or generations. Right now, the Jews of Israel are in the process of ceasing to engage with neighbors whose hostility they have despaired of assuaging. That is also why they are building a wall to their east, and looking to their west. To them, the Oslo era has ended.

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