A tragedy in search of an ending

Amos Oz at J Street conference shares his vision of ending the conflict in divorce.

amos oz 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
amos oz 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
A few weeks ago, two thousand plus attendees at J Street’s 2012 “Making History” conference got an undeniable boost when keynote speaker Amos Oz broadcast an impassioned endorsement of the pro-Israel, pro-peace organization with this concluding line: “I have been waiting for you, all my adult life.  Thank you for being here.”  But make no mistake.  Nobel Prize short-lister Oz, born in Jerusalem more than seven decades ago, didn’t deliver a sugar-coated message wrapped in “kumbaya” packaging.  He called it as he sees it.  There are huge obstacles. Resolving this conflict is going to be tough, painful stuff.  But it has to happen, and it’s going to happen.
In Oz’s 2002 autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness, his father recalls how the walls in Europe were covered in graffiti: “Jews, go to Palestine." Then, when he reached Palestine, the walls were scrawled with the words “Jews, get out of Palestine.”  This memory visibly colors Oz’s perspective as a Jew and an Israeli.  He’s an unapologetic Zionist.  But he was also one of the first Israelis to advocate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the Six-Day War. In a 1967 article in the Labor newspaper Davar, he wrote that "even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation."  An early member of Peace Now, he has opposed the West Bank settlements for decades.
At the J Street plenary session, Oz didn’t pull any punches. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy “in the purest sense,” because it’s a clash between “right and right,” between one very powerful claim to the land and another no less powerful claim over the same land.  Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinians in the same way Greece is the homeland of the Greeks, he said, and Israelis are in Israel “for exactly the same reason.”
So, what to do?  Oz has little patience for the “sentimentalist Western” idea that the conflict is just a matter of misunderstandings that can be cleared up with “a little group therapy.”   “Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples rightly claiming the same land as their one and only homeland.”  Instead of coffee, what he calls for is a “liveable compromise.”  Compromise means life. The opposite of compromise is not idealism and integrity, but “fanaticism and death.”  Needless to say, this truism cuts both ways.  That is, alas, it’s readily applied to extremists on both the Israeli and Palestinian side.
To this Israel Prize laureate, one state isn’t an answer.  Jews and Arabs can’t live like one happy family because, Oz says, we’re two unhappy families.  Idealists on the left will no doubt find this assertion disconcerting; it’s surely not the case that all Jews and Arabs in the region are hostile toward, and alienated from, one another.  But for the majorities, at this historical moment, the unhappiness with the other rings true.  And those on the Israeli right need to come clean too: given the demographics, one state from the river to the sea will either be an apartheid state - as former presidents Olmert and Barak have acknowledged – or it will lose its Jewish majority.  A non-starter.
Oz insists that what Israelis and Palestinians need is a “fair, if painful, divorce.”  It will be a “funny” divorce, because each member of the couple is staying in the same house, a house that will require creative dividing.  But instead of the current arrangement – one characterized by submission and domination – the divorced parties will live side by side, and not one on top of the other.  For my money, we’re talking about creative dividing a la the Geneva Accord: smart, fair, negotiated, comprehensive.
Oz told J Street that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are ready to accept – albeit reluctantly – the divorce: a two-state solution, ’67 borders with modifications, two capital cities in Jerusalem.  The polls bounce around on this point, but if the leaders of both sides presented a done deal to their people, would they reject it?  To hold out for what?  As Oz sees it, “the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for painful surgery; the doctors are cowards.”  Agreed.  Both sides need brave and skilled surgeons to perform the complex operation on these Siamese twins.  How much longer can the patient wait to realize its two independent, sovereign identities?
Oz concluded his talk by speaking of two kinds of tragedies: Shakespearean and Chekhovian.  With Shakespeare, at the end of the play, the stage is covered with dead bodies, but justice prevails high above.  Chekhov’s characters, in contrast, are disappointed, disillusioned, and melancholy – but alive.  The Israeli-Palestinian “tragedy” won’t end with the players - two peoples with equal claims to the same land - “happy” when the conflict is finally resolved.  That’s too much to expect.  But with the right specialists who have the vision, equanimity, and skill to perform the necessary surgery (sorry for repeating that metaphor - it’s irresistible), they’ll be alive, and, over time, able to heal.  Sure, better to avoid an operation if you can.  It’s never pretty or enjoyable.  But when it’s needed to save the patient, especially if the condition renders the surgery more difficult with each passing day (read, especially, “settlement expansion” -- though, yes of course, there’s cause for critiquing the Palestinian side too), then procrastination is a very dubious option.
Those of us who listened to Oz at J Street might differ on which of his metaphors - divorce or surgery or home subdivision – works best to describe how the conflict must be resolved.  We all know this: none suggest easy or pleasant.  And I think we would also agree on the following: this tragedy needs an ending soon – and one of the non-Shakespearean variety.  It’s called compromise.