Grumpy Old Man: Give us a gesture

Many of us here are so tired of conflict that mere hints from Palestinians of a willingness to solve things can go a long way.

Mahmoud Abbas on Channel 2 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Mahmoud Abbas on Channel 2
(photo credit: Screenshot)
For a moment it looked like a gesture of the type that could get things going around here.
Abu Mazen, nom de guerre of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Channel 2’s Udi Segal on-camera something very un-guerre-like: “It’s my right to see it [Safed, where he was born], but not to live there.... I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts Israel.”
Could it be? Was this a hint that one of the holy grails of Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, the right of return to pre-1967 Israel by refugees and their descendants, was no longer a Palestinian demand? A lot of us certainly wanted to hope so.
Israel’s president, the eternally-optimistic Shimon Peres, called Abbas’s words “brave” and fired off a message encouraging him to follow through. And just as reliably, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately pooh-poohed the whole thing as “empty promises.”
Perhaps realizing he might have signed his own death warrant, Abbas quickly made it clear during a subsequent interview with an Egyptian television station that he had been speaking solely for himself.
“Talking about Safed was a personal position and does not mean giving up the right of return,” he told Al-Hayat TV. “No one can give up the right of return.”
Too bad. A gesture was just what we were hungering for. Maybe a caveat to the Egyptian interviewer would have done the trick, like: “Individuals can give up the right of return, though, and if enough of us Palestinians do, perhaps we can move things along.”
IN THE ARAB world, gestures don’t seem to amount to much. Though they tend to be small, Israel makes them on a semi-regular basis. We dismantle roadblocks and checkpoints.
We hand back live terrorists for dead bodies and dead terrorists for nothing. We ignore our own blockade of the Gaza Strip by allowing in foodstuffs and fuel. Small gestures, but they add up. Funny how the culture that advanced algebra to the standards we use today can’t do simple arithmetic.
Maybe our gestures are just not big enough.
How about a temporary settlement building freeze? Or a withdrawal from the Gaza Stri....
On the other hand, maybe the Palestinians are just not desperate enough.
Many of us in Israel have long been desperate.
“[I]f in 1977 Anwar el-Sadat had merely touched the tarmac with his big toe and then hurried back to Cairo, it would have elicited sufficient Israeli swoon to end up at Camp David, so hungry were we for regional acceptance,” I wrote in 2007. “Thirty years and thousands of terror-related Israeli deaths later, we’re a lot more hard-headed, but I have a feeling we’d soften up considerably with the first real knock at the door." Of course, in 1977 not every Israeli was desperate, starting with the few thousand people living in places like Yamit. Today, the number of Israelis who would define themselves as anything but desperate is considerably greater, starting with the hundreds of thousands living in West Bank settlements.
But there’s a sizeable segment of the Israeli population that has grown tired of it all – tired of the money that could go instead to weaker populations and infrastructure, tired of the endless army duty spent protecting settlers and, yes, tired of the hours spent in bomb shelters and reinforced rooms. Of course, few might be convinced that giving the Palestinians what they want would necessarily stop the rockets, but they’re still tired – tired even of a peace process that seems to go nowhere and with each passing day enhances the allure of unilateral moves (not that those have necessarily worked, either).
It’s gotten so that Blazing Saddles’s Lily von Shtupp could have been singing our song.
Many of us here are so tired, in fact, that gestures, and even just hints of a solution, indeed go a long way. They’re scrutinized and dissected like a frog in a high school science lab, and then poked and prodded in the hope that they’ll come alive and, like that amphibian and the princess, bring forth a happy ending.
Abbas says something and we rise in an anxious hush as our analysts swallow and regurgitate. Arafat and Rabin shake hands on the White House lawn and we’re sure it’s the end of a century-long war. A young Bashir Gemayel gets set to take over and already we’re planning a 1,000-year peace treaty with Lebanon. Sadat not only touches the tarmac but addresses the Knesset and embraces, of all people, Menachem Begin. He gets the Sinai back and we get a peace treaty. Three and a half decades down the road, however, we all get the Muslim Brotherhood and once again our parade is threatened by rain.
IT’S GETTING harder and harder for those of us who think peace is attainable, so hard that we often find ourselves mumbling the lines to Ms. Von Shtupp’s saloon stage number: I’m tired Tired of playing the game Ain’t it a crying shame I’m so tired Goddammit, I’m exhausted! I know I am. It’s gotten bad enough that once in a while I look at those who say the insanity will never end, so let’s just get on with our lives and make the best of it, and think they might be on to something. Sometimes it’s so bad I think these thoughts even when looking at the one-staters (ours, that is). That’s how bad it can be.
I honestly don’t know why I ultimately remain positive, though. Maybe it’s something in my Western upbringing. Maybe it’s in my personality or my DNA. Whatever it is, it keeps me hoping that someday one of our adversaries will feel the same way and come knocking.
Readers will say I’m naïve or even stupid, but unexpected knocks on the door have actually happened. Remember the amazement we all felt watching Sadat walk down those airplane steps? Today we might be wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, but back then, who’da thought? An Arab leader came to us! Yes, strange things happen.
So to our Palestinian neighbors I say: Give us a sign, a hint, a gesture. It can come from any level – a simple farmer in a field near Nablus who says openly and loudly that he’s willing to live peacefully in a Palestinian state alongside me as I live in a Jewish Israel, or a man in a suit from Ramallah who follows through and tells his people in their own language that compromises simply will have to be made.
All I ask is that the gesture be sincere – and not of the middle-finger variety.