Overcoming 'been there… done that'

Both sides will need hard proof of progress. Ceremonies alone won't suffice.

security fence 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
security fence 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Roads have always figured prominently in metaphors: from "the road paved with good intentions"; to "the road not traveled"; to, well, the Road Map peace plan. Indeed, even the generation's most revolutionary creation, the Internet, was baptized the "Information Superhighway." Anyone who has traversed the Kalandiya crossing point en route to Ramallah over the past several years has bounced along any number of such metaphors while wondering whether the car's undercarriage would survive. Yet, that short stretch of road from the checkpoint to town - lying between Ramallah on one side and Jerusalem the other - is itself a poignant metaphor for the facet of the conflict that ordinary people - rather than politicians - wrestle with: trust in government to get the job done. It's a phenomenon that touches both sides of the conflict and is very much in evidence on the eve of the visit to the region of US President George W. Bush. Just as those who used the Kalandiya road saw a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between rhetoric from officials and work crews actually paving the road, Israelis and Palestinians are both asking whether the outcome of the Bush visit will be rhetoric or action. THE SCENE in the Mukata - Mahmoud Abbas's government compound - last week portended action by the regime: a bustling hive of activity presided over by President Bush's advance team and playing out simultaneously in Jerusalem. But a Leno-esque microphone-in-hand exercise on streets of Ramallah on the same day was illuminating. Asked, "Who is coming to visit?" a good number of people really didn't know. But whether they did or not, upon learning it was the American president, all had very definite thoughts. Mohana, a musician and translator, expressed his frustration that "we've been talking to the Israelis since 1993, and up to now have not achieved anything important." But he sees the Bush visit as positive. "America is the only country to press over Israel to achieve peace." Zamir, a merchant in Ramallah, didn't know President Bush was coming, but his comments were typical of many others: "We're always hoping for the best, but comes the worst… We stopped thinking about the peace process until it happens." Zamir was less than enthusiastic about the president's visit. "By the end of each president['s term], he wants the peace process [to succeed] in one week. Why didn't he come here seven years ago?" To Zamir and others, the 1980s were the good old days. He speaks of his "many Israeli friends" who would fill Ramallah's cafes, and his Palestinian friends who would frequent seaside eateries in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. After all, he said, "It only takes five minutes to make peace if the parties are serious." Najach knows no Israelis and is "not interested in meeting any - never. They are our enemies." PRESIDENT BUSH will have to be very convincing if he truly wants to overcome the perception that his visit is primarily a photo-op. Israelis, too, have adopted a "been-there; done that," attitude to the peace process and visits by world leaders. The peacemaking efforts of Bill Clinton are held out as proof that presidential-immersion is not a panacea. Alice Eigner, a dual American/Israeli citizen who lives in Ma'aleh Adumim, a post-1967 Jerusalem suburb much in the news because of Israeli plans to build there, rejects the basic Bush premise of a two-state solution. "It's not in the interest of the United States to have a two-state solution; not in the interest of peace. I think we have to wait it out," she opined. A woman waiting for a bus had warm feelings for President Bush, but her confidence was not commensurate. "He started off good," she said. "But [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice is giving him wrong information." Even the optimism of Tel Aviv residents, considered to be more liberal-thinking than Jerusalemites, has been dulled by the results of past peace ventures. Hannah Ichilov declared: "I am an Israeli, and I was born here. In a way I was a Palestinian. I am praying every day of my life for peace. You want to trust, but the results are different." WHAT MIGHT be different this time, though, is the feeling on the Israeli side - and arguably on the Palestinian side as well - that President Bush enters the arena with a track-record the Israelis find disarming. Prime Minister Olmert's spokesman framed the Bush visit in terms of its importance to Israel - "an important event in bilateral relations." Note the use of "bilateral" rather than "trilateral," emphasizing the US-Israel affection. And Aryeh Mekel, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, echoed the government assessment that the president's visit "represents the very strong alliance and relationship between Israel and the US." Mr. Bush himself backed up that notion when he spoke to an Israeli newspaper using the logo of his visit - a Palestinian state - to simultaneously reassure Israelis and admonish Palestinians. The president said that he "will not allow the creation of a terrorist state on Israel's border." The dichotomy between the leaders and their constituents looms large on the eve of the Bush visit. To both Israelis and Palestinians, progress will not be measured by flag-wavings; official ceremonies; news briefings and photo-ops. Nothing with suffice for proof that terrorism is being checked; road blocks and checkpoints are being removed; and the national psyches are moving from vitriol and separation to cooperation and coexistence. Driving back toward the Kalandiya checkpoint, I recalled how, a few short months ago, I - along with most of the road's users - believed it would never be paved. But international donors did, indeed, address the need, provide the funding and coordinate between sides in the conflict. The job got done. I also wondered whether the matter had been neglected too long for this single snapshot of success to resonate optimistically among the people. Because, like the conflict itself, no single event - regardless of its grandiosity and splendor - will erase decades of deja vu and that "been there... done that" presumption. The writer is president and CEO of The Media Line news agency (www.themedialine.org). [email protected] She is also founder of the Mideast Press Club.