Slow, Painful Change
A visit to Israel illustrates the harsh realities of the Palestinian conflict—and refutes some assumptions about this troubled land.

July 7, 2006 - We arrived at the prime minister’s office an hour after the Hamas groups holding a captured Israeli soldier issued an ultimatum demanding the release of Arab prisoners in exchange for his freedom. In meetings with Israeli officials, we tried to decipher whether the ongoing crisis is the first phase of the next war, or just another roadblock on the ever elusive path to peace.

Brinkmanship is a way of life in the Middle East. Israel ignored the deadline and the standoff continued through the week as Hamas fired more rockets into Israeli towns and Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza—territory they only recently withdrew from, and that is now under the control of the new Hamas government. The military action would soon claim the lives of one Israeli soldier and some 23 Palestinians.

When I told friends I was visiting Israel, they expressed concern for my safety. One friend sent me a St. Christopher’s medal. “It’s a Catholic thing,” she said. Yet for all the tension over what Hamas might be planning or what the Israeli military might do next, the fullness of life overwhelms any sense of danger once you’re in Israel. I never felt as a visitor that safety was an issue and I was surprised to learn from a disappointed government official that Kim Cattrall, the saucy actress from “Sex and the City,” had cancelled her trip to Israel because of the dicey news out of Gaza. The shops and cafes are full of people, as are the beaches of Tel Aviv.

Political leaders talk about “realignment,” a word that tested better in focus groups for American consumption than disengagement or consolidation. But the rise of Hamas in Gaza and the continuous rocket shelling has made the return of the occupied West Bank problematic, at least for now. As one Israeli journalist told us, this conflict is not about lines on a map; it’s about intimacy. “Everyone is in everyone’s face here,” said one official. The analogies made for Americans are these: Israel is the size of New Jersey, Gaza is the size of Delaware, and the West Bank is a third of Rhode Island. This is about legitimacy and safety, and until both sides achieve some modicum of well being, or deterrence, there will be no peace. “The name of the game is perseverance,” a Palestinian journalist told us. “What’s the rush?”

The last time I visited Israel was as a member of the press corps following President Jimmy Carter as he negotiated the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which endures today. It was a time of great hope, most of which has gone unrealized. I was anxious to see for myself the changes in Israeli society so I welcomed an invitation from the American Israeli Education Foundation (AIEF) to accompany a group of journalists to Israel for a week of high-level briefings on everything from the security situation to the absorption of Ethiopian Jews from Africa. Israel is a wonderfully open and argumentative society. People speak freely in and out of government. Granted, we got a one-sided view in terms of the Palestinian situation, but one side in Israel has as many angles as an octagon.

I came away with some of my assumptions challenged, chief among them my ideas about the fence (or the wall or the security barrier, depending on your perspective). I expected to be horrified. I grew up loathing the Berlin Wall and all it stood for, and I’m no fan of the rapidly expanding fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. The Palestinians regard the Israeli fence as a form of apartheid. “It’s turning us into big prisons,” says PLO negotiator Dr. Saeb Erakat, who we met for coffee.

Maybe I’ve been desensitized to security because it’s omnipresent. Washington has ugly barriers everywhere around official buildings. The Israeli barrier is a sensory fence with barbed wire on either side. If you cut through it, an alarm goes off in an Israeli control room. In populated areas, it’s a wall that looks like the sound barriers on the Beltway around Washington. It’s an eyesore in Jerusalem. But it works. Since it was built along the Gaza strip, no suicide bomber has gotten through.

The portion of the fence under construction along the West Bank will be complete in March 2007. Erakat says the fence “zigzags like a snake” to benefit Israel, and, to his point, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered that parts of the fence already built be dismantled and re-routed to accommodate claims of hardship brought on behalf of the Palestinians.

We met late in the week with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who broke with the Labor Party to join Kadima, the new centrist party holding the governing coalition in the Knesset. At 82, Peres is the last of the generation who was there at Israel’s creation. He’s been to the brink and back many times. Asked if he expects to see a comprehensive peace settlement in his lifetime, he responds with a smile, “First of all, I’m not in a hurry to pass away.”

But Peres does point to glimmers of progress. There are Arab voices speaking up for the first time against the taking of the Israeli soldier. “That’s a change,” he says. And change in the Middle East is made slowly and painfully if it’s made at all.