It is common knowledge that Israeli cab drivers are the best barometers of national opinion. For me, Arab cab drivers also give a peek into the Arab street, of which I am often shut out.
So recently, when I took a cab from the Damascus Gate (a.k.a. Sha’ar Shechem or Bab el-Amud) to my house on the Mount of Olives with a driver named Wael (how it was spelled on the card he gave me, though pronounced Wa-yeel), I was happy to make conversation.
He asked me where I was originally from. “Haifa,” I answered, and then with a little humor, “You know, where Jews and Arabs get along, and where I could go into an Arab store and feel welcome, unlike here in Ras el-Amud. Why is it like that?” In a friendly but serious tone, he replied, “You know, in Arabic, we have a name for you, Almustawten. Do you know what that means?” “Yes,” I replied, “it means settler.”
“Correct,” he said. “But while the whole world is talking about the problem of the settlers, and how to get them out, you go and decide to be a settler in Palestine.”
Taking the bait of Jerusalem taxi sociopolitical debate, I riposted: “Palestine! You love to wave the flag of Palestine, but when it comes to jobs, healthcare, social security, courts and especially your blue identity card [Israeli resident status], you are not willing to give that up.”
“So you talk all day about the occupation, but you don’t actually want to live in Palestine, you want to live in Israel!” Wael took a pause, and glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Yesh b’zeh mashehu.” There’s something to that, he admitted.
I was mighty proud of myself for getting him to admit the hypocrisy of the Arab position, but then he shot back with something that threw me off balance: “Look, forget about flags or jobs, it’s all about land – and this is our land.”
Now, I could have launched into a whole discussion of historical Arab immigration trends to Palestine, which prove that most Arabs came to Palestine in the hopes of finding work provided by the nascent and then fledgling Jewish state. I could have talked about the San Remo Conference of 1920 in which international law recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people within Palestine and the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
I could have talked about the Jewish people’s eternal, primal connection to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, and I could have mentioned the absence of that kind of historical and literary relationship to the Land of Israel in Islam and the Koran. I could have easily pointed to the Mount of Olives, with its 3,000 years of Jewish burial. I could have said a lot! But Wael’s simple statement transported me into a hazy and distracted dream.
Why did I lose concentration? Because in Wael’s words, I heard a basic down-home Middle East principle: I will never give up my land. But in his claim I also heard the loud absence of ours.
There is an asymmetry between Arab and Jewish perspectives. In both the Israeli and broader Jewish society, the idea of trading our hard-won land for something else is acceptable, and even viewed as enlightened.
This outlook might be attributable to thousands of years of wandering, during which a physical connection to the Land of Israel was lost for most Jews, while a bond with the host land never developed.
Maybe it is our legalistic minds, which accept concepts like eminent domain – relinquishing our land to the government to fulfill the greater public need.
Maybe we’ve become overly accustomed to trading the rings off our fingers for tickets on the last train out of Germany. For whatever reason, understandably, most Jews have an attitude that life comes before land.
But to Wael, and to many of my Arab neighbors, giving up land is anathema because it’s dishonorable, and honor is paramount.
What is the main social currency in the Middle East? What is the language that all understand? It is honor, respect, kavod. The worst thing that can happen to you in the Middle East is to have no honor, and be seen as contemptuous in the eyes of your neighbors. In the moral code of the Middle East, one without honor has no protection; anybody can beat him, take his property or kill him. Loss of honor invites aggression.
Israel’s interlocutors see land-for-peace gestures as lacking spine and honor, and therefore interpret it as a sign of our impending destruction. When an Israeli statesman like Tzipi Livni makes seemingly noble statements like: “I know that the land is ours historically, but I am willing to give it up for peace,” most Middle Easterners hear a pathetic “This is my wife, take her and do whatever you wish, but I am begging you not to hurt me.”
The land-for-peace/two-state formula actually undermines, right from the outset, any chance for peace between Israel and the Arabs, by diminishing Israel’s standing in the eyes of Arab people, making Israel unworthy of respect. Moreover, offering to give up land is not perceived as noble, but rather weak. Weakness whets the appetite of the jihadist impulse and leads to cycles of violence – for as long as Israel appears defeatable, there will be those who hunger to try.
So why do successive Israeli governments enter into the folly of negotiations, which a priori label us as spineless and dishonorable, and put us on a self-destructive and war-perpetuating track? Israel has understandable ambivalence towards staying in Judea and Samaria. On the one hand, we have made tremendous efforts to settle those lands and normalize Jewish existence in the cradle of Jewish civilization.
On the other hand, we have a hard time swallowing the idea of governing the Arab masses who live there, and are afraid to incorporate them into the Israeli body politic (although it is important to note that even with those contentious areas, we have a 66-percent Jewish majority that is growing in our favor).
But then again, Israel is loath to cede control to the Palestinian Authority, with its unbridled anti-Semitic vitriol and the likelihood that if we get into bed with the PA today, we wake up with Hamas in the morning.
So what is our solution? We stall. We don’t actually make decisions. In this current Kerry-go-round, the thinking goes that if Israel plays nice with the Americans and shows good faith in the negotiations, the Arabs will do the dirty work to bring the whole thing down – without Israel having to actually say no to the US, give up land or evacuate Israelis.
That may work in the short term, but that is not leadership.
Stalling is not leadership, nor is behaving passively, hoping that the other party will screw things up so that you don’t have to make any decisions.
We need a bigger vision now, one which puts Israel in the driver’s seat of decision-making of what is best for her and all her citizens, and there are voices in Israeli politics and in the Arab world which want to articulate new directions towards peace.
Indeed, Israel is not the only one wary of the PA. The Arab street is distrustful of PA leadership, regularly accusing them of corruption and violent suppression. Polls frequently report that Arabs who would find themselves inside the geographic boundaries of a Palestinian state would overwhelmingly opt to run for asylum to Israel.
Moreover, some brave Arab intellectuals are posttwo- state, and are coming up with new paradigms for life with the Jewish state. In a book titled What is a Palestinian State Worth?, published by Harvard University Press, Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, writes: “Let me propose that Israel officially annex the occupied territories, and that Palestinians in the enlarged Israel agree that the state remain Jewish, in return for being granted all the civil, though not the political, rights of citizenship.
Thus the state would be Jewish, but the country would be fully binational, all the Arabs within it having their well-being tended to and sustained.”
Now, I am not saying that this is the right formula, but at least it’s a new direction. The two-state approach has been tried for so long – depending on how you count it, it is either 10 (Road Map), 20 (Oslo), 30 (Camp David, in which Palestinian autonomy was discussed) or 67 (UN Partition Plan) years old, with nothing approaching success. As Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So why are we back to the same old cycle? Why can’t new ideas emerge on the scene? It’s a lack of guts, and a crisis of creativity. For new ideas to take shape, we need leadership which can stand up to pressure, walk away from the broken paradigms of the past, and open the door to new thinking.
I will probably call Wael when I next need a taxi. I sure do hope we will have some new ideas to discuss – instead of the same old, same old.