The reopening of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders sounds like a dreadful rerun of an old B movie for many in Israel. Nearly everyone I met on my recent 10-day trip there was pessimistic about the two sides coming to any substantial agreements. Most of my conversations suggested that the Israelis and Palestinians were "stuck" with one another. No one could imagine anything but a repeat of past talk failures, and no one seemed to have any idea of how to move forward unless the other side changed in some fundamental way.
I felt the same way during my trip, at least until the last day.
My trip began the day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he had convinced Israel and Palestine to talk about talking again. It ended on the day when they actually agreed to talk about peace. I met a variety of people—West Bank Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, common citizens in Bethlehem, Jewish settlers in occupied territories, Jewish peace and interfaith activists, Palestinian activists in Israel, members of the Israeli government, Christian leaders, military officials on the Lebanon and Syrian borders. The trip was planned for me by the Jewish Federation of Chicago, but they did as good a job as can be imagined for a 10-day trip if one is to get exposed to the variety of opinions in this troubled land.
I asked nearly every person I met about their hopes for the talks, and as I said, not a one was hopeful. And neither was I, until I had a conversation with a well-respected and influential rabbi. That's when a glimmer of hope sparkled ever so briefly.
First, some personal reflections of a non-expert after a second trip to this most controversial area. These are admittedly impressionistic, and will no doubt be nuanced as I continue to learn more. But I believe there is some value in immediate impressions, granted their limitations, and I would summarize mine this way. The situation day to day is not nearly as horrific as we are sometimes led to believe, and if something isn't done to solve the disputes, they could lead to catastrophe in the long run. What I mean is this.
Regarding day-to-day life in Israel and the West Bank: The West Bank clearly suffers more poverty, and all the problems related to it. Some of that is due to the occupation, no doubt. But if Israel were to pull out tomorrow, nearly every problem the residents of the West Bank face (water, trade, education, and so on) would remain for years or decades to come. Life in Israel, meanwhile, is flourishing and democratic, an extraordinary achievement for a nation that was born sixty-five years ago (especially compared with other Middle Eastern and African nations that, after decades of efforts, struggle to create flourishing democracies).
The security fence and checkpoints are clearly an annoyance, but no more of an annoyance than the security checkpoints in American airports—the difference being (and this is no small difference) that these checkpoints have huge symbolic value to the Palestinians—the word "humiliated" came up more than once. But as a practical, day-to-day matter, after going through and observing a number of checkpoints (with my hosts and on my own), I did not see the extraordinary problems I've read about. But I will acknowledge my limited exposure.
While Israelis are not permitted in the West Bank, many Arabs live in Israeli territory, where Jews and Arabs rub shoulders every day. One can see signs of resentment between them here and there, and yet one also sees signs of extraordinary cooperation—working together in equality in institutions from grocery stores to high tech companies to medical facilities. It's the sort of tension and cooperation one would find in any country of mixed ethnicities.
Neither the settlers nor the Palestinians are as evil as we might imagine. Yes, I met some religious ideologues among the settlers, and some passionate Palestinians who, frankly, waxed irrational about their situation (grossly exaggerating situations where the documented facts are less dramatic). But for the most part, what I met were civil human beings who were striving for what, by their lights, was right. One could understand their concerns, even while disagreeing with their proposed solutions.
The Jews I met were, for the most part, not unaware of the great contradiction between the democratic values of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank. Many were self-described liberals who seemed to have been "mugged by reality." Many said they had been for the immediate withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza—until the rocket attacks on Israeli cities after all Jews were withdrawn from Gaza. They have also been soured on unilateral peace moves by the horrific second intifada, which ended in the terrorist-caused deaths of many of their friends. They still recognize the "immorality" of occupation, but they have no interest in ending it if Israel's security is not guaranteed.
The so-called "wall" is actually mostly a security fence of barbed wire with electronic sensors, the concrete wall only erected in a few areas to prevent Palestinian snipers from shooting into Israeli homes. It has, in fact, been one key to ending terrorist activity in Israel. Another feature has been the cooperation of Palestinian and Israeli security forces—terrorism is not seen as in the interest of either side. Another factor is the checkpoints. I was told by one source that they still catch two to three Palestinians trying to cross the Bethlehem checkpoint every month with weapons or homemade bombs in their possession. Even if that is exaggerated, the fact is that today there is no terrorism in Israel.
That said, the security barrier is another one of those situations that is objectively useful but morally problematic. It is another symbol of Palestinian "humiliation," and while promoting physical security, has so separated Palestinians from Israelis that there is a growing ignorance of one another as the years go on—which only makes peace harder.
A story I heard from one American rabbi sums up much of the current status. He was asked by a mainline Christian leader to come to the wall to protest it. The rabbi said he would be happy to do that, if at the same time, they together kissed the wall. Such is the state of so much in Israel and Palestine: the very thing that is a moral and human rights problem is at the same time the very thing that is keeping a modicum of peace.
But let me come back to my last evening, where I had a long conversation with Rabbi Michael Melchior, currently with the Mosaica Center for Inter-Religious Cooperation in the Middle East. He's been a member of the Israeli cabinet and clearly has the ears of high government officials, as well as religious leaders of many faiths. He has been advocating a way forward for a number of years, and while few if any negotiation leaders have been fully persuaded, as time goes on, I can't help but think his views will win the day.
One of his ideas has begun to make itself more and more known in diplomatic circles—that you cannot solve the problems in the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, unless you deal with them in part as fundamentally religious problems (not just political and economic problems). This ascendant view is championed by people such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (who references the work of Rabbi Melchior in her book The Mighty and the Almighty), Chris Seiple at The Institute for Global Engagement, and Douglas Johnston at the International Center For Religion And Diplomacy. (The latter two have been featured in Christianity Today.) Just this week, the State Department announced that it would create a new office to engage directly with "faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world."
His other idea may not be new, but I for one had not heard it before: That it may be an act of God's providence that has brought both the Israelis and Palestinians together in the land at this time. This is a crucial insight precisely because of its theological content.
Remember: one significant reason the disputes are so intractable is because, for different theological reasons, many Israelis and Palestinians believe the entire land really belongs to them. All of it. They each have a narrative that says they have a divine right to the entire land. The only way to break free of that narrative is to suggest another.
And that other is this: that perhaps God intends this land to be for Israel, yes, and he intends it to be for Palestinians, yes. That in his mysterious providence, he wants these enemies to learn to live together in peace—as difficult as that peace might be to achieve. But it is in the making of that peace that God's will for the land will be made manifest.
This may not settle, once and for all, the final ethnic makeup of the land. I spoke with Jews who, while believing they have a biblical right to the whole land, from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, did not necessarily believe they were required to control all of it right now, let alone insist on controlling it by force. They were happy to retain their belief while living peacefully with Palestinians in the present time, letting God in his wisdom determine when the land would be completely theirs. I suspect there are Palestinians who might say the same thing from their perspective.
In the meantime, for those who believe in God's rule over history, it's hard to deny that the Israelis and Palestinians have been thrown together in frightening proximity by divine fiat or at least permission. And it's not hard to imagine that the God of both is saying as loud as can be said: This is not an unfortunate happenstance that you must resign yourself to, but an opportunity to fulfill the will of God, to practice the peace that both of you believe in and yearn for. This is a kairos moment, as we Christians like to say, when something extraordinary can happen because of God's working.
Whether the current peace talks will move in this direction is hard to say. One has reason to be skeptical. But the shift from seeing this as an intractable religious division to an extraordinary religious moment has the potential—if slowly and painfully—to change the dynamics in fundamental ways.
So this is what I'm praying for—not just that each side will make sacrifices that will lead to peace, but that they would also begin to see those sacrifices as necessary not merely for reasons of Realpolitik, but sacrifices made to God to fulfill his will at this time in this land—a land of two people, living side by side, each governing themselves by their own lights, but recognizing that a sovereignty greater than their own is being served.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.