For the first time as a potential president, Barack Obama is venturing into the seductive bazaar that is Israel and Palestine.
Both sides will welcome him with the avalanche of courtesy accorded a person of his stature, that is, a prospective customer. Not just any customer, of course. An American customer. In fact, the ultimate American customer.
Both sides have much to sell him. Based on hearsay, which, in the Middle East, is the most trusted form of evidence, they are also wary of him.
In order to deal effectively with these people, the Israelis and the Palestinians, he will need to know at least as much about them and their culture, as they are certain that they know about him and his.
To know them is to learn the rules of the bazaar, a seductive warren of apparent treasures and unmarked tiger traps, obvious opportunities and unmapped landmines, creative come-ons and must-see blind alleys, intriguing doors and brilliantly baited hooks.
Herewith a survival guide, 10 caveats for the para-presidential tourist:
1. There is no such thing as small talk.
All conversation is negotiation. Form is substance. Gestures, niceties, deference to cultural details are paramount. Phrasing is everything.
The crucial divide here is not specifically between Jews and Arabs, but between what people here define as home and what they define as the shuk, the marketplace.
There will be a gulf of difference between the way they speak with you when they see you as a guest in their house, and when they see you as a potential customer. Do not take umbrage. Take advantage.
2. Everyone here will lie to you.
There will be no exceptions. Take advantage. Listen to both sides with equal measures of care and incredulity.
Remember that their view of the Holy Land is no more objective that their view of America. Keep in mind that their view of both has to do with the status of Israelis and Palestinians as the most consistently disappointed people on the face of the earth. Not the most miserable, not the most oppressed, not the most denigrated - though they themselves may argue that they are - but certainly the people whose leaders, spiritual and political as one, have historically promised them the most, and delivered the least.
If they lie, and they will, never take it personally. For more than a century, the Palestinians national movement, no less and no more than the Zionist movement, have been based in part on the lies we tell ourselves here.
Prepare to cater to two parallel systems of self-delusion. This is, in no small part, an outgrowth of:
3. Sectarian selective moral blindness.
Sample conversation: Side One will recite, chapter and verse, minutely documented examples of the moral failings of Side Two. Side One will also be prepared with elegantly argued defenses of why their own actions must be seen in the wider context of the conflict, are therefore of negligible significance, are unrepresentative and isolated acts, or are expressions of legitimate self-defense.
Test Questions: Ask both sides about Qassam rockets. Then ask both about the incident http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1003717.html earlier this month in which a bound, blindfolded Palestinian, detained in a clash with IDF soldiers during a West Bank demonstration against the security fence, was shot and wounded with a rubber bullet fired by a soldier standing beside him.
4. When on the fraying tightrope, the trick is to take steps, not sides.
Israelis and Palestinians both will greet your arrival with maddening moves, some of them designed specifically to derail your progress, some of them simply having this as a side effect.
5. The more obnoxious they may seem, the more courteous you must be. Therefore:
6. Compassion, compassion, compassion.
The problem here is not that one side is right and the other wrong. The problem here is that both sides are right. Which is one of the reasons that:
7. Most people on both sides are in favor of peace, and, at this point, few people on either side believe in it.
Most people on both sides will explain calmly and with conviction why their side can no longer in good conscience compromise on certain issues, how their side has compromised much more to date than the other, how the other has consistently violated peace agreements. In most cases, they will be right. Consequently:
8. Look upon the unexpected as your only hope.
They have seen everything here. They have seen it all for much too long. They have been at war so long that their great-grandparents were at war as well. Their grievances are engraved on the very back walls of their hearts. Their claims have become the stuff of religious belief. They feel that they have nowhere else to go, and can no longer move forward toward peace.
Be open to the last thing they expect.. It may be a war in the region, or perhaps a regime change. They have seen everything here, but they are still regularly and thoroughly shocked. Take advantage. The unexpected happens here more often than anyone suspects, and it may be your only opening for creativity and positive mediation.
9. Tough bargaining is a way of showing honor.
This is the first rule of the bazaar, and perhaps the only rule. Be hard on both sides. But under no circumstances condescend, force-feed, coddle or fawn. They will respect you for it. Finally:
10. Remember who you are.
Resist the urge to fall in love with the place, and with one side. Of all the sophisticated traps this place lays, this is by far the most insidious. Feel free to give in to the emotion, but reclaim your head at the door. There are as many lures here as there are newcomers, but for American Protestants in particular, they roughly break down to two: The Lawrence of Arabia Syndrome, the belief that you, and perhaps only you, can confer statehood on the Palestinians, and its mirror image, The Land of the Prophets Effect, the belief that the Palestinians can be ignored.
If you become president, your job will be to help them manage their chronic disease, the one they will either die with or die from. You will be dealing with an entire population suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and receiving no treatment, two entire peoples in permanent stages of grief. Some are in denial, others in anger, some in the bargaining phase and others in depression.
If you become president, your goal will be to somehow bring these peoples to a semblance of acceptance. Odds are it won't work. Odds are that both peoples, and the American as well, will hinder you. Odds are that the terms of peace will be beyond the means and will of Americans to finance them. But should you succeed, there will be no legacy of greater lasting importance.
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