Focus U.S.A. / How to Make Peace in the Middle East Without Leaving Your Apartment

An interview with Gregory Levey, author of 'Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government: A Memoir'

The Middle East conflict attracts all kinds of politicians, professionals, activists and an impressive number of crazies of every stripe. The overall impression that one receives is that the more these people try, the farther away actual peace seems to be.

Gregory Levey, a 32-year-old Canadian Jew, embarked on a quest of his own to make peace in the Middle East, in 6 months or less. He equipped himself with lucky 'Peacemaker' boxer shorts and plenty of motivation to end the conflict once and for all.

levey - Press photo - Sept 13 2010
Press photo

He plunged into a peacemaking computer simulation with the best of intentions, and brought on the third Intifada. He stalked his neighborhood Palestinian grocer, trying to dig out of him some secret recipe for an historic deal.

He went undercover at the Christians United for Israel conference in Washington, D.C., trained in New York with Jewish Defense League activists, and attended a weird peacemaking party at the castle of a rich eccentric guy.

The result is his latest book, just published in hardcover by Free Press, 'How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less: Without Leaving Your Apartment.'

Some of the people that hear about his self-imposed quest have called him nuts. Others have brushed him off, like the International Solidarity Movement and Bill Clinton.

Still others, like former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, the Palestinian Ambassador to the United States and even AIPAC have turned to be more sympathetic and have offered advice and expertise on the intricate world of peacemaking.

Levey, a professor of communication at Ryerson University in Toronto, is not just a crazy guy intent on joining the crowd that is capitalizing on the conflict. He used to be speechwriter for the Israeli Delegation to the UN, and even worked as an English speechwriter for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Those experiences were vividly depicted in his first book, 'Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government: A Memoir' that brought more than 700,000 fans to his Facebook page.

Levey swears that he wanted to escape from the firm grip of the Middle East conflict. So much so that he actually bothered to try to solve it in a speedy manner.

I really did want to escape it all. But after my first book came out, I was just flooded by it – by Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, and just general crazies, all wanting to share their opinions on the conflict with me.

It became clear that that the only way I would escape it would be by meeting it head-on. As I write in the book, even if I couldn't make peace IN the Middle East, I hoped I could at least make peace WITH the Middle East."

From your impressions, how self-aware are the various players that you've encountered? Obviously no one thinks that they themselves are crazy.

That's one of the remarkable things about this. Everyone thinks everyone else is crazy. After a while, you start to doubt your own opinions, because why would you be the only one who is sane and reasonable?

Do you believe these people are engaging in futile activities?

I think a lot of them do. And not just that, I think that a lot of them engage in actually counterproductive activities. By bringing the Middle East conflict into areas where it doesn't belong, or even make sense, it just complicates the argument, and pushes the chances for a solution even further away.

So why are all these people in North America so eager to be active on this issue? Is it because of manipulation by clever organizations – or are these people genuinely frustrated and caring?

That's a good question, and one of the things that drove me to write this book. For some people, it's obvious - family in the Middle East, connections to the region, religion, etc. But for so many people, I really have no idea, and never figured it out.

Why aren't they as obsessed with Tibet or Sudan or other problematic regions? What is it about the Middle East conflict that pushes people, often with no connection to it, to devote such a great deal of their lives to it?

A slightly disturbing revelation I had when writing the book was that maybe for some people, they are channeling their own personal frustrations into the conflict. I encountered people who had had their own problems in life and had, for whatever reason, latched onto the conflict as a sort of proxy fight.

Who made the most profound impression on you?

I'm not sure if there was any one person who made the most profound impression on me, but the juxtaposition of people and their unexpected similarities did. For example, on the very same day I met a friend and sometime advisor of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a former advisor to Yasser Arafat, and they basically said the same thing - that they were so fed up with the conflict that they were ready to throw up their hands with it all.

Do you follow the current peace talks? Are you able to rise above the skepticism this time around?

Yes, quite closely. But I remain a skeptic, even though I really hope for the best result. On the one hand, it feels like we're watching a re-run - that we've seen all this before and it doesn't end well.

On the other hand, I'm encouraged by the fact that this is all happening early in the Obama presidency. I think that's a difference from prior attempts, and maybe it will be a meaningful difference.

Why is it so hard to reach an agreement? What's the problem, if the general outline is so clear?

I don't know, and I guess that means it's not so clear after all, even if it appears clear to me. Because I suppose that's exactly the problem: it appears clear to most people, but we don't all share the same vision of what we see as a solution.

In my more serious and pessimistic moments, I think that the reason it appears relatively simple to me is that I see it as a political issue, but I worry that too many players in the debate take their cues from religion – and I'm talking about Jews, Muslim, and Christians. And my take is that once it becomes more about religion than anything else, we might as well give up.

You met some people who were threatened because of their involvement with this process. Did you change anything because of concerns of threats?

I always try to be as honest as possible in my writing – only limited by the defects of memory. I changed a few identifying characteristics of people throughout the book to protect their privacy, and some of the order of events to make it more readable, but that's it.

People from the far right and the far left were all very nice to me, and so I have no concerns. I think that people demonize the other voices in the debate a little too much. They're all just people trying to muddle through.

Humor is a great way to present serious stuff and avoid being attacked by critics. But one might ask if it is a kind of defense reaction.

It definitely is! But we need something, don't we?

You are quite ironic referring to the people who made a career out of this conflict. After two books, do you see yourself as different from them? Do you really intend to leave this behind?

Yes, that's a very good point, and I'm obviously being a little hypocritical. But I honestly didn't really want to write more about the Middle East after my first book. But I discovered that I sort of had to, for various personal and professional reasons.

Going forward, I will definitely contribute the occasional article about it - after all, I'm clearly fascinated by it all, even if that fascination is against my will. But I one hundred percent guarantee that my next book is not going to be about the Middle East. If it turns out that it is, please slap me.