Mideast Peace Needs Prophets, Not Yes-men

If a modern prophet saw the future of the Middle east he would see seven possible scenarios; if leaders are wise they will chose the seventh future.

“After I visited Israel and wrote “The Shadow Over Israel” for Haaretz, many people asked me what “my position” was. “Position” is a military term and spatial metaphor, and space and time and functions of each other: positions alter as events unfold — but “my position” is that I wish the best outcome for all. But what is that outcome, and what are the alternatives?

Margaret Atwood

Picture a minor prophet. Perhaps he’d be working today as an astrologer. He’s looking towards Israel and Palestine, consulting his charts and stars, getting a handle on the future. But the future is never single -- there are too many variables – so what he sees is a number of futures.

In the first one, there’s no Israel: it’s been destroyed in war and all the Israelis have been killed. (Unlikely, but not impossible.) In the second, there’s no Palestine: it’s been merged with Israel, and the Palestinians either slaughtered or driven beyond its borders. Israel has become completely isolated: international opinion has been outraged, boycott measures have been successful, financial aid from the U.S. -- both public and private – has evaporated, and the United States government, weakened by the huge debt caused by its Iraqi and Afghani wars and lured by the promise of mineral wealth and oil, has cooled towards Israel and swung towards entente with the Muslim world. Israel has become like North Korea or Burma – an embattled military state – and civilian rights have suffered accordingly. The moderate Israelis have emigrated, and live as exiles, in a state of bitterness over wasted opportunities and blighted dreams.

In the third future there’s one state, but a civil war has resulted, since the enlarged population couldn’t agree on a common flag, a common history, a common set of laws, or a common set of commemoration days -- “victory” for some being “catastrophe” for others. In the fourth, the one-state solution has had better results: it’s a true one-person, one-vote secular democracy, with equal rights for all. (Again, unlikely in the immediate future, but not impossible in the long run.)

In the fifth future, neither Israel nor Palestine exist: several atomic bombs have cleared the land of human beings, though wildlife is flourishing, as at Chernobyl. In the sixth, climate change has turned the area into a waterless desert.

But there’s another future: the seventh future. In this future there are two states, “Israel” and “Palestine.” Both are flourishing, and both are members of a regional council that deals with matters affecting the whole area. Trade flows harmoniously between the two viable states, joint development enterprises have been established, know-how is being shared, and, as in Northern Ireland, peace is paying dividends.

That, surely, is a desirable outcome, thinks the stargazer; but how was it achieved? Since he has the gift of virtual time travel, he leaps into the seventh future and looks back at the steps taken to get there.

The impetus came from within Israel. The Israeli leaders saw that the wind had shifted: it was now blowing against the earlier policy of crushing force and the appropriation of occupied lands. What had caused this change? Was it the international reaction to the destructive Cast Lead invasion of Gaza? The misjudged killing of flotilla activists? The gathering boycott activities in the United States and Europe? The lobbying of organizations such as J-Street? The 2010 World Zionist Congress vote to support a settlement freeze and endorse a two-state solution?

For whatever reasons, Israel had lost control of its own story. It was no longer Jack confronting a big bad Giant: the narrative of the small country struggling bravely against overwhelming odds had moved over to the Palestinians. The mantra, “Plant a tree in Israel,” was no longer respectable, as it evoked images of bulldozers knocking down Palestinian olive groves. Israel could not continue along its current path without altering its own self-image beyond recognition. The leadership read the signs correctly and decided to act before a peaceful resolution slipped forever beyond reach. Leaders are supposed to guide their people towards a better and more secure future, they thought: not over the edge of a cliff.

First, the Golan Heights was returned to Syria under a pact that created a demilitarized zone with international supervision. The few Israeli inhabitants were allowed to remain if they wished, though they then paid taxes to Syria.

Then, with the help of a now-friendly Syria, Hamas was invited to the peace negotiations. The enlightened leaders – with an eye to Northern Ireland -- realized that they couldn’t set as a precondition something that remained to be negotiated, so they didn’t demand the pre-recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas, to the surprise of many, accepted the invitation, as it had nothing to lose by doing so. Peace was made between Fatah and Hamas, and Palestine was thus able to present a single negotiating team.

The negotiations were complex, but people worked hard not to lose their tempers. Several North American First Nations negotiators were invited as coaches, as they had much long-term experience and patience, and –remembering South Africa – they knew that yelling and denouncing would not accomplish anything. As soon as they stepped off the plane, they smudged with sage to cleanse the region of its buildup of fear, anger, and hatred, and despair, and with sweetgrass to attract positive emotions.

The agreement took less time than expected, as happens when people are serious. Then the Occupation – disastrous for those in both countries, both physically and morally -- was over, and Palestinian independence was declared. A mutual defense pact was signed, along with a trade and development pact. As Israel had realized that it could not rest its foundation on international law while also violating that law, the borders reverted to those of 1967, with a few land swaps along the edges. Jerusalem was declared an international city, with both an Israeli parliament building and a Palestinian one, and access to the various holy sites for believers.

Gaza was joined to the West Bank by corridors, as in the East/West Germany of old; the ports were opened, and the fishing boats could sail once more. Development money poured in, creating full employment. The water situation was rectified, with fair-access agreements signed, pollution cleaned up, and more fresh water created through a new cheap solar-driven desalination process.

What about the difficult matter of the Settlements? The First Nations advisors cited some of their own precedents: settlers could stay in Palestine if they wished, under lease agreements. The leases and taxes paid by the settlers were a source of income to the Palestinian state, and as their products were no longer boycotted, the Settlements did better. On the whole, peace and security reigned. There was even a shared Memorial Day, in which all those fallen in past wars were honoured.

The seventh future is within reach -- the stars favour it -- but the stargazer knows that many prefer the status quo: there can be advantage as well as profit in conflict. However, change often comes abruptly, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the storming of the Bastille, or the end of Apartheid. The amount of blood shed during such transitions – from none to a great deal -- depends on the wisdom of the leadership.

How to promote such wisdom? It’s a prophet’s traditional duty to lay out the alternatives – the good futures, and also the bad ones. Prophets – unlike yes-men -- tell the powerful not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. “How can I put this?” thinks the stargazer. “Something beginning with the handwriting on the wall…?”