Monday, May 28

Israel and the Price of Blindness

International Herald Tribune

A three-minute Palestinian movie says what needs to be said about estrangement and violence in the Middle East. It features a woman driving around Jerusalem asking for directions to the adjacent West Bank town of Ramallah. She is met by dismay, irritation, blank stares and near panic from Israelis.

The documentary, called "A World Apart Within 15 Minutes" and directed by Enas Muthaffar, captures the psychological alienation that has intensified in recent years and left Israelis and Palestinians worlds apart, so alienated from each other that a major Palestinian city has vanished from Israelis' mental maps.

Never mind the latest flare-up in Gaza. What matters in the world's most intractable conflict is the way the personal narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, coaxed toward intersection by the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, have diverged to a point of mutual nonrecognition.

Ramallah is about 10 kilometers north of Jerusalem. For most Israelis, it might as well be on the moon. It is not just the fence, called the "separation barrier" by Israelis and the "racist separating wall" by Palestinians, that gets in the way. It is the death of the idea of peace and its replacement by the notion of security in detachment.

I can understand that notion's appeal. Israelis have had reason enough to throw up their hands since 2000 and say: To heck with suicide bombers, Gaza mayhem, inept Palestinian leadership and annihilationist Hamas. They would rather focus on their dot-com boom, high-speed trains and Goa vacations. They would rather be safe than worry about peace.

But detachment is an illusion. Life goes on behind the physical and mental barriers Israelis have erected. Or rather, it festers. As Itamar Rabinovich, the president of Tel Aviv University, remarked to me: "Palestine is a failed pre-state."

For that failure, Palestinians must take responsibility. But this aborted birth is also Israel's work. I drove recently from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Nablus. A beautiful terrain of terraced olive groves is scarred by the cold imprint of Israeli occupation: shining garrison-like settlements on hilltops, fenced highways for settlers alone, watchtowers, check-points.

The West Bank, after 40 years under Israeli control, is a shameful place. If this is the price of Israeli security, it is unacceptable. Power corrupts; absolute power can corrupt absolutely. There are no meaningful checks and balances in this territory, none of the mechanisms of Israel's admirable democracy.

The result is what the World Bank this month called a "shattered economic space." If Israelis could be as inventive about seeking bridges to Palestinians as they are now in devising restrictions on their movement, the results could be startling. As it is, the bank noted, Israeli policy has produced "ever smaller and disconnected cantons."

This has been achieved through remorseless permit and ID checks, roadblocks, checkpoints and the creation of closed areas. Palestinians are caged in islets where doing business is near impossible.

More than 500 barriers hinder Palestinian movement. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers move freely; their number, outside East Jerusalem, has increased to about 250,000 from roughly 126,900 at the time of the Oslo Accords. These numbers alone make Palestinian political and religious radicalization less than entirely mysterious.

In his April 14, 2004, statement on a two-state solution, President George W. Bush offered concessions to Israel. He said it was "unrealistic" to expect "a full and complete return" to the Green Line. But he also urged "the establishment of a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent."

More than three years later, there is no such state. What there is of a nascent Palestine is non-viable, non-contiguous, non-sovereign and dependent. While denouncing terrorism with appropriate vigor, Bush has an equal obligation to pressure Israel to accept that ruthless colonization is unworthy of it and no enduring recipe for security.

Israel has an obligation to open its eyes and do some wall-jumping. The country has just been shaken by the Winograd Report, a devastating look at last summer's war against the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. It is now time for a report of similar scope on Israel's West Bank occupation.

I can see no better way to arrest the cycle of alienation. Time is not on the side of a two-state solution. A fast-growing Palestinian population inhabits a neighborhood where the Ahmadinejad-Hezbollah-Hamas school has leverage.

If Israelis do not rediscover where and what Ramallah is, they may one day be devoured by what they choose not to see.