A few days ago, as I sat on the barber’s chair inside the old Jerusalem city walls, I got yet another remainder that the country I live in is one of a kind: "How are things going?" I asked, expecting something like the usual, "All right," or "Not too bad," before moving quickly to another innocent topic like soccer or the weather. The answer I got left me paralyzed in my chair: "It’s the situation, you know?" He didn’t add anything and I did not dare to change the topic, so we remained silent for some minutes instead.
In Israel, Palestine and probably in the whole Middle East, "the situation" is an expression that embraces the endless complexity of life: economical problems, everyday injustices, the drop in tourists coming to the city, the suicide bombers, politics… It depends on who is using the expression and what’s going on at the moment. What my barber, a young Christian Arab, had in mind was probably so complicated that I did not dare to explore it. There was a danger of engaging in a long and agitated discussion which I really wanted to avoid.
When you arrive in this country from a distant and peaceful land and start to understand that not all Arabs are Muslims nor all Israelis are Jews; when you are able to give a clear definition of "occupied territories"; when expressions like "settlements", "right of return", Hamas and Hezbollah begin to have a clear meaning; then you think that full comprehension of the place is just a matter of fitting all these pieces together as in a puzzle. You only need time to solve it. Regrettably, the task is not that easy. Pieces do not fit. As times goes by, you realise that it is no wonder nobody has solved the problem yet. So, when I was asked to explain something about "the situation" here, I could not avoid the sense of having an overwhelming task set on my shoulders.
During the more than ten years I have been living in Jerusalem I’ve come to realize that nothing much has really happened. True, there have been hundreds of events that made the front pages of newspapers around the world — probably more than in any other region of the world. Shocking events, continuous clashes, even wars; changes of government, dozens of peace proposals by countless people, road maps and so on. I don’t know how many times the Jerusalem roads have been blocked because people like Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Solana, Blair, Clinton and others have been here to "move the peace process forward", and yet "the situation" has not really changed. There is no Palestinian state and Israel still occupies most of the West Bank, and worst of all, there is no clear vision of what the future is going to be like.
So, how to explain the chronic paralysis that seems to affect the region, regardless of the different governments on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides? Sadly, I have to recall the prophecy made some years ago by Yisrael Aumann, my teacher of game theory in the Hebrew University. In the land of the prophets he even has the appearance of one, with his long white beard. I remember that, while he was explaining to us a topic called bargain theory, the question that seemed unavoidable came from the front row of students: "What do you think is going to happen with the peace negotiations?" The teacher didn’t hesitate to reply: "Nothing. Both sides are better as the situation is now."
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could an extremely intelligent person say that both sides were "better off" — to use economic terms — without any changes? What about the suicide bombings that spread panic among Israelis so that everybody in Jerusalem was afraid of taking a bus, no matter if he said it aloud or not. What about the Palestinians? The poverty, the lack of freedom of movement, the thousands of deaths on their side. That both sides would be significantly better by renouncing some of their claims in order to get peace was something that anybody could understand, certainly somebody as bright as Mr Aumann. I simply could not understand him.
Though he did not get the Nobel Prize in Economics for his remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have to accept that he got it right and I didn’t. I failed to see that the ones who sit around the negotiating table are not the Israelis and Palestinians, but their leaders, who — as anywhere else in the world — happen to be politicians who are some times more worried about their political survival than a truly better future. The game Mr Aumann was talking about was the game between politicians. I failed to see that, and kept thinking about the more important game: the game between most Palestinians and Israelis. In that game, there is no doubt that both sides would be much better off by compromising in their positions in order to reach and enjoy the fruits of a long lasting peace. That is the game the leaders need to play, not their own.
To move the peace process forward extremely brave people are required, people who are ready to make "painful concessions", as Ariel Sharon used to say, regardless of opinion polls. The surprising fact is that we have had them.
Ehud Barak was an extremely brave man, both as commander in chief of the Israeli Army and as prime minister. What he lacked was the ability to survive in the jungle of Israeli politics, but that belongs to another story. He was ready to make these painful concessions, giving up significant amounts of land to make a Palestinian state viable. He was even ready to divide Jerusalem, something that still is a huge taboo among Israelis, even though the city is actually divided. Most Israelis have never been in East Arab Jerusalem and never will, simply because it is not theirs in spite of all the speeches about a "united and indivisible Jerusalem for ever" that flood the city from time to time.
Yasser Arafat, the one that sat at the other end of the table, was asked to renounce to the right of return and other claims, but he lacked the courage; he was not ready to go into history books as the one that betrayed the Palestinian cause. Instead, history books will portray him as someone who refused an historical opportunity and left his people waiting once again, as they have been for more than fifty years. He was not brave enough and preferred to sell dreams to stay in power. The continuous refusal by Palestinians of any compromise has brought them nothing in return. They still live in a dream, a dream where all Palestinians families will return to their original homes where now entire villages of Jews have been built; a dream were no Jews will be living in the area. They dream of a reality that vanished long ago.
This dream temptation is also strong on the Israeli side. Ariel Sharon was another brave man who once lived in a dream. He dreamt that the West Bank and Gaza could be settled with Jews and thus achieve the "Greater Israel". Some years ago he woke up from his dream and came to see reality, a harsh one for someone like him: the settlement activity in the Occupied Territories was doomed to failure, soundly defeated by the fertility rates of Palestinian women. He decided, and he deserves praise for it, to accept reality and dismantled the settlements in Gaza Strip. It was a courageous move that many of the dreamers still refuse to see as the logical thing to do. Probably, if he were still leading the country, withdrawals form the West Bank would already have happened, but current Prime Minister Olmert, though he sees reality, has not the courage required. He is a politician, and he knows that if he tries to move ahead he will fall. So the prophet Aumann will be right again: nothing will happen for the time being.
Strong and courageous leaders are needed on both sides. The Israelis do not have such a leader and the Palestinian situation is even worse — there is no leader at all. After Arafat’s death the vacuum he left has been filled by internal struggles between Fatah and Hamas which have brought the territories to internal collapse. Casualties as a consequence of their internal war are now an everyday affair, and almost everybody believes the struggle for power will end up in a civil war with one side thrashing the other.
So we will be left waiting and hoping for better times to come, for times when leaders prefer to see reality and present it to their people rather than lure them with dreams that will not come true.
Alejandro Bertelsen studied Mathematics and Computer Science and has been living in Jerusalem since 1996.