Is this the last storm before peace in Israel?

As a Jew in Britain,I seem to have measured out my life with accounts of massacres
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The Independent Online

After each atrocity you think it can't get worse. As a Jew living in Britain, with close ties to Israel, I seem to have measured out my life with accounts of massacres - massacres of Jews, massacres of Arabs. The image of a child, just a bit older than my son, cowering in terror behind his desperate father before both are cut down by bullets joins an archive of horror.

After each atrocity you think it can't get worse. As a Jew living in Britain, with close ties to Israel, I seem to have measured out my life with accounts of massacres - massacres of Jews, massacres of Arabs. The image of a child, just a bit older than my son, cowering in terror behind his desperate father before both are cut down by bullets joins an archive of horror.

The fact that, soon after this atrocity, two Israeli policeman were murdered in Ramallah in cold blood does not "balance" things. The body count will mean little to their friends and family: for them there is just one body to count. These are human beings, like me and my son.

At such moments it is essential to remain lucid, and here the litany of slaughter has its uses. It has been bad before. It has even been worse than this. It may get even more appalling before it improves. But since at least 1993 relations between Israel and its neighbours have been on an upward curve. The latest murderous episode may turn out to be just that, the guttering of a candle of violence before the final botched and bloody deal is made.

Peace will come because for all the ferocious rhetoric on both sides, the mass of Jews, Christian Arabs and Muslims share a deep longing for tranquillity. Over the last seven years both parties have made enough difficult compromises to prove that, and no one with any knowledge of the region believed that the final stage of the Oslo process was going to be smooth or painless. Jews, Arabs and Christians in the Middle East have arrived at the crunch point: the future of the holy places in Jerusalem and the creation of a Palestinian state on Israel's borders.

To many people it may seem as though Jewish Israelis are only being asked to give up something of symbolic value. But symbols mean a lot, especially to people with ancient religions, long traditions, and formidable memories. When I first lived in Israel, during a stint on a kibbutz in 1976, I roamed over the land of Israel and was besotted by it.

In 1998 I was staying in Jerusalem on sabbatical with my family. I took the kids down to the Dead Sea, but this time the route and the experience were very different from my trips in the 1970s. It was too difficult and risky to enter Jericho, now in the Palestinian-administered area. My son will have to wait for an antiseptic guided, and guarded, tour before seeing the walls of the world's "oldest city". But that was a trivial price to pay for peace.

I have little sympathy with the settlers who insist that the West Bank remain under Jewish rule. Life and peace have always meant more in Judaism and Jewish values than land. They have created a dangerous, artificial cult of possession that is alien to the creed that they supposedly cherish. Even so, like most Israeli Jews I feel a sense of loss due to the repartition of the land of Israel/Palestine. Israelis have supported huge concessions. None of this was easy. It is much easier to wreck and to kill - which is why there is all this violence again.

It is certainly easier for the Palestinians to go on saying no to a final deal that will leave them the losers. Yasser Arafat has achieved more than many of his critics or admirers dreamed, but he was never going to fulfill the authentic Palestinian dream of reclaiming, as they see it, all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It is hard for Jews, so steeped in their own memory of suffering and despoliation, to comprehend the mood of loss and failure that bedevils the Palestinians.

But Palestinian leaders now seen to evince a maturity and weariness in equal parts that has led them to accept a poor substitute for the expansive dream of modern statehood. This has involved pain and frustration, and I can understand the fury that followed the postponement of micro-statehood and the continuation of the Israeli presence throughout the West Bank. What is worrying is the added element of religious fervour. While my heart goes out to Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in 1948, I feel as remote from the adherents of jihad as I do from the Orthodox Jews quoting the Hebrew bible as their title deed to hilltop settlements.

Yet the fanatics and the hard men on both sides, such as Ariel Sharon, have nothing to offer but war and bloodshed. Israelis have made it plain that they have had enough and, provided they can have security, they are prepared to alienate swathes of a land that they see, rightly or wrongly, as theirs by necessity, divine providence and conquest.

The rioting by Israeli Arabs in Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth is a brutal reminder to them that peace with the Palestinians is becoming a precondition for peace with a quarter of their own citizens. Peace is also necessary to release the resources needed to end the abysmal neglect of the "Arab sector", which has been another cherished but forlorn project of Barak's government. Unless that happens, Israel's disillusioned Arab citizens will have nothing to lose by making common cause with their cousins across the Green Line.

In other words, there is no alternative to a last bitter compromise that will see the sharing of central Jerusalem and a Palestinian state on an area somewhat larger and better connected than the present autonomous regions. Both sides are going to have to bite the bullet, but that is better than being hit by one. In their heart of hearts, Jews and Arabs know this, and I suspect the current orgy of violence may be the rage and frustration that goes with accepting something that we know is necessary but we find almost unpalatable. Which is why, when we will look back, these recent deaths will seem so wasteful, so tragic.

 

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton

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