As if proximity were the same as insight, after being in Israel and the West Bank for nearly two weeks one is tempted to be reckless and try to say something oracular about the problems between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, I'll stick to being almost strictly anthological.
The atmosphere in the Holy Land is certainly less tense than during my first pilgrimage in June 2007, during which Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. In the months that followed, experts worried that the radical Islamists were in the ascendant over the more moderate Fatah. This year, Hamas seems increasingly marginalized, while Fatah is drawing on its more youthful members to reform from within as PNA President Mahmoud Abbas focuses more systematically on the needs of his people (though the rhetoric from the recent Fatah conference was harsh enough to startle conservative and liberal Israelis alike).
In 2007, Israeli checkpoints -- erected after the rash of suicide bombings known as the second intifada began in 2000 -- seemed to be choking West Bank commerce. This year, key checkpoints have been dismantled within the last few months. When we St. John's pilgrims visited Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority, to see St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and its energetic young vicar, business was said to be booming. There were also no complaints when we visited the Middle East's only microbrewery in the Christian town of Taybeh on the West Bank.
Spirits are also high because of the Obama administration's pressure on Israel to limit the expansion and growth of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, though I worry what may happen if Israel digs its feet in, high hopes are dashed, and a consensus develops that President Obama devoted too much energy to an intractable problem too early in his administration. The issue could end up being radioactive for the next couple of Presidents.
Two years ago as now, the settlements are the dominant issue. I'd thought most of their residents were hard-core religious or secular Zionists. But one of my fellow pilgrims, over lunch with an Israeli friend, learned that he and his family had moved into the West Bank's third largest settlement in the 1990s not because they were zealots but because housing prices were low. Needless to say, he doesn't believe the settlements should be removed, but he does believe that the security wall should be removed for the sake of ensuring the viability of a nation of Palestine on the West Bank. That means that Israeli settlements might ultimately be on Palestine's territory, just as about 1.5 million Arabs live in Israel. Most Israelis are not especially defensive about how their government treats its Arab citizens. How would a Palestinian government treat Israeli settlers?
And who knows if that Utopian outcome -- two nations living side by side, one predominantly Jewish, the other predominantly Arab -- is even possible? This article, published yesterday, suggests that many if not most Palestinians still haven't accepted the unavoidable reality of a Jewish state. This one, published as our pilgrimage began, expresses the perspective of Israelis who know that Palestinians are suffering but want to see more confidence-building steps from Arabs and especially Arab-led regimes in the region.
That's why the militant rhetoric from the Fatah conference is so offensive to most Israelis' ears. But what do they expect? From a purely tactical perspective, Fatah can't sound too soft, or Hamas might gain the upper hand again. To paraphrase the late John Mitchell, Israel should probably pay more attention to what Palestinians do than what they say. Besides, just as the conference got underway, Israel gave its critics plenty of inspiration by evicting two Israeli Palestinian families from their homes in Arab east Jerusalem and putting Israeli Jewish families in their places. This happened just a few blocks from our pilgrim guest house at St. George's. We could still see the barricades around the houses and their former residents huddled under trees on the sidewalk to get away from the burning sun. Settlements in the West Bank are provocative enough. Settlements in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians envision as their capital, might spark a new descent into violence.
For what it's worth, we pilgrims prayed that wouldn't ever happen -- that people's exhaustion with war and terrorism, Obama's pressure on the settlements, the West Bank's new economic energy as Israel removes the checkpoints, and the influence of moderates on both sides all mean that a peace based on the two-state concept is again within reach.
But can people who have hated and hurt each other for generations share the same territory? Do they even want to try? Daniel Rossing, director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, met with our pilgrim group several evenings ago. Someone asked him about Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital. It says it will never give up the east side for Palestine's, no matter if there's a state on the West Bank or not.
In response, Rossing drew on an analogy dear to our pilgrim hearts. In the 19th century, six Christian denominations had amply demonstrated that they couldn't come to peaceable terms about how to administer their holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Finally the Ottoman Turks brokered a complex power-sharing agreement called the Status Quo, which essentially governs this most wonderful and mysterious of churches today. Ironically enough, a Muslim family unlocks and locks the door each day. "We're not going to solve Jerusalem by cutting the baby in half," Rossing told us. "We're going to have to find some way to share it, something similar to the Status Quo, an arrangement so minutely complicated that no one can possibly understand it. All we will be able to do is obey it."
I wasn't sure what he meant until we visited the Holy Sepulcher for the last time this morning, after walking the Stations of the Cross. As Roman Catholic priests and monks began a solemn high mass at 7:30 at the front of the Edicule, believed to enclose the tomb of Jesus Christ, we could hear someone else chanting from the other side. It was a Coptic priest conducting his own service in a small chapel on the back of the same structure. As two priests chanted, one in Latin, the other in the ancient Coptic tongue, my first reaction was that someone should be quiet until the other's service was over. I even flirted with the idea that that the priests were trying to drown each other out. But no. They were just doing what they believed they should, in their own way, in the same small, sacred space, in apparent conflict except for the amazing fact that they probably do it the same way every single morning. They are content to live peacefully in the ambiguity. We should all be so wise.
In the original version of this post, I erred in saying that Hamas had secured control of the West Bank in June 2007 and that the Coptic priest was chanting in Arabic.