The Middle East is a land of paradox, and the one I've been grappling with during our 12-day St. John's pilgrimage is why Arab east Jerusalem (home of our pilgrim guest house at St. George's Cathedral) seems so calm when prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians have dimmed so dramatically over the past few months.
It's not that there's any immediately apparent reason for optimism. Israel has resumed its provocative settlement expansion in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. As U.S.-brokered peace talks languish, Palestinian officials are maneuvering, against U.S. wishes, for a UN resolution to condemn the settlements as a major obstacle to peace -- the first step, perhaps, toward a dangerous unilateral proclamation of a Palestinian state. Israel's security wall, which in places seems to have more to do with separating Palestinians from one another than terrorists from Israel, remains a scar on the landscape.
Yet thanks to Israel, Palestinians are able to move around the West Bank more freely than during my pilgrim visits in 2007 and even 2009. Its economy grew by 9% in the first half of 2010. The Fatah-controlled government in the West Bank is getting higher marks, too, especially Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (below left), who in one friend's book is doing so well that he told me he sometimes worries that extremists on the Palestinian side will be tempted to use extreme measures against him. As with all politicians, not everyone agrees that Fayyad's the savior. Another friend said, "The joke you hear is that for years Palestinians have been praying for salaam [peace], and all they got was Salam."
What seems most promising is that Fayyad is using the region's growing economic clout for jujitsu moves such as forbidding the sale within Palestine of any goods manufactured in Israeli settlements. The West Bank's government got a further boost this week when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, despite Israeli efforts to interfere, paid the first visit ever by a top Russian leader and reaffirmed Moscow's support for a Palestinian state.
What a change since the Cold War, where the Middle East was a superpower flash point, with the U.S. backing Israel and Moscow, the Arabs. As we made our way back Wednesday from visits to the West Bank towns of Nablus and Zababdeh, we had to slow down briefly because of a highway improvement project funded by U.S. tax dollars. The day before in Washington, the PNA's diplomatic mission in Washington raised the Palestinian flag for the time, with tacit U.S. support. One wonders if it will be much longer before the Obama administration decides to make U.S. aid to Israel contingent on more cooperation in the peace process.
After a while, if Palestine looks, acts, and thrives like a state, it's going to be a state. Perhaps that's the source of the air of optimism we're feeling amid all the tantalizing excuses for pessimism. That a Palestinian state is picking up momentum may also explain why Benyamin Netanyahu seems to be doing everything he can to put on the brakes, because here's no denying that Palestinian statehood is a risky road for Israel.
The other day our pilgrim band heard from Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University, an Arab Christian who's an expert on the nettlesome problem of Christian emigration from the Holy Land. When I asked him about the recent warning from Arab Israeli journalist Abu Toameh that if Palestinians got a state tomorrow, leaders from the Israel-must-die Hamas party would be in control of its government the day after that, Sabella said, "Not necessarily." How reassuring that must be to Israel. I've also encountered those who believe that a Palestinian state is the first step toward a one-state solution, which would inevitably destroy the viability of a Jewish homeland. Polls make clear that this sentiment is still widespread among Palestinians.
We may hope that the distractions of building their own state would eventually diminish the desire to end Israel's. But while I end my third pilgrimage with a renewed sense of optimism about prospects for Palestinian self-determination, I have a deepening concern about Israel's long-term security. If Israel's current policy is born not of mere intransigence but a feeling of existential threat not just from Iran but also from the increasingly concrete prospect of a future Palestine, I don't see how anyone can realistically expect the policy to change anytime soon.