"So, Sadie, why do you look so happy today?"
"I got a letter from my son Abe in Israel."
"And how is with Abe?"
"He lost all his money in a business, his apartment was damaged by a bomb and he had to wait a month to get a refrigerator."
"Then why so happy?"
"Because mine Abe writes such a beautiful Hebrew!"
This bit of Jewish gallows humor encapsulates much of the modern experience of having coreligionists, often relatives, in Israel. The grind of their everyday battle for survival is tolerated while the astonishing phenomenon of the revenant country and language is celebrated. The perfect metaphor for life in Israel is the ubiquitous habit there of eating sunflower seeds. They jam a fistful of unopened shells in their mouths, then walk down the street spitting the shells while somehow extracting the seeds with teeth and tongue, swallowing only the seeds. Israelis spend their lives dodging shells of one sort or another.
One of these is the shell game of the world-demanded American-sponsored Europe-monitored peace talks with the Palestinians. As matters are currently constituted, these are simply impossible to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. Sounds shocking, but no less true for all that.
Back in 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, there was a possible road to success. Arafat would accept most of the West Bank except for the fully built cities of Maaleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba and the group of closely aligned towns of the Etzion Bloc. The neighborhoods built onto Jerusalem since 1967, such as Ramot and Gilo, would remain intact on the Israel side. Additionally, the Rabin government at that time actually began a large new city called Modiin, historically the base of the Hasmonean kings who defeated the Greeks. Modiin was designed to even out the line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to flesh out a more natural and defensible border.
The fact that Arafat was silent about Modiin was understood to mean the final outlines of the peace were in place. Although he put up roadblocks to stall a final agreement, his official objections concerned issues of repatriation of Palestinian refugees, water rights, financial arrangements, the powers of the Palestinian Army and the like.
However, all that progress has long since been undone. First Clinton and then George W. Bush managed to fumble near the goal line, get intercepted, sacked and thrown for a loss on consecutive plays. Once Bush announced (with Sharon's apparent acquiescence) the United States supported a two-state solution, something never hitherto enunciated openly, the Palestinians learned to play much-harder-to-get. Now they are demanding all the settlements back, including the neighborhoods fully woven into the fabric of Jerusalem life, plus East Jerusalem as a capital, all without giving ground on the repatriation claim.
Add to that the fact that Mahmoud Abbas no longer represents all the Palestinians because Hamas usurped much of his territory by both plebiscite and coup. The result is that his only appearance of power is achieved by saying no, because if he would say yes he would be exposed as unable to deliver. This is like the penniless tenant who refuses to pay the rent until you paint the apartment but won't allow your painter to enter.
Enter Obama stage left into this farce on January 20, 2009. He declared the situation to be so ridiculously easy that everyone knows what must be done, Israel gives up x, Palestinians give up y, the new equation is z, case closed. He deputized Hillary Clinton and former Senator George Mitchell to mop up while he turned to more complex matters of state. The Israeli electorate responded by presenting him with Benjamin Netanyahu, the only leader on the world stage whose English and stage presence rivals Obama. Netanyahu then got to play good cop to his own bad cop, enacting a species of settlement freeze with time and space limits. Abbas, on the other side, has dug his heels in, looking more intransigent by the day; he has no choice anyway, as outlined earlier.
So in essence Israel has been negotiating with America, trying to please America, making gestures and concessions to America, because it has to please America. Pleasing the Palestinians is irrelevant and in any case impossible. Netanyahu has endured a series of snubs by Obama, through it all wearing a public face of bonhomie.
Now, still smiling, Netanyahu has piggybacked on the Massachusetts moment (Jews may not eat pig but they may take benefit) to dig out of his hole. Knowing Obama is in no position to hit back, he made his move. He met with George Mitchell Sunday morning, praised the Senator for offering new initiatives, and then he went to ceremonies in Maaleh Adumim and the Etzion bloc to declare they are "indisputable" parts of Israel. Perhaps those areas should declare Scott Brown an honorary Senator.
The Etzion celebration was particularly significant, because it was held on the site of the Arab massacre of 130 Jews on the day before Israel declared independence, and Netanyahu delivered his promise to the great-grandson of one of the victims.
Where will things go from here? It is a sad reality that negotiations are no longer feasible. The only long-term solution is for the Palestinians to develop their institutions to the point they declare their own state and live in peace. They can keep their demand on the table for the settled territories but de facto ignore them, much as China and Russia do with their disputed lands. But at least Israel has received a small respite; while Obama bows to the Saudis and Chinese they don't have to bow to him quite so obsequiously. They can focus again on all their other hardships and joys; spit out the shells, swallow the seeds.
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