It’s a time of sudden hope in the crisis between the Palestinians and Israelis, a weird time of moderation and calls for renewed negotiations. Arafat is dead, and those who allowed that creaking symbol of so many things to stand in the way of peace are now behaving as if they are ready for a new moment.
I talked recently with Amos Oz, who in one of those odd moments of synchronicity has returned to the international spotlight at the exact moment when peace has once again become at least a possibility. He has just published his memoir, and the book, which tells the story of his childhood and the beginnings of the state of Israel, gives Oz renewed authority in his role as a pursuer of peace.
At this particular moment in the Middle East, Oz is a powerful figure, and his suddenly available personal story exposes the roots of his political convictions. A child whose family included a large helping of right-wing Eastern European refugees, he grew up in Jerusalem very much in the shadow of the Holocaust. Almost the entire Jewish population of his mother’s hometown in Ukraine–some 25,000 people–was massacred in the space of two days by Nazi forces. His mother, who had left for Jerusalem before the disaster, never recovered. As a boy, Oz attended right-wing political meetings in Jerusalem.
Eventually, he rebelled and moved far from those roots, both physically and politically; nonetheless, what most informs his thinking to this day is Israel’s right, and even need, to exist. In everything Oz says about the conflict, there is an unstated but passionate feeling of urgency and protectiveness about the country, along with a strong undercurrent of loathing for the occupation and that special shame that many Israelis feel for their homeland as a result–an almost private disgust, as if the occupation were some terrible, dirty family secret that everyone shares. Oz and other old-guard Israeli leftists are concerned both that Israel is in the absolute wrong as an oppressor and that, from the point of view of the survival of what is still an infant nation, the occupation is delegitimizing and poses an existential threat.
A founding father of Peace Now, Oz has been unwavering since 1967 in his support for a negotiated, two-state solution. He is one of the éminences grises behind the recent Geneva Accords, a detailed blueprint for resolution of the conflict worked out by Israeli and Palestinian politicians and activists that picks up where the Camp David and Taba talks left off. These “understandings,” as they are known, as well as the figures from both sides who negotiated them, have been harshly criticized and mocked by Ariel Sharon and the rest of the Israeli right. Over the years, indeed, Oz has faced right-wing opprobrium from his compatriots; his children were attacked and tormented in the schoolyard; he has been scorned and mistrusted by radical Palestinians, and yet he has soldiered on like a tank, convinced of the rightness of his proposals, reiterating them as if to a stupid or wayward pupil.
Oz’s was a lonely voice in the years after the 1967 war, declaring that the Palestinians had the right to national self-determination and that the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis was one of “right versus right.” This, at a time when Israeli politicians then considered to be toward the left were saying things like “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people…. They did not exist.” That was Labor’s Golda Meir, in 1969. The climate has changed so much since then, Oz says, that if Golda came back today, “she would not be accepted except by the far right.”