Of the many baffling tactical decisions the Obama administration has made during its first two years, the one I find most difficult to understand has been the intensity with which it has pursued peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama has paid an enormous price among the professional Jewish community, donors and the neocon-dominated punditocracy merely for attempting to insist that Israel keep the promises it has already made to freeze settlement expansion, and for what? Given the weakness of moderates on both sides, the strength and audacity of both sides’ violent extremes, the kinds of painful compromises that would be necessary for a successful conclusion to the current talks appear less likely than the coming of the Messiah.
Sadly, Israel’s repugnant foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has a point when he imagines a lasting peace to be "decades" away. Obviously a big part of the problem is the increase in influence of violent Islamic extremism, as evidenced by the growing power of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. (The Palestinian Authority does not dare allow another election in light of this.) Pragmatically speaking, peace is impossible without Hamas, but given the never-ending avalanche of hate-filled rhetoric from its leadership, it’s hard to see how peace is possible with Hamas either. On the Israeli side, the problem is the ideologically minded settlers and their supporters, who are certain to employ violence to protect their homes in the event of a deal, and the apparent apathy of almost everyone else.
Both sides desperately need a peace agreement—Israel, to preserve its democracy and moral character, and the Palestinians, simply to enjoy some semblance of collective dignity and civil society—but in reality, only two roads can lead there. The easiest one—a peace imposed from without—strikes me as politically impossible. Imagine an American president, supported by Congress, undertaking an action that an Israeli government insists would put its existence at risk. Now imagine the Israel lobby and the American Jewish community sitting by and allowing that to happen. Look at the meager rewards compared with the headaches Obama has earned simply by trying to persuade Bibi Netanyahu to honor his predecessors’ promises.
The second possibility would be that Israel voluntarily agrees to make the necessary concessions to allow the creation of a Palestinian state strong enough to attract the allegiance of the Palestinian diaspora and the rest of the Arab world. Because Israel remains, for its Jewish majority, an intensely democratic country, the political will to make these painful and risky concessions will have to come from the Israeli population itself. Unless the Palestinians can convince the Israelis that they are genuinely committed to peaceful coexistence, this road too will remain closed.
Even so, the situation is too dangerous, and the human costs are too high simply to give in to despair. But what supporters of the Palestinians need to understand is that boycotts and ritual condemnation of Israel are counterproductive, however high-minded and virtuous it may make Western leftists feel to issue them. Rather, the only goal that will help achieve a Palestinian state is one that reassures the Israeli public that the Palestinians are ready to live alongside them in peace, if not exactly in harmony.
I’m hardly the first person to notice that the best way to begin this long and painful process is to try to help the Israelis see the Palestinian people as fully human, victims through little fault of their own of historical forces that created the Jewish state in 1948 and the disastrous occupation that followed it nineteen years later. I felt at least the potential for such a process to begin while sitting in a theater at the Hamptons International Film Festival in early October during a screening of Miral. Directed by the American Jewish artist Julian Schnabel, and to be released in early 2011 by the American Jewish movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Miral tells the true story of the Dar Al-Tifl orphanage, established in Jerusalem by Palestinian socialite Hind Husseini, following Israel’s 1948 War for Independence. (Its original inhabitants lost their parents at Deir Yassin, the site of the worst massacre of that war.) Based on an autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal and featuring an all-star international cast, Miral may well be the first movie ever issued in wide release to an American audience that tells the story of the conflict from a human, Palestinian perspective.
When the film was shown earlier this year in Venice, according to a report in the New York Post, "The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, gave Harvey a hard time during a long Q&A because he’s historically been very supportive of Israel. But ‘the real problem is the movie is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel and it is going to be very difficult to get American audiences excited to see it,’ said one source."
I asked Schnabel at the Hamptons screening whether he was prepared for the fallout from right-wing American Jews and neocon hardliners over the film’s politics. He replied that he considers the film to be an homage to his mother—a Hadassah president on Long Island in 1948. He explained that not only had the film been enthusiastically received by an audience of 2,000 in Ramallah but that the mayor of Jerusalem had seen it and volunteered to give it an official screening there as well.
Call me a sap, but I see some cause for hope here. If Schnabel truly believes his mom would approve because "it was so obvious to me that there are more similarities between these people than differences"… If Weinstein, who calls himself "a staunch supporter of Israel," is willing to stand behind a new narrative of the conflict that acknowledges Palestinian suffering and injustice and judges this to be a commercial proposition worth taking the kind of flak that it will undoubtedly invite from Likudnik hardliners, then perhaps enough Israelis, too, will be ready one day to do the same.