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.”
Oz seems, even for an Israeli of his age, unusually crusty, blunt and pragmatic, obsessed with resolution of the crisis. In our conversation, he was eager, as he has been more and more in recent years, to distance himself from any seeming passion for justice, from any romance with peace: Simply put, he’d like to see an end to the killing and mutilation. But not, as he says, wincing at the thought, because he “loves peace and is reaching out for the enemy.” As far as Oz is concerned, he is not battling right-wing politicians but what he perceives as the sentimentality of the international community. He talks like a medic on a battlefield.
Oz claims he does not hate war. “What I hate is aggression.” In America and in Europe, he says, “people divide the world between good guys and bad guys. You get up, you sign a petition in favor of the good guys, you launch a demonstration against the bad guys, you express disgust and go to sleep. With me, it’s more of a hospital emergency-room attitude. Stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient and then maybe you can heal the wounds and scars. It’s less important who takes the blame than to stop the bloodletting. When you get to the scene of a car accident, the last thing you do is ask who’s responsible. You get a stretcher.”
The struggle to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (indeed, between any two historic opponents) wavers between these two ways of thinking, between shouting and negotiating. When peace is advancing, pragmatism holds sway, and the talk is of road maps and dialogue and endgames, an end to bloodshed. This is Ozspeak. When violence is in the ascendant, as in the past four years, the conversation turns into a screaming match about blame and history and justice, and bloodshed becomes almost an end in itself. Sharonspeak, say; or the public language of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, assassinated in Gaza last April by Sharon’s army.
The pragmatists look at the conflict as linear–having a beginning, a middle (apparently the long part) and an end–while the militants on both sides regard it as cyclical, returning over and over to the same insoluble struggle, piercing the same wound again and again. Of course, because this is Middle Eastern politics, the person who was a militant may become a pragmatist from one historic moment to the next–and vice versa. Arafat comes to mind, as does the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“Over the years, I’ve become if anything less and less radical,” Oz says, “though I would still be a red radical in the eyes of my father.” In an earlier conversation he’d said: “In Israel, people don’t change their minds. Even when they tell you the opposite of what they said a year before, they’ll say that it’s the same thing they told you last year; you just didn’t understand what they were saying.”
Scratch an Israeli peacenik, in other words, and you will very often find a Zionist; blow up a bus or a discotheque or a pizza parlor filled with Israelis, and you will find that every single Israeli is, to some degree, a Zionist. This is what happened during the second intifada: The Israeli left was silenced by Palestinian violence; while at the same time, the continuing, hardening occupation and the expansion of the settlements, combined with Israeli military actions against the Palestinians, turned Palestinian pragmatists and supporters of negotiations into backers of their own side’s aggression.
This is Oz in 1982 in In the Land of Israel: Perhaps the Israelis should “concede heavenly Jerusalem for the sake of the Jerusalem of the slums, waive messianic salvation for the sake of small, gradual reforms, forgo messianic fervor for the sake of prosaic sobriety. And perhaps the entirety of our story is not a story of blood and fire or of salvations and consolations but, rather, a story of a halting attempt to recover from a severe illness.”
Though the hard right wing in Israel and parts of the US Jewish community have cast him as far to the left, in fact Oz is a moderate of almost phlegmatically considered opinions. He likes to shock with his studied lack of political emotion. And although much of the time he writes with great moral anger, in a seething fury, his advice to those who suffer from such anger is always to sit down and swallow the bitter medicine he prescribes, “teaspoon by teaspoon.” He has been writing the same prescriptions for at least three decades–he says the same things today that he said in 1973, and again in the 1980s, and yet again in the late 1990s.
“Sharon came, and he will go one day,” Oz says now. “The situation is always evolving toward peace. Among the Israelis and the Palestinians, the vast majority knows it. Sharon knows it. The settlers know it. Hamas knows it. They don’t like it, but they know it. And so the patient with clenched teeth is ready for the surgery. Now all we need is more courageous doctors.”
Because of his memoir–its human core, its love of the details of character, its author’s decent, even modest, assertion that all relations should be tempered with understanding and mercy, from the closest to the most distant, from the familial to the international–Oz has recently been compared to Chekhov, who, besides being the great Russian playwright and fiction writer was also a country doctor (a literal not a metaphorical one, unlike Oz). “At the end of a Shakespeare tragedy,” Oz wrote in 1993, “the stage is strewn with dead bodies, and maybe there’s some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearean one, for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. These, in a nutshell, are my politics.” And so his politics continue, a dozen years later.