Conventional wisdom suggests Israelis and Palestinians are bitter enemies: two sides mired in a century-long conflict marked by violence, hatred and an unbounded reservoir of brutality, each side armed with a solemn confidence in its own victimhood. A more nuanced approach suggests a certain weary familiarity between them: They are, as the Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti memorably put it, “intimate enemies,” entwined in a shared history from which both dream of escape. To take it one step further, let us imagine that the tortured relationship of the two peoples is a kind of marriage: an unhappy one, to say the least, but a marriage nevertheless, a lasting bond whose hated entanglements remain too strong for either side to break.
As a generalization about the conflict, the marriage metaphor is, to be sure, a platitude. Just about every Israeli and American commentator–from Ehud Barak and Amos Oz to Thomas Friedman and Bill Clinton–has reached for it at some point, usually to plead the necessity of “a divorce,” however painful. (The analogy is employed less frequently by Palestinians, who are more apt to invoke the image of an abusive husband or an arranged marriage.) But while the idea is unquestionably a crude one, its implications are seldom explored. Like any marriage, this one–watched more obsessively than perhaps any conflict in human history–remains largely inscrutable to those of us on the outside. While attempts to depict the lived experience of Israelis and Palestinians litter our bookshops and fill the newspapers, only a precious few register the intricacy of the connective threads, the interdependency fostered by decades of uncomfortable (and unwanted) coexistence.
From Juval Portugali, an Israeli geographer, we get this more elegant image, on loan from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It is the city of Valdrada, built at the edge of a lake in which the city is perfectly and entirely mirrored by another, such that “nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror.” The two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, are much more than castaways cursed to inhabit a cramped desert for all of eternity: They are, like two people joined by marriage, enfolded in each other, hopelessly conjoined, so that the actions of each send ripples through the water of the other. “The two Valdradas,” Calvino concludes, “live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.” As Portugali remarks, the experience of being “mirrored” by Palestinians is among the “dominant experiences in being an Israeli.”
A.B. Yehoshua, who was an Israeli before there was an Israel–he was born in Jerusalem in 1936–has, over the course of seven novels, said a lot about the experience of being an Israeli, and somewhat less about the vexed relations between his people and their Palestinian mirrors. But he has obsessively, from his first novel The Lover to his most recent, The Liberated Bride, considered the theme of marriage: the love that binds two people and creates them anew. There is a marriage at the heart of all but one of Yehoshua’s novels, and it is never static, always collapsing or beginning anew: His lovers are forever coming together, struggling, betraying their vows or falling apart.