In this journal last week, I wrote that this two-part program has been among the hardest we've ever created. That difficulty has continued to the last word spoken on the air, to the last word written on this page. I have spent hours studying maps and pictures, reading timelines with subtle variations in emphasis that make the difference, in contrasting Palestinian and Israeli readings, between fact and interpretation. I have found myself entangled in the knot my guests, this week and last, have described alike: two distinct Palestinian and Israeli narratives for the same lived history. One man's "independence" is another man's "catastrophe." One man's "pioneer" is another man's "terrorist." One man's "emigrant" is another man's "refugee." These are not merely contrasts of vocabulary but of experience, imagination, and possibility. They stand between these two peoples and any kind of sustainable peace. So at the conclusion of this series, the virtue of hope about conflict in the Holy Land is tempered in my imagination — as it has been progressively tempered and complicated in the lives of my guests. The Israeli-Palestinian present is defined in part by checkpoints and barriers, by mistrust and fear. Mutually acceptable borders and balances of power, I come to understand, are requisite foundation stones for collective human, spiritual reconciliation in this place. And the outward signs in the news would make that appear as unlikely as at any time in modern history. Nevertheless, and almost despite themselves, my guests this week provide counterintuitive ways to think about present opportunities in the Israeli-Palestinian context. There is a new parity, as they see it: the parties who oversaw the Oslo peace process are out of power on both sides. Gone are the Oslo era's conciliatory rhetoric and gestures towards the other side. Yet this era's pragmatic leaders, they believe, might be better able to mobilize their populations should new agreements be brokered. And in that light, Mohammed Abu-Nimer proposes this obvious yet striking truth: peace is always made between enemies, not between those who are already in agreement. From a very different point of view, he also echoes a suggestion of Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi in last week's program — that the Oslo process failed, in part, because it attempted to bracket out the range of religious instincts on all sides in this conflict. By trying to craft and impose a secular peace, Abu-Nimer says, only the moderate religious perspectives of the majority were suppressed. Extremist religious parties inject themselves into the politics of the Holy Land whether invited or not. And these forces on both sides fought and undermined Oslo, in spirit and in letter, from the first. Still, it is hard to know what to do with such insights in the end, and even harder to imagine that such wisdom might be incorporated as immediate crises are addressed by the new Palestinian government and that about to be elected in Israel. And even now, new chapters of irreconcilable double narrative of Israeli-Palestinian history continue to be written. Israel is building a "security barrier" conceived in the bloodiest days of the suicide bombing campaign of the Second Intifada. But for Sami Adwan, navigating daily life in Bethlehem, this is an "apartheid wall" that comes between him and his family, his work, and the world. I am comforted by a few parallels in the religious and spiritual impulses of my guests in both programs in this series: a conviction on both sides that personal — and therefore collective — transformation is possible, is indeed an inevitability we must anticipate in ourselves and others. But they agree equally that this truth in their land demands the virtues of clarity and a transcendent, almost super-human patience. Yossi Klein Halevi confesses that Hamas can evolve into a partner with which Israelis might negotiate a future where both sides can feel safe; but not, he believes, in this generation. And there is an assumption, planted firm in both Sami Adwan and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, that despite the present stalemate there will inevitably be a Palestinian state. How close or how far away this is, they do not presume to predict. In pragmatic anticipation of that day, whenever it might come, Sami Adwan and an Israeli colleague are laying Palestinian and Israeli narratives of the same events side by side and presenting them to schoolchildren on both sides. You can read passages of their fascinating work on our "Two Narratives" Web site. In very different ways, Yossi Klein Halevi, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, and Sami Adwan all model a kind of "spiritual clarity" that it seems the rest of us must cultivate if we wish to understand the depth of their struggle. Their clarity takes the form of a dialectic, planted in both fear and faith, between wary realism and cautious openness. It is a dialectic, my guests say, in which American citizens are deeply implicated — and which we must honor if we are to see real openings for peace when they appear again. I will end with Mohammed Abu-Nimer's words of advice in that light: "In any given conflict — even the Israeli-Palestinian one — you always will find groups and individuals who have confronted, resisted the violence. And it's very important to tap and connect with these groups in your attempt to understand the conflict… And it really matters what we do here. Whatever we do, whatever we decide to believe and say, will have a great manifestation and impact and influence on the fate and the future of Palestinians and Israelis."
Voices on the Radio
Abu-Nimer is associate professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC and executive director of the Salaam Institute for Peace & Justice.