One memorable night in August 1993, I went to sleep in a city inhabited by two peoples who saw each other exclusively in terms of enmity and suspicion, and awoke the next morning to a world in which those same two peoples suddenly began, tentatively but with palpable relief and guarded optimism, to imagine a future in which they could live together in peace. A few days later, I watched in wonder as a huge crowd of Palestinian youth peacefully gathered outside Damascus Gate, unmolested by Israeli police who seemed both confused and pleased to allow the youth to hoist Palestinian flags, symbols that Israeli at the time still considered illegal. And I quietly wept – with hope and happiness – as I watched those same crowds of youth make way, awkwardly but politely, for ultra-Orthodox Jews passing through the gate on their way to the Western Wall.
Not long after, I visited a shop in West Jerusalem in the company of a Palestinian friend from Nablus. The shopkeeper, hearing us exchange a few words in Arabic, looked at my friend with undisguised curiosity and asked in heavily accented English, “are you Pal-est-in-ian?” The way he slowly sounded out the syllables made clear this was a word that rarely if ever had crossed his lips. With that information confirmed, he nodded and said gruffly, in the manner of a man struggling to hide a strong emotion, “you are welcome; all we want is peace.”
I gather these memories about me as a blanket, not a shroud, as I write these words: The peace process that began in 1993 is dead. Its demise is marked, definitively, by the trifecta of new policies that, over the past two weeks, have fundamentally re-defined America’s approach to Middle East peace. Effectively downgrading the status of the Palestinians in Washington, changing U.S. policy on Jerusalem, and moving forward with legislation that will implicitly define the Palestinian Authority as a body that supports terror – each of these new policies, on its own, would be sufficient to cast profound doubt on the commitment of the United States to a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, consistent with the paradigm of the past 24 years; collectively, they send an inescapable message that the Trump Administration and many in Congress are no longer interested in maintaining even a credible pretense of commitment to such an outcome.
I arrived in Jerusalem in November 1992 for a two-year tour in the U.S Consulate in Jerusalem, and much of that time was spent tracking settlements and meeting with settlers. Nearly 25 years later, some memories are as painfully fresh as if they happened yesterday. The settler child who ran up to me in the (then tiny) settlement of Beit El and proudly proclaimed in Hebrew, “Arabs out! Kill Arabs.” The trip with Congressional staff to visit Hebron, where settlers with American accents surrounded our cars and berated us until we drove away. Long meetings in Kiryat Arba with a settler my colleagues nicknamed the “prophet of doom and gloom,” who explained to me that U.S. policy didn’t matter because God wants the Jews to have all of the land. The Arabs have no future here, he told me more than once. Maybe, he told me, we’ll bribe them to leave. Maybe they’ll leave on their own. Maybe God will send a virus that only makes Arabs sick. No matter, he said, in words that stick with me to this day: “God will sort it out.”
Not long after the signing of the Oslo Accords, I traveled with a colleague to meet a settler leader at his office in the settlement of Psagot. The world may have its peace process, this man argued, but we, the settlers, have concrete plans that will prevent it. He showed us map after map depicting bypass roads and massive infrastructure that would enable the settlements to continue growing, and connect settlements to each other, and connect all of this seamlessly with Israel proper. One day soon, he argued, settlements will be so much a part of Israel that nobody will be able to talk about giving up land to the Arabs. My colleague and I drove away shaking our heads, marveling at this man’s ability to operate in such a deep state of denial about political realities. In retrospect, I marvel today at the very long game he and his fellow travelers, both in the United States and Israel, were playing, and their incredible success.
I don’t pretend to know where things go from here, nor can I pretend to mourn the death of the Olso process. That process, in truth, was moribund for a long time, and in its dying state had become all-process, no-peace. Worse still, it had evolved into a political trap that simultaneously enabled the non-stop march of new Israeli facts-on-the-ground, on the territory that was to have become a Palestinian state, while preventing the Palestinians from seeking recourse through any other options. But until now, there was still a sliver of hope that this process could be the seed for a future agreement, if only political will and courage – in short supply since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 – could be restored. That hope is now gone, replaced by concrete fears of the consequences, intended and not, that this president’s reckless new policies could unleash.
All of this brings to mind another memory: On the eve of the Iraq War, I brought a former senior Israeli diplomat to meet with Congressman Tom Lantos. Unapologetically hawkish on Israel and the Middle East, Lantos lectured us on why waging war on Iraq would be good for Israel and for the region. In words that chill me to this day, he explained that the Middle East “is like a kaleidoscope.” If you just pick up a kaleidoscope and look through it, he observed, you don’t see anything special. But if you shake it and then look through it again, you see something more beautiful than what was there before. I recall those words today, knowing that while some may rejoice and others will lament the end of the Oslo era, nobody knows what will happen now. However, we do know, from painful experience, that “shaking up” the kaleidoscope of the Middle East does not generally turn out well, for anyone.