Five Till Midnight and the Clock is Still Ticking

Sandy Tolan’s 2006 book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, a true story about the human costs created by the formation of the state of Israel, is an important work which demands a reading – or re-reading – as we stand on the precipice of Middle East catastrophe.

Using real voices, Tolan shares the history of a Palestinian family displaced by Bulgarian Jews who fled the horrors of the Holocaust. With Gaza reduced to rubble, President Barack Obama at the helm, George Mitchell wanting to get real and Israeli elections looming, it is critical that the old-school politics be set aside for the sake of responding to the fierce urgency of the moment.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Tolan wrote about why the window for a two-state solution is “on its deathbed” and how it is that the world finds itself in this bleak and historical moment.

“Since the Six-Day War of June 1967, the two-state solution, based on the concept of “land for peace,” has been the central focus of almost all diplomatic efforts to resolve this tragedy,” Mr. Tolan wrote. But because of Israel’s unrelenting occupation and settlement project in the West Bank, the long-fought-for two-state solution has finally, tragically, become unworkable.”

Committed, and often extremist Israeli settlers go so far as to threaten mass mutiny from the Israeli Army should they be expelled from the settlements, further threatening whatever fragile wisps for peace remain. Recently Daniella Weiss, the current mayor of Kedumim, a large Israeli settlement near Nablus, in the West Bank told 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon, “I think that settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal. And this is the reality.”

Intentionally complicating the situation is the sinister, often unseen hand of Christian Zionist groups like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and their American Orthodox Jewish counterparts, such as Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Together, these religious ideologues from opposite sides of the messianic fence continue to wreak unspeakable harm, using the millions of dollars coaxed from gullible followers to destabilize the region.

For very different reasons, these Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are doing everything possible in order to ensure that the disputed territories remain peopled with Jews ready to fight for the land. With the continued growth of the settlements, it has become increasingly more difficult to stitch together a contiguous piece of land that is necessary in order to achieve a two-state solution. Meanwhile, the circular nature of fear, militarism, displacement and fundamentalism threaten to derail any chance for peace.

Israel has allowed itself to behave historically like other young nation-states. The politics of Israeli nationalism opened the door for expansionism in the 60’s in the name of security but sadly, the polar opposite occurred. Once upon a time in Israel, there were no suicide bombers. But hatred begets hatred, and eviction and ghettoization beget revenge. As easy as it is for Israeli right leaning politicians and John Hagee to cry out “Never Again,” the real issue is whether “Never Again” has come to apply only to Jew as victim, not as victimizer.

Though it remains painful for Americans to take an honest look at the ugly chapters in our own history, the passage of time has lessened our self-examination. Not so in Israel. Circumstances today force the mirror to be a constant each time a Palestinian civilian is killed, a home is razed or a new checkpoint added.

A glimmer of hope, slender though it may be, does exist though and that is in the lively debate going on among the Israeli people. It is only here, in the Diaspora, that what used to be admired as Talmudic debate no longer sees the light of day. To be a Jew in America and to be vocally critical of Israeli politics is to be sidelined. But even here, cracks are beginning to form as the long-admired Jewish conscience is leaking out in the form of groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now and JewsOnFirst, to name a few.

In a Jan. 24, New York Times op-ed titled, This Is Not a Test, columnist Thomas Friedman, a Jew, writes, “It’s five to midnight and before the clock strikes 12 all we need to do is rebuild Fatah, merge it with Hamas, elect an Israeli government that can freeze settlements, court Syria and engage Iran – while preventing it from going nuclear – just so we can get the parties to start talking. Whoever lines up all the pieces of this diplomatic Rubik’s Cube deserves two Nobel Prizes.”

George Mitchell’s appointment as Special Envoy to the Middle appears has so far appeared to be well received by a majority of American Jews, giving yet more hope that the community at large is genuinely interested in finding a fair solution. It doesn’t help though, when Abe Foxman, national director of The Anti-Defamation League, decries fairness in diplomacy, saying, “Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed . . . But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support. . . . So I’m concerned. I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.”

Adding fuel to the fire is a similar statement coming from neoconservative and religious zealot, Gary Bauer, who also happens to be a CUFI founding board member. His end-time roots show a cynical disdain for diplomacy and peace, avowing that, “George Mitchell has a reputation on his previous work in the Middle East as being evenhanded between Israel and the Palestinian extremists. And for me that means the appointment is bad because I don’t believe we should be evenhanded between Israel and the Palestinians. I think Israel is our only reliable ally in the Middle East. I believe that they are right in this ongoing war that is being waged against them.”

Thus, it is the Foxmans and Bauers who ought be shunned. Because we stand with one foot over the precipice, it is our responsibility as humans to reject such nihilism. Thankfully, George Bush is no longer in the picture and in his stead stands a brilliant, thoughtful man who serves as proof that this nation which, not all that long ago, enslaved the black man, has finally grown past its shame, past the Palin-inspired hate-mongering, and elected Barack Obama as President.

Yet the question remains; can this young president along with Special Envoy. Mitchell and Secretary of State Clinton find the fortitude to resist the powerful if varied, self-serving special interest groups who remain invested in keeping the U.S. on the well-worn path of hostility, a path which has permitted the devil of hatred to rule the day for far too long? Or will this truly be the beginning of a new era in which justice and even-handedness can once again be seen as American, and yes, Jewish strengths?

If one were to ask these simple questions of a child, there is little doubt of the answer. We are left to hope that the new administration will be as wise. On second thought, we are left with more than that: we have learned that if, collectively, we raise our voices above the cries of nationalism, together, we can demand the change for which we voted, the change which we were promised.

Marji Mendelsohn has been studying the effects of religion on politics and foreign policy with a secondary interest in election fraud.

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