Winding road to Mideast peace

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Benjamin Netenyahu
Benjamin Netenyahu

Well I suppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt forced to resort to dirty tactics to win another term for his right-wing Likud Party.

But remember this guy is a consummate politician. A couple of days after the election, he retreated from his vow that there never would be a Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister.

The front-page news in the national papers Thursday featured “Bibi” retreating from his no Palestinian state and now adding a few conditions, most important better security arrangements for Israel than appear in earlier proposals touted by Western governments, including the U.S.

What American political junkie doesn’t understand what happened in Israel this week? Netanyahu simply played a familiar game when it looked like he might lose the election. He played the card that stirred the Israeli far right to get out the vote.

Sure he took it back. But it helped him win.

In 1982, with a group of other journalists, I got to see the Mideast political dynamics up close. In the Old Goliath Bar near my hotel, I tried to follow the evening news. All my interpreter was able to report to me was the political debate at that time.

A conversation with Vy Witte, the owner who grew up in Chicago, was all politics.

At the hotel desk, when I stopped by one time mid-day for directions, I got a political lecture from the clerk. I’m not sure I ever got the information I had requested. (I found all clerks and waiters spoke English. My Hebrew from graduate school days turned out to be useless following a conversation.)

Same at the shoe store where I had stopped to get inserts for the boots I thought I needed to climb around in the desert. Oh, I saw plenty of sand in the Sinai but mostly I was in cities and villages where the ground was either grass or hard clay.

I found lots of different feelings among Israelis. Like those settlers in the village of Yamit where Israeli soldiers were removing Jewish families as the Sinai was being returned to Egypt. Surviving photos I took show some very sad faces.

On the way back to Israel proper, Palestinian kids threw stones at my bus. It must have had Israeli markings. I don’t recall.

But everywhere I went I was reminded of the tensions and unresolved issues that remain to this day the hallmark of the Mideast. I gathered from the raised, sometimes angry voices I heard at the Knesset that even strict parliamentary rules didn’t keep feelings from running high.

In a bunker at the Golan Heights, as soldiers kept watch on the Bekka Valley below, I got the lecture. Yes, I was sure the rifles were loaded. On Land Day Palestinian shops in Old Jerusalem were closed. On the rooftops, though, armed Israelis observed the comings and goings of tourists and this curious journalist.

When I got on a city bus, riders in military uniform carried a rifle. Veteran newsman Daniel Schorr, now deceased, caught a ride on our bus from the Golan Heights back to town. His car had broken down. So much in this endlessly fascinating part of the world also features so much that’s routine. In one rural village I saw people milking cows and herding sheep while a young man, a rifle strapped over his soldier, kept watch.

At one government building, the legendary Yitzhak Rabin lectured the visiting American journalists on Israel’s turbulent history for an hour. Maybe longer. He entertained two questions – at most – then disappeared.

The intensity I found in the Israelis I also found among the Palestinians. I met some Palestinians in southern Lebanon at a school. I met lots of Palestinian shopkeepers in the Old City. Those who spoke some English tutored me further on Mideast politics. I respected the passion from all sides. I often found the logic lacking.

Whether Americans approved the outcome of the Israeli election or not, we still have many shared interests in that region. We can celebrate Israeli’s democratic ways. Indeed, the United States was present at the founding of the state. Many of our fellow citizens who are Jewish remain huge supporters of the state. Of course, we have a vital interest in the stability of the region because of our continuing dependence on foreign oil.

I’m not convinced that Netanyahu and Likud’s election victory is a setback for peace. Maybe it’s only a conservative that most all Israelis can trust to make peace. Meantime, I’d sure like to see the prime minister and President Obama patch things up. Peacemaking requires partners. This part of the world remains home to the great religions that for generations have taught the way to peace: talk and give, talk and give.

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