Boozing for a good cause in Jerusalem, that unholiest of holy cities, has a wonderful irony to it.
In recent months, I have read several of the lively Comment is Free contributions from Seth Freedman and Alex Stein. While planning my own personal peace mission to Israel and Palestine, I thought to myself: why not meet up, it should make for interesting conversation? And we arranged to meet “next week in Jerusalem”.
What I called my Without a Road Map tour was my own modest attempt to become a self-appointed people's peace ambassador and do my bit to humanise both sides of the conflict – to show the human face of Israel and Palestine. This involved a fair amount of legwork and, on a couple of occasions, it even verged on the legless.
Boozing for a good cause is a wonderful cocktail of sin and virtue. Doing so in Jerusalem, that unholiest of holy cities, has a wonderful irony to it.
Our encounter left such an impression on Seth that he wrote a CiF post about it which elicited an impressive 381 responses. “This was, to all intents and purposes, a Comment is free thread brought to life,” he wrote of a political pub brawl between me and his mate, Max, who fought in last year's war in Lebanon.
Max Terminator, as I was soon to start calling him, describes himself as “hardly a pacifist”. As a strident pacifist myself, I found his Rambo approach to life guaranteed to provoke me. After a couple of hours of heated debate, with Alex acting as my cavalry and Seth assessing the collateral damage like an international observer, Max and I called a truce on Lebanon only to discover that we shared some surprising common ground about the future: we both viewed positively the possible emergence of a federal Israeli-Palestinian state.
Encounters, both virtual and in the flesh, are crucial to bridging gaps and breaking down misunderstandings and misconceptions. In fact, the virtual world played a crucial role in the success of my journey to build understanding and empathy between Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs. I met, on an online discussion forum, the eccentric Israeli family I stayed with for a while – and it was non-stop debate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact, during my trip, I subsisted almost solely on a high-energy diet of political discourse.
For me, as an Arab, my journey provided fascinating insights into Israeli society and culture whose energy, loudness, friendliness, religiosity and chaos belie its location in the Middle East, despite some obvious differences in terms of social freedom. It put me in mind of a Lebanon or a Tunisia. Being there at a time of national grief and celebration, I realised that the Israeli obsession with security was based as much on a deep and painful national trauma as it was on the manoeuvrings of cynical politicians.
My presence also challenged the notion that many Israelis have that they are surrounded by more than 300 million hostile Muslim fanatics – whereas, in fact, the number of secular liberals in Egypt, while a relative minority, could well outstrip the population of Israel, Lebanon and Jordan combined.
One does not hear much about Israel's Palestinian minority (the so-called Israeli Arabs), so meeting so many of them during my trip – stuck as they are between two warring nations – was enlightening. Talking to people in the West Bank and seeing how they lived gave me a greater awareness of their aspirations and plight.
Engaging with so many people on both sides was both depressing and inspiring. I detected a clear will and desire for peace in almost everyone I met – and most accepted a solution along the lines of the Arab peace plan, although the binational federal state idea is winning more converts. But everyone had no idea how to get to this desired end and distrusted the other side's intentions. It is almost like peace is elusively close on the horizon but the extremists on both sides have mined the road to it. Perhaps this means that attitudes and approaches need to be rethought, and we ought to take a more gradual, incremental path to peace.
First, build trust. This level of distrust is hardly surprising, since the two peoples hardly ever meet any more: Israelis are banned from going to the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians need hard-to-get permits to enter Israel. Both sides need to challenge this. Pitch coffee tents near checkpoints so that the two sides can meet for informal chats and smoke a peace water pipe together.
Second, Israelis need to realise, on the 40th anniversary of the occupation next month, that their best insurance policy is a prosperous Palestinian people living in justice and equality – so they can start by removing the restrictions on Palestinians. They also need to learn that their heavy-handed militaristic approach wins them no friends, just more enemies.
In my view, violence and lack of unity are only hurting the Palestinian struggle, so a complete laying down of arms will help the situation. Palestinian leaders also need to get their priorities straight. With the potent mix of Israeli political paralysis, insecurity and lack of leadership, as well as the completely intertwined nature of the two peoples, they will probably not be getting their own state any time soon.
However, to my mind, human dignity comes before national pride. And, so, the Palestinian cause should be turned into a struggle for civil rights for the time being. Palestinians should campaign and lobby the occupation to fulfil its commitments. They could demand freedom of mobility, the full right to work and education, the right to live where they choose, even full citizenship of Israel.
Whatever the two sides choose to do, I have come away rather more optimistic for the future than before I arrived. Uri Avnery, perhaps Israel's most famous peacenik, told me: “I am confident that we will see peace in my lifetime.” And the man is 83, so it can't be too long now.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 7 May 2007.