The Israeli-Palestinian conflict—although conflict is not really the right word—is a bitter, bloody, and at times all-consuming rift. One might almost imagine it as a decades-old chasm marking some elusive, shifting border between “Israel” and “Palestine.” But there are no straight, shining lines on the ground, just low-fenced checkpoints that are easy to pass through—as long as you’re not Israeli or Palestinian. Though it may be simple enough to cross back and forth, it is much harder to disentangle yourself from conventional wisdom. It’s practically an equation: your religion plus your nationality plus your ethnicity plus your language equals where you stand—a truth so obvious it’s not even worth talking about.
Montages of rocket fire onto sleeping cities and people shouting, “Death to Israel”—how could you possibly see it any differently? Dead children wrapped in bloody shrouds and the Palestinian flag —isn’t it clear? See, everyone knows: how can you deny the truth? Palestine isn’t a real country. Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian children. Palestinians are terrorists. Israel is surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it. Israel wants to extend its borders to the Nile. The world doesn’t care about Israel. No one cares about Palestinians. Palestinians want to erase Israel. This land is ours. We belong here.
If you can step away from the intemperate rhetoric and lay aside whatever historical truths place you firmly on the side of righteousness—assuming that’s even possible—it may seem that the best way to start is by tallying up the claims of each, and the crimes. How many bodies, how many years of persecution, how many years lived on that land, how many holy places, how many dollars, and how many words from leaders and exiles? How much does it cost to call some fraction of that land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean your own?
And so we come to September 2011, as Palestine—or the Palestinian Authority, or West Bank Palestinians, or Mahmoud Abbas, depending on how you wish to define it—comes to the United Nations to ask for official statehood. It feels like a standstill, except that the status quo continues its creep: more settlements, more rhetoric, more rockets. It’s been nearly 20 years since the Oslo Accords, and the temporary has become the permanent. That’s exactly what we all should be afraid of: that as awful as it is today, as awful as the last 10, 20, 30 years have been for everyone involved, it will continue until—when? Until the end of days, as some American evangelicals envision? Until the worst possibility you can think of? Go ahead, imagine it.
And yet nightmare scenarios—and the nightmares people are living right now—have failed to move us, and they continue to fail. Perhaps what Israel and Palestine really have in common is their loneliness. Arab leaders who say much and do little about the martyrdom of Palestinians are no friends to them. Western countries pay off their shameful history with lip service. This vote is a foregone conclusion; the U.S. has already made its veto clear.
We are so in thrall to our own certainty—whether we dream of extending a modern Israel all the way to “Judea and Samaria” or of refugees returning from all over the world to their former homes, or whether we simply cling to “two-state solution” and “peace process” and “land swaps” like amulets that could keep from us the facts of the last half-century—that we don’t even seem to notice that we keep making the same speeches. This one, then, may not be very different, but here in 2011, there seems to be a new truth: that nothing will change or could change. And this is more horrible an idea than anything else.
So this U.N. vote may not change anything. It’s hard to say what would. The best we could wish for is a recognition that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it exists today is so intolerable that it cannot continue. To the pressure of decades, we must add the courage to demand what everyone deserves: a future.