So Near and Yet So Far

The End of Daysby By Gershom GorenbergThe Free Press. 275p $25

The coincidence of timing in the publication of these two books, so different in tone, content and style, yet complementary in what they have to tell the reader, is striking. Yossi Beilin’s book narrates the Middle East peace process from the secret meetings at Notre Dame in Jerusalem in August 1990 (the use of a Catholic site reflected the fact that both Palestinians and Israelis trusted its neutrality) to the brink of Barak’s upset victory over Netanyahu, a victory that did indeed give the world the hope that a final agreement was within reach. Beilin was involved in the entire process and adds perspectives that make this book a valuable resource for historians as well a significant book for anyone who wants to understand the peace process and the hopes and fears on both sides that went into its construction. His is the work of an insider.

Gershom Gorenberg, one of Israel’s leading journalists, on the other hand, writes from outside the communities he describes, but he provides profound insights into them. The Temple Mount and its symbolism for Jews and Muslims alike was at the center of the storm that ended Barak’s hopes when Ariel Sharon triggered the current intifada. The End of Days enables readers to understand just why this was so, and why Sharon’s symbolic stroll on the Mount predictably led to the tragic violence of the past months. There is a poignancy to reading Beilin’s book. Israelis and Palestinians had come very far and indeed were very close in substance to a solution when Arafat shied away from the Palestinian state being offered to himtantalizingly close. One can understand why the (for the present) much-criticized Barak made the astoundingly generous offer he made to Arafat to close the deal. Gorenberg helps us understand the Islamic fundamentalism that contributed not a little to Arafat’s reasons for balking at the last moment, even though to an outsider it looks as if he was being given everything he neededand more.

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Beilin is admirably insistent on communicating to his readers the sincerity and courage not just of the Israeli negotiators, but that of their Palestinian counterparts as well. One of the levels on which his book can be read is as a study of the moral toughness and vision of which humanity is capable at its best. Gorenberg, on the other hand, probes with mature intelligence the darker side of the human soul, obsessive and prone to violence in its efforts to achieve the object of its obsession, which in this case is the most sacred spot on the face of the earth.

The Temple Mount is sacred not only to Jews, but to Muslims and Christians as well. And Gorenberg is quite evenhanded in explaining to readers where the fundamentalist tendency endemic to all three traditions can lead their unwary practitioners. One of the levels on which his book can be read is as a lesson in how religious leadership needs to practice constant vigilance to keep at bay the darker forces its own profound symbolism can unleash. It occurred to me as I read these two books that together they provide a very good functioning definition of the doctrines of creation and original sin, teachings that all three Abrahamic traditions have in common, of course. Gorenberg’s book starts with what he calls a shoot sprung from the trunk of Catholicism, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, which led to the self-immolation of 530 people in Uganda in March of 2000. After this, however, the Catholic Church pretty much drops out of the picture in favor of more fanatical groups of Christians (from America) and Jews (many also from America) and Muslims. Helpfully, he does not just paint the dangers of these groups. He has spent time with them and so gives us a good sense of their communities and of key individuals within them. And he sets the vignettes and stories of contemporary millennialists within a solid historical foundation in each case. What is the attraction of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount for so many people? Why is there such a volatile mix of nationalism and faith? Readers will find the answers here.

Beilin ends his book on the outside of the Israeli political scene, with Labor having lost to Likud, wondering when they might get back in to continue their interrupted work, but certain that the momentum of the peace process, though it could be slowed, could not be stopped. Labor, and Beilin, have been in and out again. At this writing, Sharon is forming a unity government with Labor. It is to be noted that Sharon won, not by rejecting the peace process but by arguing that only Sharon can bring peace, albeit on less generous terms than Barak had offered. I believe that Beilin’s fundamental optimism will, in the end, be justified. Certainly this is the clear will of the majority of the Israeli people expressed democratically at the polls.

Beilin is convinced that it is the will of the majority of Palestinians, too. If so, when the time is right, the long, hard work of negotiating done by Israelis and Palestinians beginning at Notre Dame de Sion will still be there as a framework ready for implementation.

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