The Way of Peace?

A cease-fire that does not lead to a cessation of hostilities is a cynical sham at best. The August UN-brokered truce between Israel and Hezbollah has slowly come into effect as several nations have struggled to provide troops to police the “peace.” But even if 15,000 UN and 15,000 Lebanese soldiers replace Israel’s 30,000 ground troops, the potential for violence will remain. Why? Because, as other observers have noted, the Middle East is a very dangerous neighborhood.

No one knows that better than the many Lebanese civilians who have suffered loss of family, home and livelihood in the disproportionate Israeli response to a confrontation that had nothing to do with them. They were not supporters of Hezbollah’s action in killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. And no one knows it better than those uninvolved residents in cities across northern Israel and in Haifa who suffered similar losses under the rain of katyushas fired from Hezbollah batteries. They had nothing to do with the confrontation either.

One family whose loss underscores the tragedy of spiraling violence unleashed by implacable enemies is that of the celebrated Israeli author and peace activist David Grossman. Just before the ceasefire, Grossman—whom some have referred to as the anguished conscience of Israel—spoke at a Tel Aviv rally. The Lebanese government had made a proposal to deploy troops to the southern part of the state, and Grossman, who had initially supported the Israeli response to Hezbollah’s action, decided it was now time to speak out against further escalation. He received what must have been an encouraging call from his 20-year-old son, Uri, who was part of an Israeli tank crew inside Lebanon. The young man was happy at the news of the coming ceasefire and spoke of being home for Friday dinner. But the next day Uri’s vehicle was hit by a Hezbollah antitank rocket and he was killed.

My heart goes out to the Grossman family; 16 years ago I was in their Jerusalem home interviewing David for a television program. He provided some of the best commentary we have gathered on the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma. David Grossman understands the need for peace based on focused understanding and respect for the underlying commonalities between today’s antagonists. In the interview he told the story of how, as a child, he had heard the Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasir on radio threatening to come and throw the Jews into the sea. Now the peace-loving man’s son is dead at the hands of similar aggressors in a confrontation both father and son wanted to end.

Another perceptive observer of the Middle East, Albert Einstein, saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as between “two rights” and secretly lent his name to efforts to resolve it. Despite his balanced assessment, there has been little progress in the decades since he made the observation. That’s because at its heart, the conflict is a clash of identities and ideologies. Whether it’s Hezbollah, Hamas, the PLO or Israel, none will achieve lasting peace without recognition of the unavoidable truth that identity and ideology matter to everyone.

No student of Middle Eastern international politics can begin to understand the region without taking into account the ebb and flow of identity politics.”

Shibley Telhami and Michael Barnett, Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, 2002

Identity awareness means asking and answering the question, “Who am I?” But this is only the starting point in resolving intercommunal problems. If there is to be hope for reconciliation and resolution in any of the world’s identity-based conflicts, then “Who am I?” must lead to the much more important question, “Who should I be?” The change of heart that should result is the first essential step toward broad political change.