At a newsstand in Tel Aviv, I was looking for a copy of the day’s Ha’aretz, the left-of-centre daily, when an American-born senior advised me to buy the Jerusalem Post, which is centre-right.
When I refused, he launched into a diatribe about the Arabs, claiming it was futile to re-enter peace negotiations.
“Look what’s going on in Egypt, in Syria. It’s as if they’re going back in time, from the 14th to the 13th century and heading to the 12th,” he charged.
It was early in August and those on the left were hopeful the renewed effort to make headway in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would bear fruit.
Those on the right are very skeptical, as the American pointed out, misquoting Abbas, claiming he had said there would be “no Jews” in a future Palestine. What Abbas had said was no Israeli civilians or soldiers. He later told a delegation from left-wing Meretz that he did not reject the possibility of some Jewish settlements remaining in the new state.
Most people of good will on both sides in Israel and in the occupied West Bank agree that talking and searching for compromise is better than the alternative, a return to acts of war and terror.
Just getting to the table has been a Byzantine exercise. Israel agreed to release the first 26 of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, which raised protests in Israel because most were serving terms for murder or accessory to murder.
To counter the effect, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to build 1,187 apartments, 800 in East Jerusalem and the rest in West Bank settlements, including outlying ones. An additional 900 units are to be built in the East Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, formerly part of Beit Jalla.
Talks are happening, and Abbas has said his goal is a final settlement that could be implemented in stages, similar to Israel’s gradual withdrawal from Sinai after the Sadat-Begin peace deal of March 26, 1979.
Sadat’s reward: two years and seven months later, he was assassinated by members of Islamic Jihad.
Waiting for take-out pizza in a Jerusalem restaurant, a family member and I had a discussion about the peace process and why he was so skeptical.
Yes, he agreed, the occupation has its ugly side. But he’s prepared to live with it rather than raise false hopes in what he considers to be a futile exercise.
“How can you negotiate peace when Abbas cannot speak for Gaza?” he asked of the strip controlled by Hamas, which says it will never recognize a Jewish state.
“Abbas is weak, he does not have enough support or authority to persuade Palestinians to accept a deal,” he said.
He is convinced that the fundamental problem is the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism, its refusal to accept Jewish control of a land mass in the heart of the territory that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia in southeast Asia.
At the time, secularists and progressive Egyptians were protesting against the democratically elected Morsi regime. It became captive to the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood and in that sense betrayed the aims of the Tahrir Square revolution that led to the overthrow of strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Now Mubarak has been freed from prison and the army is in charge. According to Anwar Sadat, a politician and nephew of the slain president, Morsi had to go. Had he remained as president, “we would have had another hundred years of the Brotherhood in power,” he told Robert Fisk of the Independent.
“Real democracy in this part of the world doesn’t really fit. We need awareness, education, to make people understand all our values.
“We Egyptians talk of all this civilization we had for 7,000 years, but we have buried all that our fathers did. We cannot even come to an understanding of what we really want.”
Then there is Syria, emerging then as a crisis with 1.8 million refugees having fled to Jordan, Lebanon,
Turkey and Iraq. And as these lines were being written, the world awaited a response to the use of chemical weapons that might have killed up to 1,300 civilians.
While in Tel Aviv we spent time in a relative’s gorgeous new apartment. We got to stay in the safe room, with a sealed window and door that are designed to withstand a rocket attack, or worse.
This is the reality of the neighbourhood, and part of the background that must be understood in the context of the peace process and allowing the West Bank to become a buffer zone as a Palestinian state that separates Israel from potential attackers. It is only 15 kilometres from Tulkarm to Natanya.
A vision of the future is there for all to see in Jerusalem, in the pedestrian mall that is now King George and Ben Yehuda Sts., in and around Zion Square.
On a typically busy Thursday or Saturday night, Hasidic and Orthodox Jews crowd into the same shops as Arab women and their children from East Jersusalem.
They love the freedom of the street, the shared interest in a nice blouse or a pair of jeans.
They sit in the same outdoor restaurants, not at the same table but side by side, sip coffee, enjoy an ice cream and savour the moment.
No police or security guards are visible. Crowds gather around buskers, and throw coins into a hat or just enjoy the vibe. Prices are not cheap, but the cafés are packed.
The same scene is repeated in the more upscale restaurants of Emek Refaim, the German colony, in Jerusalem. And in Tel Aviv the cafés are packed every night, and stay open way past midnight.
Compared with what is happening in Syria and Egypt, with all the difficulties inherent in any peace plan and the uncertainty of approval in a referendum, this scene is a portent of what could be.
Israel alongside an independent Palestine linked in a loose confederation? As Theodore Herzl wrote of the prospect for a Jewish homeland: “If you will it, it is no dream.”