Blessing and curse the city

30 Apr 1998

From: Issa Sarras <issa@alquds.net>

Blessing and curse the city

There may be no fence these days - but the border's there all the same

By David Sharrock

The Guardian, Thursday April 30, 1998

Nora had a vision of today's 50th anniversary, how it might have been. She is a devout Christian, an activist with the Sabeel church group which advocates a Palestinian brand of liberation theology. Sabeel suggested Israel honour a Biblical notion of Jubilee - a time of justice and forgiveness, "when captives are released and the oppressed can go free". She thought 1998 might have been a good time for Israel "to right these wrongs", to accept that the Palestinians are a people with equal rights and claims on the land both nations share.

As a young woman, just married in 1967, she believed that the international community would eventually come to the Palestinians' rescue, but not now. Will she ever see peace in her lifetime? "Frankly?" she asks. "No."

"We were very close to peace and we blew it," he says, and he should know. As Israel's deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin was one of the architects of the Oslo peace process - the closed-door sessions where Israelis and Palestinians met in the Norwegian countryside and devised a new way to live together. It culminated in that unforgettable handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, Beilin's boss, and Yasser Arafat. But now his boss is dead, cut down by a fellow Jew - and Beilin is 50.

As a politician, he can count his career a great success. He is one of the brightest stars in the Labour Party, a member of the Knesset with a knack for spinning out agenda-setting ideas. He is never off the TV or out of the papers. Last year he was a serious challenger for the party leadership. But Beilin's life is also a story of thwarted dreams. He says his real goal was to be a political scientist, teaching at a university. There he could admit he has no monopoly on truth, that there are two sides to every question. The life of branch meetings and 'Hear, hear' doesn't suit him at all.

He didn't used to see himself as a maverick or a mould-breaker. In 1967, while the young people of America, Britain and France were growing their hair and staging a youth rebellion, he was enrolling in the army, becoming a "good, obedient servant". He was in the signal corps, an expert in Morse code. "My speed was very high," he says with a smile - more amused than proud.

Flower Power passed him by. "I almost didn't know about it. The musical Hair was something from another world." The first he heard of Woodstock was several years after the event. Yossi had other adventures on his mind. "The war of '67 was very exciting for my generation. We always thought our parents were the only ones to have fought a real war, back in 1948." Now he and his friends were on the march. "To reunite Jerusalem, to get to the Wailing Wall - that was very emotional." On that sixth day, he cried.

At the time, Israelis - cheered on by Jews all over the world - believed they had achieved one of the defining goals of Zionism. Israel's conquests showed the Jews were no longer puny losers, to be pushed around and persecuted by every bully in the neighbourhood. "After 2,000 years of weakness, it was very tempting to show we, too, could twist the arm of somebody." The Jews were escaping their past.

"What felt like our biggest blessing," Yossi says now, surrounded by books recalling that history, "became our biggest curse". Suddenly Israel was an occupier, with much more territory for its army to defend. The young Yossi Beilin paid an immediate price: his army service was extended from two years to three. But the real unease set in later. It took the shock of 1973 and the unexpected Arab attack on Yom Kippur. As Israelis prayed and fasted on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the tanks of Syria and Egypt rolled toward them. For Yossi it was not so much a turning point as a breaking point.

The first casualty was his faith. "I said to myself, 'I cannot trust them again. Not the prime minister, not parliament, not God - all those who are in charge, all those who were so sure of themselves'." He didn't just blame Golda Meir for Israel's lack of readiness, for its complacency - but the Lord Almighty. "In my eyes, the religion was part of the establishment." Israel was not using the gains of 1967 as bargaining chips for peace. Instead, the conquered lands had locked Israelis into permanent hostility with the Palestinians. Yossi and his Labour allies came very close to ending all that with their Oslo effort - but then Rabin was murdered and it all came to a juddering halt.

So Yossi can't find it in his heart to celebrate today. He doesn't much care for birthdays but this one, especially, is too sad. The tragedy, he says, is that Zionism was meant to solve the Jewish problem, to provide the one place where Jews could be safe. "And yet Israel is pretty well the only place in the world now where Jews are killed because they are Jewish." So it's no wonder Israel has struggled with its 50th birthday. The Israelis know there are things they should celebrate: the swelling of the population from 600,000 to nearly six million citizens, the transformation of Hebrew from a dormant tongue into a living language, a standard of living on a par with Britain's. But still the atmosphere has been muted, the planning of today's jubilee events riven by rows, disorganisation and chaos. Tekuma, the documentary series shown on Israel TV to mark the event, has not been a glorious nostalgia trip or collective pat on the back; it has been a 22-hour exercise in soul-searching. For Israelis know their society was built with such high hopes, such impossibly big expectations - and that, for all their striving, their dreams have stubbornly refused to come true.