Even The Stones Are Testament
Every time I travel to the Middle East and visit Israel, I take long walks around many of the historic sites in Jerusalem. Invariably, I end my excursions at the Temple Mount. There I linger, watching scores of Muslims and other visitors of all colors and creeds as they flock to the great Golden Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa Mosque. Arab worshipers come to pray to almighty Allah for his mercy and compassion and to pay homage to his messenger Muhammad and the prophets who came before him.
I make my way down the steps to the Western wall of the Temple (also known as the Wailing Wall), destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 75. Every day thousands of Jews visit this entrancing edifice to relive history or watch it unfold. Some come to pray; others to seek salvation; still others, to repent. Some visit and ponder; others pray for absolution. Some are on a simple human questâ€"they seek good health and peace of mind, while others come in wonder, spellbound by the imposing wall and what it means to them.
Across an invisible, deepening emotional divide, Arabs and Jews weep silently for the loss of loved ones, victims of an unrelenting violent conflict, and pray for an end to the tragedy that has befallen them. Separate, yet together in their yearning, both peoples pray for peace. Here they are, the holiest shrines for Jews and Muslims, juxtaposed, with no possibility of either side altering anything in this sacred setting. Every stone and every gesture or movement has the same message: There is no escape from cohabitation, no way out of coexistence: Separate but inseparable, this is the destiny of Muslims and Jews. The echo of Jewish and Arab prayers mingle in the air, reaching out to the same God.
On my last visit there, as I turned to face the wall, I was overcome by sadness. I wiped my tears, looking for a chink in the wall to insert my "wish list," as countless others have done so many times before. Then a sudden feeling of doubt took possession of me. It seemed as though this whole enterprise was in vain, for no purpose, to no avail. Why am I praying to these stones? Will you hear me? Do you ever listen? Do you care? Will you heed my call? How many more deaths of Israelis and Palestinians must you witness in silence? I asked in rage. How much more blood has to be spilled? How much more destruction and despair must these two peoples endure? How could this land, the cradle of three greatest religions, have become the killing fields for its sons and daughters, victimized by extremism, delusions, and the tragic denial of each others' rights?
Now far away, in another country, I find myself asking the same questions. What can be done? Is there a way out of this self-mutilating insanity? The clock is running down. The enemies of peace are gaining momentum. Every time another Israeli or Palestinian is killed, a stone is added to the wall that divides these two peoples who are destined or condemned to live together. That is tragic.
Land for peace is not a slogan. It is the basic requisite for peaceful coexistence. The dreams of the Israelis to live in their ancient homeland and of the Palestinians to have a state of their own, do not cancel each other out. Rather, they provide the only basis for sharing the land equitably, though under separate rule. The ancient world thrust Israelis and Palestinians together. Now in our own time, the children of Abraham have returned home to join their cousins. This is neither an historical accident nor an aberration of time and space. The Wall and the Dome of the Rock summoned them together long before the first Palestinian youth and Israeli child died in the current inferno. The radicals on both sides must remember that the campaign to dislodge each other from the land is doomed to failure because Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is an historic reality anchored in a religious promise more powerful than blind fanaticism and entirely beyond its understanding.
In this holy setting, for now faith and trust have vanished. Where there is an ocean of distrust, hatred, and animosity, a breakthrough vision is needed to create a larger picture of promise.
I do not know if Prime Minister Sharon can summon the vision that will lead to the salvation of his own people and the Palestinians. However, his being picked over Natanyahu, who represents an extremism that allows for no such vision, for the leadership of the Likud Party is a welcome development. Persistent violence by Islamic Palestinian fanatics has pushed the Israelis to the right-of-center in the political spectrum, a course no Labor leader can reverse at this late hour even if the violence, especially the suicide bombings, is brought to a halt. Current polls indicate that Likud will emerge the winner in the next Israeli elections scheduled for January 2003, with the possibility of at least doubling its membership in the Knesset from 19 to 38. Since Sharon accepts, in principle, the creation of a Palestinian state as an end-game to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its creation has become part and parcel of Likud's platform. If the expected scenario unfolds, Sharon will form the next Israeli government with a considerably wider mandate, giving him the flexibility to chart a way out of this tragic morass.
Ironically, it was Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 to assert Israel's sovereignty over the area that may have instigated the second Intifadah, and so it would be doubly fitting then that Sharon, as prime minister, may be the one to eventually bring it to an end through negotiations. I cannot say that Sharon's acsent to power was an historical fluke or that his reelection would be too. As the Palestinians also elect a new leadership in January 2003, both sides ought to remember that if religious teachings and practice, which they ardently invoke in support of their historic rights, have any bearing on the outcome, then God has already spoken: Coexist in peace and harmony or perish.