By Khaled Diab
This month, there has been a general preoccupation with the 1967 war and the occupation that started 40 years ago. But all the retrospectives have done little to raise people's optimism that peace is attainable. It might now be worthwhile to cast our sights four decades into the future and consider Israel's first centennial.
In 2048, will it depressingly be 'business as usual' - only even more entrenched than it is today, with the land carved up into severed, separated and heavily armed Israeli and Palestinian bantustans and ghettoes? Will it possibly have turned 'apocalyptic', with the region-wide war many have been fearing finally engulfing the Middle East, spreading out from the two epicentres of Iraq and Iran, and Israel and Palestine, to subsume everything in between and a lot that lies beyond?
I'm going to be optimistic and dream of desirable and remote, yet plausible, future.
Israel celebrates first centennial
Staff and agenciesIsraelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the hundredth anniversary of the painful birth of their once troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfillment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.
The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate Independence Day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, came together in jointly adiministered Jerusalem, the two nations' spiritual capital, for a joint celebration with thousands of revellers.
"Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day," a clearly emotional Shalom V___, the charismatic one-time Israeli prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. "I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people's history. After two millennia of statelessness, the Jewish people's dream of nationhood has gone from strength to strength over the past century. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th birthday for their nation."
A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Israelis and Palestinians who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B____, the popular ex-Palestinian prime minister. "Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. We've come a long way. It has not been easy for my people to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered a lot in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren. From the very bottom of my heart, I wish Israel many centuries more of prosperous coexistence."
The still youthful-looking Salama and Shalom, who prefer to stress the peaceful connotations of their first names, hugged like the two veteran comrades they were.
The path to peace
Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, Salama was into his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. As a passionate young idealist, the pictures of Ariel Sharon entering the Al Aqsa Mosque complex with hundreds of troops had led him, the introverted medical doctor, to join the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He was engaged in a number of gunbattles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he'd critically wounded.
As he was a fairly senior member of the Brigade, the Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not symapthise with Salama's distinction that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers - besides he did not believe that Salama had no part to play in any attacks against civilians. "Even if what you say is true, you're my POW until the end of this war," the hawkish officer famously said.
Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history - and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side. He also started up a correspondence with a junior Knesset member and historian, Shalom. Together, they realised the powerful explosive effect of history and ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common history which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic narratives of both sides, with more nuanced narratives, with some epic elements.
Although the Jews had seen conversion and intermixing in the two millennia since they were exiled by the Romans and the indigenous population that was left had seen a fair bit of immigration and converted to Christianity and Islam, the two young men came up with the appealing storyline of long lost brothers and sisters coming home to their family after years of suffering and pain. However, the ensuing family feud had made the reunion an ugly one, but now it was time to drop the familial bickering and work together for their common good.
They also agreed to work together on 'bread and butter' issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama's release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a 'collaborator', but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of 'individual dignity before national pride' won him many converts among the hard-pressed Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, civil war in Gaza and the West Bank, and regular bloody skirmishes with the Israeli army. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.
Timeline to independence
Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so. By around 2018, the movement they'd spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021. The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away - and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit. The Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most who returned came from Europe or the USA, but some also moved from Israel.
After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referendums were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. Surprisingly for some observers, a majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel. The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel's joy - traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair - would also be that of Palestine's, set according to the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian 'naksa'.
'Given the size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option," Shalom said at the time.
"In the past, we had our hands at each others' throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand," said Salama, independent Palestine's first premier.