Peace in the Middle East: a suggestion

Summary: a Jewish Canadian who has written plays about the Israel/Palestine conflict offers insights and calls for international intervention as neither side is capable of finding a road to the fair and equitable peace that the majority on both sides yearn for. 

We thank Arthur Milner for today’s newsletter.  Arthur is a Canadian playwright and activist and the author of two plays about Israel/Palestine Masada and Facts. Critics described Masada as “a skillful piece of writing driven by a powerful and frightening logic” and “an act of great moral courage” while Facts was called “riveting (from) a writer passionately engaged” and “a hard-hitting discourse on and challenge to identity – Zionist and Jew, Palestine and Israel – carried by the momentum of an intriguing who-done-it.” A published version of the two plays is available here.

Below, I offer a concrete plan for peace in Israel/Palestine. These are my credentials:

My parents’ parents, their grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and all but one of their uncles were killed in the Holocaust. Since his youth, my father had been an active right-wing Zionist. In Montreal where I grew up, he was president of an Orthodox synagogue for 30 years and remained active in Zionist politics. He went to Israel every year. Menachem Begin was a friend of his and occasionally visited our home. Begin had been a member of  Irgun, the Jewish paramilitary organisation responsible for blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and for the massacre of more than 100 Palestinian villagers, including women and children; in fact Irgun was a terrorist organisation. Begin was a founder of Likud and served as Israeli prime minister  from 1977 to 1983.

My mother was active in more mainstream Zionism. We were “traditionally” kosher. Pork was banned from the home but welcomed in Chinese restaurants. My brother and I were sent to Hebrew school. If you asked my father if he believed in God, he’d say: “religion keeps the Jews together.” He had absolute confidence that left to our own devices we would arrive at his conclusions. He did live to regret his laissez-faire approach.

I turned 17 in 1967 and got involved in sixties left-wing politics. My generation gradually turned against Israel as, following the Six-Day War, Israel transformed from David to Goliath, from socialist outpost to oppressor. In 1975, I joined a leftist theatre company and in the early eighties became resident playwright. I decided that, given my background and since no one else was doing it, I should write about Israel/Palestine. The result was Masada, a one-person play about the history of Zionism, which premiered at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) in Ottawa, in 1990. I remember telling my father I was writing a play about Israel.  He anticipated  it would not be to his liking and he was quite angry. I didn’t mention it again until the opening date had been announced. “Then I should come see it,” he said. But he never did.

The play is told as a monologue through the character of an Israeli history professor who begins the lecture as a critic of Zionism but moves into an emphatic pro-Zionist stance, shifting from reason to passion or to put it another way from the rational to the irrational.

An Israeli infantry soldiers take part in a live firing exercise near the border in readiness for possible deployment across the border into Gaza on November 20, 2023 in Southern Israel [photo credit: @ahnouch_hassana]
An Israeli infantry soldier takes part in a live firing exercise near the Gaza border in Southern Israel in readiness for possible deployment, November 20, 2023 [photo credit: @ahnouch_hassana]
The Middle East and its politics continued to fascinate me. But it wasn’t only the complex political dilemmas that roused my interest. I had started reading about evolution and I became interested in creation, as described in Genesis and by Darwin; and then about biblical history, according to the Pentateuch and modern archaeologists. When I heard about the actual unsolved murder of Dr Albert Glock an American archaeologist teaching in the West Bank, I thought: I have a plot.

That play, Facts, opened at GCTC in 2010 and was soon translated into Arabic by Kamal El Basha. Bethlehem’s Alrowwad Cultural and Arts Society produced Facts in 2012, and it toured through Palestine and Israel. We did talkbacks after every show — the cast translated for me. The play was very well received. Looking back on it, I think that, wherever it was produced, people liked Facts because it showed that two very different characters, a Palestinian Authority police inspector and an Israeli police detective, could find common ground in their effort to solve the murder. A good and mature relationship developed between a Palestinian and an Israeli. And in the third character, a settler who is the suspected killer, audiences could see the face of the militant settler movement which was then and to this day is doing its best to fatally damage any hope of a two-state solution.

In the talkbacks I was often asked, “Why does a Canadian write about us?” I was a little nervous about answering. “I’ve always written political plays,” I’d say, adding “I grew up in a Jewish and Zionist home, and eventually I felt it was my duty to write about Israel and Palestine.” The reaction was almost always positive. However, I recall one talkback, where a Palestinian university professor was particularly critical of the play but afterwards invited me to his home for lunch.

Two years after its Palestinian tour, Facts was produced at the Finborough Theatre in London and, in Turkish, by Semaver Kumpanya in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, I had been writing articles about Israel/Palestine for I’d long supported the two-state solution and then the Arab Peace Initiative but, by 2004, I had reached the conclusion that there was no hope for a negotiated settlement. And if a negotiated settlement was hopeless then, what is it now, after 56 years of occupation and the atrocities we’ve just witnessed?

I’ve concluded two things: arguing about who’s to blame will never get us anywhere. And it’s time for the international community to step in, to protect Palestinians from Israelis and Israelis from Palestinians, and to keep war from spreading. It’s time to say to Palestinians and Israelis, ‘You’ve had long enough to work this out. We’re taking over now.’”

 Keeping that in mind, I’ve come up with a seven point plan. To bring peace to Israel and Palestine, the international community must:

  1. as soon as possible, send an armed force to the Israeli border and maintain a reduced blockade of Gaza. The international force will come primarily from the U.S. and from Arab countries.
  2. oversee the removal of all remote and small settlements from the West Bank, and the freezing of all other settlements.
  3. oversee moving the fence to the Israeli side of the Green Line. Israel can have its “security barrier” but it cannot be used to annex Palestinian territory.
  4. construct a secure road link between the West Bank and Gaza; and oversee the reopening of airports.
  5. oversee elections in Israel and in Palestine. All parties and individuals contesting election must accept the existence of Palestine and Israel within the post-1948 borders. All must renounce violence.
  6. after elections, oversee the complete closing of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, the newly elected governments may alter the borders and settlement closures through mutual consent.
  7. keep international troops in the area for five years, at which time the situation will be reassessed.

It’s a simple plan, based on the Arab Peace Initiative, though it does not speak to the Palestinian right of return, which will have to be resolved down the road, by other means. Pretty well every international institution and every country supports the two-state solution. Will they send their armies? That’s what we have to work on. But it’s urgent. And it’s the easiest and most likely solution because it’s the only possible solution.

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