Sitting Down With Amos Oz
By ROGER COHEN
AMOS Oz, the novelist whose stories and tales have probed the soul of Israel with an intimate insistence, greeted me to his book-lined apartment with a quick Hebrew lesson. I must understand that the key word, Yiddish really, is “fraiers” — or suckers.
“Most Israelis,” he suggested, “would wave goodbye to the West Bank but they don’t want to be suckers, they don’t want the Gaza scenario to repeat itself. First and foremost, these elections were about internal affairs, the middle class, state and synagogue, the draft, with a silent consensus that the occupied territories do not matter that much. Israelis are no longer interested. They vote with their feet. They don’t go there, except for the settlers and right-wing extremists. This means that if Israelis can be reassured that by renouncing the West Bank they are not going to get a lousy deal — not going to be ‘fraiers’ — they are quietly ready to do it.”
With religious-nationalist sentiment strong, even if the elections demonstrated an Israeli turn against extremism, I suggested Oz might be optimistic. But he insisted that at the end of the day some 70 percent on both sides — kicking and screaming and crying injustice — were ready for two states. “If I may use a metaphor,” Oz said, “I would say that the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors are cowards.”
Among the cowards, would he include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? “Yes I think Netanyahu is a coward,” he declared. But the victory of the center in the election could alter the equation. “It means,” Oz said, “that there will be more pressure on Netanyahu from the dovish side in Israel and from the outside world, so that his cowardice may work the other way.”
Israel — perched in a hostile neighborhood, its borders undefined, beset by internal rifts between the religious and secular, unsure what to make of the Arab upheaval around it — craves normality. Its citizens today are more concerned about violent crime than political violence. Not one Israeli was killed in 2012 in the West Bank. Its packed malls purr with affluence. Iran was a nonissue during the campaign. The Palestinian conflict, despite the odd spasm, has receded, enough anyway for people to vote en masse for a political novice, the telegenic Yair Lapid, a mystery wrapped in good looks at the head of a party with a reassuring-disquieting name: There Is a Future.
Oz, up in Tel Aviv for the weekend from his home in the desert town of Arad, has lived the entire past of the modern state of Israel. His credo as a novelist is that humankind is open-ended: People are capable of surprising not only others but themselves. He calls this “the single most promising phenomenon in history.” Lapid, in effect a political vessel awaiting content, is a character in search of meaning and, as such, of interest to Oz.
“He is a phenomenon, a manifestation of the desire of the middle class for normalization. Israelis want to be like Holland,” Oz told me. “It is a legitimate desire even if it tends to ignore fundamental issues, like the conflict with the Arabs. I don’t know if Lapid has ideas and I’m not sure he knows. What Lapid will do is a mystery not just to me — it is probably a mystery to him!”
At 73, Oz has been surprised often enough not to regard the worst as inevitable, even if war has been Israel’s leitmotif since 1948. He asks this question: “Who ever expected Churchill to dismantle the British Empire, or De Gaulle to take France out of Algeria, or Sadat to come to Jerusalem, or Begin to give back the whole of Sinai for peace, or Gorbachev to undo the whole Soviet bloc?”
His message to the incoming Israeli government is clear: Peace is impossible without boldness; nothing is beyond the capacity of an open-ended, surprise-prone humanity.
There is wistfulness in his gaze on the Israel he loves. He marvels at what he calls “a cultural golden age” of literary and scientific achievement. He deplores — and abhors — what he sees as a creeping questioning of Israel’s existence in Europe and elsewhere, one that “goes way beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy” and in part reflects anti-Americanism because “if the United States is the devil then Israel must be Rosemary’s Baby.”
At the same time he does not hide his own disappointments. “Building settlements in occupied territories was the single most grave error and sin in the history of modern Zionism, because it was based on a refusal to accept the simple fact that we are not alone in this country,” he told me. “The Palestinians for decades also refused the fact that they are not alone in this country. Now, with clenched teeth, both sides have recognized this reality and that is a good basis.”
He went on: “Loss of contact may be healthy for a while after 100 years of bloody conflict; loss of contact may be a blessing. But loss of contact can be based on a fence built between my garden and my neighbor’s garden. It cannot be based on a fence built right in the middle of the neighbor’s garden. So a fence may not be a bad idea except that this fence is located in the wrong place.” Israel’s separation barrier, closing off the West Bank, is, in other words, an unacceptable land grab.
Israel was a dream. The only way, Oz notes, to keep a dream rosy and intact and unsullied is never to live it out. This is true of everything — traveling, writing a novel, a sexual fantasy. Israel is now a fulfilled dream, one that exceeds the wildest dreams of his parents. So, Oz concludes, “The disappointment is not in the nature of Israel, it is in the nature of dreams.”
Here is his political credo. There cannot be one state because Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family (“they are not one and they are not happy.”) So “the only solution is turning the house into two smaller apartments.” Two states, absolutely, are the only answer. Palestinians and other Arabs once treated Israel like a passing infection: If they scratched themselves hard enough it would go away. Israel treated Palestine as no more than “the vicious invention of a pan-Arabic propaganda machine.” These illusions have passed. Reality now compels a compromise — “and compromises are unhappy, there is no such thing as a happy compromise.”
And what of Hamas? “At least what we can do is solve the conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization and reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an Israel-Gaza conflict. This will be a big step forward. Then we will see. Hamas may change as the P.L.O. did. The Palestinian Authority is ready for a state in the West Bank, unhappy about it, sure, but ready. They will go on dreaming of Haifa and Jaffa just as we will dream of Hebron and Nablus. There is no censorship on dreams.”
And the Palestinian right of return? “The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question. Refugees must be resettled in the future state of Palestine, not Israel.”
Two final thoughts from Oz worth the consideration of Israeli politicians: On the nature of tragedy and the nature of time.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearian way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian not a Shakespearian conclusion.”
And this: “I live in the desert at Arad. Every morning at 5 a.m. I start my day by taking a walk before sunrise. I inhale the silence. I take in the breeze, the silhouettes of the hills. I walk for about 40 minutes. When I come back home I turn on the radio and sometimes I hear a politicians using words like ‘never’ or ‘forever’ or ‘for eternity’ — and I know that the stones out in the desert are laughing at him.”
Sit down with Oz. That is my advice to the next Israeli government — and to all the deluded absolutists, Arab and Jew, of this unnecessary conflict whose unhappy but peaceful ending is not beyond the scope of open-ended human imagination.