Perception is reality. So goes the old trope – the bane of various minorities, spiky-haired punks, and clear thinkers everywhere.
In an intractable, prolonged, bitter standoff between Palestinian and Israeli governments, the reality gets shuffled into irrelevance, leaving only the perceptions of the two sides, those fractured into many different shades, so that the “reality” of the situation is a shattered landscape of colliding images, far more difficult to interpret than your average Juan Gris painting.
Appreciating that reality then becomes a task not in deduction based on the facts given, but in inference from the various biases of how we can move forward. It is not enough to assess blame, to assign “right” or “wrong” to the various parties and players, and then leave them to stew in their shame or their vindication. We have to understand what’s come before and work from that to build something new.
It’s what makes a piece on the loss of hope in the Arab world, regardless of the exaggeration and bombast of the presentation, a valid one. If Amman and Dubai have lost hope, it doesn’t matter quite as much if their reasoning is right or wrong; you will have a much harder time convincing them to change their mind than you will responding to their position by making changes.
The perception is also a key factor in Tuesday’s election in Israel. It’s reductive to say the Israeli perspective on recent events is different than that of the rest of the world’s; one would have to mention how differently international and local media portrayed the Gaza War, one would have to review their history thoroughly, and one would have to see that it’s a mere 20 minutes before you can stumble into the West Bank by car from Tel Aviv, or that Jerusalem is surrounded by the West Bank and is a lynchpin in future negotiations.
From afar, it seems like a hopeless cause: Avigdor Lierberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party are about to sweep into the 3rd largest party representation in the next Knesset, rendering the recent drama over whether Netanyahu or Livni will win (YB has stolen quite a few of Likud’s likely voters) almost moot. Lieberman, sure to be in the ruling coalition and likely to have choice of whether to recommend Livni or Netanyahu to get first crack at forming a coalition, has risen to such prominence on the fascist-like slogan of “No Citizenship without Loyalty” with regards to Israeli Arabs.
The prime minister candidates are uninspiring on their own, but with Lieberman as a vital cog in the government, civility and reasoned sacrifices look like pipe dreams. (It should be said that Lieberman packs a bigger bark than bite, is a proponent of the two-state solution and exchanging territories, and stands as a secular bulwark against the unappealing presence of Shas and other religious parties. That doesn’t make him a paragon of hope and peace, however.)
How could a people that claim to want peace and boast the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East support such a thing as a right-wing drift towards domineering policies and unpromising peace prospects? That’s where the tormented history of the Jews comes in.
While we, in the Western world especially, would like to move past history in the 21st century, to start fresh and realize that we are modern and civilized and not enslaved to what came before, the Israeli mentality is rooted in the past, in ways obvious and not. Obvious would be the distrust of “Arabs”, the people represented by countries who wanted to sweep Israel to the sea, an enduring tenet of the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas chain. Obvious how that ties to the millennia of nations seeking to limit, wipe out, or remove the Jewish population in their land.
Less obvious is how it seeps into the consciousness; a 6th grader in the international school I work at, a Jewish girl, wondered upon reading the book Bronze Bow, “Why did everybody want to get rid of the Jews?”
Fair or not, that perception is dictating the shift in Israel to the right. While it’s now possible that Tzipi Livni will be the next prime minister, something improbable as little as a week ago, the coalition is still going to be of an unwieldy right-bloc nature. Peace seems to move farther away with each news report.
And yet, included in that perception and that Israeli mentality is the most backwards way of hope, again coming from that fountain of inspiration in Washington. “If Obama does what he’s threatened to do, and makes Israel give things up for peace,” a colleague of mine, a grizzled Israeli planning to vote left bloc, “it will be easier for a right wing bloc to do it. Ariel Sharon was right wing, he pulled out of Gaza; Menachem Begin was right wing, he made peace with Egypt.” She didn’t sound optimistic about the idea, but she was saying there was a chance.
Which is where perception rests in Israel these days: right or left, security or peace, the citizens are unexcited about Tuesday’s election, and don’t expect much to change. Only an outsider can save us from ourselves. Such is the reality.