Israel in Motion

We stood in a meadow somewhere in Northern Israel, a middle-aged American man and two young women. We smiled at each other and exchanged pleasantries in Hebrew and English, in Hebrish. The sun burned overhead, aggressively oblivious. All morning I’d been going hard on Shviel Yisrael, the challenging and beautiful Israel National Trail, and my feet were sore from scrambling on ragged, volcanic rocks. Trailside kotzim had slashed my shins with their scimitars and razor rhizomes. The sweat-streaked Israelis, seven weeks out of Eilat through the Negev Desert and Judean Hills, hefted huge backpacks – bigger than mine.

How’s the trail ahead? I asked. The women paused – minds executing a host of judgments based on culture, history and personal values. And one said, Ein ba’aya, no problem. It is good, sure, the other one elaborated.

Then they walked toward my rocks and thorns, in the general direction of Syria, and I trudged up a hill that grew ridiculously steep and twisting, in the general direction of Jerusalem. And so it went during my several weeks on Shviel Yisrael. Always, I was told, the torturous trail ahead is sweet and smooth. Soon enough, I joined in the lying – no, not lying, let’s call it an attitude adjustment. Yes, I’d tell fellow hikers, the trail is pretty easy today. Take heart, my friends, you’ll be there before you know it. Ein ba’aya.

These exchanges, recalled with great fondness, came to mind the other day as I read in The New York Times that Israelis are no longer concerned about forging a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. It’s not such a big deal, after all. They’ve “moved on” to other problems and pursuits, this according to an opinion piece by a veteran correspondent who has been stationed in Israel for many years and knows the country far better than this humble hiker. He came to his conclusion at a kick-out-the-jams wedding that seemed to announce a brash, new Israel unbound by the insoluble problems of past generations.

Maybe so. Or maybe Israelis are standing in a meadow telling the world and each other, Ein ba’aya, the trail ahead is sweet and smooth, flowing with milk and honey and high-tech gadgetry, with good times only getting better. As if coming out of a bad relationship or difficult life transition, they proclaim themselves “over” the Palestinians and “moving on” from Gaza’s roiling threat and the ongoing occupation/military supervision of the West Bank.

It is the kind of optimism that can only grow from pessimism. In polls, Israelis persistently declare that peace with the Palestinians is hopeless because the other side simply doesn’t want to deal. Doesn’t want to make tough choices. Palestinian attitudes are a near mirror: the Israelis are intractable, won’t budge, and so it’s hopeless to even try.

The insane Cold War concept of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) prevented nuclear war. The 21st century version of MAD (Mutually Asserted Distrust), perfected in the Middle East, prevents peace. Good luck to Secretary of State John Kerry, intent on fostering negotiations which the relevant parties don’t think can possibly come to anything!

Israelis, of course, are a tough-skinned lot. Yes, they may have chosen strategic delusion over mass despair when it comes to the Palestinians, and they may be practicing a Jedi mind trick (there’s nothing to see here, go about your business) regarding the key issue threatening their identity as a compassionate people in a free Jewish state, but they aren’t in a global state of denial. They like to chew over other stuff going wrong.

While hiking last year on Shviel Yisrael – a route bisecting quaint villages, kibbutzim and cities sprouting construction cranes – I asked people to rank their country’s problems. To my surprise, the ultra-Orthodox Jews known as the Hasidim topped the list. They’re on welfare and don’t have to serve in the military, folks complained. They have too many children, too much political influence! Next up, people worried about the growing, restive population of Israeli Arabs. Then the “social justice” issues: economic inequality, high cost of living, lack of affordable housing. And the water rates, they’re killing us! Last on the list, again to my surprise, came Iran’s drive to develop a nuclear bomb that could obliterate the nation. (Today, the civil war in Syria would probably crack the list, near the back.)

Only if pressed would Israelis discuss, ever so warily, the Palestinian conflict. Decades of anguish over the situation and what, they asked, has it gotten us? Endless debate, Intifadas and suicide bombings, rising anti-Semitism. The Separation Barrier. A unilateral withdrawal from Gaza met with rockets for a thank-you card. And when peace was almost there at Camp David, Arafat blinked. That was the last, best chance. So enough already.

Yes, Israelis appear to have moved on, perhaps decisively – but not because the Palestinian conflict doesn’t matter anymore. It’s just that sometimes in life all you can do is keep moving.

We stood in a sunbaked meadow in Northern Israel. We smiled at each other, dripping sweat. The young women tolerated my bad Hebrew and asked if I carried enough water. I thanked them for their concern and praised their epic journey across the land. Ein ba’aya, they said, no problem. The torturous trail ahead is sweet and smooth. You can make it, yes you can.