There is a joke among Israelis that for every two people here, there are at least three opinions. That’s what makes the stories of the three men I’m about to tell you about so unexpected.
They make an odd grouping. One is a Palestinian politician, the other is a leader of an Israeli settlement and the third is a member of the Israeli Knesset.
Dr. Nachman Shai, an Israeli Knesset member whose politics are right down the middle, walks into the room at a rapid clip—cell phone ringing—looking more businessman than politician. He’s a man with little time to waste.
Our conversation quickly turns to the one thing never far from everyone’s mind, the one thing hanging over you at nearly every turn: peace. Shai cuts to the chase.
“This piece of land has to be divided,” Shai utters. “The Bible says it belongs to us, but we have to be realistic.”
Seemingly mid-sentence, Shai’s phone rings. Without missing a beat, the US-trained doctor answers, speaks a few words of Hebrew and then quickly shuts off the phone. He turns back to us and picks up right where he left off. For Shai, a man of science, facts and rationality, there is little sentimentality. Peace is an imperative, he believes, because the status quo of continuing conflict is a numbers game that Israelis cannot win.
“There are now six million Jews in Israel and six million Arabs, but they will soon be more than us. If we don’t find peace, there will be another war. We have to find a way to bring this conflict to an end.” Shai is convinced that a deal to create a Palestinian state has to be struck, and soon.
Six miles and a world away in Bethlehem, another man agrees. George Hazboun, a Palestinian politician and the former deputy mayor of Bethlehem, is tired of the failed fits and starts that never lead to peace. But he now believes Israel is running out of time.
I ask Hazboun why there’s suddenly more urgency for Israel to strike a deal.
“The Arab Spring,” he fires back. “The Middle East is being completely revolutionized and it would not serve Israel well to be at odds with us when all this all shakes out.”
As the Arab world’s old autocratic regimes shed away, no one quite knows what’s in store but Hazboun seems convinced that the emerging Arab revolutionary sentiment may not take kindly to an Israeli government that cannot make peace with its Palestinian neighbors.
The sun seems to go down quickly over the Holy Land, so much so that by the time we arrive in Efrat, it’s pitch black. Out of the darkness, we see David Cohen, his friendly smile reflected by the headlights of our vehicle.
Efrat is a Jewish settlement lodged halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank. Cohen is one of the leaders of the settlement and like most settlers, he believes that all of this land belongs to the Jews. Period. Ideologically, Cohen says that he is in many ways more conservative than Prime Minister Netanyahu.
But despite all that, Cohen has more in common with Shai and Hazboun than you might think.
“My blood boils to say it, but it’s time to give part of our land to the Palestinians,” says Cohen.
Cohen is visibly pained as he says this, and he seemingly tries to step back from his statement to make clear that Palestinians must first accept Israel’s right to exist.
“What if they do?” I ask.
He takes a breath, then looks away. As he turns back, he seems hardly able to compose himself.
“My father fought. I fought. I saw my son fight. But I don’t want my grandson to fight,” Cohen insists, “It’s enough.”
Here, surrounded by ruins dating back to hundreds of years before Christ, I press Cohen even further.
“Are you willing to break up settlements and remove Jewish residents to give Palestinians this land?”
Silence. Long pause. More silence. Finally, Cohen looks at me and responds.
“Yes,” says this former fighter with the grandfatherly eyes, “Yes, its time.”