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City on a Hill: Can the US Provide a Model for Israel?

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Jerusalem - Reading American news online, the current Israeli "crisis" seems to have started last week when, during Vice President Biden's visit here, the Netanyahu government announced it would build 1600 settler housing units in East Jerusalem. Since new construction would violate Israeli promises to the U.S. -- and chill prospects for resuming peace talks, Israeli-American relations, plummeted, said some, to a 20-year low. (Fueling the ill will, at least for Americans, is the possibility that Israelis' timed the announcement to embarrass their American partners.)

But on the Palestinian street, specifically the main roads through Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah -- two additional neighborhoods where residents face eviction -- the crisis has a longer timeline.

Faqhri Abu Diab was born a stone's throw from the ancient -- and newly excavated, City of David. His home is in Al-Bustan, where 88 houses, home to 1500 people, are targeted for demolition. In their place, he says, a park that complements the archeological site is to be built.

"I'm not opposed to history," Diab said recently. "But who is more important: King David and King Solomon who lived here thousands of years ago or me and my children who live here today?"

An accountant, Diab stopped working several years ago to save his neighborhood. The first step was starting a community center, a large, green roadside tent furnished with card tables and plastic chairs. Sitting beneath maps of the West Bank and exhortatory posters - "Silwan is our home" - that ring the tarp's "walls," local residents explain their situation to small groups of tourists and visiting journalists.

Diab said that after the 1967 War, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinians were told that they could not build new homes, or add to the ones they owned, without permits. But obtaining a permit proved nearly impossible. When Diab wanted to enlarge the small house where he, his father and his father's father were born, he could not get the necessary permission. Like thousands of Palestinians in the neighborhoods ringing Jerusalem's Old City, he did it anyway.

Now faced with the prospect of losing his stake, he is determined to protect what he, and his compatriots, feel is basic to their very being and identity.

"Your house is not just a roof over your head, but also your life and your future," Diab said. "All we want is to stay in our houses."

When Diab tells visitors about the social and psychological cost of demolishing Palestinian homes, particularly the concomitant radicalization of the young, he does not mention the literal price tag. Before a home is demolished, occupants pay a fine for living in an illegal residence. Then they are charged for the cost of bulldozing it. Rather than add insult to injury, some Palestinians have organized a campaign to demolish their own homes rather than pay Israel for the privilege.

Although Diab's 40-year plight didn't make this recent round of reporting, the troubles of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did. Over the weekend Netanyahu swung, like a hapless piñata, between the American stick (administered by Secretary of State Clinton) and Israeli hardliners determined to continue new construction. But by Monday, the Israeli PM found his ground. He announced that Israel would keep building in East Jerusalem, as it has, he said, for 40 years. When his allies in the U.S. Congress boisterously backed him up, the Obama administration's tough talk looked to be the next Middle East casualty.

It's not surprising that the American press tells the region's complicated story through the testosterone-packed, macro-politics of Israeli-American diplomacy. Who's up, who's down, who's out, and who's in flips with thrilling intensity. The schaudenfraude of seeing Netanyahu twist in the wind or Obama slip into the conflict's sinkhole sure beats watching "The Bachelor." But it also obscures the human dimension of this longstanding tragedy.

It also misses the dimensions that make resolution or even rapprochement elusive. The focus on political diplomacy overlooks the deep religious aspects of the situation. Following the failure of pan-Arabism in the 1960s and 1970s, Islam became a unifying social, political and religious force for many Muslims in the region. The Palestinians, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, were not as prone to religious solutions as some other groups were, but they have embraced Islam for both practical reasons (Hamas began by providing social services) and sociopolitical ones. This is not to discount the spiritual pull of Islam but to acknowledge the complexity of religious commitment. Identifying with Islam can be a personal and communal statement of individual belief and group solidarity. (Not surprisingly, a growing number of Palestinian women now wear hijab.)

For many Israelis, religion and politics are inseparable. Even secularists here admit that the first generation's dream of a secular Zionism is near dead. In the intervening decades, the rationale for creating an exclusivist state on land taken from others has increasingly assumed a supernatural tinge. What other reason besides a divine covenant could justify a harsh occupation, illegal (under international law) land grabs and a historical revisionism that wipes Palestinians from the land? Some Israelis will cite security needs, but it is equally possible-- according to other Israelis -- that they would be safer if an accommodation to coexistence, along a two-state model, could be sought.

Of course, as an American, I am in no position to throw stones. I, too, live in a country whose founders believed in their divine right to land that others lived on. Those founders, religious refugees too--albeit with circumstances very different than those of 1948--sought to establish a new Israel, a light unto the nations. Evaluating that record merits a look both at the diplomatic machinations that accompany nation building as well as the struggles and sacrifices of men and women who pay its price.

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