The Middle East is a minefield capable of instantly exploding any expectations, so I come away from a short visit to Israel slightly more knowledgeable but still wary of my inevitably superficial conclusions.
Everyone on every side was candid, helpful and friendly and welcoming as they enthusiastically explained their views. There wasn't much agreement among them beyond an apparent general view that things were less than stable but not immediately untenable.
Unsurprisingly, some of what I saw confirmed beliefs already held. What the Israelis have done with unpromising land is impressive and beautiful. The walls dividing the society - particularly the physical ones - are ugly.
On both sides, the political extremists seem to have disproportionate sway, though I defer to a wise Israeli friend who says that neither exercises control and, in Israel, the divisive splits within the society are balanced by an ability to quickly unite during times of crisis, which are not infrequent.
But there were also surprises, from the inability of anyone anywhere to say a single kind word about the Israeli government to the realization that some Israeli settlements resemble affluent suburbs to a suggestion from one settler that the peace process had gone awry and should be replaced by an effort to create a unitary state with political power shared among all citizens.
That's a provocative idea that could move things forward or backward. It could suggest an appetite for movement, change and even progress. It could also protect his neighborhood. Perhaps it combines all these elements.
Some perspective on the jumbled mosaic came from an unexpected source, a David Brooks column about Congressional comity noting the human predisposition to feel friendship toward individuals while fearing groups.
It was a helpful reminder that most of us spend most of our time negotiating life's personal challenges in an environment colored by larger political issues. That's as true in the Middle East as it is in the United States. But few of us here have the individual relationships that could allay some of our fears of seemingly unfriendly groups there.
The Palestine News Network is an effort to simultaneously promote non-violent pressure for a settlement while providing the outside world with a picture of the Palestinian community that goes far beyond politics. It provides some useful context. Director Fadi Abu Sada was generous in sharing his time with my group of visitors and explaining how his staff of journalists works present a broader view to both the local community via radio broadcasts and the wider world of the Internet.
Also worth reading are his personal reflections.