03/16/2011 12:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Politics of Despair and Politics of Hope

The sudden ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and then the wave following wave of demonstrations throughout the region, left me -- like many Israelis, I'd guess -- both stirred and shaken. Stirred by the truth-to-power courage of the protestors (as I write, crowds are gathering in Green Square in Tripoli, though yesterday's crowds were strafed by helicopter gunships) shaken by the uncertainty that these protests leave in their wake. And stirred and shaken at once by how suddenly a stable status quo can collapse, passing from inevitable to impossible in a matter of hours. As Egypt readies for what may be the first democratic elections in its 5,000 years, it is hard not to wonder whether there isn't a lesson for us to learn. Might history be casting up new circumstances that may somehow allow new solutions as well for our own enduring conflict with the Palestinians?

Indeed, it's not just the paroxysms of our neighbors to the south that makes people here think that, even after a century of often-violent struggle, the conflict between Jews and Palestinians here may not be as inevitable as it seems. Overshadowed by the uprisings in the Middle East have been the "Palestine Papers," a large cache of notes and transcripts documenting years of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis released by Al-Jazeera just days before the unrest began in Tunisia. The papers have been variously interpreted by pundits and politicians; some saw them as proof that peace is a pipe-dream, others as a demonstration of the opposite. A month and a half ago, Bernard Avishai shuttled between Jerusalem and Amman to ask the two prime ministers taking part in the negotiation -- Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas -- how they saw matters.

In a long essay in the New York Times, Avishai reported that both men believed that their efforts could lead to a comprehensive peace settlement, and soon. Olmert told him that "we were very close, more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians." Abbas told him that the negotiations included "creative ideas" that could solve problems that in the past defied solution. The sides had effectively agreed on matters of security and defense, for instance. Based on his interviews, Avishai concludes that agreement was almost in hand: "The gaps appear so pitifully small."

To most Israelis, this last thing is hardly a surprise. The great, open secret of the peace process is that most Palestinians and Israelis know, more or less, what a negotiated settlement between the two sides will look like: two states, tweaked 1967 borders, limited return of refugees, etc. This is more-or-less the settlement almost forged between Olmert and Abbas, and it is more or less so-called "Geneva Accord" hammered out by Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals. Most Israelis agree that, if a peace accord is ever struck up, this is what it will look like.

Lately, it must be admitted, this conditional "if" has come to seem ever more tenuous. Agreement between Israelis and Palestinians seems far more distant now than it did two years ago, during the period documented by the Al-Jazeera papers. In this interim, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to replace Olmert (who resigned to fight corruption charges), and he assembled a rejectionist coalition government that quickly took off the table the compromises offered by his predecessor. Abbas' position, too, has become more precarious since he first entered peace negotiations. All the while, more housing units were being built in the settlements, making them that much bigger, that much more steadfast, and that much harder to uproot. Not long ago, the American ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said that the growth of these settlements "devastates trust between the parties and threatens the prospect of peace." Ask any diplomat on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and they'll say the same or worse.

Last week, my think-tank colleagues and I decided to do what folks like us almost never do, to go over the green line to see actual settlements and spend a couple of days speaking with actual settlers. What we saw there surprised me.

We met, for instance, a fellow named Nachum Pechenick, the director of an organization called Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace). Pechenick, whose mother and father were among the first Jews to make their home in the West Bank in the years after it was first occupied, came with time to regard his parents' true belief that Jews had title to the land they settled as harsh and misguided. "They did not, could not, see the Palestinians." Pechenick himself, who with his long beard, Talmudic idiom, and oversized skullcap remains a central-casting settler, cannot help but see the Palestinians with whom he lives, and his organization "Land of Peace" aims to foster "peace and dialogue between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria." Pressed about the future of Israel-Palestine relations, he cheerfully offered that the occupied territories may well be returned, in which case most of the settlers would move back to Israel, while he and tens of thousands of others will remain, as Jewish citizens of Palestine. "We would be the best possible gift the Jews could give Palestine," he continued, suggesting that having a lively, Jewish minority would help ensure that Palestine becomes a working democracy.

Pechenick is a character; the settlers he represents comprise only a vanishingly small percentage of settlers. But he is not a fluke. We met other second-generation settlers who had none of the fire-and-brimstone fury of their parent's generation. They too were alive to witness the tragedy that their parents, and they themselves, have had a hand in creating and sustaining. Among them are many who see the world in different terms than their parents ever did, and many who lack the stern intractability of the first generation of settlers they are slowly, surely replacing.

At a hotel in the Palestinian town of Beit Jallah, we met up with Mouhmed Jafari, a journalist from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, just south of Bethlehem. Jafari's uncle was killed in an Israeli jail, when his guards botched forcing a feeding tube into his nose in an effort to break his hunger strike. Jafari himself spent three years, from 15 to 18, in another jail, after being arrested for throwing a petrol bomb at Jews who had set up an outpost in the refugee camp itself. Now middle aged, with kids of his own, Jafari is a leader of "The Parents' Circle", an organization of bereaved Jewish and Palestinian families using their own tragic bully pulpit to agitate for peace.

Our visit was just a visit. The people we met are extraordinary, and for each more conciliatory type we found, there are likely multitudes of settlers of more scorched-earth predilections. Still, if you had asked me the day before I crossed the Green Line whether I thought the things I saw were even possible, I would have said no. But the settlers are less monophonic than I imagined, and the settlements, I believe, are less cussed and obdurate. And if this is true, then the hopeless resignation with which many of us regard the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may be more enveloping and more enervating than it should be.

And this matters, because hopelessness is not just a result of the dismaying politics of the Middle East, it is also, in part, a cause of our sad circumstances. The conviction that there is nothing to be done, that we are inescapably hell-in-a-handbasket bound, serves well the status quo. It dampens the drive to compromise on both sides, it leaves moderates languishing in front of their TVs, and emboldens radicals to violence. In this way, despair is the silent and servile partner of all those still persuaded that they can vanquish the other side, In the hands of those who fear change, despair is a tool. Despair has a politics of its own.

So too, Hope. The fact is, things can change. Just as we awoke one morning to find that peaceful crowds in Tunis had toppled Ben Ali, and two weeks later to find that peaceful crowds in Cairo had toppled Mubarak, we almost awoke one morning two years ago to find that a peace treaty had been signed between Israel and Palestine. We did not. But there is good reason to demand that in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington, our leaders study well the transcripts Al-Jazeera brought to light, take a deep breath, roll up their sleeves, and begin today with renewed energies where they left off two years ago.