by | Sep 12, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

“The only way Arafat could maintain the PLO’s unity was if he never formally acknowledged Israel’s right to exist — otherwise his whole organization would fragment under him.”

— Thomas Friedman, “From Beirut To Jerusalem”

My younger brother and I used to play a game when we got mad at each other.

We called it “You Don’t Exist.” One of us would take the notion to erase the other from his consciousness, so when the first asked the second a question, the second didn’t answer. The first asked again. The second looked around in the air, as if following the flight of a bee.

Eventually, the first caught on and either yelled, screamed, punched — during which the second continued to look off into space, holding the charade
— or, as happened more often, the second joined the play as well, refusing to recognize the first.

Now you had two brothers within five feet of each other, not speaking, each pretending the other wasn’t around. Eventually, they would have to give it up, because dinner, or school, or who gets to turn the TV — life, in other words — demanded communication of people so close.

So it became a battle of wills.

Who would crack first?

In a very simplistic way, this has been going on between the PLO and Israel for three decades. The very doctrine of the PLO calls for the destruction of Israel, sugarcoated by saying Israel has no right to exist, so
“destruction” and “liberation” are the same thing.

Israel, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused to recognize the PLO, because to do so would be to legitimize an enemy that exists solely to wipe it out.

Life, however, has demanded action. So we sit now on the verge of history, an agreement between the two sides, to be signed tomorrow, a writing of the first’s name by the second, and vice versa. Recognition. The moment in which they stop pretending.

I don’t trust it. Not for a minute. Both sides are weary

And yet, it must be done, just as the two brothers had to communicate, because you can only live so long in denial. The Palestinians, who were displaced when Israel became a state, are weary of a life without roots, no government, no land to pass on to their children.

The Israelis are tired of bullets, bombs, fearing for their lives every time they board a bus, or sit in a restaurant. They’re tired of uprisings and wars and terrorism. After a while, enough funerals, you want to bend.

The question becomes, will both sides be able to live with the now-real brother sitting alongside them? Israel has never been in the habit of giving back land — although it has done so in exchange for a real peace, as it did with Egypt. Many Israelis feel this PLO thing is different, this is empowering a group that heretofore had no land, no borders, no self rule. Some feel they are throwing the switch on Frankenstein’s table.

Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat is taking a chance on obsoleting himself. His unifying cry was always his refusal to recognize Israel and his stated desire to destroy it. Will his followers be happy with self-rule only in Gaza and Jericho? Will they feel he has sold them out? As Friedman says: “Arafat was always a leader who reflected the consensus of his people; he did not shape it. He had seen what happened to Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, he knew the fate of those who got out too far ahead of their nations. .
. .”

Yes. They were both assassinated. It’s a start

At first glance, it seems Israel is taking the greater risk. Some feel that Arafat — one of the world’s great chameleons — is simply playing the part of enlightened leader, while whispering to his Arab partners: “Shhh, this is just the start. First we get a toehold, then we wipe them out.”

Israelis thus feel like the cop in a suspense movie who throws the killer his gun in exchange for a promise.

And yet that promise is too important. To live in peace. A friend I have in Israel tells me he doesn’t know anyone there who hasn’t lost somebody in a war.

So they take a chance. It is absurd to think that self-rule for Palestinians is the end of hostility. Jordan and Syria have their own countries and have continually tried to destroy Israel. Still, the basis of harmony between nations is at least some accepted common ground. Rules. Borders. A doctrine that states a desire for peace.

They sign such papers tomorrow.

Eventually, my bother and I grew older. We stopped playing the “You Don’t Exist” game. We didn’t stop arguing. We simply did it in a more peaceful, adult fashion.

Hopefully, so will they.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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