The second story is also from the Roman Empire, but from the time of Caligula. At that time, a citizen came to the Emperor with these specially treated pieces of glass which allowed to magnify whatever it was you were looking at, thus allowing short sighted people to see better. Of course, Caligula was outraged since “he had no interest in people being able to see better”...and the inventor was decapitated.
But let us move to the far East. I really don't remember what time the story is set to...but I remember the story. An Imperial subject was once asked to design a kite that could carry a load – and the unnamed subject did indeed do it. The Emperor, glad of having his wishes realized, asked the subject to name his reward...whatever he asked, it would be done. The subject request was very simple, and unusual: he asked that they bring in a chessboard. Then he asked that one grain of wheat be put in the first square, double that amount in the second, double the amount from the second in the third and so on. The Emperor thought the request to be modest and approved it. When the Imperial servants tried to fulfill the subject's request, however, they found out that even the entire harvest of the Empire would be insufficient. The Emperor, outraged at being proven wrong ordered the subject to be decapitated.
So it seems that people who wanted to create something good before its time had a tendency of loosing their head. Same is truth, believe it or not, in the XXI Century of the common era. Secretary of State John Kerry started a process of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to resolve all outstanding issues and end all mutual claims. He cajoled both sides to come around the table and sequestered them in Washington away from the Media. But is Kerry risking his head?
Mahmoud Abbas sent Saeb Erekat as his representative to these talks. He had, however, been very clear in the Arab media that this is not the negotiation of a Peace treaty, but a conversation to see how the talks are going to proceed. He also made it clear that unless the Israelis accept the Palestinian demands before the beginning of the talks, there will be no talks. These demands are: recognition of a Palestinian State in the whole West Bank and Gaza strip with Jerusalem as its capital; recognition of the Right of Return (to pre-67 Israel) for Palestinian refugees; complete freeze of construction in Israeli communities beyond the “Green Line”; removal of all Israelis from Palestinian lands and release of all Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Benjamin Netanyahu sent Tzipi Livni as his representative to the talks. Her instructions are to begin negotiations on all substantial issues without preconditions; acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian e State in the West Bank and Gaza roughly defined along the Green Line but subject to modifications to accommodate realities on the ground; Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem's Old City is non negotiable and the new borders need to include as many of the Israeli communities beyond the Green Line inside Israel as possible while minimizing the number of Palestinians to be incorporated into the Jewish State.
A recent cartoon on the Editorial Page of the Poughkeepsie Journal was entitled “Peace talks” and showed Abbas and Netanyahu sitting at the table and a character representing the US looking over them. In front of Abbas, a game board labeled “RISK” (for that old World conquest game). In front of Netanyahu, another game board labeled “MONOPOLY”. The US character is shown saying “We have a problem”. The cartoon, in its simplicity, captures the essence of the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians...
Abbas, who is starting his seventh year of his four year term, is considered without authority by Hamas, which rules (also without elections in eight years) about 40% of the Palestinian population in the disputed territories. Even in the West Bank, he his move to go to Washington has been rejected by several of his key PLO partners and even key figures within his own Fatah faction. Needless to say, Palestinians living in the surrounding countries are also opposed to the negotiations. The Palestinian economy stands in shambles after Abbas' dismissal of Salam Fayyad from the post of Prime Minister. Salam Fayyad was the only Palestinian leader delivering any kind of improvement to his people's lives since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993.
Netanyahu comes to the table with significant restrains, represented by a coalition in which Likkud, rather than being the “ideological center” is in fact to the right of such center, with newcomer “Yesh Atid”, led by Yair Lapid, as an adversarial ally. The mandate received from the voters by the current government has little to do with the Palestinians and a lot more to do with bridging the Religious-Secular divide by forcing Haredi Jews to serve either in the Army or in national Service, and to create secular alternatives to the Religious monopoly of the civil register as well as improving the situation of women in Israeli society. If reaching any of those goals comes into question because of the Washington negotiations – it is the negotiations that will go.
Both leaders insisted that any agreement to come out of the negotiations will be subjected to a National Referendum. The track record of both societies with the use of democracy cannot be, in fact, more different. Israel is an open Democracy in which people are not shy to express their opinions and in which government have often fell for not living up to their promises. Palestinian society is alienated from their leadership with little or no say at all on Palestinian Authority affairs. Last time the Palestinians voted, it was under American and European pressure back in 2006...when Abbas was elected for a four year term as President and Ismail Hanyieh of Hamas was also elected for a four year term as Prime Minister...they are both still in office without even the formality of a new vote.
We do indeed have a problem. We have a situation in which any kind of agreement would be indeed a miracle. Yet Kerry, in a show of perseverance and dedication, managed to bring both sides to the table. There is no doubt that America's intentions are honorable and sincere. But as in the stories I shared earlier, the timing is not exactly ideal. If I were John Kerry, I would certainly not buy a new hat...