“True liberal? Come talk to me too!”

Two weeks ago, I spoke to an Israeli settler for the first time in my two years in Israel.

Why did it take me so long to do it? I guess after months of exposure to the anti-settler narrative that is so dominant in Tel Aviv, I had succumbed to the same negative stereotypes about settlers that are bandied about by the Left – settlers are violent, fundamentalist, expansionist zealots who hate Arabs, hate peace, and tarnish Israel’s reputation on the international stage. I’ve heard several liberal Israelis say, “I don’t want my children to be deployed in Hebron during their IDF service. Why should they put their lives on the line for lunatics and a plot of land that we should have returned to the Palestinians long ago?”

I believe strongly in the importance and virtue of talking to Palestinians in the West Bank to listen to their grievances and understand their perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I got the chance to do the same with several “Israeli settlers” (or “Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria”) on the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour offered by Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem.

On this tour, participants are first guided through the Israeli side of Hebron by an Israeli tour guide (a “settler”), and then taken through the Palestinian side by a Palestinian resident of Hebron. This tour is not for the faint of heart – it’s a day of mental gymnastics and heightened emotions in a hot spot of animosity and fear, where participants are presented with two persuasive but contradictory narratives of victimisation.

Our Israeli tour guide, Gavriel, started the tour outside the Cave of the Patriarchs, where it is believed that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. The building is shared by Muslims and Jews, and there are separate entrances for the two religious groups. The IDF soldiers stationed there are very adamant that Muslims stay away from the Jewish entrance, and that Jews do not approach the Muslim entrance. In fact, throughout the day, each time our tour group approached the Jewish entrance, the soldiers stopped us, singled out the same three dark-skinned bearded men (including me), and asked us if we were Muslim. (There was actually one Muslim man in our tour group, and he was barred from entering the Jewish side, but the soldiers also barred Gavriel from entering the Muslim entrance.)

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Cave of the Patriarchs

“Hebron was divided in 1997 into H1 and H2 – the Palestinian and Israeli sections respectively,” Gavriel explained. “H1 makes up 80% of Hebron, and H2 makes up the other 20%. But of that 20%, Jews can only live in 3% of the area, while the other 17% is under Israeli control but with Palestinian residents.” I imagine most of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians happen in the 17%. But that’s not the point Gavriel was trying to make. His real beef with the current situation is that in the world’s first Jewish city, where there has been a continuous Jewish presence for centuries, Jews are free to live in just 3% of the area.

Gavriel added one caveat to his claim about the centuries-old Jewish presence in Hebron: this continuous Jewish presence was interrupted in 1929 when the Arabs massacred 67 Jews. In those days, the Jewish residents of Hebron refused help from the Haganah – the Jewish self-defence force – because they believed that the social harmony between Jews and Arabs in Hebron could weather the communal tension throughout Mandatory Palestine. But they were proven wrong, and the British decided to expel the Jews from Hebron to keep the peace – at least according to Gavriel. From 1929 till the “Israeli liberation of Judea and Samaria” in 1967, the Jews of Hebron held on to their title deeds and house keys, demanding to return to the houses that was “stolen by Arabs”. Sounds familiar?

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“I have to confess – I’ve never heard this story before,” I admitted to Gavriel. He nodded and replied, “That’s why more university students need to come on this tour and listen to our grievances as well.” At that exact moment, we walked past a large banner outside someone’s house exhorting liberal Israelis to be open-minded and listen to his side of the story. The banner exclaimed:

“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)

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“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)

Gavriel continued, “The Jews in Hebron do not see themselves as colonialists or as religious zealots, but as natives of the land. When Palestinians and others adopt anti-colonialist narratives against the Jews in Hebron, they also adopt anti-colonialist tactics like BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and terrorism. But people who see themselves as natives will not budge in the face of such tactics – they will only dig in their heels.” In other words, this is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

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A 300-year-old Torah scroll stands in this synagogue as testament to the deep roots of the Jewish community in Hebron

But surely the violence that the IDF and settlers employ against Palestinians is unjust and delegitimises the settlers’ narrative? “The Jews in Judea are not the Americans in Afghanistan or the whites in South Africa, but we are acting like it,” Gavriel replied. “We use violent tactics to ensure our safety and security.”

The reality on the ground is obviously more complex than that. There are numerous reports by human rights NGOs of settlers who unnecessarily harass Palestinians, whether by throwing rocks through their windows or cutting down their olive trees. As I would hear from Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, later on, the checkpoints set up by the IDF are also mind-boggling in their complexity and inconvenience, restricting Palestinian movement in many areas, which adversely affects Palestinian agriculture and industry.

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This street is called Al-Shuhada Street in Arabic and King David Street in Hebrew. It’s also called Apartheid Street by the Palestinians, because it is closed to Palestinian pedestrians, cars and businesses.

To be fair, Gavriel did acknowledge the extremity of settlers’ actions, and he claimed that he takes a strong public stand against such actions. But he also emphasised the acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against innocent Jewish settlers, some of which are shockingly barbaric. For instance, he brought the tour group to the spot where a one-year-old baby was shot by a Palestinian sniper.

“The Palestinians have their stories of victimhood, but so do we,” Gavriel said. “The unfortunate reality is that both sides employ the weapon of victimisation to convince the international community that the other side is evil.”

Gavriel took us to meet Miriam (not her real name), who works at a museum dedicated to the Jewish history of Hebron. She spoke about how her grandmother was almost killed by rioting Arabs in 1929 but was saved by an elderly Arab man. Unfortunately, her father was not spared during the violence that followed the signing of the Hebron Agreement in 1997 – he was killed in his sleep by a terrorist.

In a tremulous voice, Miriam said, “Bibi Netanyahu signed the Hebron Agreement. He is the reason my father is dead.”

There was a palpable sense of bewilderment in the room. In academic circles and the mainstream media, there is much nostalgia for the heady days of the Oslo process (which includes the Oslo Agreement of 1993, Oslo II signed in 1995, and the Hebron Agreement of 1997). But from the perspective of Israeli settlers, every agreement signed with the Palestinians has only brought more chaos and bloodshed. I asked Miriam, “Don’t you think that the Oslo process was necessary to bring an end to the violence of the First Intifada?”

“Oslo made things worse,” she replied. “It empowered incitement against Jews amongst Palestinians through their media and their education system.” Needless to say, she rejects not only the Oslo process but the two-state solution. Instead, she subscribes to a one-state solution under the leadership of Naftali Bennett and his party, the Jewish Home. She claimed that even if Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza, there will still be a Jewish majority in the foreseeable future because Jewish birthrates have overtaken Arab birthrates, so an expanded Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. “Arabs can live alongside the Jews just like they did in Hebron before 1929 – as long as they don’t want to kill them,” she said.

We bid adieu to Miriam and the museum, and headed towards an observation point, where we enjoyed a panoramic view of Hebron. Gavriel pointed out the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, the great-grandmother and father of King David. “King David used his power to make sure that there was justice and righteousness and goodness throughout the land – not just peace and quiet,” Gavriel declared. “I often tell my own community that we need to stop talking about our Jewish rights and start talking about our responsibilities and obligations to make sure that there is justice and righteousness for all the inhabitants of the land. We fail to do this because we let military leaders decide what is going to happen tomorrow instead of thinking of a long-term vision of how we will live together.”

After his impassioned speech, Gavriel tried to paint a picture of “normal life” in Palestinian Hebron. “Hebron is called the Palestinian engine of economic growth. There are 17,000 factories and businesses, three universities, four hospitals and a shopping mall in the Palestinian part of Hebron,” Gavriel claimed. Of course, he’s probably never seen them up close since he’s not allowed to enter the Palestinian side, but if Hebron is truly an economic engine, I was hoping to get a look under the hood.

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Unfortunately, Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, didn’t show us the “economic engine” of Hebron, and focused solely on the grievances of the Palestinians. Of course, I don’t mean to belittle the hardships that Palestinian Hebronites face everyday. I just wanted a holistic understanding of Palestinian life in Hebron, including “ordinary life” at school and work. Surely there must be some semblance of normalcy in Hebron – and allowing me to see it should not detract from the injustice of the Israeli occupation.

But this was a Dual Narrative tour after all, and it was now time for the tour group to listen to the Palestinian story of oppression at the hands of heavily-armed Israelis. We sat at a coffee shop and listened to Muhammad condemn the injustice of Israeli military law, under which Palestinians are guilty until proven innocent. He railed against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes, the harassment of Palestinian farmers, the humiliation of checkpoints, and the violence of IDF soldiers.

While talking about the Palestinian identity, Muhammad claimed that Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Canaanites, who were present in the land even before the Jews. “I see myself not as a Palestinian Arab, but as a Palestinian who speaks Arabic,” he said.

At some point, someone in the group asked Muhammad for his proposed solution to the conflict. In ironic agreement with Miriam, he declared, “I want a one-state solution.” But he envisions a secular democratic state, which he admitted requires education on both sides of the conflict. “Palestinians need to educate themselves and to renounce violence,” he said.

Muhammad’s subsequent elaboration on the phrase “secular state” was illuminating. “Why should Judaism be the religion of the land? There should be no special treatment for the Jewish religion,” he asserted. Herein lies the fundamental difference between Muhammad’s and Gavriel’s narratives. According to Gavriel, the Jewish identity is a national identity. Jews around the world have common ancestry, a common language, and a plethora of customs and traditions that were developed over centuries in the land of Israel. In the same way that Poles are from Poland and Greeks are from Greece, Jews are from Israel.

But in Muhammad’s eyes, the Jewish identity is a religious identity, predicated on a set of religious beliefs and practices. Most Israelis today are descendants of foreigners who came from Europe, America, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and had their own separate national identities. As for those Jews who had been in the land for generations, they identified themselves as Palestinians before the State of Israel was created.

Someone else asked, “Why did Hebron elect a convicted terrorist as mayor last week?” The newly-elected mayor of Hebron was given a life sentence in the 1980s for killing six Israeli settlers in cold blood, but was released after three years in a prisoner exchange. “The other candidates were funded by Hamas, and we don’t want Hamas in Hebron,” Muhammad explained. “Besides, the mayor only takes care of municipal issues like water and electricity.” Of course, that’s not the way Israelis interpret the election of a murderer as mayor, but we didn’t have time to continue the conversation – coffee break was over, and it was time to start walking.

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Muhammad took us through the main marketplace, where businesses have been adversely affected by the conflict and infrastructure is in disrepair because the IDF doesn’t allow the Palestinians to fix it, according to Muhammad. A few minutes into our walk, Muhammad showed us the infamous “ceiling net” which hangs above a section of the marketplace. Israeli settlers throw trash at Palestinians from the apartments above, and the net sags under the weight of the trash that didn’t get through.

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We walked further along, and our tour came to an abrupt halt as we witnessed four IDF soldiers trying to arrest two Palestinian teenagers – presumably for stone-throwing. One teenager broke free and ran away, with one soldier in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the three remaining soldiers tried their best to restrain the other teenager who was violently thrashing about. A small crowd started to gather.

Spectators started shouting at the soldiers. “Stop choking him! He can’t breathe!” shouted one European girl. Agitated but still mostly composed, one of the soldiers responded, “We know this boy. We are trying to arrest him without hurting him. Of course he can breathe – he’s still shouting.”

Finally, the soldiers dragged the teenager behind a gate. After several minutes, in perfect synchrony, a dozen Palestinian children picked up stones, threw them over the gate, and fled in all directions. The IDF responded with a loud (non-lethal) flash bang behind the gate.

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What on earth had we just witnessed? The entire tour group was horrified. I didn’t know what to feel. I still don’t know what to feel about the whole situation. I don’t know what the Palestinian teenagers did, and I don’t know what else the soldiers could have done. But I feel utterly despondent that 20-year-old conscripts and 16-year-old kids fight on a daily basis; that little children throw rocks to solve their problems and soldiers respond with weapons; and that political leaders are comfortably dragging their feet on this issue.

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Walking through the sparsely-populated Palestinian marketplace

Muhammad, on the other hand, was visibly pleased that we had witnessed the scuffle. I was slightly perturbed that he had nothing to say about the children throwing rocks. Didn’t he just say a while ago that he advocates non-violent solutions? Stone-throwing may be less violent than shooting bullets, but it’s certainly not non-violent. I asked him about this: “What do you think about the children who threw rocks at the soldiers just now?”

“I’ll tell you what I think: if those children were above the age of 16 (which is the legal adult age under Israeli military law, not 18), they would be put in jail for 15 years,” Muhammad replied. “Last year, I was arrested by the Israelis halfway through my tour because they thought I had thrown stones. But they had no evidence because I didn’t do it. So they showed me pictures of others who had thrown stones and asked me to rat them out, and I refused to be their informant.”

He completely dodged my question. But his account was harrowing, and what he said about disproportionately long jail sentences is true (you can read more here).

With that unanswered question, the tour came to an end. In fact, I think everyone in the tour group had more questions than answers – which was the main objective of the tour after all. But to end off on a more optimistic note, Gavriel recounted the story of Abraham’s burial. “In the book of Genesis, it says that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham together,” said Gavriel. “In the same way, it is our hope that the two nations that descended from these sons can live in peace.”

Can this happen in a situation of violence and clear power disparity and economic inequality?

Across the Aisle, Beyond the Green Line

“The discrimination of refugees by Palestinian society is terrible,” said Muhammad, who lives in a UN refugee camp in Nablus. “If you think about it, the source of all the problems and all the devils in the world is…”

I honestly thought he was going to say “discrimination”, or “inequality”, or something along those lines.

“…Israel.”

I held my breath and my tongue as I tried to digest the bigoted non sequitur I had just heard. It’s one thing to read such incendiary statements in an academic article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s an entirely different experience to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I felt a flush of anger, but how could I respond? I was sitting with a tour group in a public park in Nablus, just minutes before entering a refugee camp – not the most conducive environment for a debate.

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Public park in Nablus

Our tour guide, also named Muhammad, quickly interrupted his friend from the Nablus refugee camp. “He’s not referring to the people. He’s talking about the system of oppression,” he said. But I wasn’t convinced. What’s worse is that “Nablus Muhammad” is an English teacher to 11th and 12th grade students. Is he repeating such statements to his students?

As I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, two thoughts entered my mind. First, my discomfort paled in comparison to the discomfort of the Palestinian refugees in the camp that I was about to walk through. As erroneous and dangerous as Nablus Muhammad’s remarks were, they are the product of socialisation within a crowded and dirty urban pressure cooker. Second, I must learn to deal with this dissonance rather than run away from it.

After listening to Nablus Muhammad for a few more minutes, we walked to the refugee camp. Actually, the word “camp” gives a false impression. When the camps were created after the war of 1948-9, Palestinian refugees lived in tents, hoping for the conflict to end soon so that they could return to their homes. But over the decades, as it became clear that a resolution was nowhere in sight, the tents were replaced by shabby concrete buildings sponsored by the UN and other states like Japan. In many “camps”, the buildings were built in extremely close proximity, creating a dense and suffocating environment.

As we approached the refugee compound, a young boy called out to us, “Ma shlomchem (how are you)?” I was surprised to hear Hebrew, but fortunately for me (as I would learn later), I replied with a weak “Hello”. We entered the maze of narrow alleys, each of which was the width of two people. As we walked in single file, I tried to decipher the graffiti on the walls of the four-storey apartment buildings that we were walking between. I noticed a hastily drawn swastika and shuddered at the thought of such a symbol amongst a population that hates the Jewish state.

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Narrow alleys in refugee camp

Privacy is non-existent in this densely populated concrete labyrinth. As we weaved in and out of the alleyways, I unintentionally peeked into several homes. The atmosphere was eerily quiet, save for the few children playing in the alleys and several men carrying out repair work. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but I did feel a lot of tension in the air. I imagine that many residents scornfully regarded us as intrusive foreigners trying to “understand” the situation in a brief 10-minute tour. I don’t blame them for thinking that.

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Refugee camp in Nablus

There are very different opinions about Palestinian refugees. Some blame only Israel for creating the most protracted refugee crisis in the world, and others blame the Palestinian and Arab governments for abusing the refugees as pawns in their assault on Israel’s legitimacy. But regardless of political opinion, it is an undeniably miserable situation that I wish more Israelis would at least acknowledge. When I visited the Arafat Museum in Ramallah and saw pictures of Palestinians fleeing their homes and living in tents, I recalled the words of a right-wing Israeli who told me that the Palestinians are a “cancer in Judea and Samaria”. How could such a vile pejorative be hurled at refugees?

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Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

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Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

As we walked away, a man on a wheelchair came speeding towards us shouting, “T’azor li (help me)!” He was begging for alms in Hebrew! Confused, I asked Tour Guide Muhammad why I had heard Hebrew in a Palestinian refugee compound. He replied that many refugees suspect that there are Israeli Mossad or Shin Bet agents embedded within tour groups like ours, especially since many of them are wanted by the Israeli authorities. Interestingly, he seemed quite apologetic for this attitude, claiming that it was the fault of the Palestinian media. He also recounted the story of another tour group that he had taken to a refugee camp, where a German girl accidentally said “Beseder (OK)” to a refugee. He had to explain to the refugees in Arabic that she was just a student in Israel, and her Hebrew reply was just a habit she had picked up.


The walk through the refugee camp was the final and most memorable part of the Nablus tour which was organised by Area D hostel in Ramallah. I had stayed in that hostel for one night as part of a short weekend in the West Bank. Before this trip, I had only visited Bethlehem and Jericho, and I had never slept overnight in the West Bank.

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Nablus

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Mural in Nablus

Tour Guide Muhammad was a friendly, easy-going guide who spoke in a frank but mostly measured manner. Before taking us to the refugee camp, he showed us the main souk of Nablus, took us to a Turkish hammam, and treated us to delicious knafeh – a syrupy symphony of sugar and cheese that tantalises the taste buds and elevates the soul. He also took us to an olive oil soap workshop, where we were introduced to the complex process of purifying olive oil and turning it into high-quality bars of soap for export.

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Spices, olive oil soap, nuts, etc.

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Making knafeh

Throughout the tour, he shared his personal stories of the Second Intifada, his experiences working for several years in the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, and his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian society.

He said a lot that I had expected – that the unjust Zionists were brutal and violent, that they had killed many innocent women and children during the Second Intifada, and that the Palestinians are cooped up in two giant jails (the West Bank and Gaza). He also said that he was unsure of his own future and the future of the Palestinian people, and that there may be no more land left to claim if Israelis continue to build settlements and place restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

But some of his opinions were quite surprising. For example, he shared his displeasure with the Palestinian refugees who remained in the camps instead of moving to the cities like Nablus and Ramallah. “They don’t need to live like our fellow Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria,” he said. “They are the ones who are really suffering – they are not accepted by the societies they live in.”

He also said that there are many problems in Palestinian society, such as inequality, corruption, infighting and lack of meritocracy. “People get jobs based on connections and not only on qualifications,” he said. In fact, he had never heard of “internships” until he travelled to India as part of an official exchange between the PA and the Indian government.

“It isn’t right to blame everything on the Israelis,” he said. “The Palestinian people have two enemies – occupation and ignorance.”

When referring to Israel, he often placed the word “state” in inverted commas, claiming that he recognises Israel because of its power, not because it had the right to take the land in 1948. In other words, he accepts the reality of Israel’s existence but not its legitimacy, just like many other Palestinians. Since this looks unlikely to change, it seems that a future peace deal (if there ever is one) will only be possible on the basis of hard power politics and unpalatable realities.

Interestingly, he claimed that Israel is highly individualistic because it is a migrant society of Jews from many different nations and cultures. This stands in contrast to the high solidarity of Palestinian society, which he claims has one unifying culture based on time-honoured traditions spanning many generations of indigenous Palestinians. I disagree with his assessment – there is a high level of solidarity within Israeli society even though there is tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as the Haredim and secular Jews. Also, Muhammad himself decried the inequality and fault-lines that exist within Palestinian society. But it is nonetheless an interesting perspective to hear from a Palestinian.

I share these experiences and observations primarily to educate and not to try to influence. I’ve tried to recount the most memorable parts of my tour as accurately as possible. I’ve spoken to a lot of Israelis over the past year. Over the next six months, I will make an effort to speak to more Palestinians across the Green Line.

Do you remember, the 17th night of September?

After months of stagnation, a rapid series of high-level political statements and diplomatic exchanges appears to have breathed some life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process once again. But of course, looks can be deceiving, and even if the peace train really is building up steam, no one knows which way the train is heading.

In April, the French government announced that they would host an international meeting of foreign ministers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of May, to which neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited – presumably to allow the participating countries to formulate a solution that the rest of the world could throw its weight behind so as to place greater pressure on the two sides to accept it. This ministerial meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for an international peace summit that will be held later in the summer, this time with the participation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The idea of a French initiative was first mooted by the former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in January this year. Since then, President Abbas has shown consistent support for the initiative, while PM Netanyahu has remained sceptical about the effectiveness of an international peace conference and argued that such a conference would hinder the only path to peace, which is bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PA.

This past week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss the French peace initiative. Netanyahu expressed his objection once again, while Abbas warned that the failure of another peace initiative would spur more acts of terrorism. In an apparent setback, the French government postponed the international ministerial meeting, allegedly to allow the US to participate.

All hope is not lost for the French though. Two days ago, Egyptian President al-Sisi made an impromptu speech in which he expressed support for the French peace initiative and called upon Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seize this “realistic” and “great” opportunity to reach a solution. Interestingly, he claimed that the animosity between the Israelis and Palestinians is similar to that between Israelis and Egyptians just before they signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.

What a coincidence that al-Sisi compared the Israeli-Palestinian relationship to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship just two weeks after I finished reading “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright. There is a lot to learn from the Camp David process about the challenges and rewards of diplomacy and conflict resolution – lessons which are especially relevant in light of this renewed effort to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This book presents an account of the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt in 1978 in a captivating narrative that keeps the reader at the edge of his seat. But it’s more than just an account of the proceedings. Wright expertly presents the conference in its larger geopolitical context by weaving into the narrative key events in the history of the Middle East, extending all the way back to Biblical times.

What I found most intriguing, however, was the writer’s analysis of how the personal experiences of the key negotiators shaped their psychology, which influenced not only their negotiating positions but also their behaviour during the conference. I liked the description of the personal dynamics between the negotiators because it makes the entire episode more relatable to the reader. In the book, he links Begin’s personal hardship in Poland and Siberia to his stubborn distrust of Sadat, and his legal training to his meticulous attention to detail. Wright describes how Sadat’s penchant for audacious risk-taking was strengthened during WWII, especially when he sent a letter to Rommel in 1942 to conspire with the Germans to defeat the British in Egypt (as a 23-year old captain!). The writer also shows how Carter’s perseverance during the negotiations was the fruit of a long journey in politics, and how his strong desire for peace in the Middle East was rooted in his personal faith as a Christian.

Today, we see the famous picture of Begin, Sadat and Carter shaking hands on the lawn of the White House and we regard them as titans of the 20th Century. This book reminds us that they were mere mortals with their own personal flaws, biases, and eccentricities. They were impatient, fearful, rash, but also tenacious and imaginative at times. It’s quite unnerving to think that in the negotiating room, the fate of millions of lives – in this generation and the next – depends on the competence, cunning, and emotional make-up of a few people.

While reading the book, I kept drawing parallels between the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, just like President al-Sisi did. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian situation looks as bleak as ever – there haven’t been talks between the two sides since April 2014, the Gaza Strip is still dealing with the consequences of Operation Protective Edge, and the past few months have seen a wave of violence that has led to many deaths on both sides. But I imagine that the decades of hostility between Israel and Egypt seemed irresolvable at that time too. As hopeless as it seemed after 1967 when the Arab League issued its Three Noes to Israel, or after 1973 when Egypt sprung a deadly surprise on Israel and shattered its illusion of invincibility, the two states did sign a peace treaty that has lasted almost 40 years.

Of course, I realise it is naive to draw similarities without also identifying the many differences as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has much deeper roots and has gone on for much longer than the conflict between Israel and Egypt. The negotiations between Israel and Egypt didn’t have to deal with the issue of millions of refugees or the question of sovereignty over holy places. Also, it’s difficult to compare the Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai desert to the idea of a future withdrawal from the Golan Heights – the Egyptian government argued that it could guarantee a secure border between the Sinai and Israel if a peace treaty was signed, but the idea of a Syrian guarantee of security along the Golan Heights is a non-starter. It’s not surprising that the Palestinian issue was practically ignored in the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – it was seen as an obstacle that could have scuppered the entire deal.

Nonetheless, it is not naive to keep hoping and praying for another opportunity for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or at the very least, de-escalation of the conflict. Past successes like Israel’s peace with Egypt keep the flame of hope alive. Even on Day 9 of the 13 days of Camp David, Begin still said, “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off, before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement (in the Sinai desert).” Yet, the settlements were dismantled because Carter and other Israeli negotiators convinced Begin to put the Sinai withdrawal decision to a vote in the Knesset, thus allowing the MKs to overrule Begin’s obstinacy.

Carter learned to use the negotiators’ personal strengths and group dynamics to his advantage. He capitalised on Sadat’s personal admiration for him and his desire for closer US-Egypt ties to persuade him to stay committed to the talks. After realising that Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman were more open to compromise with the Egyptians, he tried to use them to persuade Begin to change his mind. He also sat with Aharon Barak and Osama al-Baz, two brilliant lawyers on the Israeli and Egyptian negotiating teams, to fine-tune the final text so as to make it more palatable to both sides. Peacemaking requires ingenuity, which I am sure can be found amongst Israelis and Palestinians today.

Eventually, the Camp David Accords were signed on 17 September 1978, paving the way for long-lasting (albeit cold) peace between Israel and Egypt and heralding a new geopolitical configuration in the Middle East. Can such a monumental solution be forged once again? Perhaps it can, if Israeli and Palestinian leaders remember the relief and jubilation that Begin, Sadat and Carter felt on that 17th night of September.