It is not easy being in the middle. One is always examining postures that are proclaimed or screamed from right and left, and feeling uncomfortable with both. The temperature heats up when someone prominent says it is time to make a clear decision. When that someone is the President of the United States, lots of people wake up and begin proclaiming their routines. Often they begin, "We must . . . " or "We must not . . ." Politics rejects the concept of musts, minimum or maximum boundaries for what is permissible. It is details that make something more or less tolerable.
The upcoming conference at Annapolis is one of those occasions when slogans are unfurled and waved against the rhetoric of adversaries. In this case, the atmosphere is so charged with distrust that invitations have not yet been sent out, even though people in the know say that the conference will begin during the last week of this month. I would bet that there will be a conference, but I would not bet the food money. I would not bet anything that the conference will make peace.
The Israeli prime minister is expressing his optimism that significant progress is possible toward a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians seem less hopeful, perhaps because many of their leaders are proclaiming their insistence on the right of refugees to return to homes they left decades ago, and Israelis are holding to a strong negative on that issue. Israeli leftists are claiming that this is the last opportunity on the horizon to be flexible, which often means giving the Palestinians almost all that they want, except (even for most leftists) the right of return.
More or less typical of the right is a message passed on from Shamash: The Jewish Network, affiliated with the Hebrew College of Newton. It urges Jewish and Christian friends of Israel to contact the White House, and insist that the President not pressure Israel about territorial concessions. Among its points are "the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people," and "The proposed concessions involve the Biblical heartland -- most of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) as well as parts of Israel's eternal capital, Jerusalem."
I would be among the last to support territorial concessions by Israel that do not come along with worthwhile concessions from the Palestinians. However, this language from greater Boston is what no one needs when serious negotiations are even a remote possibility.
"The Biblical heartland" is not the way to begin a conversation. For one thing, it is not clear what is the Biblical heartland. The Bible give several descriptions of the Land of Israel. (Genesis 15:5-14; Genesis 17:8; Numbers 34:2-13) And all of them may be nothing more than the hyperbole of Bible writers for an area that was much smaller than the smallest of these designations. Even that was, according to the Bible, was not given to the Israelites alone (Judges 2:20-21). Some of what is likely to be meant by the "Biblical heartland" are areas heavily settled by Arabs, and few Israelis want to keep them.
Rejection of negotiations about Jerusalem is more of the same. Jerusalem is currently the largest and most populous of Israel's municipalities. It was enlarged several times after the 1967 war. Since David is said to have made it his capital, the shape and size of "Jerusalem" has changed countless times. What we know as the Old City is not the same as "Biblical Jerusalem."
Most of Jerusalem is not holy to anyone. The neighborhoods where almost all Jews and Arabs live are no more sacred than parts of Indianapolis. Rejecting any negotiations about pieces of Jerusalem denies one of the more promising chances to give the Palestinians something that will not hurt Jewish interests.
To be sure, drawing lines through what is now the Jerusalem municipality will not be easy. It will tax the imagination of professional geographers as well as the tolerance of Israeli and Palestinian politicians. It will also raise knotty questions about forcing Arab Jerusalemites to become Palestinians, and perhaps giving up Israeli health insurance and other benefits. It may be best to search for some multi-national municipal framework with elements of neighborhood autonomy.
Any of several options would be better than what is on offer from those who wave a Bible in defense of rigid positions. A careful reading of the Bible shows that it says nothing about the proper boundaries of Jerusalem, and nothing clear enough to guide negotiations about the Land of Israel.
It is never useful to begin negotiations by saying, "No deal, except for what I want." A number of Palestinians are saying that with respect to the right of return. I would rather the blame for a failed conference be on them rather than on Israeli naysayers. I also know that neither Palestinian nor Jewish naysayers will listen to me.