There is a lesson for the Middle East in the latest incident on the Korean peninsula. The lesson is indirect, and deals more with general principles than the details of what seems to have happened.
I begin with the admission that I am a confused outsider on Korean issues. So--with respect to the Middle East--are most of the people I read and listen to commenting on Israel and Palestine.
I have visited Korea a number of times, beginning in the early 1970s and most recently in 2003. I have made the ceremonial visit to the DMZ and vacationed on the southern island of Jeju, lectured at the Korean Ministry of Unification and several academic institutions, supervised Korean doctoral students, and conversed with friends, professional colleagues, senior members of the Korean government, and my Korean in-laws. Several of these people receive my occasional notes. Let me remind them and others that recipients have an open invitation to respond.
What I have learned from 40 years of contact is a limited respect for overseas observers who claim expertise, and my own impression that Korea's history and culture is mostly beyond my ken. The label "Hermit kingdom" is appropriate. It may be one of the few places on earth without a history of a Jewish community. If North Korea ranks high on its impenetrability and strangeness, it seems equally strange that my South Korean contacts have been less worried about their neighbor than westerners whose comments appear in the media.
Israel is not a hermit kingdom. The writing it produces has attracted great attention from ancient times to the latest announcements of international prizes. If we take a slightly expanded view of the nation Israel, its output expands to include the New Testament, plus much of European and North American science and literature from the 19th century onward.
With so much to ponder, it is no surprise that the views of Israelis range so widely, and that participants or outsiders (including Jews from here and elsewhere) have so much trouble grasping what is essential about this country. I have lived here long enough to know that I, too, cannot reduce to a sentence, a paragraph, or a book what is essential about the country, beyond its variety, creativity, and openness.
My multi-cultural education and experiences make me even more wary about summarizing Palestinians, although I have considerable experience reading, listening, and conversing with them.
I am more certain about criticizing others who claim to know this situation well enough to prescribe its near and distant futures. Settlement freezes, two state solution, a looming demographic threat if the obvious advice is not accepted? I put them all in the trash that has been piling up since the schemes that came after the Balfour Declaration and the beginning of the British Mandate in the 1920s. It is not that I see history as fixed or the future as pax Israeli. I react not so much against the details of one proposal or another, as against the arrogance of those who think they can unwrap history and reassemble the pieces according to their views of justice, fairness, or workability.
What happens here is likely to come from the parties themselves. It will reflect their cultures and politics, helped or hindered by their economics, military capacity, and diplomatic skill.
We are in the context of what has happened since 1967, with prominent recent events being the intifada of 2000, Palestinian responses to the withdrawal of Gaza settlements in 2005, the short wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the madness we hear from Iran. Current tensions come from efforts of the Obama administration to dictate or prod Palestinians and Israelis in a direction chosen by Washington..
None of the participants are angels, and none offer a convincing argument that they are putting a widely accepted view of justice higher than their own self-interest. One can argue about what in the recent flurry is more unhelpful: an Israeli enactment meant to complicate any land transfer, or the reiteration of the Palestinian claims that the Western Wall is Muslim.
There have been well meaning peace mongers among Jews and those claiming to be friends of the Jews since the 1920s. It should be no surprise that they have come up against other Jews with different ideas, as well as Palestinians, plus other Muslims, Christians, uncounted observers who claim an interest in the Holy Land, and some crafty technicians with their own views of what should happen.
In the midst of the noise, I have learned to be patient, modest, and to enjoy every day that passes without a provocation or disaster. I feel entitled to prescribe the same for others who are interested in this place, as well as that other country 5,000 miles to the east.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem