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A Divided Holy Land

Sandy Tolan’s New Book Examines the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


In The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, journalist Sandy Tolan explores the relationship between two people drawn together by an unlikely commonality. Dalia, a Bulgarian Jew, lives in the small stone house in the Israeli town of Rimla that Bashir, a Palestinian, was expelled from during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Lemon Tree, which enfolds Dalia and Bashir’s story in a penetrating account of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has garnered generous critical acclaim and was nominated for a National Book Award in 2006. On Tuesday, February 19th, Tolan will deliver a lecture entitled “One Land, Two Peoples: Sixty Years of the Israel-Palestine Tragedy” at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tolan spoke to the Independent by telephone.

Sandy Tolan
Click to enlarge photo

Sandy Tolan

In The Lemon Tree, Bashir and Dalia engage in an extended conversation about the conflict. Dalia especially believes in the power of personal dialogue to bridge the divide, both between herself and Bashir and between Palestinians and Israelis generally. I had an expectation that they would find some greater understanding that would point the way toward peace, but that’s not what happens.

That’s a fair reading. To a certain extent, many Palestinians believe that dialogue is limited. The most central issue is the right of return. There are still many thousands of Palestinians who believe there cannot be a just peace without the right of return, which they feel was guaranteed them in UN Resolution 191. So for Bashir and many others, the question is, ‘How can we have a just peace if I’m not allowed to return to the home from which I was expelled?’ Dalia’s point of view is that you can’t right a wrong by committing another wrong. She believes compromise involves two states side by side.

You place the 1948 expulsion at the center of The Lemon Tree.

Yes. One of the most important things to understand about the tragedy of the Palestinian and Israeli people since 1948 is what happened in 1948, regarding the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians. For many years there was a great deal of denial about this. But the record is extremely clear that there were tens of thousands expelled, if not many more.

It’s very difficult to imagine Israel agreeing to a full right of return, since to do so would threaten its territorial integrity.

This is one of the main reasons there hasn’t been a successful resolution. By saying ‘right of return,’ most Palestinians mean that they want that right acknowledged and granted them, and then they can decide whether or not to exercise it. There are certainly efforts by the United States and others to guarantee quite a bit of resettlement money in a final resolution that would compensate refugees for the loss of their homes. But Bashir and many thousands of Palestinians would not accept that as the solution before they were given the opportunity to return home. How realistic that is:many Palestinian villages have been obliterated, there’s nothing to return to.

Israel has an incredibly difficult demographic problem right now. Palestinian birth rates are such that very soon, possibly already, there will be a Palestinian majority in the land that comprises Israel and the West Bank. Why should Palestinians want a two-state solution on the 1967 borders if soon enough they can have a demographic majority in historic Palestine-the land that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean?

Well, I don’t think having a simple demographic majority will guarantee anything, first of all. Having more Palestinians than Israelis in the land between what they call the river and the sea doesn’t guarantee a democratic state between the two. Israel is by far the stronger power, so any change to the political reality will not come about by a simple demographic shift.

After the recent Annapolis conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters that failure to negotiate a two-state solution would mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel. He also said that if a Palestinian state isn’t established, Israel will become an apartheid state.

He said that?

He said, “If the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then the State of Israel is finished.”

Well, I am very struck by that statement. This is the first I’ve heard of it. I can tell you that to be on the ground in the West Bank is to witness an extremely grim situation, with the Palestinians so clearly the weaker party. Their lives are dominated by an occupying force.

There are 250,000 settlers in the West Bank. Is a two state solution along the 1967 borders still possible?

There is a big debate about that right now. Some people are saying that it is becoming a de-facto single state. It is true that there are now so many thousands of settlers in the West Bank that it’s becoming more and more difficult to see how there’s going to be a two-state solution. Many say there has to be a two-state solution, which would include removing nearly all of the settlements. But how do you do that when some of these settlements have twenty thousand people in them? Just to be clear, I don’t advocate a two-state solution or a one state solution. But I will say that while a two state solution has incredible strengths on paper, on the ground it’s becoming more and more difficult to imagine.

Do you have hope that there’s going to be some sort of resolution in the foreseeable future?

I’m not very hopeful that there’s going to be a resolution in the near future. I certainly don’t see it happening under the watch of this administration. The United States has to be very active, and I think the Bush administration made a huge strategic blunder by not getting involved earlier. What makes me pessimistic in the short term is the facts on the ground. I don’t see any momentum toward a two-state solution. In the long term, it’s going to be the children who come up with a solution.

411: Sandy Tolan will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, February 19th at 8pm. Admission is free. For more information, call 893-2317.

Editor’s Note: The third question in this interview originally read, “There seems to be a pretty broad consensus that any peace resolution should guarantee Palestinians the right of return in principle. But it seems virtually impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to it in actual fact, since to do so would threaten Israel’s territorial integrity.” This statement was factually inaccurate and potentially misleading, and has been corrected in the version above. The Independent apologizes for the error.

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