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Israel says it will resume settlement building

Analysis: What Netanyahu and Abbas can learn from Monty Python's "Life of Brian."

Israel Palestine conflict
A Palestinian protester holds a national flag as he stands on a rock opposite the Jewish settlement of Halamish during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land to expand the settlement in the occupied West Bank on Oct. 29, 2010. (Abbas Moman/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — To understand this moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or “talks,” you need to return to what is the single most important contextual reference for the Middle East’s most intractable problem.

It’s not the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles or the 1978 Camp David Accords or even the 1967 United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. It’s not Thomas Friedman’s still-essential book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” even after 20 years since its publication. It’s not a passage from the Bible or the Quran.

What one needs to revisit in order to enlighten this current chapter in Israeli-Palestinian history is Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”

For anyone who has actually lived in Jerusalem and reported on the stumbling peace process, this perfectly irreverent film by the legendary British comedy team is perhaps the most insightful commentary on the Holy Land ever produced.

Israel this week said it would continue to expand a settlement in the occupied West Bank and add some 1,000 new housing units in a contested part of East Jerusalem. And the Palestinians are, of course, condemning the move and heading for the exit door of any direct talks before they even get going.

Meanwhile, the U.S. special envoy George Mitchell is trying desperately to bring order and peace and in so doing takes on the role of the Roman curator of ancient times. And so this vignette would bring us to one scene in the British comedy that captures the absurdity and the history of this moment, which seems to repeat itself over and over through the ancient rivalries and the violent struggles for control of sacred space that makes up the history of the Holy Land.

It’s in the beginning of the movie, which is set in Jerusalem in the era of Second Temple Judaism, when Brian enters the screen as a ragged vendor in the Coliseum who wants to join a movement against Rome and furtively approaches Reg, the leader of a known group of dissidents against the empire.

Brian: Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?

Reg: Fuck off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea.

Reg: … If you want to join the People’s Front of Judea, you have to really hate the Romans.

Brian: I do!

Reg: Oh yeah, how much?

Brian: A lot.

Reg: Right, you’re in.

At some point one of the anti-Roman activists asks, “What did the Romans ever do for us?” The answer comes back from the small gathering with a long list of achievements.

Reg: “All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Voice from the crowd: “Brought peace?”

Reg: “Oh, peace — shut up!

Reg: There is not one of us who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of the Romans once and for all.

Dissenter: Uh, well one.

“Reg: Oh, yeah, yeah, there’s one. But otherwise we’re solid.”

So there you have it. The U.S. has become Rome to the Israelis and to the Palestinians. And what have we, the American empire, ever done for the Israelis and Palestinians, right?

That is, apart from sending more than $3 billion a year in economic and military aid to Israel and hundreds of millions more to the Palestinians for sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health? The Israelis and Palestinians, in refusing, each in their own way, to find a path forward to final status talks are, in essence, saying, “What has America ever done for us?”