Israel says it will resume settlement building

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?”

And if anyone in Washington dares to insist that Israel as a key regional ally work harder to help the United States, the hardliners in the Netanyahu cabinet send back a pretty clear message that they’re not willing to do that, not for President Barack Obama.

If we put similar pressure on the Palestinians we are seen as favoring Israel and the Palestinians pound the table and insist they’re being victimized yet again by what they see as Zionist sympathizers in America. Whenever Americans try to point out that the United States has tried to help with peace, it doesn’t take long for a petulant “Reg”-like character from either the Israeli cabinet or the Palestinian leadership to shout out, “Oh, peace — shut up!”

Leaders on both sides are so locked in the domestic politics of the peace process and pulled to the right by extremists that the silent majority on both sides who favor a two-state solution are continually thwarted from achieving it.

For those of us who have watched this drama unfold through the years, it is far too easy to get cynical about the prospects for peace. Observers and pundits have to be careful not to lose hope, even if the process often seems laughably hopeless given the characters involved on both sides.

Unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is not an absurd comedy, but a very real tragedy playing out right before our eyes. And it is a tragedy that once again teeters on violence as the collapse of talks almost always leads to a new explosion of violence. And the cycle goes on and on.

In making the reference to the “Life of Brian,” this observer doesn’t intend to make light of the suffering and the killing and the indignity that both sides have endured. I’ve seen too much of it to ever make light of it.

But sometimes comedy is a means for self-reflection. So I would strongly recommend that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gather their peoples together with a DVD projector and show the movie on one of the concrete barriers that separate the sides, a kind of Holy Land version of a drive-in. Settle in with some popcorn, have a laugh and then start to get real about the serious business of peace.

The Obama administration, having suffered a stunning political defeat in losing the House to Republicans, is likely to turn its attention toward foreign policy, which could be good for the peace process. Just as President Bill Clinton did, Obama will inevitably try to make his mark by forging a historic and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is always worth the effort no matter how absurd and futile it all sometimes seems.

After all, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” as the saying goes from the Sermon on the Mount.

In “Life of Brian,” the crowd gathers around to listen to that sermon and, struggling to hear, at least one man doesn’t quite get the message right.

Spectator: I think it was “Blessed are the cheese makers.”

Woman: Aha, what’s so special about the cheese makers?

Husband: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.