The other day I was rushing back from the old city after meeting a Palestinian Sufi and
marvelling at his cavernous shop filled with old Syrian furniture and imposing Turkmen
jewellery, when I was accosted by a young man with an American accent. He wanted me to sign a petition for a
"united Jerusalem" as the capital of Israel. When I said "no way" because the ancient city must be a shared capital for both sides in the name of peace, he began shouting.
"Should we just hand it over to our mortal enemy?" he asked as I ran for cover.
I am sure he collected many signatures and will continue to do so as passionate Israelis stir anew in the Holy Land. Why? Because they can feel the earth move under their feet and they can feel the sky tumbling down, to misquote Carole King's famous song.
Something happened on June 4 with Barack Obama's historic speech to the Muslim world. He spoke in a different language and a different tone, formally ending the Dick Cheney-George Bush era of scary talk and scarier tactics. Those eight years were comfortable for many in Israel because peace-making was out of fashion and war-making was in. Osama bin Laden controlled the agenda from his cave. There was talk of reshaping the Middle East, breaking down Iraq into manageable portions and regime change but after Obama's exhortation in Cairo, the neo-con dreams seem shattered. They don't fit the regional puzzle anymore.
The tremors from Obama's sudden shift are palpable here, registering high on the fear scale. Israel is no longer more equal than others, neither in its suffering nor in claiming its rights. The decision to humanize the Palestinians and unconditionally recognize their plight is a tectonic shift for US policy. It gives them hope, a necessary ingredient for a breakthrough. If Obama stays engaged, not just the current weather but the long-term forecast could change. He has the intellect and the discipline to keep at it and as a much-admired president, is likely to get the farthest in the endeavour.
But he might be bruised in battle. Far-right Israelis have launched a "No, You can't" campaign against Obama whom they consider "anti-Semitic" and can't emphasise enough that his middle name is "Hussein." Posters of the US president in a kaffiyeh have been duly printed but the rallies are small and filled with the already converted. Jewish settlers are especially virulent in their hate speech against the new US policy because they are the first targets. It is their illegal settlements that Obama wants frozen for any progress to take place.
The fear and loathing of Obama by a section of Israelis and American Jews can't be denied. A YouTube video of young, drunken American visitors in a Jerusalem bar spewing hate has been doing the rounds. True, this life form cannot and should not be a barometer for judging Israel which has all varieties of opinion -- from the far-left, Stalinist-types to liberal to crazies on the right. But the surprise is that this extreme exists. Somehow one has grown up thinking of the Jewish community only in superlative terms be it their literary and artistic achievements, their emphasis on learning or their talent for hard work. All qualities admirable and enviable. It is hard to accept that racism has any place in minds so fine, so refined.
But there it is and things might get worse in the months to come. Obama's speech has already forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond in kind with a speech of his own designed to set limits to the American enterprise in the region. He had to satisfy his coalition of the right and religious parties while keeping the peace with Washington, Israel's superpower friend and protector. Netanyahu gave a mostly "No, we won't" speech but reluctantly spoke of a separate Palestinian state. For him that means a state only in name – no army, no control of air space, no right of return for Palestinian refugees. And a very big "no" to Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and Palestine. He refused to freeze Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Obama's core demand and the key to restarting the peace process.
The battle has begun and if the first round was speeches, the second round might be pressure and the third could be action. A confrontation looms between best friends, and there could be collateral damage.