The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a morass, but that doesn’t mean a documentary about it can afford to be. It shouldn’t oversimplify, but it should shine a light through the darkness, which is what several key documentaries out of Israel have recently done. “The Gatekeepers” offered the startling vision of six former leaders of the Shin Bet — Israel’s internal security service — testifying to the self-destructive nature of current Israeli policy; it was the hawks from the trenches calling out the armchair warriors. And earlier this year, “The Settlers” was a masterly piece of history: In letting us glimpse the invisible organic design of the Israeli settlement movement, almost as if by time-lapse photography, it revealed the insidious life-of-its-own dynamic that has rendered that movement more powerful, even, than Israel’s supreme leaders.
“Surviving Peace” isn’t as good a film (it’s more of a personalized ramble), yet it dares to frame the issues in a way the mainstream news media doesn’t, and so it passes the test of an urgent and bold one. By the time it’s over, you see the old conflicts with new eyes.
The film’s co-director, interviewer, and political-spiritual explorer, Josef Avesar, is a 64-year-old personal-injury attorney based in Los Angeles, but he was born in Israel to Zionist parents who emigrated from Iraq, where they mostly spoke Arabic. Avesar’s grand thesis is that the two-state solution, with a Jewish State and a Palestinian State living side by side, separate but equal, has been the stated goal of negotiations for 70 years, but that the chief reason the dream has never taken hold is that the Israelis, in their bones, don’t really want it.
A figure like Jimmy Carter, of course, would vehemently disagree with that. He would say, “No, in 1978, we were this close.” Yet for those who have followed the conflict for decades that feel like centuries, and who have come to view the notion that “we were this close” as a reflexive mythology that’s really a canard, many of the thoughts voiced in “Surviving Peace” make a cathartic kind of sense.
Avesar speaks to current and former members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), and since he purposefully chose figures who tilt toward the progressive side of things, the interviews illustrate his point in a dramatic fashion: If these people think that the two-state solution is a charade, then who is there left to believe in it? A Knesset member named Avraham Burg poses the bald question, “Can the Jewish people survive without an external enemy?” He describes Israel as “the biggest shtetl ever created,” invoking a ghetto-fortress psychology that, he says, is more potent than any desire for peace.
There are other dynamics at play. Israel has its own military-industrial complex, with a defense industry that props up the economy; the conflict-without-end between Israel and the Palestinians is the engine of that complex. Avesar also speaks to eloquent leaders, academics, and negotiators from the Palestinian community, like the entrepreneur Sam Bahour and the Al Quds Bard Honors College dean Munther Dajani, who are far more drawn, intellectually and spiritually, to a one-state solution — as many Palestinians are, since it would likely mean a demographically shared Palestine phasing out a domineering Jewish State. It’s no big surprise that the Israelis interviewed by Avesar reject this notion as unthinkable.
But if the Israelis don’t want a one-state solution, and if the two-state solution is the perpetually dangling carrot — the Holy Grail no one can get to — that they have semi-consciously undermined, then what do they want? “Surviving Peace” dares to argue that a policy of perpetual embattlement and apartheid suits Israel, even many of its liberals, just fine. Yet several of them confess that they think the region is doomed to collapse. Avesar isn’t afraid of being a noodge (that’s why he’s a good journalist-documentarian), and over and over he asks members of the Knesset a third-rail question: How is it possible that Israel can call itself a Jewish State and a democracy at the same time? The answers are intensely revealing, not because they’re good answers (they’re hazy and waffling), but because they dramatize the layers of denial behind that contradiction.
Avesar raises, but still underplays, a factor that has wedged the Jews and Palestinians apart from the beginning: the rejection — first by the Arabs in 1947, then by the Zionists — of a divided Jerusalem. And he leaves one crucial issue totally off the table: the fact that Israel has always been, in essence, a military colony of the United States. But that’s another documentary entirely — one that I hope, in this era of greater truth-telling about Israel, will now be made.
“Surviving Peace” is 90 minutes of talking heads, and that should prune its audience down to the most hardened of international political junkies. Yet the interviews, in all their candid paradox, allow us to take the temperature of the region, and to understand why things have regressed the way that they have. Avesar devotes the last part of his movie to a pie-in-the-sky plan: the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian “confederation” that would provide a pathway to peace. He’s trying to see his way out of the morass, but as his own film demonstrates, you may never be further from a “solution” to the Middle East crisis then when you’re sure you have one.