I typically stay away from politics but I found two well written essays that I enjoyed reading and I believe they balance each other out politically.

Even though they come from differing political perspectives, both share a common trait when it comes to the conference of Middle East nations set to take place at the end of this month in Annapolis, Md.: They’re both very skeptical of anything meaningful coming out of the meeting.

The first piece comes from the new issue of the New York Review of Books. Avishai Margalit gives his take of David Shulman’s book, “Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.”

Shulman is an American-born Israeli who made aliyah in 1967. He served in the Israeli Army and attended Hebrew University where he later became a professor of humanistic studies in the Department of Comparative Religion. He is the author or co-author of 19 books and he received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987.

“Dark Hope” is a diary of four years Shulman spent working with a Jewish-Arab peace activist group called Ta’Ayush. While he does not seem naive about Palestinian violence, Shulman comes down hard on West Bank settlers for their part in the conflict. Here’s how he describes them:

Israel, like any society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise. Here, in places like Chavat Maon, Itamar, Tapuach, and Hebron, they have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.

Like I said, he comes down hard on the settlers so be prepared for that.

As for Annapolis, here’s Margalit’s forecast:

Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Abu Mazen, or so it is hoped, may agree on principles for a settlement of the conflict. But Abu Mazen, according to reports, wants an agreement to be specific and Olmert wants it to be vague, and the question is whether they can arrive at a compromise. The conference would deal with the core issues between the two sides: Jerusalem, refugees, and territories. The two men are desperately in need of an agreement, even if only to show that they are still politically relevant. Many believe that any such deal would fall apart even if it were signed: the two leaders are so politically weak that it does not matter what they agree on.

The second essay comes from The Jewish Press where David Samuels writes that the Annapolis peace conference has already been “widely dismissed as a meaningless encounter between a corrupt Israeli prime minister with single-digit public support and the bumbling leader of a kleptocratic gang who can barely control the three square miles around his office.”

Samuels, who wrote the June 2007 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly about Condi Rice’s Middle East diplomacy, goes on to discuss why he thinks the Bush administration wants the conference. He also draws parallels to the Bush strategy in Iraq and describes how conditions in America seem ripe for anti-Semitism to flourish:

In private, I hear it is simply too painful and depressing to contemplate the idea that there will be no easy peace between Israel and the Palestinians, that American Jews have become scapegoats for popular unease about terrorism, that political anti-Semitism has become normative thought among large sectors of the global intelligentsia, or that the tension between Israel and the United States will continue to grow as a future administration seeks a way out of the present morass in Iraq and comes to terms with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The essay’s literary aspects emerge towards the end when Samuels brings in analyses of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” to help make his point.

In this era of increased anti-Semitism, Samuels says he does not think it’s a coincidence that two of America’s leading Jewish writers have penned novels in which “the American Jewish paradise” came to an end or never existed.

Now that you’re thoroughly depressed, I’d like to offer a third article that may offer a glimmer of hope. The Independent reported yesterday that a program to bring landmark foreign works to Arabic-speaking readers has chosen “The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer” among its first 100 books to translate.

I know it’s not much to write home about but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. After all, with expectations set so low for Annapolis, you’ve got to believe this ‘literary diplomacy’ will do more for relations than any politician can.

Cross-posted on JewishLiteraryReview.com.

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