Beyond the Reach of Annapolis

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On March 29, 2002, an 18-year-old woman walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and blew herself up. One of her victims was a woman just a year younger than herself. The two women looked so much alike, Palestinian and Israeli, and their mortal wounds were so similar, that the pathologist had trouble reassembling the two girls. They had so much in common.

So it was perhaps understandable that the mother of Rachel Levy would try to contact the mother of Ayat al-Akhras because they, too, had so much in common. They were both mothers. They had both lost daughters. They were both victims of the ongoing war for this little patch of earth and they lived, as it happened, a mere four miles from each other -- Avigail Levy in Jerusalem and Um Samir al-Akhras in the West Bank refugee camp of Deheishe. Still, it took them four years to talk -- and then only by closed-circuit TV hookup.

Avigail Levy's attempt to reach an understanding with Um Samir al-Akhras is told in an HBO documentary called " To Die in Jerusalem." It is a frustrating film, lacking the snapping flags and sleek limos of the Middle East peace conference convened in Annapolis. But more than the communiques sure to be issued and the statements sure to be made, the inability of two mothers just to meet -- not to mention understand one another -- gives a true and depressing picture of why no peace agreement is on the horizon. God is not in these details. The devil is.

It is the little issues that concern the two mothers. Avigail is controlled by fear. Four years after the bombing, she finally made it within a block of where Um Samir lives. But her car with its film crew was detained by the officious and suspicious Palestinian police. Daylight was gone. A guide told her how close they were. Avigail flinched. "No, it is too dark. I'm afraid to go there right now. It's too dark."

As for Um Samir, she will accept only some of the mother-to-mother rhetoric. The reality of her life is the repressive Israeli occupation. "We are living in misery," she tells Avigail. "My people are living in a camp. We have nothing."

Um Samir says she does not understand why Jews from all over the world have taken her country from her. Avigail, who is a second-generation Israeli, cannot accept such language. "She has to realize that there are two nations here," she says. "Palestine and Israel."

Avigail tries to salvage a shred of meaning from her daughter's meaningless death, but Um Samir thwarts her. The Palestinian's daughter valiantly resisted the Israeli occupation, her mother says. Avigail isn't buying. "You didn't get nothing, and I didn't receive nothing," she says.

"For you it was nothing," Um Samir responds firmly. But for her daughter, it was enough. "For her cause and her honor, it was something." She returns again and again to the conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation. Avigail hardly hears what Um Samir is saying. She just wants the killing to end.

Having seen this documentary and read the transcript, I am transported to the lobbies of Washington's nice hotels, where I have met over the years with the representatives of this or that Middle Eastern state, Israel included. No one is ever angry. Everyone is always reasonable. No one seeks to exterminate anyone. They all crowd the middle ground, say the same words. Formulaic phrases fall from their mouths like crumbs onto their laps -- the "road map," "right of return," "Taba," "Camp David." You would think that the essentials for peace are bottled water and an ashtray.

But the reality is represented by these two mothers. The deaths of their daughters do not unite them. They talk past each other. They are virtual neighbors, but the distance between them is huge -- roadblocks and checkpoints and mentalities ossified by 100 years of bloodshed. One mother is obsessed with the Israeli occupation. The other is preoccupied with terrorism. One is right. The other is right.

Israel must relent. That's for sure. The Palestinians must forswear terrorism. That's for sure, too. The occupation has to end. Suicide bombings have to end. A Palestinian state has to be created. Gaza cannot remain a terrorist base. The West Bank cannot become a terrorist base. It's all so sensible. It's all so logical. But, really, down where it counts, the mothers of two dead daughters cannot even talk to each other.

"I didn't understand anything," Avigail says after four years of trying to establish a dialogue. "She didn't understand anything."

They issued no communique.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company