In the waning weeks of 1988, a wave of shocks hit the Middle East. The source of the shock wave was not an earthquake or, for once, an aerial bombardment. The earth, in fact, stood still. But Middle East politics were shaken, and perhaps permanently altered, by succeeding shocks of recognition.
First, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made official its recognition of Israel's right to exist. Then, the United States overturned its Kissinger-era policy of boycotting the PLO and finally recognized the organization as a legitimate player in the Middle East peace process.
At this writing, any optimism about Middle East peace should still be of the most guarded variety. But these developments are indisputably evidence of the kind of "new thinking" that will be needed to break what had appeared to be a permanent logjam of historical, emotional, and religious interests and passions that has gripped Israelis and Palestinians for more than 40 years.
Those seeking proof that God has a sense of irony need only look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Here God has apparently chosen the territory widely considered to be his or her earthly front yard--the very land where God's prophets brought the message of peace--as the site for one of history's most dangerous tests of the frail human capacity for empathy. And hardheaded geopolitical talk to the contrary, empathy is finally what the conflict is about. Its resolution requires that both of the peoples involved break free from the iron ethic of the tribe and recognize the real grievances and interests of the other party.