After being a speechwriter for two successive Israeli Prime Ministers, author Gregory Levey wanted to try something novel forge peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, in six months, from his apartment. Suffice to say, the conflict outside Levey's apartment is still raging on, with the status of current peace talks up in the air. In Levey's new book, How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment, he talks to numerous officials from both sides about the conflict and attempts his own version of shuttle diplomacy to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. It didn't go as planned, but he did learn how to trigger the Third Intifada and got a new pair of boxer shorts in the process.
Were you worried about writing a fairly humorous book about a decades-long conflict that has led to thousands of deaths?
Well, yeah. But there's a line I like which is, "It's so tragic one can't help but laugh at it." Someone else asked me, "Well, aren't you trivializing it?" And I'm like, "Of course I'm trivializing it! That's the point!" If you spend time with the Israelis or the Palestinians in the region, they're used to this sort of dark, gallows humor. You're in an absurd situation, and the way humans deal with it is comedy a lot of the time.
Are people taking your book as a sincere effort to solve the conflict or rather just a funny read about it?
I see the book as far less serious than a lot of people have been taking it. I've been surprised by a lot of people who see it as a serious political analysis, which I think is ridiculous.
But how much of you was really trying to solve it?
I didn't think I'd actually solve it. But I did hope that I'd come to some conclusions that would help bridge differences, and that would provide me a way that I could see it being solved. So a pretty high percentage at the beginning. As the book wore on, that definitely dissipated.
In the book you play a computer simulation game called PeaceMaker (which sent you a nice pair of boxer shorts for playing), and in just three weeks of simulation time you caused the Third Intifiada. What happened?
Even now I still reflexively think, "OK it shouldn't be that hard." You create two states, you split Jerusalem. Then you actually try to plug it into that simulator, or even just discuss it with anyone, and there's all these millions of moving pieces.
Your wife in no time beat the game. Did that make you think...
That it's time for a divorce?
No! That maybe you're putting too much thought into it.
Maybe I over-think it because I spent so much time talking to people and reading about it and working in the Israeli government. And she just sort of did what came natural.
Playing as the Israeli leader, the winning formula seemed to be controlling violent flare-ups with the Palestinians while maintaining security. Is that the basic path to peace?
I think so. If you're the Israeli leader, you can be booted out of office because the Israelis don't think you have the security credentials. Or you can find your way out of office because you inflame the Palestinians. It's that fine line.
Do you think there will be a point of no return for the creation of a future Palestinian state?
In the last year, there's been increasing strains in the Palestinian side who have said, "You know what? Forget it. We'll have one state. We don't want our own state, but we want a vote." As soon as that becomes a majority opinion, I think Israel has a major problem. That's going to lead to some crazy civil war.
For as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, could you give one word to describe it?
There's a Hebrew word that's perfect: balagan, which means a giant mess. I think it's almost unique to Israeli culture, this concept. They use that a lot because there're a lot of other balagans in Israel. It's funny because a lot of Arabs know that word as well.
So the conflict is still ongoing. How do you feel about that after your experience?
I don't want to give it away to your readers, but I didn't make peace. I did learn two really important things. I'm not alone in my pessimism, which you wouldn't think is such a groundbreaking lesson. But it really was amazing, because the cynicism is so widespread. And then the other interesting thing to me is that all these people who seemed so clownish and crazy to me and still kinda do, don't see themselves as that in any way. They think they're perfectly sane, down-the-middle centrists. Those two observations to me are not a recipe for success in the coming years.