Rashid Sirhan opened his eyes at the sound of her voice, blinking quickly as he tried to adjust to the harsh overhead lighting. “Sorry, just napping.”
The nurse smiled kindly, the usual twinkle in her eyes. “I’ve got your pills, Mr. Sirhan. I’m glad you finally got some sleep.”
The young nurse filled his palm with a rainbow assortment of drugs, like his father used to with candy when he was a child. He shook his head at the thought, stuffed the pills into his mouth and washed them down with some water. The pills certainly didn’t taste like his childhood, but instead felt like one more insult heaped upon many others as he’d grown old.
“All done?” Her voice had an edge of menace. She’d probably had problems with other patients today.
“Mission accomplished.” Rashid opened his mouth to show her, then closed it. “I’ll look forward to my lollipop.”
She ignored the jibe and he closed his eyes again. As he relaxed and tried to ease back into sleep, Rashid heard the nurse push the drug cart to the next bed. Before he had the chance to drift off, he was gripped by a coughing fit, a dry and raspy reminder that he was down to one lung. The cancer that had plagued his body also destroyed his rest.
Just as his coughing subsided, Rashid heard a loud chattering sound from a few rooms away. The sound was unmistakable, akin to a half-dozen small firecrackers exploding in quick succession. Even before the squeals and shouts had started, he’d figured out what was happening: a standard-issue Israeli assault rifle was firing on full automatic. The IDF was here.
Rashid kicked off the covers and rolled out of bed, bracing as he landed hard on the ground. He’d be damned if he’d make himself an easy target or let the shrapnel from a frag grenade catch him in bed. Coughing again, he ducked low and listened. The gunfire relented for a moment, ripped off again, then stopped once more. The pattern – shoot and pause – hinted at one gunman.
Glancing around for a weapon, any kind, he ignored the noise and chaos around him as others fled the gunfire. He settled on a metal kidney dish and struggled to his feet, knowing this would be his last stand. Refusing to die on his knees, Rashid stood tall as the sound of the gunfire moved closer.
The door to the ward swung open. Rashid squeezed the kidney dish tighter as a male patient and a nurse ran through the door and towards him. The woman fell as gunfire found her, leaving a spray of blood in her wake. A second later, the man dropped as well.
The gunman walked through the door, dressed from head to toe in the uniform of the Israeli army and the triple chevron that revealed him to be a samal – a sergeant. Rashid stood as proud as he could, unwilling to let the Israeli see him take a backward step.
While Rashid had launched rockets into Israel before, likely killing civilians, he figured you had to be a special kind of killer to shoot up a hospital. Or the closest thing Gaza had to a hospital, anyway. He wasn’t sure how many had died, but as he lifted the kidney dish Rashid felt anger course through him.
The Israeli sergeant’s features betrayed no emotion as he brought the assault rifle up. Rashid swallowed hard and threw the kidney dish at the Israeli. The projectile hit the other man on the chest and then clattered to the tiles, the lamest possible resistance. Rashid didn’t care. He hadn’t run away.
As dignitaries descend on New York City for the signing of the historic peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, many remain skeptical that a deal will be finalized. Though both camps say that all issues are close to being fully resolved and that the massacre at Gaza’s Al Amal Hospital has brought the parties closer to a deal, the world has seen too many false starts on this issue to be certain of an agreement. Until pen touches paper, the stakes will remain high and nobody has more to gain, or lose, from the agreement than President Bill McGhinnist, who has worked tirelessly to resolve this issue before the end of his first term.
--New York Standard
Jack Emery’s eyes darted back and forth across the page, consuming the news for the day. He licked his finger and turned a page with one hand while he fumbled for his coffee with the other. The shock from the story on page five caused him to knock over his coffee cup, drowning the Post’s scoop about a Supreme Court justice being photographed at a titty bar.
“Damn it.” Jack reached for a napkin and mopped at the spill, trying his best to save the rest of the newspaper.
“Nice work.” Celeste Adams’ voice was heavy with sleep. “Good thing you never listen to me about the advantages of reading the news on your iPad.”
Jack looked up. Despite the mess, he couldn’t resist a smile as she leaned against the doorframe, wearing panties and a tank top. “Hey.”
“Hey.” She pushed herself off, walked toward him and reached for his plate. “Why’d you let me sleep so late?”
He swatted at her hand and his smile turned into a frown when she stole the remains of his bagel, biting into the last morsel. A smear of cream cheese remained on her lip. He stood, took her hands in his and kissed her deeply, using his tongue to lick at the cheese. She laughed and pulled away. They looked at each other for a second and then shared another kiss.
“Too cute to wake.” Jack gave her hands a squeeze, pulled away and made a show of eyeing her up and down.
She gave him a gentle slap on the rear, then rounded the table and took a seat. “Any of the papers survive your drenching?”
He considered the mess. “Not sure. They all look a bit moist.”
“Gross. That word should only be used to describe cake.”
Jack laughed as she grabbed the New York Standard and started to flick through it with the practiced eye of someone who’d edited the paper the previous afternoon. She never knew how to disconnect from her work, though it wasn’t like he could talk. He left her with the paper, walked to the kitchen and put a bagel into the toaster for her.
He thought about the strange situation that existed between them. Though Jack felt their relationship was equal to the one he’d had with his ex-wife – loving and supportive and exciting – sometimes it felt neither of them ever switched off from work enough to enjoy it. Celeste was living in a townhouse in New York and working as managing editor at the Standard, while he was living in Washington and working for President Bill McGhinnist. It had been that way for three years. He traveled to New York every second weekend, where they spent their time together feigning normalcy until he caught a late flight out of JFK on Sunday night. It was hard, but worth it.
The bagel popped. He gave it a liberal spread of cream cheese then picked up the plate and walked back into the dining room, stealing a glance over her shoulder at the story she was reading as he placed the plate down. It was yet another story about Israel and Palestine. The papers had been full of them for weeks.
“It’ll work.” Jack placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m not sure.” She grabbed his hand and held it to her body as she finished reading the story. Then she reached for the bagel, took a bite and started to talk with her mouth full. “There have been so many letdowns it’s hard to get too excited. Bringing them all into town was a ballsy move.”
He nodded and sat beside her. They’d discussed the Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement deep into the night. Both of them were hopeful – but neither convinced – that the two sides would agree on the final few sticking points and get it done. Things had moved a long way since the massacre at the hospital in Gaza a few months prior, but the deal was a complicated one to negotiate.
“It’d be huge for McGhinnist. It’s been a slog these past few years. He needs a big win leading up to the election.”
“Plenty of presidents have tried, and failed, to crack the Israel–Palestine nut in their time, Jack.” Celeste squeezed his hand gently. “If he’s relying on this to get him over the line then it might be best to start preparing for life after the White House.”
“He’ll win.” Jack’s tone made it clear he didn’t want to discuss the possibility of Bill McGhinnist losing the presidency.
“Just don’t get too invested, okay?”
Jack nodded. It wasn’t the first time she’d told him to be careful since he’d taken the job as special advisor to the President. While McGhinnist had no shortage of big ideas and a decent record of steering them through Congress, his popularity had taken a hit in recent months. Given America was still healing from the near takeover of the country by the Foundation for a New America and the full takeover by FEMA, Jack couldn’t blame the public for some political fatigue. Yet he still felt the situation was unfair. McGhinnist had halted the blanket monitoring of US citizens and limited other impositions in place since 9/11, but those successes were yesterday’s news – McGhinnist needed a new win.
The peace would be that.
Jack had spent nearly a year working with McGhinnist and US negotiator Karl Long to help shepherd the peace agreement between Israel and Palestine through complex negotiations and, at times, fraught decisions. Over countless meetings and phone calls, the sides had worked out problems large and small until, finally, they’d reached agreement on all issues but one: Israeli settlements. Despite this, McGhinnist had made the gutsy decision to schedule a date for the signing, hoping it would help to force a resolution on the last issue. McGhinnist had even authorized Long to throw out a few carrots if it meant getting a deal.
He’d be lying if he pretended not to care about the politics of it, given part of his job was to leverage wins like this into political gain for the President. But Jack’s primary responsibility, and the sole reason he’d agreed to work for McGhinnist in the first place, was achieving good policy outcomes. The peace agreement was one of those. Any political benefits were a bonus.
“McGhinnist needs this to show he can build something positive. He needs to prove he can do more than just remove the excesses of others. This feels different. It feels good. He’s going to get it done.”
“Well, I hope you’re right. He’s proven before that he can take on big policy issues and win.” Celeste pushed her plate aside. “Do you have much work to do today?”
“Not particularly. The President flies in later tonight, but he’s straight into meetings with Karl.” Jack thought hard, to make sure he hadn’t forgotten any appointments. “All clear.”
“Glad to hear it. I get the feeling this might be the last break you get for a while, so I want you to make the most of it.” She stood. “Now, are you coming or not?”
Jack’s eyes widened as she walked slowly out of the kitchen. With each step, she exaggerated the movement of her hips slightly. She raised her tank top over her head and tossed it on the floor, then paused and dropped her panties. As he watched her walk to the bedroom, Jack grabbed the last bite of the bagel left on her plate, stood and followed her.
It was good to be home.
Samih Khaladi waited at the crossing as dozens of cars blitzed through the intersection. He loved New York City, though not for the reasons most people did. It wasn’t about the skyscrapers, the bustle or the attractions. What moved him was that so many people – all kinds of people – could live so closely together in relative harmony and safety. It was chaotic, but it worked.
The lights changed and he crossed the street with his pair of security guards in tow, doing his best to stay a step or two ahead. If he had the choice, he’d go without the security entirely, but President McGhinnist had insisted the negotiators be escorted at all times when they were outside. Given Samih was representing Palestine in the peace negotiations, he had little choice.
He slowed as he caught sight of a Starbucks, then smiled and turned to his security. “I’m just going to get a—”
“Mr. Khaladi?” One of the guards interrupted, as the other looked at his watch. “We need to return to the UN building, sir. The lunch hour ends soon.”
Samih sighed. He hated being on a schedule. It wasn’t the guard’s fault, but it was annoying. “Okay, but first let me grab a coffee.”
“There’s coffee back at the meeting, sir.” The guard was insistent. “I really must insist that we turn back.”
Samih felt his face flush. “The entire world will wait for me today if they have to. I’m one of the people trying to end the most intractable political conflict on the planet. I want a coffee, from here, so please wait outside for me while I go inside to get one.”
Samih exhaled loudly and the door to the Starbucks felt his displeasure, as he pushed it open with some force. His security didn’t seem happy and Samih didn’t like throwing his weight around, but he wanted a few more minutes before returning to the pressure cooker. He waited in line for just a moment and then he reached the front.
“How’re you today, sir?” An attendant struggled to feign interest. “What can I get for you?”
Samih swallowed his irritation and did his best to smile. “I would like a coffee please.”
The man stared at him blankly. “Which kind, sir? You’re supposed to know your order by the time you reach the front.”
Samih’s eyes narrowed as he considered the menu. “An Americano. A large one.”
Samih paid and moved to the end of the counter, struggling not to laugh at the inanity of the exchange. After being involved in negotiations over land borders, migration of peoples and security issues – all incredibly high stakes – he’d had to be stepped through ordering a coffee by a college kid. Thinking about it cheered him up.
As he closed his wallet, he glanced at the photo he kept inside and felt a pang of regret. All he wanted for his people was peace, for them to be able to enjoy fast food, entertainment, shopping malls and sporting games without the threat of extremist violence or Israeli gunships. He wanted a nation for them. All that remained was closing the deal and hoping it was accepted. Only a few short years ago, Samih would have been at the front of the line of Palestinians decrying this agreement. Worse, he’d have advocated and committed violence to stop it from being signed. He’d been caught in a cycle of hate that served nobody and only left people dead. It was why he kept the photo of his brother close.
After his brother had been killed by an Israeli airstrike in retaliation for an attack Samih had ordered, Samih had faced a choice. In his anger, he’d considered further attacks, but he’d mourned and seen another way. Forming a breakaway group of Hamas, he’d banded with the Palestinian Liberation Organization to take the battle to the unreformed extremists. The conflict had been bloody – moderates and hardliners engaged in open warfare on the streets, with Israeli gunships occasionally adding their own fire and noise to the mess. The moderates had won, at huge cost. Samih had been offered leadership of the new, unified Palestinian authority but had declined in order to focus on peace.
“Sir?” A Starbucks staff member touched Samih on the arm. “Sir? Your coffee is ready.”
Samih shook his head. He was always prone to deep reflection on the past, but it seemed to be happening more lately. He took the coffee. “Thank you.”
He walked outside and didn’t wait for his security to fall into line. The walk back to the UN building was uneventful. As he walked, he thought about the draft agreement. Though it didn’t give his people everything they wanted, or deserved, it was by far the best deal that could be achieved. A good deal, peace and a state were better than waiting forever for the perfect deal.
The agreement had to succeed.
Back inside the building, Samih juggled his coffee as he returned to his seat with the other delegates. Everyone had the same goal: resolving the last issue. Samih represented the Palestinians and Ben Ebron represented the Israelis, as they’d done for years, aided in the negotiations by the US Special Envoy for Israeli–Palestinian Relations, Karl Long.
The last person to enter the room was in some ways the most important – Liliana Garza, Secretary-General of the United Nations. She’d obliged US President Bill McGhinnist’s demands for the signing ceremony to be scheduled and for the talks to be finalized. Samih watched Garza as she walked to the head of the table.
“Gentlemen, I trust you enjoyed lunch?” She held her arms wide, a typically welcoming gesture from her during the tough negotiations. “If we’re to sign an agreement tomorrow, we have this session to resolve the final issue. We left off at—”
“Compensation for displaced Israeli settlers.” Ebron cut the pleasantries short, his voice sharp. “Israel is committed to finding a way through this issue and finalizing the agreement, but it mustn’t be at the expense of our own people. There needs to be a strong package that I can take to my government.”
Samih’s lips pressed together but he kept quiet. Though he found it hard to comprehend that the final sticking point after three years of negotiations could be payments to Israelis who’d annexed the lands of his people, he knew that without compensation there would be no peace. He’d learned the hard way that one wrong word could destroy much painstaking work.
Garza took the interruption in her stride. “I’ve had my staff working the phones during the lunch hour. United Nations member states have agreed to contribute forty percent of the compensation amount. The rest of the world has done its part, now it’s the turn of the others in this room.”
Samih was surprised by the news, but smiled sadly. “This is an area where the Palestinian people can make little contribution. We are not a rich people.”
Ebron flared. “Unacceptable. The Palestinians must contribute—”
Samih held up his hand. “However, upon achieving statehood, Palestine will set aside one percent of government revenue until one-tenth of the total is paid.”
Ebron’s mouth fell open slightly, before he seemed to catch himself and right his composure. “That’s a welcome gesture, Mr. Khaladi, and one I didn’t expect.”
Samih smiled. He’d planned on just that and the effect had been powerful. For the diminutive state of Palestine to make a financial contribution to resettling Israelis was a game changer. Samih had long argued the presence of the settlers was illegal, but in the interests of peace this concession had to be made. He hoped it would be enough.
Long tapped his signet ring on the table. It had stopped bothering Samih, because it appeared be a habit. “The President has authorized me to increase the contribution of the United States to twenty-five percent, but that’s as high as we’re going to go.”
“A very generous offer.” Samih nodded.
“Twenty-five percent remains.” Ebron sighed as he looked at each of them, as if the pressure of expectation was too much.
“Mr. Ebron?” Garza’s voice was gentle. “Do you need a recess to consult with your colleagues and consider Israel’s position?”
“No, that won’t be necessary.” Ebron sighed. “It burns me to my core that Israel must contribute financially to the displacement of its own citizens, but the pressure of tomorrow’s deadline and the aftermath of the Al Amal massacre leave me little choice. I agree.”
“Wonderful.” Garza beamed. “Any costs borne out of this agreement will be more than paid for by the peace and prosperity that also flows from it.”
“It’s agreed then?” Long’s eyes widened as they flicked between Samih and Ebron. “We have something to sign?”
“The agreement is suitable for Israel, if a little expensive.” Ebron placed his palms flat on the table. “I hope this can be the end of it.”
Now Samih felt the weight of expectation. He looked down at his notes, trying to think of any negatives for his people that he might have missed. He’d already gained the agreement of his leadership on the draft text, with the exception of the issues worked out during this final day. There was nothing in the last few resolutions that would prevent the deal being agreed. It was good enough.
“Well?” Long’s voice had an edge.
Samih looked up. He rested his elbows on the table with a smile. “My friends, this is an important day. We’ve achieved peace.”
The ever-serious Ebron leaned back and spun around on his chair, while Long slapped the table and sported a wide grin. Samih closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment of reflection. This occasion had been so long in coming, he never thought he’d see it. Thousands dead, generations ruined, years wasted. He hoped his people would welcome the peace on offer.
“Excuse me, Mr. Khaladi?”
Samih opened his eyes. Ebron was standing in front of him. “Yes?”
“I’d like to shake your hand.”
Samih stood, feeling all the weight of his sixty years, then shook the proffered hand. “This is a momentous day, my friend.”
“It is.” Ebron nodded and pulled his hand away, clearly not used to being so personable.
“We will sign the agreement tomorrow.” Garza joined them, the relief in her voice clear. “Twenty-eight days after that, there will be peace.”
“Zed Eshkol is professor of history at Yeshiva University, a position he’s held for nearly forty years. He lectures in Jewish history and his specialty is the politics surrounding the creation of Israel following the Second World War. He’s considered one of the world’s leading thinkers on the causes and consequences of conflict between Israel and its neighbors, including the Palestinian people.”
When the crowd started its applause, Zed planted his cane on the ground, pushed on it heavily and climbed to his feet. Letting the cane support him, he shuffled slowly to the stage. At the bottom of the stairs he paused, making a mental note to talk to the staffer who’d selected the venue. Zed wasn’t as spry as he used to be.
“Thank you, Ariel.” Zed spoke softly, short of breath, once he’d reached the top of the stairs. He patted the man on the shoulder.
Ariel beamed. “No problem, professor. Good luck with your lecture.”
As Zed moved to the lectern, he reflected that, while Ariel had promise, he needed to be molded. He adjusted the microphone, handed his cane to another staffer and gripped the sides of the lectern as if his life depended on it. After checking his notes were in place, he looked up to the packed theatre. That audiences still came to see him speak was a thrill to him.
“Thank you all for coming. My thanks also to Ariel, who’s organized a great program for us.” Zed smiled. “I do wish I wasn’t here tonight, though, or that we at least had a better reason to come together, but here we are. I’ll speak for just a few moments, then we’ll enjoy supper and reconvene for questions and discussion.”
Zed looked down at his notes and used the pause to catch his breath before speaking again. “Quite simply, my friends, the peace agreement that will be signed tomorrow is a betrayal of Israel and the Jewish people, who gained their freedom and a state of their own after one of the darkest episodes in human history.”
Zed looked up at the crowd. He usually didn’t like mentioning the Holocaust, but there was no way to avoid it this evening. “I’ll not speak of the Holocaust again, though many of you know that I survived it, but please be clear that the situation facing us tomorrow is the most desperate since that terrible chapter in our history.
“Israel has existed and grown despite being under the dark cloud of conflict. Every citizen has military training, its armed forces are potent, Mossad is rightly feared and a nuclear stockpile is the ultimate deterrent. Indeed, Israel has defended itself against aggression many times, often in desperate circumstances. It has never been belligerent, but always vigilant.”
Zed paused and looked around the theatre. For a hastily convened event, the turnout was excellent. It gave him hope that, while the vast majority of the world and the American public wanted a deal between Israel and Palestine, there was still a cohort of the faithful. Over nine decades, he’d learned that where there was a glimmer of hope, there was the possibility of deliverance.
He continued. “Through it all, Israel has showed remarkable restraint in dealing with this aggression. Sometimes against better judgment, it has tolerated and negotiated when others would have struck, resorting to retaliation only when it’s absolutely necessary. Israel invested in the Iron Dome, to stop rocket attacks, rather than spending more on jets and rockets to flatten the attackers.”
Zed started to cough. Turning away from the lectern, he raised one hand to cover his mouth, but made sure to keep the other in place. He felt as if knives were stabbing him in the chest as his body clenched with each cough, though he did his best to calm himself and bring it under control. A few members of the crowd shouted out for someone to help him.
Someone gripped his arm and he heard Ariel’s voice. “Professor, are you okay? I’ll ask for an early recess.”
“No!” Zed coughed again and then looked up to Ariel, his voice sharp. “Just give me a moment.”
“Okay, professor. Take your time, at least.”
Zed kept his back to the audience as he brought the coughing under control. Finally, the worst of it subsided and he returned to the lectern. “My apologies for the interruption, ladies and gentlemen. I frequently find that my body is my toughest critic these days.”
The crowd offered sympathetic smiles and small laughs. He continued. “Israel’s restraint hasn’t been enough. For decades the world has judged and threatened Israel, twisting the arm of its leaders to show further restraint, make deals and repudiate its right to exist, peacefully, within its own borders.
“Yet while Israel has attempted to co-exist with its neighbors and the Palestinians in the hope of peace, it’s never enough. Israel’s enemies aim for total annihilation while the world expects capitulation to the demands of cutthroats and criminals.
“Thankfully, strong Israeli leaders long resisted those demands. But now, weak leaders are happily slitting their own throats. A massacre perpetrated by a madman, sad though it was, has pressured Israel’s leaders into signing an agreement that is evil. It will split an Israeli state that should always be strong.”
Zed paused. He’d thought long and hard about the next part of his speech. “The United Nations and the USA are revisionists who helped to grant Israel its freedom only to convince the country’s leaders, now, to abandon much of that freedom – to act, to defend itself, to exist within its own borders.
“This agreement mustn’t be signed. It represents the eradication of an Israeli state at the height of its power, the betrayal of our people and a disgrace before God. Every free-thinking Jew the world over needs to stand against this travesty, or history will judge this generation as the one that killed the dream of Israel!”
Zed felt an enormous wave of pleasure and relief wash over him as applause roared. He smiled slightly and gripped the lectern until the noise receded, then waved a hand lazily in the air and signaled for a staffer to bring his cane. It would take him an eternity to get down the stairs again.
By the time he’d managed the journey and taken a seat, most of the rest of the crowd was busy getting supper in the foyer. Zed wasn’t interested in making small talk. Instead, he wanted time to himself before the questions started and other eminent speakers joined him on stage.
But he never got the chance. A man approached and leaned down to speak to him. “Professor Eshkol? I’m David Kahlon. May I have a moment?”
Zed smiled softly, unable to help himself but careful to hide it. Men like these were as regular as clockwork. “Of course.”
Kahlon nodded and sat. “Professor, I wanted to pay my respects on behalf of the Jewish Home. Many of my colleagues share your views.”
Zed laughed. He’d closely followed the statements of Jewish Home – one of Israel’s major conservative political parties – about the peace agreement. “It’s a shame the government does not. I think it’s important that those with a public voice continue to advocate sanity.”
“Couldn’t agree more, professor. I’ve been asked to sound you out, again, for your interest in becoming a citizen of Israel and running to join the Knesset.”
Zed shook his head softly. This felt like the thousandth time he’d been asked to join the Israeli parliament. But he was old, tired and comfortable. He’d had his chance at the spotlight after surviving the Holocaust and helping to establish Israel, but had chosen instead to make his contribution in academia.
“Professor?” Kahlon pressed.
“Your request just takes me back some years.” Zed smiled. “I think you know my answer. I’m an old man.”
Zed held up his hand. “No. Please respect my decision. I’ll continue doing all I can to speak against this peace process, and to support the right conservatives with my voice during Israeli elections, but that’s the sum of my contribution. I’m not a man for the limelight, Mr. Kahlon. Now, please excuse me.”
There was a tinge of regret in Kahlon’s smile, but they shook hands and he left. Zed forgot about him quickly. He had a lecture to finish.