ITHACA, N.Y., the Patent Office — Some 70 years ago, the great Irish Times columnist and troubleshooter, Myles na gCopaleen, took on the vexatious problem of railway disasters and proposed a solution that was the very “essence of inexpense and simplicity.” The pointed nose of every train would be angled off to the left of center, so that “two trains colliding head-on do not telescope each other and kill hundreds of people” but rather are “instantly switched off the track upon which at least one of them had no business to be,” thus running past each other and “ploughing harmlessly into the earth and coming to a stand-still.” Thus, na gCopaleen concluded, “hundreds of more lives are saved and man moves on in the coil of his dark destiny.”
Owing to his reputation as a manic satirist and a drunk, the prevailing perception seems to have been that he was kidding. Blueprints drawn up were curtly dismissed by what he called “the most ruffianly railroad concern ever to exist in any country.” Which is a shame: Not only were hundreds of lives not saved over the decades by his invention, thousands weren’t, haven’t been, still aren’t and probably never will be.
I was reminded of this tragically missed opportunity by the most recent derailing of the peace process in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Imagine if each time that junket ran aground, the parties merely plowed harmlessly to a bewildered standstill among the olive trees. Alas, nowhere are the coils of man’s destiny darker than in today’s Middle East. And no place on earth would benefit more from eureka moments like na gCopaleen’s.
What if I were to tell you that almost a decade ago, one of the conflict’s greatest visionaries — a modest man both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian who has spent much of his professional life building a case for peace as rock solid and airtight as a Roman sarcophagus — proposed a border solution as ingenious as anything in na gCopaleen’s column but the world just shrugged? I refer, of course, to the justly celebrated Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and his unjustly forgotten wall-on-wheels thing.
Dershowitz’s proposal (described here, at 5:15) was as simple as it was original: that the West Bank separation barrier, with its combination of fences, trenches, 26-foot-high concrete slabs, watchtowers and pyramid stacks of barbed wire, “be placed on wheels and constantly be able to be moved consistent with Israeli security needs.” Though he described his idea as “widely supported within Israel,” it elicited scattered laughter and general bemusement from a Harvard audience, for truly, a prophet is not without honor except among his own kin and in his own house. What Jesus might have added, were he more Dershowitzian, is that matters only worsen when your house is packed to the rafters with dittoheads from Planet Chomsky.
For make no mistake: This was genius. An edifice conjuring the Warsaw ghetto or divided Berlin in the minds of so many might thus have been swiftly converted into a benign — if somewhat bristling — piece of elaborate modular outdoor office furniture.
It is time to revive Dershowitz’s vision and not laugh at it. Beyond the obvious branding benefits, it would allow the Israelis to build like beavers without prejudicing final negotiations about where the border should be. Facts on the ground become mere props on a set. Trust is rekindled between wary disputants. Once the border’s determined, you just roll the thing into place and press “lock” to prevent further changes.
Or not! Wall-on-wheels is a game changer. Why should there ever have to be final status negotiations? Why must minor border adjustments refer to a once-and-for-all stage of dispute resolution rather than a daily way of life for the robustious, knockabout Israelis and Palestinians? No compromise is perfect, but this would give each side what it wants most. Palestinians get to have functional contiguity and self-determination, and Israelis get to keep their occupation.
The wheel deal might well be expanded to encompass all Israeli infrastructure in the West Bank, I mused. I contacted Eyal Weizman, an Israeli intellectual and expert on the architecture of occupation, to discuss the feasibility and advisability of all this. He responded in a curt, even ruffianly manner. I persisted. Asked about the fate of the Dershowitz proposal in Israel after all the ballyhoo and ovations, he seemed perplexed by the very premise of the question. There'd been talk of wheeling away synagogues from abandoned settlements, he said, but nothing about walls-on-wheels. The closest analogy in actual policy, he added mischievously, was how “military bases on the ground were turned into floating bases in the sky” after the withdrawal from Gaza. “Should the settlers follow suit?” he asked.
"Flying settlers, now you're talking,” I replied. “But that's more like phase two."
Phase one, I was trying to explain when the line went dead, would see the settlers taking to roller skates. They are reasonable as well as fun-loving people; surely someone can persuade them. It’s in their interest, for Golda Meir’s utopian vision of an Israel whose “borders are determined by where Jews live, not where there is a line on a map” could thus take on a newly literal and dynamic reality. Wearable GPS technologies would be key. Phalanxes of armed settlers fanning out into Palestinian territory would be mobile nodes of a thin, protean, all but invisible web of electrified and inviolable sovereignty.
Something bold must be done, because — let’s face it — for all its virtues, the occupation has real image problems. Non-Americans and other anti-Semites seem perpetually apoplectic over it. It needs a makeover, or failing that, at least a comb-over. Perhaps a bright orange comb-over, like casino tycoon and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson’s, would be cheering. That would signal to a weary world that the occupation itself, just like Adelson, is too big to fail, and if he can be put on wheels, so can it.
And Adelson is the natural partner for Dershowitz in this venture, is he not? He has the same breadth of moral vision and a hell of a lot more money. Were he to put a few fistfuls of that money where Dershowitz’s mouth is, we’d all enjoy if not a hundred years’ peace, then at least a few minutes’ peace and quiet. In terms of philanthropic power and influence, the motorized scooter — when fully charged — can run circles around the Felix Frankfurter chair.
Indeed, as Dershowitz himself put it, Adelson’s “generosity has helped repair the world.” I would add only that the big orange fix-it man’s global repairs often have a spirited, think-outside-the-box quality rivaling even that of Dershowitz’s moral epiphanies about “torture warrants” (we can reduce illicit torture by demanding that torturers first ask permission) and the “continuum of civilianality” (civilians who fail to evacuate an area under bombardment “become complicit” in what happens to them). For example, Adelson recently suggested repairing relations with the Iranians by dropping a nuclear bomb in their desert and threatening to drop another on their capital unless they agreed to join the civilized world in forswearing nuclear blackmail. If that’s not a fresh take on moral clarity, I don’t know what is.
History is ripe for this project and this partnership. The peace process needs a shot in the arm, and so does the occupation. Dershowitz is retiring from Harvard in a couple of months and will not be able to fill all his idle hours with cable TV appearances. And Adelson, well, let’s just say that Adelson, now in the middle of his second big foray into presidential politics, seems a little frustrated by the occasional propensity of primary candidates — even those reporting for duty in Vegas, with hats and hands outstretched — to shift to topics other than Israeli security and Palestinian non-peoplehood. Both aging jockeys, in short, are in need of a new hobby horse, and I’ve put two saddles and four wheels on this one.
And what of the Palestinians? On the one hand, as is so often said of them, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. On the other hand, with so few opportunities of any kind open to them, I can understand their reluctance to miss out on even the self-defeating kind. On the third hand, here is truly an opportunity they can’t afford to miss, because it is that rarest of things for them: an opportunity to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, which, if I’m counting negations correctly, lands them back in the black. They must move swiftly to seize it, though not so swiftly — or, at any rate, so suddenly — that they get arrested or shot.