Settling Palestinian question in ’90-minute war’

The Ninety-Minute War by Itay Meirson Milchemet Tisheem Hadakot (The Ninety-Minute War)

After the collapse of yet another round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, the two sides agree to end the century-long conflict once and for all. A soccer match between the two national teams, to be held in a neutral stadium, will determine the fate of the warring sides. The winning nation retains sole possession of the contested land while loser’s people depart at once—the Palestinians to Saudi Arabia, the Israelis to eastern Oregon. A drastic method, to be sure, but in light of the continual bloodshed it seems like the most logical and humane solution.

For now, however, such a resolution is the province of the imagination, the creation of Israeli writer Itay Meirson in his first novel, Milchemet Tisheem Hadakot (The 90-Minute War). Israeli publisher Yedioth Ahronoth released the book in summer 08, a few months before Israel’s latest bombing campaign of Gaza.

Every Friday afternoon in Ramat Aviv, Meirson, a journalist for Tel Aviv’s weekly Ha’ir and for the website Walla, plays soccer with friends. It was at a game four years ago that the novel was born. During a recent conversation, Meirson described arriving at the field to discover an unfamiliar group playing there.

Right away heated arguments began over ownership of the place. A minute before things turned to violence, someone suggested a quick match between our best five against their best, with the winning team gaining possession. Happily, we won. I was amazed at the speed with which the other group evacuated the site, without argument, threats and saying a word. They simply accepted the verdict of the loss. Ten minutes of a soccer game easily settled a conflict that could have lasted hours and deteriorated into violence. That same evening I toyed with the question of what would happen if the Israelis and the Palestinians would conduct such a game on the “field” both claim as their own. The next day I stopped pondering and began writing.

In Meirson’s tale, the winners celebrate while the losers forfeit all national aspirations in the face of exile. The book does not reveal the match’s outcome and ends with the sound of the referee’s opening whistle, at the Estádio Algarve in Faro, Portugal. The reader is left to write the ending. I wished for resolution or, even better, a hopeful ending in which players share their common humanity and love of the game. But, according to Meirson, even before writing the first line he decided to avoid the temptation to satisfy readers’ fantasies. “This is not a book about soccer. The sport is just a parable through which I wanted to illuminate the dark and scary aspects of Israeli society. The question that needs to be asked is not what the result of the game is, but how did we get to this situation.”

Itay Meirson Meirson

The author has described Jaroslav Hašek’s 1920 novel The Good Soldier Švejk as an influence, and similar absurdity pervades The 90-Minute War. The book excels at satirizing aspects of Israeli and Palestinian society with allusions to cultural figures, fundamentalist settlers, peace activists and politicians of all stripes. Meirson mocks religious leaders, too—rabbis demand that the prime minister, who has taken over the national team, halt practices on the sabbath. The leader resembles Ehud Olmert, known, in real life, for his inability during police investigations to recall shady financial dealings but possessing a fantastic memory for Beitar Jerusalem games decades ago.

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