a novel

Determined to impact Israeli-Palestinian relationships for the better, New York psychiatrist AARON SILVER goes to Palestine to conduct group therapy sessions for mixed Israeli-Palestinian couples. He often talks with his childhood friend Atlanta rabbi CALEB GRUNERT of his belief that spreading the news of good individual relationships could be the answer to the bigger national problem. Rabbi Grunert and former Atlanta mayor STUART CHURCHWELL meet regularly for lunch where Caleb shares his own concern that the negative publicity about Israelis and Palestinians obscures the reality of the many positive individual experiences, wondering whether there is some way to spread good news. Churchwell is sympathetic but he’s tried to do that for black–white relations without much success; good news is a hard sell.

Ironically, Dr. Silver is blissfully unaware of the fact that his wife, MURIEL MILLER, a fortyish wealthy New Yorker, has her own emotional issues. Seduced at sixteen by DAMON STARK, an older friend of her father’s who mentored her for several years in the ways of the Kama Sutra, Muriel is preoccupied with the sensual pleasures of sex and seeks them at every opportunity. After a pleasant tryst in the Upper West Side apartment of RICHARD AHMED, he becomes obsessed with Muriel and, unaware of the connection, seeks professional help from Dr. Silver. Concerned that this may be something organic, Aaron refers him to a famous New York neurologist.

The bombing death of a man in his therapy group in Palestine, leads Aaron to spurn Muriel’s pleas, contact his friend ERNIE WALLACH in Israel and go there, determined to do something to help. Her judgment clouded by their sad parting, Muriel has an uncharacteristic second martini in a Madison Avenue bar and winds up in bed with Bahraini SHEIK ISMAEL AHMED AL BAKTAR who is, unbeknownst to Muriel, Richard Ahmed’s father.

A LUCE, an enigmatic lawyer, visits Rabbi Grunert in his Atlanta office with a proposal from an anonymous Arab Muslim to finance a global effort to disseminate good news about Israeli-Palestinian relationships with Grunert as director. Grunert, against Stuart Churchwell’s advice, agrees and GNGN, the Good News Global Network, is born. Sheik Al Baktar’s support of this venture shocks his Bahraini advisors who contact the sheik’s New York physician and advise him to look into the sheik’s mental condition.

In Israel Aaron is confronted by a befuddled Ernie Wallach who harangues Aaron with his “Big Man”, “small man” metaphors for societal and individual interactions, and with the dilemma that the PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL, suddenly enamored of the Koran, is proclaiming his love for Palestinians and the notion that the Children of Abraham are one people. Convinced that this is a strange disease but unable to find anything wrong, Aaron suggests they get a functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) of his brain and send it to the world’s expert in the area, Dr. FARAMARZ NAFTIRI, in New York. By surprising coincidence, Dr. Naftiri juxtaposes four fMRI’s from four disparate sources. He saw two of the patients—Richard Ahmed, referred by Dr. Silver, and the Bahraini sheik referred by a prominent local internist. The other two came from the Middle East—the Prime Minister of Israel and WAFA AMALDI, a Palestinian Hamas official, whose fMRI was sent to him by a Jerusalem neurologist. The histories are similar—sudden empathy for bitter enemies—and the fMRIs show identical patterns unlike any Dr. Naftiri has ever seen. Naftiri reports the cases to the Health Department and suggests that the CDC be notified. ROGER STERN, chief epidemiologist at the CDC, labels this bizarre cluster of cases the Empathy Syndrome and, realizing the political potential, leads a confidential investigation.

At the behest of his Prime Minister, SHLOMO JACOBY, director of Mossad, arranges a secret meeting in Asolo, Italy of the Prime Minister with Wafa Amaldi, who is surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea, and a couple of her Hamas colleagues. GNGN emerges into reality under Caleb Grunert’s direction. The plan is for a mobile operation with two narrators, selected by Luce, one of whom is Richard Ahmed. Luce informs Grunert that he has learned of the Asolo meeting and has obtained permission for GNGN to cover the occasion. After shipping off the samples from Naftiri’s two cases to the CDC, Roger Stern goes to Israel where he is greeted by CIA operative, HARRY BARTOW, and informed that this is to be a combined CIA/CDC investigation; the politics and the biology are inextricable.

To his surprise, Ernie Wallach receives a call from Wafa Amaldi, who tells him of the plans for the Asolo meeting. Wallach arranges for himself and Aaron to go to Asolo. Roger Stern gets news from the CDC that some of the Naftiri specimens may contain a novel virus. Stern also learns of the Asolo meeting and when he tells the CDC director of it, she decides to meet him there. In Asolo, the CDC director and the CIA operatives agree that the planned meeting has to be aborted. All four cases are there—the Prime Minister, Wafa Amaldi, and also Richard Ahmed, there with an obscure news organization and the vacationing Bahrani sheik is holed up in a suite at the Villa Cipriani. They fear that the Empathy Syndrome might spread and plans are hatched to sequester the four “cases” until the dust settles.

In New York, Muriel’s impulsive phone call to Aaron’s office reveals the shocking news that Richard Ahmed is Aaron’s patient, threatening the integrity of Muriel’s emotional house of cards. Aaron’s voice mail message tells Muriel where he is and she immediately leaves for Italy. Answering an urgent message from Damon Stark, Muriel learns of her mother’s suicide and makes the trip in shock, somnambulates her way from the airport to Asolo, and collapses. Later that evening she goes to a restaurant in town for dinner where she discovers Aaron, Richard Ahmed and the Bahraini sheik dining together. Her carefully constructed life begins to disintegrate.

The CIA’s plan to kidnap the four cases fails and the meeting convenes: declared enemies recognize their common ancestry, their mutual love for the land and the formidable potential of a union of the people and the lands of Israel and Palestine. The Asolo Accords are born. Attempting to crash the meeting, Ernie Wallach takes Muriel and Aaron hostage, planning to use them as his ticket to the proceedings. Muriel, in a heroic move, saves herself and Aaron from harm at the hands of Wallach.

Still concerned about the nature of the Empathy Syndrome, the CIA/CDC team convinces Mossad to allow them to transport the four principals to Venice where the fMRI tests are repeated. Dr. Naftiri, flown there to interpret the tests, is perplexed by the fact that the scans are totally normal now. Stern’s information from the CDC virology lab is also inconclusive; the original findings don’t pan out.

The inaugural GNGN program telecasts the Asolo proceedings to the world. GNGN flourishes. Aaron and Caleb Grunert muse about an act of God as the explanation of so much that’s inexplicable. Muriel’s journey toward the integrity she seeks continues. The “small man” and the “Big Man” go their separate ways. Are those paths destined to meet? God only knows.