Leon Wieseltier and the Case for Hope
UPDATE: An edited version of this piece now appears in The Times of Israel, entitled “Leon Wieseltier and the case for hope”.
Last week, I was invited by a dear friend to speak at my former sixth-form college (a school for the eleventh and twelfth grades, in American parlance) on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In so doing, I described the land as being twice-promised, where two peoples have two strong claims to the same stretch of terrain. I also covered the hinge events which have led Israeli and Palestinians towards the awful status quo: the Arab-Israeli War; the Six Day War; the failure of Camp David in 2000; the al-Aqsa Intifada; and the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza.
There was no intention on my part to paint a grim picture of the current state of play. It is just that when the incidences of the past one hundred years are strung together – up to and including Benjamin Netanyahu’s petulant approval of the E1 project east of Jerusalem which would render a Palestinian state unviable – it can appear as if the arc of history, far from bending towards justice, has brought Israelis and Palestinians to a place where peace seems altogether unlikely.
It is this downbeat interpretation of the past and our present that has, it would seem, brought The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier to an abandonment of hope, to a sad conclusion that it is implausible for “peace between Israelis and Palestinians [to] occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views,” he adds, “I have merely lost my hopes”.
With Trepidation, In Support of Palestine’s UN Bid
Later today, the Palestinian proposal to have their status within the United Nations be upgraded from observer to non-member observer state will be put up for a vote. It will pass. Her Majesty’s government, my government, has made clear that will not vote in the negative on this, but that it cannot vote for it without assurances from the Palestinian Authority that it will re-enter into direct negotiations with Israel absent of pre-conditions. In the words of the Foreign Secretary, William Hague:
This would be consistent with our strong support for the principle of Palestinian statehood but our concern that the resolution could set the peace process back.
Hague’s caution is admirable. It is borne not just of the necessities of statecraft — the need to balance interests in a tinderbox region — but of a knowledge that one will always have regrets, irrelevant of whether one ended up definitively supporting or opposing Palestinian non-member observer state status.
There is, for example, always the possibility (as Hague highlighted) that were Palestine granted enhanced membership, and following the Knesset elections in January nothing happened with regards to bilateral negotiations in six months or a year, then Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad could use the organs of international law enforcement such as the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israel for war crimes. Far from helping bring the two-state solution into being, this would halt Palestinian statehood for a generation, if not kill it altogether.
Yet, on balance, I have come to the conclusion that I would rather regret having invited the Palestinians into the tent than having left them outside it.
The Road They Didn’t Take
Thoughts of mortality, of committing thousands of young men and reservists to war, ought to trouble and concentrate the mind. Worrisome, then, are the loose lips of Israel’s top brass like Eli Yishai, who stated Saturday, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. Disconcerting too are the attitudes of Michael Ben-Ari, who stated he wants to see 2,000 killed in Gaza, and Gilad Sharon, son of Ariel, who wrote in The Jerusalem Post the following:
We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing.
Their detached attitude to combat, the blasé stance on the sanctity of life, the ease with which they would commit their nation to a war of destruction and desolation, is wicked, callous, and truly frightening. It can’t help but bring to mind, during this month in which we mark the conclusion of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s take on the Binding of Isaac, “The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young”. After the angel of the Lord appears before Abraham and commands him to offer up “the Ram of Pride” over his threatened son, Owen’s verse takes a grim turn:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Four years ago, Israel was on the verge of a ground war with Hamas and other militant organisations based in the Gaza Strip after a significant uptick in rocket attacks upon civilians living in the Negev. In the elections that followed Operation Cast Lead – which halted the showers of explosives, at a cost of thirteen dead Israelis and 700 dead Palestinian non-combatants – Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud gained fifteen more seats and formed a government of parties opposed to peace, or to use the father Benzion’s adage, in favour of an accord that they must know the Palestinians would never accept.
To say that history is repeating itself, or is in danger of doing so, would be facetious and a little cheap. Yet the familiarity of the position Israel finds herself in – at war with Hamas once more, no closer to an agreement with the PLO, and weeks away from a general election – should certainly sharpen the focus of the Israeli voter and give them just cause to reflect on the Netanyahu administration’s failings.
Guardian’s Old-Is-New Cartoon Canard
For a cartoonist, how to say “Jews are controlling international affairs” without actually having to say it?
Well, the creation of Israel has made it very easy in this regard. Just replace ‘Jews’ with ‘the Israel lobby’ (or ‘Israel’ itself) and substitute ‘the United States’ or maybe ‘the United Nations’ for the usual ‘international government’ or ‘global finance’, and you’re good to go. And, if you can throw in an image of a prominent Israeli looming large over the scene, perhaps controlling world events as a puppeteer might work his instruments, even better.
The Guardian’s Steve Bell in today’s paper has done just that. His creation portrays an oversized, slightly hunched image of Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by a phalanx of rockets decked in the blue and white of the Israeli flag, standing at a lectern with his hands mastering two small dolls. On the left is William Hague, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary who has said that Hamas bears the “principle responsibility” for ending the violence in the region, and Tony Blair, the Middle East Peace Envoy for the Quartet, on the right.
Bell’s canard has been swiftly condemned. The Community Security Trust – the organisation responsible for the protection of the UK’s Jewish community – stated, “What is striking about Bell’s cartoon is that he seems to have reached for the ‘puppeteer’ trope to explain that fact that William Hague’s statement on the conflict was presumably not critical enough of Israel for his liking, as if this is the most plausible explanation for Hague’s view.” The Jewish Chronicle is reporting that the barrister Jeremy Brier has already lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission, labelling the drawing “plainly anti-Semitic.”
Some Initial Musings on Biberman
- The creation of a single list combining Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu for the January election has the potential to alter the very nature of Israeli politics and society entirely. Its power as a transformational force must not be underestimated, but nor must it necessarily be feared.
- Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic makes the very salient point that, although the politics of Likud-Beiteinu might be opposite to those of the centre-left, have a sizeable, mostly secular party keen on separating synagogue and state in Israel would undoubtedly be a good thing. To quote Goldberg, “Israel can’t afford to subsidize the ultra-Orthodox sector anymore, and the Orthodox parties have been granted much too much social and religious power. Secular and non-Orthodox Israelis have to take a stand against creeping fundamentalism”. Implementing a universal draft system, and reforming the system of benefits and handouts to the Haredim will be top priorities.
- The merger (though not a merger, a joint list) does have the potential to backfire on Netanyahu in particular. For, so-called soft voters, in other words those on the relative left of the Likud movement, could be turned off by Lieberman and drift towards centrist parties like Yesh Atid and Kadima. Meanwhile, traditional Jabotinsky-type supporters could drift away towards Israel’s other nationalist parties, including National Union and Jewish Home. So could its MKs of course, though the deadline has now passed to move parties without resigning from the Knesset.
- In my initial giddiness, I believed that both Yisrael Beiteinu’s support for the two-state solution (of a kind) and the movement of national-religious elements out of Likud into National Union/Jewish Home (a hypothetical) could restart the peace process, if they were to form a coalition with Yesh Atid and Kadima. I have been assured that to even propose this would be grasping at straws. J.J. Goldberg in The Forward even goes so far as to argue that peace process will be buried for good unless Olmert, Livni, Lapid, and so on formulate centre-left power bloc with a view to restarting the Olmert-Abbas negotiations. But I have to hope.
- Having Likud-Beiteinu on the one side, and an Olmert-Livni-Lapid super-party with Kadima and Labor on the other could turn Israel into a two-party state for the purposes of the next Knesset, as (Jeff) Goldberg also noted. Do not expect this to be permanent, however. Israel has been had this kind of arrangement before, most notably with Likud and the Alignment on opposing sides during the 1970s and 1980s, but after the death of Rabin, the left entered a kind of decline, giving way to discord and schism. Moreover, broad-based parties are all the more difficult to form in contemporary Israel, given the rise of both the national-religious settler movement and the ultra-Orthodox as political forces.
- If there is anything to be feared, however, it is the prospect of having Avigdor Lieberman in high office. At the moment, he is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. As far, he has only excelled at damaged Israel’s image abroad — he has yet to begin the work of tearing apart a nation. As I stated earlier, Yisrael Beiteinu has a good line on religion and state, and acknowledges the two-state solution from time to time, but it is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution with a nasty anti-Arab, anti-gay element at its core. Reports suggest that part of the deal to force the electoral pact through involved a commitment to make Lieberman Prime Minister towards the end of the next Knesset. Be afeard.
The Holidays End — The Election Begins
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early elections on Tuesday.
In a televised statement, Netanyahu said that, as his coalition government would not be able to agree on a national budget for 2013, he had “decided, for the benefit of Israel, to hold elections now and as quickly as possible.”
The elections would take place within three months, the prime minister said.
“In a few months, the tenure of the most stable government in decades will come to an end,” Netanyahu said. “This stability has helped us achieve the two main objectives we promised the citizens of Israel – to strengthen security at a time when a dangerous upheaval is gripping the Middle East, and [to fortify] the economy during…a financial turmoil.”
“We must maintain a responsible economic and defense policy,” Netanyahu added, “to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear bomb.” He said that early elections are a “national interest,” and thanked the citizens of Israel for the privilege they have granted him.
Obviously, this is terribly exciting in theory, except that’s it’s not in fact. Or at least, not at the moment. It is possible that a good deal might change in between now and February — will Ehud Olmert return? or Tzipi Livni? and what might become of Ehud Barak? — but at the moment, Likud will more likely than not return to power with a healthy plurality, granting them the privilege of creating the exact same coalition, with possible cosmetic adjustments, that they have forged during this Knesset:
And in line chart form:
Need it be said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. More thoughts on the election to come…
Bibi Goes to the UN: His Speech and That Picture
Try as he might, Benjamin Netanyahu address to the United Nations General Assembly will not be remembered his its content, positively or negatively, but rather for this image, which served only to undermine what I assume he intended to be a serious speech:
I’m slightly surprised that given Israel is one the most technologically-advanced nations on Earth, Netanyahu couldn’t find anything better to illustrate his point than a doodle from ClipArt, jazzed up by lines etched on with the Word drawing tool and a couple of text boxes. Couldn’t he have called the guys at Intel or something? They practically have a whole town to themselves in Kiryat Gat they’re so massive. Microsoft have campuses in Haifa and Herzliya. I’m sure they would have made time for the Prime Minister of Israel.
Twitter as usual agrees:
Smart reader emails re Bibi: “Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and he pulls this nonsense…”— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) September 27, 2012
“We come from the greatest race of comic illustrators in the history of the planet, and he comes up with a fifth grade science fair drawing”— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) September 27, 2012
Smart reader ctnd: “uch, maybe he was still woozy from the fast.”— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) September 27, 2012
Kadima Means Nothing — Ariel Is Worse
The break-up of Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz’s marriage of convenience bears no significance for the future of the peace process. The partnership between Likud and Kadima was never a serious endeavour to begin with, in spite of much talk about reforming the electoral process, introducing a universal draft, and even kick-starting the moribund talks between Netanyahu and Abbas. Rather, the deal was made entirely out of necessity: for Mofaz to elongate the life of his sham of a party, a project he has now surely annulled; for Netanyahu to continue his principal policy of inactivity on all fronts, under the auspices of national unity.
Far more noteworthy, at least when it comes to the hope that, someday, a democratic, Jewish state might reside with a democratic, Palestinian state in a condition of perpetual if uneasy peace, is the decision by the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education (JSCHE) to recognise the Ariel University Center as a full-fledged university. In doing so, the JSCHE have gone over the heads of the Council for Higher Education which recommended against recognition, thereby establishing Israel’s first university beyond the Green Line in the occupied territories.
But, as Liel Leibovitz notes in Tablet, the word of the council is essentially meaningless when it comes to the occupied territories:
Because Israeli law doesn’t apply in the West Bank…all civilian affairs in the region are overseen by the Israel Defence Forces. In 1997, after the council refused to supervise a number of nascent Jewish academic institutions established east of the Green Line, a new body was formed, called the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHEJS). Its members are appointed by the army.
And, that this university has been established in Ariel only augments the controversy, given the settlement’s position in the West Bank. Ariel competes with Ma’ale Adumim for the indignity of being the most controversial settlement in all of the West Bank, principally due to its size – a city of some 17,700 people – and its location, some 13km west of the Green Line, north of Ramallah and southwest of Nablus. Netanyahu has previously referred to Ariel as a suburb of Tel Aviv, “the heart of Israel”, and “an integral, inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future arrangement”. Yet having the borders of any prospective Israeli state swoop around the settlement would create a lengthy talon of land that not would only threaten the contiguity of a Palestinian state, but would be indefensible and vulnerable to enemy assault.
The decision by the JSCHE is a far more dangerous and destructive event than the slipping away of Shaul Mofaz and his gang of status quo politicians into the political night. Because, much like the Levy Report, its acceptance beyond those who have a vested interest in its continuation represents a normalisation of perpetual occupation or eventual annexation, either of which would end finally and irreversibly the notion of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.