20 March 2010

A Long Overdue Moment of Truth in Israel

The New York Times | Bernard Avishai, March 17, 2010

For all of its noisy factions, Israel really has only two political parties, the party that dreads the loss of Greater Israel — i.e., the party of settlements — and the party that dreads the isolation of global Israel — i.e., the party of America.

Think of the country as divided into paradigms, the first focused on Jerusalem’s fire, the second on Tel Aviv’s cool.

The Likud is mainly in the first party, as are all of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners, save Labor. Yet the prime minister supposed he could keep a leg in both, or at least preclude the need for Israelis to choose, by focusing everybody, including U.S. diplomats and generals, on the dread of Iran, and also by activating neoconservative allies in the United States to downplay settlement activity.

Netanyahu’s stance, or ploy, finally came unraveled last week, and not only because of the dustup with Vice President Joe Biden over new construction in East Jerusalem. Even more important, perhaps, Gen. David Petraeus, the head of American forces in the Middle East and an expert in counterinsurgency, weighed in with a statement of the obvious, that America’s long acquiescence in Israel’s occupation was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.

Netanyahu has been trying to pretend that the crisis with Washington was precipitated by bad timing. Nobody in the administration is buying it, and it is not clear how the Israel lobby can even try to sell it. We have come to a moment of truth that is long overdue.

Biden’s speech at Tel Aviv University last week spent a good deal of time anticipating (or preempting) Netanyahu on Iran, reassuring Israelis-in-general about their existence-in-general. This sounded more like a preliminary hymn than the inevitable sermon. The university is ground zero of the America party.
Still, Biden looked a little surprised when he found that his only strong applause line was an unequivocal condemnation of new Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. This caused Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, the self-styled conscience of the Likud, to issue a condemnation of his own — namely, of the Tel Aviv University audience.

The point is, there is a culture war in Israel now, and the only way the liberal side of it can mount an offensive is if America keeps the heat on. It is futile to treat Israel as if it were the embodiment of some big Jewish psyche in need of reassurances to regain trust in the world.

Israel has its enemies, of course, but it is not the fear of extinction that keeps it wedded to the status quo, which is a security nightmare in its own right. Rather, Israeli leaders have resisted plausible peace ideas because a large and hardened minority, perhaps a third of Jewish Israelis, regards peace as an end to the divinely self-enclosed way of life they have established in and around Jerusalem. The squishy, declining, more cosmopolitan and secular majority is unwilling to confront them for the sake of Palestinians — that is, not unless they have to in order to remain joined to the Western world.

Nobody here knows how violently the Israeli right would be prepared to defend the settlement project against the Israeli state itself. To the extent that Israeli politics are merely electoral politics, however, the fight is clearly over swing voters: immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their acculturated children, better educated Mizrahim — traditionalist Jews drawn to orthodoxy but who have traveled the world.

In recent years — what with the collapse of Oslo, the suicide bombings, the rise of Ahmadinejad — these voters have swung sharply toward the settlers’ gestalt. Another recent poll of high school students reveals that over half would deny Arab citizens of Israel the right to vote. To be for peace is to be naïve, trusting of “the Arabs.”

The global party can win back the initiative, but this means giving swing voters something new and more urgent to be not naïve about — something like reliance on hard-liners and AIPAC to deliver America.

Reports of Secretary Hillary Clinton dressing down Netanyahu on the phone were an opening. Labor’s former leader, Amir Peretz — discredited as a defense minister, but still a leader of the peace camp — was on Reshet Bet radio this week sounding charged up for the first time in two years. (It was time to “grow up,” he told listeners.)

There are rumors that Kadima’s Tzipi Livni has sent Netanyhau a message that she’ll join the government if he gets rid of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and Avigdor Leiberman, the Putinesque foreign minister. Netanyahu — so Kadima is challenging him — must try to drag the whole of the Likud to the party of America, even if this means his losing absolute control over the cabinet. But if Washington lets up, all critics of his government will slump back into their corner.

The next month may prove critical. Netanyahu is scheduled to go to Washington to address the AIPAC convention. Meanwhile, Obama’s international prestige will be riding on his final push to get health care legislation passed.

The European Union’s foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, has rebuked Israel and strongly backed Clinton’s stand over Jerusalem construction. Kadima will be waiting in the wings. The Arab League will be meeting in Tripoli later this month, and who knows if their 2002 offer of full regional peace with Israel will be renewed?

Most important, there are suddenly disturbances across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Everybody here is watching the Obama administration.

Perhaps this was inadvertent, but Washington seems to have raised the expectation — and not only in the Israeli political class — that it has finally told Israel to stop all settlements, period. So any effort to reinstate the status quo ante Biden will itself seem a provocation.

Peretz told the radio that the government has “dried the brush,” so that anything can light a wildfire. Obama’s return to business as usual — that is, to the old inertia from which only the Israeli right gains — can itself provide the spark.

Bernard Avishai is adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and the author, most recently, of “The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last.”

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