Muammar el-Qaddafi’s ranting notwithstanding, what’s going on across the Middle East is not bin Laden but Gandhi. After decades of us being told with such absolute certainty that Arab youth was both ripe and destined for Islamic radicalization, we discover a generation that has opted for peaceful revolutionary protest not ideological violence. To be sure, many among them in Egypt and elsewhere are personally religious, but they seem intent on ridding their countries of oppressive and despotic rule not transforming them into new theocracies. The once proclaimed demoralized Arab Street, a group lacking self-esteem, is in fact a generation proudly engaged in the future, not mired in a self-defeating retrogressive past. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, which no one can predict with accuracy, there is little doubt that the last weeks have changed everything.
No place does that change have greater impact than upon the State of Israel. Cairo’s uprising in particular, but hardly alone, has upended its strategic calculus. That Israel will have to renegotiate relationships in the region is perhaps the least of it. From its inception, Israel has faced a hostile neighborhood, attacked repeatedly by Arab countries (Egypt among them) from without and later by the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah from within. That it survived the first onslaught in 1948 speaks partially to an inept and manifestly corrupt group of adversaries — more bluster than knowhow — but also to the dogged determination of a post Holocaust generation to survive. What decades of conflict have wrought, undoubtedly out of necessity not desire, is a nation that may be better known for the strength of its military, the highly professional and (thanks to the United States) well-equipped IDF, than for any of its other considerable accomplishments. In a profound sense, Israel’s adversaries have perpetuated this image by provoking predictable and certain violent responses to deadly suicide bombings and cross border rocket fire. Those have been variously characterized as measured self-defense and, in the case of Lebanon and more so Gaza, as excessive. What is indisputable is that the Holy Land is engulfed in a culture of violence; a lethal tit for tat resulting in an atmosphere of mutual fear, insecurity and mistrust that undermines negotiated solutions.
That brings me back to bin Laden and Gandhi. Of course, other than using it to his rhetorical advantage, bin Laden has not been a factor in the Israel/Palestine dispute. Nor so has been the long dead Gandhi. But as tokens for their different approaches, it’s fair to say that where a culture of violence prevails bin Laden has thus far carried the day. It hasn’t worked for either side. What might happen if a rebooted Gandhi emerged on this stalemated scene much as he did on the streets of Cairo? Given the era in which we live and the redefined Arab Street (Palestinian literacy is extremely high), the better question may be, what happens when Gandhi shows his face on the West Bank?
What the military discovered in Egypt was that in an instantaneously connected transparent world, one simply couldn’t fire on or even use much force against an essentially unarmed and often good-natured citizenry on the march. Speak about the limits of military power; speak about the curtain being lifted on an 82 year old contemporary Wizard of Oz. Picture for a moment the rebooted Gandhi leading thousands of young Palestinians, all of them having traded guns, bombs and even rocks for placards held high and resolute smiles. That’s what must (or should) be on the minds of Bibi Netanyahu and his colleagues. If Gandhi works against a totalitarian regime, how much more powerful will it be against a democracy?
I’ve made no secret of my own belief that leaving the West Bank and dismantling of settlements on Palestinian territory is both necessary and right. So too is an independent Palestinian state. At the same time, it’s both simplistic and unfair to suggest that Israel’s reliance on military power was not born out of necessity. The threats to its existence have been both real and ongoing. The Jewish people have endured often-lethal persecution throughout much of human history. That the world community acquiesced to a relatively tiny strip of homeland out of collective guilt in the wake of Hitler’s barbarism to which many of its members had averted their eyes is a fact that only the immoral can overlook. Israel’s situation and stance is more than understandable, but that doesn’t make it less of a tragedy for them and for the Palestinians.
In the light of a rebooted Gandhi, it’s high time for a bold rebooting of the Israel/Palestine stalemate. Cairo will likely be a tactical wakeup for the Palestinians and should be a seismic wakeup call for the Israeli’s. A crisis, we’ve been told so often by people like Mayor-elect Emanuel (a lover and supporter of Israel) should not be missed as an opportunity to move forward. I’m happy for all those young Arabs who have taken their country closer to authentic self-rule. I’d be happier still if it led Israel and Palestine to overcome whatever obstacles may stand in the way to achieving the peace that both so clearly deserve and desperately need. As Gandhi taught, as both King and Mandela learned, feeling yourself wronged or obsessing on being right may give you the sense of moral superiority. It doesn’t solve anything in the long run. Rebooting and moving on with a sense of non-violent reconciliation, as hard as that may be, changes everything. To quote the Jewish sage, if not now, when?