The present Gaza hostilities will come to an end. There will be no winners. Yes Israel has again shown a willingness to protect its citizens and its superior ability to do so. Yes Hamas, recently written off, has shown itself to be alive and far more resourceful than earlier thought. But whatever “successes” each side may claim, absent resolving the underlying causes of the current conflict and indeed in reaching a two-state agreement, the most we can expect is yet another limited period of artificial calm. Given the political realities on both sides, it’s hard to be optimistic, perhaps harder than ever.
Among the casualties of this particular conflict is Israel’s relationship with its most ardent and generous supporter, the United States. As an American Jew that pains me, but let’s not pretend it just happened. The claimed deterioration began on the day Barack Obama took office. Bibi Netanyahu, who spent many years here and is more aligned with conservative Republicans, would vastly have preferred John McCain. In fact, while he denied it, Israel’s prime minister was accused of trying to interfere with our presidential election in 2012. No need, his loyal friend and soul mate, the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, took up the cause, pouring millions into trying unsuccessively, to unseat Obama. And who can forget Bibi’s year earlier lengthy televised schoolteacher lecturing our president — my president — during their post meeting Oval Office photo op? Given the general protocol of such occasions, the Hebrew word Hutzpah comes to mind. So, too, with similar lecturing just days ago when, regarding Hamas, Bibi told the White House, “not to ever second guess me again”.
Encouraged by the AIPAC crowd, it seems that Israel’s current government expects not only support but also ask-no-questions support. John Kerry, one of its most reliable and longtime friends, is now being dissed because, in working to bring about a peace, he has tried to be an honest broker. And of course liberal Jewish writers (with whom I associate myself) — the likes of Roger Cohen, Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait and Peter Beinart who dare criticize Israeli policies — are the objects of particular scorn, characterized as disloyal. This week the influential conservative Israeli writer Shmuel Rozner lashed out at us in a blistering NY Times op-ed entitled “Israel’s Fare Weather Friends”. “If all Jews are a family”, he wrote, “it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin. If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.” I guess his definition of “unconditional love” and mine are not aligned. To me, and I’d guess for the named writers, honest criticism is often the truest expression of real, yes family, love. When King David engineered the death of a rival, the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7) called his kin-king to task: “you are the (guilty) man”. What might Rozner have said to and of Nathan?
I have no doubt that Israel will survive our criticism and moreover that our voiced concerns will ultimately support that survival as much or more than all of AIPAC and Sheldon Adelson’s unconditional cheers. What Israel is less likely to survive, or to survive as a democratic Jewish state, is failing to end the untenable and, in my view, unsustainable status quo. Nor should the descendants of prophets — truth tellers and exponents of “tell it like it is” moral outrage — allow their contemporary narrative to be one of subjugators and occupiers without end. The repeated bloody confrontation with Gaza only underscores that point. Is Hamas manipulating its citizenry for their own purposes? Absolutely, but the continued virtual imprisonment of this highly populated piece of geography is providing fertile ground for both desperation and anger.
Returning for a moment to Israel’s relationship with us. One of the things that sparked Bibi’s outrage was that Obama joined others including the UN in criticizing Israel’s killing of civilians, especially children. I think we all watched in horror as these casualties mounted, just as we have during other conflicts in other places. I am sure the president was expressing his personal discomfort as much as that of our government. At the same time, and here the Israelis do have a point, there is something disingenuous about our and others selective expression of outrage. Remember people in glass houses.
When the United States retaliated for the September 11th attacks, it dropped many bombs on Afghanistan ostensibly to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban. For sure, many more civilians including children lost their lives then and in subsequent assaults, than have in Gaza. When George W. Bush and company rained down “shock and awe” on Iraq — a war against a manufactured “enemy” that had not attacked us — many thousands more innocent lives (including children) were lost. Those losses are so large that we can’t even account for them. When President Obama authorized drone strikes, so-called precise tools of destruction, there have been unintended fatalities including children. Are we the only guilty parties in this regard? Of course, not. So-called unintended consequences, the loss of human beings we callously call “collateral damage” are the bi-product of any and all wars. Bloodguilt is a universal. We should all feel a sense of outrage when innocents die in Gaza, but so too should be feel the same when they die in other places and at our hand. More important, we shouldn’t burden another country, friend or foe, with judgments we’re not willing to make of ourselves. Israel often finds itself with just such a burden, one that is less than even-handed.
We all know what might solve the Israel/Palestine problem. The lines of the two states have long been drawn and the path to peace laid out in multiple negotiations, most recently led by our Secretary of State. But, as President Obama said of many conflicts in his excellent one-hour interview with Tom Friedman, the parties have to be willing. No one can, or should, do it for them. He also pointed out that the Near East region in particular was undoing an order that had been imposed (often without regard to history) after World War I. Well the United Nations, for very good and compelling reasons, imposed partition on what was then Palestine, setting up what was to be two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews accepted, creating the State of Israel, the Arabs rejected going on the attack. That’s a historic fact, but who started what and when is ultimately irrelevant when the shooting stops. The only question then, is how the post-conflict world will look.
Again, it’s pretty well known what that will or should be. So why isn’t it happening? I think the answer lies largely in the fact that both Israel and its Palestinian counterpart (The Palestinian Authority) are prevented from doing the obvious by militant fundamentalists who may not be a majority but nonetheless currently hold the balance of power. When I use the term fundamentalist here it is not entirely in a religious context, though that certainly pertains. I’m talking rather about a fundamentalism grounded in long past history or tradition. It’s what our own Justice Scalia calls “originalism”. Among both Israelis and Palestinians there are those who hold a strong conviction that, by all rights, the whole of the land belongs to them. Especially orthodox Jews, but some others as well, see the entire Holy Land as their rightful historic home, promised to them by no lesser than God. On the other hand, Arabs look to centuries of their history concluding that they are entitled to that same whole. Both, in effect, reject partition as arbitrary and synthetic. For them, no mediation can legitimize what is fundamentally wrong — no one can undo Divine Will.
You and I may not agree with this position. We may see Israel/Palestine in a contemporary context and with a worldview that not only accepts but also embraces change. In many respects, all maps are synthetic and in their own way arbitrary. Borders have long been the source of conflict but also are necessary as the defined lines to facilitate peaceful co-existence. Most importantly, while many in the world that we call home may adhere to one or another religion, even devoutly so, we don’t generally see borders and territory as by divine right. We may in this country be facing some issues about borders with regard to immigration, but even the most right wing among us don’t think God gave Texas or New Mexico to the United States.
Looking at the world today, the underlying conflict that we see in so many places is grounded in a tug of war between yesterday and today, past and future. Those who cling to the “good old days” however defined, see their known world, the place they could count on, turning into sand slipping through their fingers. They are desperate to hold on. That’s true with the creationists and climate deniers here in America. It’s true for those who refuse to admit (to themselves) that our history isn’t one of a racial or ethnic homogeneity but rather that we are all children of immigrants, people of diversity many of whom came illegally. So it is with Israel/Palestine where noble histories and holding on to a dream long since gone cloud rationality and pragmatic solutions. That’s what makes embracing the obvious so very difficult, but hopefully not impossible.