Sunday, September 18, 2011

Israel at the crossroad.

What do many years of conservative/tilting ever more to the far right rule do for and to a country?  Well just look at what it’s done to us since Ronald Reagan took the reigns of government three decades ago.  Even Barack Obama is hamstrung by a seeming fear of being too bold, not that anything really progressive could pass the current Congress.  And the Republican 2012 race is shaping up to be about which candidate can be more radical and regressive than the other.  Translated: bring back the policies that brought us to our knees, only more so.  The result, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, has been disastrous for our national discourse, economy and place in the world.  We probably have less influence and moral authority today than at any time since the end of World War II.  That’s most disheartening, but The United States will survive and perhaps even recover much of of what we had.

The same can’t be said with confidence about the State of Israel.  That is not merely disheartening — it is deeply, if not tragically, depressing.  My last writing, reflecting on the decade after 9/11, suggested that …the ironic, and ultimately saddest, thing is not what Al Qaeda did to us that September day, but what we have done to ourselves since.  I was not letting those terrorists or their leader off the hook.  No one can or should diminish what they did then or have since.  So let me make it clear that Israel’s past adversaries, Arab countries that sought in unison to abort the State at its birth and those among current Palestinians who shoot rockets into civilian neighborhoods and their supporters have by no means clean hands, quite the opposite.  All the same, it is hard for any objective observer to deny that Israel, governed by right wing conservatives and held hostage by fundamentalist religious zealots, has not brought much of the current situation on to itself. 

Interestingly, religious fundamentalists also play a significant role in America’s hard right turn and they are among the most vociferous supporters of Israel’s policies, perhaps even more so than AIPAC.  Of course their agenda is grounded in something entirely different, the theological not the political.  They need Jews governing the Holy Land to facilitate their end of days prophecy and they are, admit it or not, morbidly anti-Islam, a religion whose very existence, beliefs and scale challenges their own.  Jews in Israel and here should take note that their loyal supporters do not believe, absent conversion, that we will have what Jewish tradition calls a portion in the world to come (however defined).  Some friends.

Jews as a community seem reluctant to criticize Israel and not without good reason.  I just finished Edmund de Waal’s wonderful book The Hare with Amber Eyes telling the story of his once enormously wealthy Jewish family that ultimately lost it all to Hitler.  His few pages recounting their wrenching and demeaning last days in Vienna were painful, almost impossible, to read.  Whatever success Jews have had throughout most of history has come at great expense; Israel’s founding in 1948 the highest price ever paid.  It would never have happed had it not been for the guilt felt by of those nations who waited far too long to intervene against what became the Holocaust.  Many good people stood by in silence, eyes averted, as six million women, men and children were slaughtered like cattle.  Politicians of all stripe, but particularly on the Right, seek to capitalize on Jews’ visceral loyalty by shamelessly manipulating the Jewish Vote for their own purposes.  An animated ad on the NY Times home page the day before the special vote to fill Anthony Weiner’s seat, portrayed Obama as anti-Israel.  I have to assume similar lies went out in the heavily Jewish district and we know with what result.  The bottom line is that the sometimes seemingly blind loyalty of Jews (or other Americans) isn’t helping Israel survive; it is ultimately undermining that survival.

In his September 18 column, Tom Friedman, long a supporter of Israel and an expert on the Middle East, opens with these words: I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future.  Nor have I.  Friedman adds that the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.  During the past months, some of the most tumultuous and game changing in the region’s modern history, Israel has stood by as an onlooker rather than a participant.  As a direct or indirect consequence, once friendly regional neighbors like Egypt and now Jordan have distanced themselves or, like Turkey, have been driven away. 

Point any fingers you like, Israel has allowed the inevitable Palestinian State to hang in limbo while the status quo of an untenable occupation continues.  I know, friends of Israel are not supposed to use the word occupation, but it isn’t the word that’s wrong, it is the reality.  If the change in the surrounding political dynamic were not enough, for Israel (and as Friedman points out, the United States) an impending crisis is anticipated for the week ahead when Palestinians will petition the UN for statehood.  This hasn’t come out of the blue.  Palestinians have been talking about it for many months, a desperate, perhaps last ditch, tactic when all else seems to have failed.  What is it about their long expressed intentions that the Israeli government, and Americans, didn’t understand?

Now to the merits of their case: as Al Gore might put it, the inconvenient truth.  Perhaps the move is ill advised, but were the positions reversed — a Palestinian state but no Israel yet — be assured frustrated and disenfranchised Jewish residents would undoubtedly be on their way to the United Nations and likely would have made the trip much earlier.  One might hope that Jews would never have allowed themselves a violent Intifada and certainly not firing rockets into civilian populations.  But let’s remember that the founder of Netanyahu’s predecessor party was involved in bombing the King David Hotel in the late days of the mandate.  Also, Ben Gurion unilaterally declared a state before the UN had intended it.  Only quick recognition by the US and, yes, Iran, gave force to his doing so.  Desperate people do desperate things.

Here is another reality.  A Palestinian State will come into being.  With every passing day, its future and chances for survival looks brighter.  Time, the current dynamic in the region and demographics are on their side.  The opposite is the case for Israel.  Rising democracy should be it’s best friend but with an unresolved Palestinian situation, a denial of their democracy, the impending democracy of more Arab states could be Israel’s worst enemy.  Settling more of its population beyond the 67 lines undermines and may ultimately obviate a two state solution.  Here is the nightmare that should keep Israelis (and those who support Israel) up at night.  Palestinians are so frustrated by the current stalemate that they opt to cede all their land in exchange for citizenship in a single state.  Israel’s current track could make theoretical talk of a future Jewish minority in the Holy Land a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now I certainly don’t want to put all the blame for Israel’s predicament on its shoulders.  That would be unfair and is definitely not the case.  But who is right and who is wrong, who was willing to give more and who less, who had conditions and who didn’t, has ceased to be relevant.  Israel, like the United States, may be militarily and even economically more powerful, but in the end such power may not matter.  History moves in different directions at different times and winning requires being on its right side.  At present, the Palestinians are under Israel’s control.  One could make a very strong argument that their moral position relative to the Jewish experience in general and Israel’s position in specific is the lesser.  It doesn’t matter any more, because the past no longer has the relevance it might once have had.  Perhaps Israel has always been isolated by others but so too, in following its current path, has it isolated itself.  I for one am mystified by how this could have happened, how a country founded by progressive secular idealists could have put itself in the hands of hard right politicians and the most extreme of religious groups.  How could it have said no so many times or, perhaps worse, let opportunity slip by?

I started by asking what hard right conservatism does to a country, the kind found here and in Israel these days?  Well there is a connection.  The real agenda of our Right, which they would proudly admit, is to weaken the federal government and perhaps government in general, most especially the secular kind.  The underlying thrust of their budget (job) cutting agenda is to impoverish and starve governmental institutions at all levels until they no longer function.  Ron Paul, whose political fortunes may be no more promising than in the past, has nonetheless had a huge ideological impact on current Republicanism.  In the same way, Israel’s Right and most particularly its Religious Right, aims to weaken the secular state.  In fact, its Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem antecedents refused to recognize the State upon its founding.  They were a tiny minority then (no longer thanks to post founding immigration and high birth rates), but important enough to exact critical compromises.  Religious matters were ceded to their control, something the secular leaders mistakenly considered relatively unimportant.  The contemporary Settlers and other like-minded Religious Right Israelis have no real interest in peace with the Palestinians but dream of a real Jewish State, all the land governed by religious law if not all out theocracy.  That’s Israel’s current reality, not the dream of Israel, and that is what asks, or often gets, blind support.  But not my blind support, for us or for them.  I want more for both of us.

Israel is at a crossroad.  Make no mistake about it.  It’s time for a bold move either by its government or by its long excessively silent majority.  Everything is at stake.  Maintaining the status quo has run its course.  Deep down everyone knows that’s so.  It’s time to do more than dream the impossible or to be awakened by nightmares.  Religious rightists may believe the future is b’shert — destined.  Nonsense.  It is, and always has been, in human hands.  One can only hope mortals meet the challenge and take the right turn at this crossroad intersection, that they will head down the right road.

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