Saturday, September 26, 2009


Last week, we began a dialogue on the Middle East to which we will return on multiple occasions this fall. All of this is leading up to a very special event, one that I am helping to plan. It will be held on the afternoon of the first Sunday of December in Washington, D.C. and will be open to the public. Please, please attend if it at all possible! The event will include musical and theatric performances, in addition to speeches, designed to motivate Americans to get off their tushes and fight for peace in the Middle East. “Yes We Can” make it happen, and I do mean “we.” Without a strong American commitment, it definitely won’t happen. With our help, it just might.

With that as prologue, let’s recall the first rule of peacemaking: understanding the perspectives of the combatants. It was this failure on the part of the Allied Powers at the end of World War I that helped usher Hitler into power in Germany. More recently, it was this failure in 2003 that enabled Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to waltz into Iraq, expecting to be treated like “liberators,” when in fact they came across like blind drunks entering the Pottery Barn.

Personally, I have tried over the past several months to learn more about the perspectives of the Palestinian people, including inviting into my home an advocate of the one-state solution who hails from Hebron. (“One-state” is a euphemism for “destroy Israel as a Jewish state,” but it doesn’t necessarily entail doing so violently. Plenty of peace-loving Arabs would truly like to live with Jewish Israelis as equals and as brothers; they simply have given up on the idea that they, as non-Jews, can get a fair shake living under or beside a regime that is self-consciously Jewish.) Now, let me try to explain the perspective of the Israeli people, whose rightward turn, as evidenced by their election of Binyamin Netanyahu, is causing them to be increasingly maligned throughout the world … and even among a growing subset of the American Jewish community. If you’re one of those who say “oi vay” whenever you think about Israelis today, please take a step back and consider this: how would you feel if you walked in their moccasins? How would your country react if it faced the same threats that the Israelis have faced for the past six decades (not to mention the thousands of years prior to that when they were still in exile)?

That second question is an easy one to answer, at least if you’re an American. Eight years ago this month, we were attacked by 19 hoodlums who committed four discrete and devastating acts of terror. In response, we set out to flatten half of Asia.

How did we justify our overreaction? How else? By distorting the facts. We pretended to have knowledge about an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Then, rather than locating and implementing precision strikes against their so-called nuclear enrichment sites, we chose instead to take over their government. The result is that rather than looking to the world like courageous policemen, we came across as imperialist war-mongers. Our bad.

As for the Israelis, at the time they elected Netanyahu earlier this year, they had recently finished a war intended to protect their civilians to the south from absorbing repeated rocket fire from Gaza. It was an unpopular war internationally, but it did succeed in diminishing the rocket fire, just as Israeli’s previous war, in the summer of 2006, had succeeded in protecting northern Israeli soldiers from Lebanese attacks. For years, Israel had been absorbing even more devastation and loss of life in its central cities before walling off its territory and implementing a series of checkpoints designed to make access into the nation extremely difficult. That security apparatus has, not surprisingly, been a public relations disaster internationally for the way that it has impacted peaceful Arabs who simply want to work in Israel or visit relatives; domestically, however, Israelis reflect on how the wall and the checkpoints have resulted in a severe drop in suicide bombings and thank the Lord that they have leaders willing to take the heat overseas to do what is needed to protect their citizens.

If you talk to Israelis, you recognize that they are concerned about such organizations as Hezbollah and Hamas – the perpetrators of some of the recent strikes on Israel by its adjacent nations. But what really scares the crap out of Israelis is Iran. And this week, finally, the rest of the world was treated to a just a whiff of that danger.

To see what a mess we have on our hands, look no further than today’s New York Times. In one news article, a “senior administration official” is quoted as saying “They have cheated three times. And they have now been caught three times.” According to the article, that “official was referring to information unearthed by an Iranian dissident group that led to the discovery of the underground plant at Natanz in 2002, and evidence developed two years ago – after Iran’s computer networks were infiltrated by American intelligence agencies – that the country had sought to design a nuclear warhead.” The third strike, of course, is this week’s revelation of a secret nuclear-enrichment plant in Iran, one that Iran had been strongly denying.

Three strikes and you’re out, right? Well, apparently not. Today’s New York Times had an editorial entitled “The Big Cheat” which began with a reference to Iran’s “long history of lying and cheating about its nuclear program” but then went on to say that “military strikes … would be a disaster, and unlikely to set Iran’s efforts back for long.” The alternative that the Times’ editorial recommends, “tough new sanctions,” is undermined by the fact that even now, even after Iran has sinned again, and again, and again, the Chinese remain “skeptical” about the need for sanctions. The truth is that even if the Chinese were to join with Americans and Europeans in pressuring Iran economically to stop its nuclear program, one wonders whether such economic pressure would be effective in stopping Iran from attaining its obvious goal. But the real question is why China would be willing to pass up an opportunity to trade with the Iranians given that Iran poses no apparent threat to China. We all know who the Iranian Government has vilified and threatened over the years, and it isn’t the Chinese any more than the Russians or the British. This is the same government that is led by perhaps the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier. In the mind of Israelis, Iran’s leadership has come to signify evil incarnate. My question for you is, can you blame them?

It’s only when you consider the existential threat that Iran poses to Israel that you can place in context the lesser, but still profound, dangers posed by the Palestinians. Just as Ahmadinejad holds Holocaust-denial conferences, leaders of Hamas have been objecting to teaching about the Holocaust in school lesson plans. These good men, you see, despise thinking about the Holocaust because it tends to explain why Israelis care so much about the existence of a Jewish state. You’ll forgive the Israelis if they come to understand Ahmadinejad’s Government and Hamas as two peas in a pod, both sworn enemies of Israel who would love nothing more than to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. Surely, there are millions of Iranians and Palestinians who would love to live peacefully with the Jews – and who are not afraid of confronting the truths about Jewish history – but the recent election in Iran has confirmed the Israeli’s suspicions that power in this part of the world is held by those are armed and ruthless, and not by those who hold olive branches.

Put it all together, and you’ll see why Israelis aren’t yet motivated to beat their swords into plowshares. It’s the job of peaceniks to convince them to change their ways, but it is hardly our job to blame them for their paranoia.

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