Sunday, June 24, 2012


The title of this blog post is taken from a course that I took in law school back in 1984. Far from being Orwellian, the course was liberating. It was taught by a Brazilian professor named Roberto Unger, who was revered among the school’s progressive students as the campus’s leading leftist intellectual. Supposedly, he was the first person allowed to publish an article in the Harvard Law Review without a single footnote. I don’t know if that’s true or just a legend, but it impressed us students just the same. And indeed, when taking his course, we almost forgot we were in “professional school.” Unger’s class was a place where ideas mattered, passion mattered more, and the only thing that was discouraged was the refusal to think big.

Back in ’84, Unger was unquestionably a socialist. I did my final project on why private property is needed. Suffice it to say, that wasn’t your typical Harvard Law School experience.

Despite how much I enjoyed Unger’s course, I had largely forgotten about him until this past week, when I noticed an article about him in the Huffington Post. Apparently, a few years after I graduated, a certain Barack Obama enrolled in Unger’s course and they kept in touch even after Obama graduated. In 2008, Unger was an advisor to the Obama campaign. Like every other progressive (myself included), he was presumably smitten with Obama’s potential to do for the progressive movement what Ronald Reagan did for the conservatives 28 years earlier.

You could hardly blame Obama for reaching out to obtain Unger’s advice – whether or not you agreed with Unger’s positions, he is a thinker who commanded respect. He didn’t beat around the bush, always defended his positions with logical precision, and wasn’t afraid to take positions that aren’t popular. When it comes to being a public intellectual of the left, Unger was the real deal -- which makes his current statements about Obama even more noteworthy.

In a video posted on May 22nd, Unger called for Obama’s defeat in the upcoming election, arguing that "He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States." Unger went on to say that an Obama defeat is necessary for "the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life." Now he did acknowledge that Obama’s defeat would be problematic in terms of “judicial and administrative appointments," but added that "the risk of military adventurism" is the same under Obama as it is under the Republicans.

Unger’s deepest critique of his former student came in the domain of economics. He summarized Obama’s economic policies as follows: "Give the bond markets what they want, bail out the reckless so long as they are also rich, use fiscal and monetary stimulus to make up for the absence of any consequential broadening of economic and educational opportunity, sweeten the pill of disempowerment with a touch of tax fairness, even though the effect of any such tax reform is sure to be modest." This, Unger said, “is less a project than it is an abdication." Then Unger continued on to list a series of specific complaints:

  • "His policy is financial confidence and food stamps."
  • "He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices."
  • "He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money."
  • "He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice."
  • "He has reduced justice to charity."
  • "He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight."
  • "He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle."

You get the picture. Unger was expecting a progressive. What he got instead was a guy who was trying to run a unity government that would bring together two parties beholden to corporate interests. This is not the kind of “reinvented democracy” that the professor had in mind.

Then again, compared to the other symbols of democracy we have around the world, Obama comes across as positively divine.

Look at the mess in Egypt. The expectation is that when all the dust is settled, the military group who has run the country for decades will have so stripped the presidency of its power that the election results announced today hardly matter. So yes, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is “President,” but it is far from clear that his presidency is anything more than symbolic. As of now, Mubarak’s military remains in control. Then again, here’s the real kicker -- when you compare Egypt’s plight to that of Syria’s, it truly does seem like an Arab Spring in Cairo

Of course, it may aptly be said that Syria is in no respect a democracy and Egypt is only pretending to be one. So we can’t use those examples to show the limitations of democratic governance. No? How about looking at the Palestinians in Gaza. If I’m not mistaken, they had a free and fair election and Hamas won. Now you will find Hamas engaged in yet another rocket war with Israel, in which innocent Arabs and Jews are giving up their lives or limbs for a cause I’m not quite sure I understand. Such are the fruits of a legitimate election.

Please don’t tell me that democracy is a cure-all. Please don’t tell me that free elections can’t actually make things worse. They can. But as a general matter, they sure beat the alternatives.

Consider the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln from the battlefields of Gettysburg. Lincoln chose to end one of the most poignant speeches in recorded history with the following words:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It all starts and ends with three things – free and open elections, honest campaigns and informed electorates. In each case, we Americans pride ourselves on having taking this process seriously for literally centuries. Today, however, our political process is truly being strained.

People ask me sometimes how it is that I, a political progressive, could remember Ronald Reagan so fondly. And my answer is always the same – I thoroughly disagreed with the thrust of his policies, but at least he campaigned with integrity about the way he intended to run the Government, and America got the President they intended to elect. My support for Barack Obama in 2008 was based in part on a hope that he would be that same type of President, only in this case, we’d be electing a true progressive.

Well, I turned out to be wrong, as Unger has noted. But when I look at Obama’s opponent this year, I hardly see another Reagan. The Romney who competed for the Republican nomination was practically a right-wing nut, and now, we are seeing a very different, more measured Romney – “Romney-Lite,” so to speak. On a topic as important and politically sensitive as immigration rights, for example, Romney has gone from advocating “self-deportation” (talk about the theatre of the absurd) to remaining as silent as a Quaker prayer hall. He is afraid to say what he really thinks, because God forbid, many of his flat-earth constituents might decide to sit out the election if he does. So instead, he is simply going to tell us that he will do something smart … only we can’t know what it is until after we elect him.

Is that the way democracy is supposed to work? Is that the kind of “reinvented democracy” Unger is truly looking for?

OK, OK, prof. That’s a cheap shot. I understand your argument is not so much that we should vote out Obama because Romney is better, but we should vote out Obama in order to jump start the progressive movement, which will remain moribund as long as Obama is in power. And I will grant you that as long as Obama is in power, the progressive movement in the United States will remain largely moribund. We have only the recent defeat in Wisconsin as evidence that the movement remains, shall we say, less than robust. But I want you to pretend, for a moment, that you get your wish and Mitt Romney wins. What exactly do you think will happen then?

Would you predict that America will unleash a group of public intellectuals like yourself who will take to the airwaves and usher in the second coming of the New Deal? Would you predict that the best-and-the-brightest will stop flocking to corporate law firms and will instead head over to MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and give us the kind of crack investigative reporting and analysis that the public hasn’t seen here in decades? Would you predict that the Democratic legislators who we count on to ensure that the laws of the land are sane will all of a sudden forget the corporate moguls to whom they have been beholden, and suddenly become passionate advocates of the homeless and the helpless?

Or would you simply predict that the government would become even more right wing?

I forgot – you’ve already made that last prediction. And yet you still want Obama defeated. Prof, I think you’re letting your passions get in the way of your judgment. Apparently, hell hath no fury like a professor scorned.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


The ancient Roman elites were many things, but being stupid isn’t one of them. They knew that times were tough for the masses, and that they needed to come up with a hell of a diversion if they hoped to keep the masses docile. Gladiator fights sure fit the bill. I can only imagine all the Roman brick layers and peasants whose sole joy during a work day was to contemplate which of their beloved gladiators would achieve a glorious victory and which ones would be put to the sword.

Today in America, we commoners don’t need the elites to give us bread and circuses. We can provide such diversions for ourselves. In fact, we realize how important they are. The economy seems forever mired in muck. Our government is polarized and ineffective. You can’t trust anything any politician tells us. And on the rare occasions when we read the newspapers, all we see is that overseas, things are even worse. So? Give us modern-day gladiator fights!

This seems to be an especially fun time for watching big-time sport. So fun, in fact, that cities keep ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds every time a team squawks about leaving the city. And why not? Think of how many memories they are buying with those funds. We’ve just finished crowning the Kings for the first time – the Los Angeles Kings, that is, who won their first National Hockey League title. Millions of Americans are intrigued by the European soccer championships, an event that twenty years ago would have captured virtually nobody’s attention on these shores. Baseball is booming – and apparently, steroid free. That means we actually get to appreciate the art of pitching, something we couldn’t do in the “live ball and even livelier vein” era of the 1990s and early 2000s. In tennis, Rafael Nadal has recently cemented his stature as the greatest clay court player of all time with his record setting seventh French Open title. And as for golf, we’re witnessing the return of the freak formerly known as Tiger Woods. He’s co-leading the U.S. Open after two rounds, and has already won both Arnold Palmer’s and Jack Nicklaus’s tournaments earlier in the year. Could it be that “the natural” will once again take his place at the pinnacle of sport?

Not if LeBron James has anything to say about it. You see, as any Roman can tell you, there are gladiators, there are big time gladiators, and then there is THE MAN. Right now, with everything that has been going on in sport, there’s only one guy who can call himself THE MAN. His name is LeBron.

And he still hasn’t won anything. Yet.

As I type this, LeBron James and his Miami Heat are tied one game apiece against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the battle for the National Basketball Association title. What started with a prolonged lockout, followed by the announcement of a shortened season, has turned into one of the most intriguing campaigns in basketball history. Much if not most of that intrigue, though, has focused on a single player and his personal crusade to win a championship. You’ve heard of the phrase “get the monkey off his back.” Well, there has never been a larger monkey than the one that has hopped on top of LeBron. Last year, it all but crippled his ability to play in the NBA Finals. This year, once his team earned their way into the Finals again, everybody had the same questions. Will he finally win the Big One? Will he choke like he always has in the past? Or will he show up like the “King” he has always claimed to be, and still lose, because basketball is a team sport and the other team has more overall talent? Before the series started, I opted for choice number three. Now, it looks like I might have been wrong. LeBron is not only playing like a man possessed, but he has helped his team steal home-court advantage. The Heat might actually win this thing.

The intrigue surrounding LeBron’s quest for a title is easy enough to explain. Last year, he turned himself into the most hated athlete in sport. If you weren’t from Miami and you didn’t hate LeBron, you truly needed your head examined. To many sports fans, given the stage he set for himself, LeBron succeeded in making more of a fool of himself than any other athlete. And given all the competition for the title of Top Athletic Ass, that really is quite an achievement.

As a Vikings fan, I’ve endured many embarrassments. Who can forget Ontarrio Smith getting caught in the airport with a “Whizzinator” device? Or multiple players engaging in all sorts of creative sex acts with hookers on Lake Minnetonka? (Who but a Minnesota Viking would know about devices for getting off two hookers at the same time?) Every team has its own stories, its own rap sheets. Still, despite the fact that he broke no law, dishonored no promise, and failed even to insult anybody, no athlete in any sport has matched LeBron James for being the object of universal disgust.

It is no wonder that in recent weeks, the talking heads on ESPN and other sports shows have begun asking for sympathy on LeBron’s behalf. Their message is invariably the same: LeBron is a sweet young man who truly wants to be loved; he made a couple of mistakes back in the Summer of 2010, sincerely regrets them, and deserves to be able to put those mistakes behind him and play basketball without the whole world hating him. Truly, say the talking heads, what LeBron did wasn’t prudent, but it hardly merits all the bile that has been spewed in his direction.

Let’s recall the conduct at issue. First, LeBron made himself the star of an ill-fated one-hour TV special known as “The Decision.” That show had been hyped relentlessly by ESPN as a mystery that would resolve the question everyone was asking over the water cooler: where would LeBron play next year? At the end of the show, he announced to the world the now infamous words, “This fall, I am going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”

Are those hateful words? No. Are those racist, sexist, homophobic? Of course not. But the phrase “taking my talents” have come to be associated with braggadocio of the worst kind, when one considers the context in which they were delivered. (More on that shortly.)

The second event took place a few days later when LeBron and the two other athletes he hand- picked to play with in South Beach got on a stage in front of thousands of screaming Heat fans. In a moment that will forever be immortalized, LeBron boldly proclaimed that, when it comes to NBA Championships, the Heat’s three superstars will win “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ... .”

Admittedly, say the talking heads, that wasn’t a wise thing to say, but should it be enough to make us all hate him? Should it be enough to put a perpetual target on his back? Hasn’t he been punished enough by having created so much pressure on himself and his teammates that he earned the ire of sports fans everywhere and crumbled under the pressure when he got his first chance to fight for the title during the summer of 2011? At this point, if we have any empathy at all, isn’t it time to stop hatin’ on the guy and start pulling for him?

I’ll let each of you answer those questions for yourselves. For me, though, I’m rooting for Oklahoma City and against LeBron And to explain why, all I should have to do is remind you of the whole point of bread and circuses.

I learned about being a sports fan from my dad, the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was born in 1912. Here’s a guy who came of age during the Depression. He came from a large lower-middle-class family led by a man who had recently immigrated from Russia. He taught me that watching professional sports is supposed to be a diversion, and, within limits, it’s perfectly OK to go with our gut instincts. That means that the fan is allowed to let loose a bit and hurl insults at the athletes if that’s what floats our boats. Why do you think they used to call my father’s beloved Dodgers “Dem Bums”? Because when they’d lose, that’s what their fans would think of them. And they’d let the players know that too. That was just fine with my dad, despite how soft-spoken and proper he was in other walks of life.

As my dad explained it, professional athletes are getting handsomely paid for playing a kid’s game, and hearing a little abuse is the price they have to pay. Stated differently, our catharsis is part of the transaction. We pay our money and they get rich, but we get our catharsis. As long as we avoid hurling abuse against the athletes’ families, or avoid other below-the-belt topics, we’re cool.

Does that mean we should hate athletes? Of course not. Just because we’ve decided to root against an athlete or a team doesn’t mean we hate them. But in order for bread and circuses to work, we’ve got to figure out a way to give a damn about who wins and who loses. The reasons for such a choice are invariably arbitrary. Even the decision as to whether to root for the home team is an arbitrary one. In the case of LeBron, he committed the mortal sin of sports: he proclaimed himself the Chosen One before he did anything to deserve such an honor. He acted as though he was such a Giant Among Men that all he had to do was get together at a party with a couple of other all-stars, decide to play together with them, and the championships would flow like water from a stream. In short, he strutted around like he’s a peacock … but before he had any feathers.

In sport, the “feathers” come from having won championships in the past. And in fact, unless your name is Muhammad Ali, if you have won championships in the past, you realize that the best way to win championships in the future is not to boast so shamelessly about yourself. A little humility is always a good thing. LeBron has learned that … the hard way. He’s learned that in an age when adolescents in jock straps buy multiple mansions, refer to them as “cribs,” throw lavish parties, stay up well into the night drinking, and generally live like punks, the one thing they cannot afford to do is speak with upmost arrogance. It’s accepted that they live like kings; they cannot, like LeBron, refer to themselves as one.

So, in context, the “not one, not two, not three … not seven” routine amounted to the issuance of a challenge to sports fans everywhere. Here’s the unspoken, but clear message: “Sure, I haven’t won anything other than the Most Valuable Player award. But championships or no championships, I am The King. I’ve got the most physical talent in the league, maybe of all time. And now I’ve got myself a supporting cast of two other superstars. We’ll be so good that we challenge you to root against us. Neither you nor anyone else can stop us from winning. We’re really THAT GOOD.” If LeBron’s prediction of “not seven” but eight championships wasn’t bad enough, we had only to remember “the Decision” and how classless that was. Sports fans everywhere put ourselves in the position of fans from Northeastern Ohio. They are the ones who rooted for LeBron when he played his high school ball in Akron and his professional ball in Cleveland for the Cavaliers, who selected him at the top of the draft when he was still in high school. Imagine how pissed his fans were upon finding out that LeBron was stringing their team along with others in order to generate interest for his TV special, at the end of which he would matter-of-factly announce he was heading for sunnier pastures. Bye-bye rust belt! South Beach, here I come!

Perhaps the “Should we forgive LeBron?” question needs to be re-framed. A better question is, with whom should we be empathizing more – LeBron himself, or the legions of sports fans from Northeast Ohio whose hearts were broken when he unceremoniously dumped the Cavaliers?

To me, though, even that formulation of the issue is missing the point. It’s a point that was made in ancient Rome and fully appreciated in early-20th century Brooklyn. The great thing about being a fan of big-time sports is that we fans have a rare opportunity to put away our obligations to empathize or think rationally. We can simply relax and let our guts do the talking. Believe me, we need those kinds of opportunities if we hope to stay sane in a stressful world.

It’s a God-given right of sports fans to choose for ourselves how to categorize the teams or athletes (1) they root for, (2) they root against, or (3) they couldn’t care less about. If we’re lucky, not everyone will fall into that last category; otherwise, sports won’t be much of a diversion for us. Frankly, it almost doesn’t matter if you put competitors in category (1) or category (2); either way, it will make the competition come alive for us. Personally, I’ve always had athletes and teams that I affirmatively root against. And I enjoy having a bunch of athletes and teams that I love, including that much-maligned “cad” named Tiger Woods. I’ve always rooted for him and I’m still doing it, even knowing that he cheated on his wife. So sue me. At least Tiger has always spoken like he respected the greats of the game and, when it comes to championships, never counted any chickens before they hatched.

Then again, to my knowledge, LeBron never cheated on his fiancĂ©. Or beat her. Or behaved in any way that entitles us to hate him personally. And indeed, I don’t hate him personally. But I sure as hell root against him on the hardwood. Why? Because I can, and I don’t have to justify why – not to you, and not even to myself. Of course, if you really truly needed to hear a reason, I could probably think of one. Strike that. Not one, not two, not three …

Saturday, June 09, 2012


Yeah, I got the memo. We progressives are supposed to be cryin’ in our soup this weekend. We’re supposed to be in mourning. The result of the Gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin is supposed to be a major disaster for the union movement, and a knockout blow to the unions that represent public employees.

Yeah, I’m in mourning alright. But I’m in mourning because, roughly five weeks after three people I know died, I lost yet another friend on Thursday. And so in a couple of days, I’m heading out to the left coast for yet another funeral. This death business is getting REALLY old.

But no, I’m not mourning the death of the union movement. Nor am I joining in the oy vay chorus of progressives who are chastising their fellow travelers in Wisconsin for choosing the wrong battle. The most famous such voice is Barney Frank, the soon-to-be-retiring Congressman from Newton – that’s Massachusetts, not Wisconsin. Frank should have known better. As a gay man, he of all people should know that sometimes in life, we don’t have a choice; we simply have to follow our hearts. And in this case, the progressives of Wisconsin hadn’t a choice. They had to follow their hearts and stand up to Governor Scott Walker, who was severely threatening collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Consider the situation from the standpoint of the threatened parties. They’re living in a country in which the distribution of wealth is becoming almost comical. No, it hasn’t reached Dickensian proportions yet, but the trend is clear. And that trend almost exactly parallels another trend – the drying up of the union rolls. As go the unions (and by “go,” I mean go away), so goes the middle class.

So what happens? Scott Walker sets out to balance his state’s budget on the backs of the unions. And not just any unions, the public-employee unions. The ones that represent teachers, fire fighters, police officers and prosecutors, among others.

You’ll forgive these people if they view themselves as public servants. But they are also well aware that for the last several decades, they’ve been in the cross hairs of many of the nation’s conservative mouthpieces. According to the ever-popular meme, public employees waltz into their offices every day, practice their trade with no accountability whatsoever, do a half-ass job at best, leave for the day well before their private-sector counterparts, and nevertheless collect bloated pay checks and ridiculous job benefits. And the best part is that they never have to worry about losing their jobs. In short, public employees are becoming known in popular consciousness in the same way that we used to think of “welfare queens.”

So you’ll forgive the public-employee union members if, on the day that Scott Walker was originally elected, they were already “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Walker punched them in the cheek, so what were they supposed to do? Turn it?

No, the unions who attempted to recall Scott Walker simply played their part in an ever-evolving drama known as the plight of the American Middle Class. In hindsight, they clearly lacked the power to bring the recall effort to a successful conclusion. But their efforts were less a power play than a primal scream. They know that we have problems in our society. We have problems with the out-of-control amount of income that is paid to the one percent. And we have problems with the widespread disrespect that is paid to our public servants. Walker balanced the budget without showing a sensitivity to those problems, so it was time to fight back any way they could, even if that meant bringing a knife to a gun fight.

I’m cool with what those unions did during the past year or so. The issue for me, though, is what should they do going forward.

There are many legitimate issues that conservatives have been raising about public employee unions over the decades. To me, though, the most important such issue is the difficulty that government managers have in firing employees who are not adequately doing their jobs. In the past, unions seem to be taking the position that the interests of their membership lies in ensuring that they have lifetime tenured positions. Sure, they can be fired or docked in pay, but only after their overworked managers go through a crucible that would have made Hercules pause. As a result, virtually all the bad teachers, lackadaisical cops, or uninspired prosecutors can keep their jobs, salaries and pensions, while their private sector analogues have long ago lost all three.

Is that really in the long-term interest of public employees? And perhaps more importantly, is that really in the long-term interest of the public those “servants” are supposed to serve?

It is tragic that so many Americans have been brainwashed to think that if a person works for the government, s/he must be either incompetent or lazy. That is unfair to the bazillions of public servants who don’t fit that stereotype. Unfortunately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy to a degree, since it leads many of our most talented and ambitious young men and women to avoid the public sector. And what’s worse, those who enter into it may feel that giving a half-ass effort is fully acceptable.

Personally, I have put 27 years into government service, which is less than either of my parents put in. I am proud of that service. And even though I am not covered by a union, I support my colleagues who are. But that doesn’t mean I support all of the union’s policies. And I certainly don’t support the creation of what is, in essence, lifetime tenure for workers, no matter how accomplished or lousy they might be.

We public servants need to be lean and mean like everyone else. And then, when the next Scott Walker comes around, we can fight him with even more vim and vigor.

We still might not win, but that’s not the point. Sometimes, win or lose, you just have to fight.

Saturday, June 02, 2012


The story I’m about to talk about isn’t getting much press in America. We’re too obsessed with our own domestic issues to think much about events across the ocean that do not affect the stock market.

Greece is getting a lot of coverage in America these days, but that’s only because it is helping to tank our stock market. We’re also seeing a lot of coverage about the New York mayor’s proposal to ban Big Gulps. It sounds like a joke, except that it actually makes sense, given our obesity epidemic. And then there’s the John Edwards trial. If I weren’t a DOJ attorney who stays away from legal topics in this blog, I’m sure I could find something to say about that trial, and don’t wish to minimize it’s importance.

But despite all that pressing news, the real story of the week may have come out of Israel. It was there, on Wednesday, that Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Israel might want to consider unilaterally withdrawing from much of the West Bank if peace discussions with the Palestinians fail.

The initial reaction from the U.S. Department of State – at least publicly – was negative. Hillary Clinton said that unilateral action by either side is no substitute for bilateral negotiations, which she claimed were the “only route” for a peace agreement. I have no inside information in this regard, yet I wonder if behind the scenes, Clinton and other Americans who have been trying to work out a Middle East peace agreement aren’t secretly thrilled at what Barak said. He’s not claiming that unilateral action is a substitute for peace negotiations. He’s implicitly suggesting that if and when those discussions fail, unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank land might be the spark that we need to usher in a workable bilateral agreement. The more that I think about it, the more intrigued I am by his suggestion.

Let’s first of all consider the source. This isn’t just some random Israeli statesman. Back when he represented the left-of-center Labor Party, Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister, and served in that capacity from 1999-2001. He went on to lead the Labor Party as recently as January 2011. And today, he serves as the Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister of the unity government headed by the right-of-center statesman, Bibi Netanyahu. By all accounts, Barak and Netanyahu are close associates, and it is entirely possible that Barak is simply floating a trial balloon approved by Netanyahu himself.

Recently, Netanyahu’s governing coalition changed. It absorbed the centrist Kadima party. That not only helped to consolidate Netanyahu’s power but also moved his coalition back from the right toward the center. And this creates an opportunity for peace. In a democracy, confident leaders tend to be the more courageous ones, and confident leaders who oversee centrist governments may be the most courageous of all. I don’t for a second believe that the hawkish Netanyahu has suddenly turned into a “give up the store” peacenik, but it isn’t far fetched to think that he is concerned about his legacy and would view sensible progress on the peace front as a way to cement that legacy. Besides, even dovish Israelis have pointed out that just as it took Menahem Begin to lead the withdrawal from the Sinai, or Ariel Sharon to lead the withdrawal from Gaza, it may take a Bibi Netanyahu to lead the withdrawal from the West Bank. So if you want peace, Bibi may be your best shot.

When I consider the downside of unilateral withdrawal, what first comes to mind is the experience in Gaza. After Israel withdrew, Palestinian militants destroyed precious greenhouses that were left behind, the Palestinian people voted in Hamas to govern the region, and Hamas proceeded to regularly fire rockets into Israel and kidnap an Israeli soldier. Collectively, that conduct has only served to polarize the Israeli people (not to mention the American Jewish community) against the prospects for peace.

Surely, Barak remembers full well that recent history. He also is aware that the Gaza withdrawal involved the removal of fewer than 10,000 Israeli settlers, whereas a withdrawal over any meaningful portion of the West Bank would involve removing several times that number. If Israel took that step, only to feel spat on by the Palestinians, a bad situation could get far worse.

Still, Barak cannot help but take stock in the status quo and fear what he sees. Gradually, the Israeli public is losing faith in the prospect that there will ever be a two-state solution to this debacle. If there isn’t one, Israel would have to permanently govern a region with more Arabs than Jews – not exactly the “Jewish State” that we Zionists had in mind. As for the Palestinians, their leadership continues to make it crystal clear that it finds no legitimacy in the notion of a Middle Eastern Jewish State. And given the understandable mistrust among the Israeli population that any peace treaty will actually satisfy the Palestinian population and stop the calls for Israel to give up its status as a Jewish State, as things stand now, it has become almost absurd to imagine that the two sides can enter into a treaty. Somehow, the cards need to be reshuffled.

Stated simply, the situation in Israel is so polarized that the prospects for an agreement are approaching rock bottom. And it is precisely at a time like this that the dynamic may have to be changed. If Israel unilaterally withdraws from much of the West Bank, the Palestinians will have a choice. Treat the land like it did the Gaza Strip and make the polarization in the region even worse. Or use this as an opportunity to show the Israelis that these two people can live together, side by side, in peace and prosperity. If the Palestinians choose the latter path, they might find an Israeli population a bit more willing to roll the dice on a peace treaty.

Truly, only a Pollyanna would react to Barak’s announcement by envisioning the likelihood of a peaceful two-state solution within the next five to ten years. But until now, the issue hasn’t been whether an imminent peace agreement is likely; it’s whether any peace agreement is even possible. Ever. With Barak’s announcement, you’d have to say that the possibility of an ultimate peace is now apparent. Maybe it’s only a mirage. Yet when you’re in a desert, it’s always nice to see a pond in the distance. That sure beats the alternative.