Sunday, July 06, 2014

Two Peoples, Two Sets of Delusions

The Holy Land is a scary place these days.   We’ve seen kidnappings.  Public celebrations of kidnappings.  Murders.   Public vows for vengeance after the murders.   Name calling.  Rock throwing.  Rocket firing. Hatred galore.   

All of this is happening just a few months before one of my daughters expects to move to Israel for a year where she will continue her rabbinical studies there.  Do the events of the past fortnight scare me for her sake as well as for the sake of eight million Israelis and Palestinians?  You bet.  That place is many things right now, but “stable” is not one of them.

Surely, I must be crazy to find a silver lining in such madness, but that is exactly what I see amidst all the despair and anger.  The silver lining goes by the name of realism.  You see, over the last several years, each of the two peoples in that region has been living under a very bizarre set of delusions.  I’m not saying those sets of delusions will disappear.  But thanks to the unveiling of the primal hatred that has dominated that area for some time, though largely under the surface, perhaps realism will have a fighting chance.   Perhaps both sides will realize that the respective paths that they’ve been walking are no longer tenable.

Let’s examine these two sets of delusions.   They’re easy enough to understand when the situation is examined from afar.  But can the combatants put aside their denial and their stubbornness and recognize that they themselves have been fundamentally deluded?  If there is to be peace, the answer to that question had better be “Yes!”

The Israeli Delusion

Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, analogizes his country to a “lazy elephant, sprawled across the road” with “no motivation to budge.”  Now I’m not saying that analogy is perfect, but it isn’t far from the truth.  Israelis have decided that as bad as their relationship is with their Palestinian neighbors, it’s as good as it’s going to get.   Thanks to the Israeli Defense Force and the Wall, the Israelis figure that they have the tools in place to keep Palestinian terrorism to a minimum.   Israelis recognize that they might earn some international goodwill by scaling back the Settlements in the West Bank, but “look at what happened when we did that in Gaza,” they point out.  “It only earned us Hamas rule and a regular barrage of rocket fire.”   From the Israeli perspective, destabilizing the situation isn’t an option, so they might as well content themselves with the status quo and go about their business as if the Palestinian “genie” is safely controlled in its bottle.

In response to this perspective, some might point out that Israel doesn’t have to contend only with the Palestinians but also with world opinion.  Yet to those who contribute to Israeli’s “lazy elephant” policies, world condemnation is simply the latest indication that the Jewish people will always be faced with anti-Semitism from far and wide.   Given the economic ingenuity of the Jewish people combined with the fact that the people now has its own state, the argument continues, Israel will be just fine, regardless of how many anti-Semites want to condemn her in France, Poland, Syria or even, God-forbid, the USA. 

So where’s the delusion?   For starters, it’s in the idea that the IDF and the Wall can maintain Israeli security no matter how the Palestinians feel about their plight.   The reality is that the ebb in the number of terrorist attacks against Israel is partially a function of the Palestinian non-violent resistance movement.   Make no mistake – if that movement should stall and the Palestinians decide to fight back in the old-fashioned way, Israelis would face many of the same mortal dangers that they faced during the first and second Intifadas.  Does the IDF make Israel more secure?  Sure.  How about the Wall?  Again, the answer is yes.   But while they are necessary for Israel’s short-term security, they are not sufficient.  Palestinian cooperation is needed as well, and I for one don’t take that cooperation for granted.

The “lazy elephant” attitude is also delusional because it ignores the internal Israeli fissures that are ever-expanding as a result of the gulf between Zionism in theory (the Zionism I love) and Zionism in practice.    When folks in my generation and that of my parents became Zionists, we generally envisioned a solution in which, eventually, Jews and Palestinians could live next to each other in two peaceful, viable states.  Our assumption was not that the Israeli government would succumb to right-wing pressure and seize increasing amounts of Palestinian land, thereby turning Palestine into something like a small gerrymandered congressional district in Texas.   For many Israelis, the settlements are simply breathing space for an ever-growing democracy.  For many others, however, and I find myself in this camp, they are corroding the moral claims of the Zionist project and threatening to associate Zionism with imperialism.  The result is that the same polarization that is infecting the American political process is beginning to swallow up the emotional heart of Israel. 

As much as the Netanyahu government would hate to admit it, there is nothing stable about an Israel that is coming to be known primarily as an “occupier.”  It risks losing the support of major segments of the Jewish people, and the risks it faces from Palestinians are too horrible even to think about.  You can easily imagine why the Israeli mainstream is in denial with respect to the latter.  But how can they deny that even among the Jewish base, the love for Israel isn’t what it used to be?   The answer is when you live in a polarized society, it becomes de rigeur to demonize and dismiss your ideological opponents, as if somehow they don’t even count.  To Netanyahu, I suspect, the only folks who count are the right-wing and center-right Jews who have given him a majority in recent elections.  The fact that the remainder of the Jewish people, all of the Palestinian people, and a large fraction of the rest of the world are becoming increasingly alienated from the entire Zionist project is a tragedy that Netanyahu is apparently willing to live with.  No doubt, he lacks either the imagination or the courage to envision any preferable alternative to his present policies, so he is forced to delude himself into thinking that all must be well.

The Palestinian Delusion

When I focus on the Palestinians, I inevitably keep asking the same questions.   Over and over again, they talk about how horrible it is to live under the boot of the Israeli oppressor.  And yet whenever the time comes to make meaningful yet purely symbolic concessions at the peace table, they always have the same response:  “Hell No!”   So what am I missing?   If the conditions of “occupation” and “apartheid” are so awful, why won’t they compromise in order to change them?  Why won’t any prominent Palestinians publicly declare, for example, that they would recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” beside a Palestinian state?   If the Israelis were one-tenth as powerful as the Palestinians always claim they are (when it suits the narrative that they are mere victims of the Israeli Leviathan), why are the Palestinians so cocky that they eventually will overcome?

The answer is that they are counting on the factors discussed above not only to corrode the moral heart of Israel but to eviscerate its very ability to survive.  In other words, they are counting on Israel to completely implode as a Jewish State and give birth to a Palestinian-controlled nation “from the river to the sea.”   Accordingly, they see no need to make meaningful concessions to the existence of a Jewish State, even if that is the price they would have to pay to live with Israel in two separate, peaceful countries.  

The Palestinians are deluded.  The Jewish State may lose its moral luster, but it is folly to suspect that it will allow itself simply to cease to exist.  Israel may be a lazy elephant, but at least it’s the elephant in the room, not the mosquitoes.  What’s more, this elephant might be “lazy” when it comes to geopolitical concessions, yet it’s anything but lazy when it comes to economic production and high-tech production in particular.  That and a strong military will sustain a country for a long time – all the while, the Palestinians will be waiting for Godot and suffering through the very Occupation that they love to publicly lament.

A recent poll by the middle-of-the-road Washington Institute for Near East Policy puts the lie to the notion that the Palestinians are truly clamoring for a two-state solution and have simply been hampered by their leadership.  The reality is that the Palestinians are harboring the illusion that the future lies in a one-state solution in which the Palestinians, and not the Jews, would have the upper hand.  Read the results and weep.   They include, for example, that when asked “the main Palestinian goal for the next five years,”  10 percent of the Palestinians said that “the goal should be to work for a one-state solution in all of the land, a state in which Arabs and Jews will have equal rights in one country from the river to the sea,” 27 percent said that “the goal should be to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to achieve a two-state solution,” and 60 percent said “the goal should be  to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea.”   If, in fact, the Palestinian leaders were able to negotiate a two-state solution with the Israelis, only 32 percent of the Palestinians polled thought that “this should be the end of the conflict with Israel,” whereas 64 percent said that “resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.”

In these polling results, you can see Netanyahu’s predicament.  You can see exactly why the Israeli mainstream has argued that they do NOT have a partner for peace.  (That is not to say that the Israelis have acted as such a partner either, but we are focusing for the moment on the Palestinians.)    If even a negotiated “two-state solution” agreement won’t result in peace, but merely a second stage of the “liberation” process, what is in it for Israel to reach such an agreement?  And if they aren’t motivated to fight for a two-state solution, how can the Palestinians expect to get their own state, let alone one that extends from the river to the sea?

Well, with enough delusions, your expectations and your hopes have a tendency to come together.  And I gather that is exactly what is happening on the streets of Hebron, Ramallah and Gaza City.

My friends, I haven’t lost hope that this conflict can ultimately be resolved.   You shouldn’t either.  Eventually, great leaders will arise that will talk sense into their respective peoples.  And when such leaders come to power at the same time, we will have a moment for peace.  For now, let us hope that as much calm as possible can reign over the streets of the Holy Land.  And if we must grasp at straws in terms of causes for hope, let us remember that delusions tend to have a shelf life, and as the cards in the region are now getting shuffled, perhaps more and more folks on both sides of the Wall will come to their senses.  They may not like what they see, but acceptance of the situation is always a painful first step.   Remember – we’re still just talking about a family feud.  Eventually, all the children of Abraham are bound to realize that reconciliation is our birthright.

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