A little over a year ago, noted author and columnist Daniel Gordis opined about The Dangerous Myopia of American Jewish Leaders. (I’m a little behind in my reading, but that’s only in Gregorian calendar years. In Middle East peace talk years, I’m keeping a brisk pace.)
Gordis, who apportions his rants and more thoughtful views on a sort of odd-even day schedule, believes progressive Jewish leaders have failed their flocks. By disproportionately focusing on Israeli actions, minimizing Palestinian calumny, fecklessness and extremism, and pretending there are Palestinians positioned to both negotiate and enforce a peace agreement with Israel, progressive Jewish leaders have allowed their fellow (naïve) Jews to believe in a Middle East fairy tale fated to have an anti-Disneyesque ending: Too many Palestinian evil witches and wicked stepmothers and too few sleeping beauties can only produce further conflict. It’s the Palestinians’ generational gift to its (quasi) citizens. And it’s only logical that Israel should react to this reality.
These so-called Jewish leaders have encouraged their minions to live absent the fortifying confirmation biases that have long grounded Israeli decision making. How dare they. Safe in America, free from paying Israeli taxes and serving in Israel’s army, what gives them the right to critique how Israel’s government protects its (actual) citizens?
The historic formula for best serving Israel is simple and time-tested. Agree in public. Disagree in private. Always avoid adding Jewish fuel to an ever-expanding anti-Israel fire. Support AIPAC’s lobbying army. Support anyone else who backs Israeli government decisions. Ignore the (literal and figurative) crosses you’re then forced to bear and the strange parties you now must attend. (Step up to the evangelical plate with Pastor Hagee. Go Republican long with Sheldon Adelson.)
And send in that Federation pledge.
Gordis is, no doubt, sincere. Gordis is, no doubt, thoughtful — at least on alternating days. But as long as Gordis is casting a wide myopia net, let’s focus his attention on Israel’s current coalition government.
Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren succinctly expressed the view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government when he explained, in response to criticism about Israel’s Gaza policy, “Our strategy is survival.”
Some call that realpolitik: Israel is, in this view, through little fault of its own, singled out for disproportionate blame. Always has been. Always will be. If the sun shines, Israel is responsible for the drought. If it rains, then guess where to look for the cause of the flood. Israel’s many enemies still want to, and are actively working to, destroy it. Israel’s neighborhood is still dangerous. Then there’s Israel’s delegitimizing neighborhood-extended where, absent former friend Turkey, it is now increasingly hard to form a friend minyan.
Doesn’t Israel’s world-is-against-us survival strategy only make sense?
Gordis’ naïve leaders suggest otherwise. Those leaders want a broader survival definition: What is Israel surviving to be? The Jewish homeland? Does that include non-Jews? What’s the tipping point where a few are a few too many?
Is the survival rationale the reason Netanyahu continues to demand that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state, even though the Palestinian leadership long ago recognized the state of Israel, absent the more descriptive appellation? After all, Netanyahu certainly knows his “Jewish state” demand has different and difficult implications for the Palestinians and can’t be met at this early stage of the negotiations any more than Israel can agree to a final land swap arrangement without a security understanding. So is this Netanyahu’s way of ensuring that Israel “survives” this first round of forced negotiations and slides to the next, or the next several after that, give or take several sadly formulaic prisoner exchange-settlement expansion trade-offs?
While Abbas saying the “Jewish state” words does not make Israel any safer (and even if said, offers no guarantee that what Netanyahu has called “the real key to peace” won’t lead to another “real key to peace” demand), Netanyahu sees this as part of the Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy. Abbas, on the other hand, views acknowledgement of a “Jewish state” as ceding the right of return or compensation for Palestinian refugees and de facto acceptance of a second class type of citizenship for non-Jewish Israeli citizens.
Is Israel surviving to be a democracy? Does that include a democracy in the West Bank areas under Palestinian civil or military control, but also still effectively under Israeli occupation? Absent a peace agreement, how will the concept of Israel as both a Jewish homeland and a democracy survive if Palestinian leadership starts to advocate for the right of Palestinians under Israeli control to vote in Israeli elections and be subject to the same laws and regulations Israelis on the other side of the Green Line now are?
Is Israel’s government still operating under the same type of survival fear that has effectively united Jews for thousands of millennia, particularly post-Holocaust? Without maintaining that fear are Jews simply destined to assimilate (courtesy of more accepting societies, particularly in the U.S.) or disassociate themselves (courtesy of strict religiously-enforced Jewish club entrance requirements) out of existence?
Or should the greatest survival fear be that Israel’s current government has apparently adopted survival as the inspiration and justification for so many of its actions and inactions?
What would ever not be justified if your raison d’etre is survival? How narrow would your negotiating prism necessarily be if you believe compromise with the Palestinians adds another survival risk to all of the other survival risks you face or will face?
The peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) long ago removed Israel’s two main strategic military threats. Syria’s civil war has significantly weakened its already weak capabilities. While the Iranian nuclear threat still exists, the international sanctions effort has severely squeezed Iran financially — its official inflation rate is over 40 percent — and there is now an interim accord between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U,K., Germany, France, Russia + Germany) on freezing and rolling back portions of the nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Hezbollah, Hamas, and various other militant groups can inflict occasional damage on Israel, but none are vital security interest threats.
Yet, Israel’s (definitionally challenged) survival strategy seems to mandate that it survive merely to worry about the next reason to worry about survival. Perhaps the myopia Gordis attacks is really the same myopia that best ensures that Israel retains its democratic and Jewish character.
The fault for the current Israeli-Palestinian dystopia is not one-sided nor is it critical to apportion blame. What victory is there in aspiring to win a blame battle? The progressive pro-Israel point is that Israel is made strategically stronger with a peace deal and that the absence of peace weakens Israel.
The recipe? The Israeli side, the stronger side, must use its strength more wisely. While Israel’s military strength allows it to keep kicking the peace can down the road, that road will eventually end. Israel’s leaders must mobilize its Palestinian peace negotiation effort at least as strongly as its leaders would mobilize a military effort if Israel were to be directly attacked.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, Justice Minister and chief peace talk negotiator Tzipi Livni, and former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert are Israeli leaders who care passionately about their country’s future. While they have all endorsed Israel’s military tactics, they have also all, at times, questioned whether Netanyahu is sincerely committed to take the necessary steps to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians or that he even understands a two-state agreement is as much an Israeli vital security interest as it is a Palestinian one. They all acknowledge the difficulties in moving forward, but they all reject the notion that it is impossible or unproductive to reach a peace agreement with what is a fractured Palestinian side.
However, by Gordis’ the-future-is-living-in -the-past standards, Peres, Livni, Barak and Olmert would be considered naive. Here is what each of these Israeli leaders has recently said:
Shimon Peres: “The alternative to Hamas is (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas. He is a serious man who has declared himself in favor of peace and compromise, of a demilitarized Palestinian state and against terror….There are always skeptics in life…To be an optimist you have to work very hard (to maintain optimism with the people you lead) and have a lot of patience. It’s more natural to be a skeptic, be on the safe side…But in my experience in life I feel that being optimistic is wiser and more realistic…”
Livni (prior to commencing the current negotiations): “Negotiations won’t just maintain Israel’s value as a Jewish and democratic state, but will also stop the erosion (of world-wide support), and will give Israel the legitimacy for military action when necessary, and for preserving its security interests.” She recently expanded further on the strategic necessity for Israel to actually reach an agreement and not simply negotiate: “(The Palestinian and Iranian issues) are critical and crucial for Israel’s future and aren’t isolated from each other. If we solve the conflict with the Palestinians and reach an agreement, we can create a strong and significant new front with Arab countries against Iran.”
Barak: “The world is full of risks, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to do something about it — within your limits and the limits of realism — and avoid self-fulfilling prophecies that are extremely dangerous here…I am worried about our tendency to adopt a fatalistic, pessimistic perception of history. Because, once you adopt it, you are relieved from the responsibility to see the better aspects and seize the opportunities (when they arise).”
Olmert: “There is nothing that is more important, more urgent, more essential and more significant for the future existence of the state of Israel than to have peace with the Palestinians, and to get rid of this cloud that rests over our shoulders and our heads as an occupying power that has deprived millions of people of their basic, fundamental human and civil rights.”
Netanyahu recently addressed those criticizing his Iranian and Palestinian policies: “Unlike others, when I see vital security interests in danger — I won’t shut up.” However, Netanyahu has occluded long-term vision. He is unable to acknowledge the vital security interest dangers to Israel presented by the continued absence of a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement and the potential long-term loss or diminution of U.S. support without it.
And that is the real leadership myopia.