October 9, 2003


The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Yossi Klein Halevi & Leon Wieseltier, 10/03, New Republic)

I'll get to the fence later in our exchange, though I have little of interest to say about it. Now I want to pursue your thoughts about the Yom Kippur War. I do not recall the people of Israel consumed by post-'73 guilt about a failure of Israeli dovishness. Quite the contrary. I remember that the shock and the anger were directed not at a failure of diplomacy but at a failure of intelligence, I mean military intelligence. Unlike the Six Day War, which left many Israelis feeling tough, the Yom Kippur War left many Israelis feeling afraid; and that was the condign emotion. Israel really could have been destroyed. (This is not a threat that Hamas and Islamic Jihad will ever pose. In my view, there are only two serious threats to Israel's security now: Iran's nuclear program, which no Israeli government can watch idly for much longer, and the fertility rates of Arabs between the river and the sea, which will undo Israel by demographic means unless a Palestinian state comes into being.) The lesson of 1973 is that security is as morally and historically primary as peace. It is the condition of peace.

The difficulty is that the definition of security is not so clear. (The only thing that outraged me about Ehud Barak's offer at Camp David was his casual attitude toward the Jordan Valley.) No, dovishness at the highest Israeli levels would not have prevented the Yom Kippur War. But one must be careful about the implications of such a statement for the present situation. I do not agree that there is a contradiction between the Israeli aspiration to safety and the Israeli aspiration to peace. Quite the contrary. Morally speaking, Israel's efforts at peace are among its glories; proof that Israel is not, and never was, an ugly state. (I think that those 27 pilots are wrong, but I think that they are a credit to the society that produced them, in which moral reasoning has almost always attended tactical reasoning.) But the matter is not just a moral one. Israeli peacemaking was always premised on Israeli power and Israeli vigilance. In this sense, it was the very opposite of naïve. Yes, the withdrawal from Lebanon was a momentous blunder--but it was done for the sake of politics, not for the sake of peace; and it was a blunder because it sent exactly the wrong "signal" to those with whom Barak wished to make peace. We can argue endlessly about whether it was Oslo or the collapse of Oslo that is responsible for the present calamity; but it is a fact that almost 900 Israelis have been murdered since the collapse of Oslo. So what person, living in these unbearable circumstances, would not want to be always testing the chances for decency and reconciliation? Otherwise all that remains is ideology for the few and despair for the many, which rightly worries you.

I do not object to Sharon's fierce response to the terrorists: Even if the problem of terrorism does not have a military solution, the problem of terrorists does. And the methods have to be effective, obviously; self-defense is not a highway to innocence. (Though it was a dark day in Israeli history when the air force dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza to get that fiend Shehadeh.) What bothers me about Sharon's approach is its lack of political imagination. It should be possible to strike terrorists in Jenin and announce a peace plan on the very same morning. All the parties in the Israeli debate always claim to be for peace and security; but none of them seems to know quite how to pursue both objectives simultaneously. I read in Yediot the other day that at Peres's grotesque birthday party for himself, Sharon elegantly described him as "the man who does not despair." Was he implying that he, Sharon, is the man who does despair? I pray not.

The idea that "Jewish fate depends on Jewish initiative" is not quite as obsolete as you think. You are correct to remember that this is the supreme axiom of classical Zionism--Dr. Pinsker's great proclamation of Jewish historical agency, the revolutionary sloughing off of the centuries of political quietism. Like all the emboldening ideas of all the revolutions, it was of course an exaggeration, a myth, a necessary fiction. (Leszek Kolakowski once observed to me, about the apparent lack of realism of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s, that there are situations in which nothing is possible unless you believe that everything is possible.) It is certainly the case that its mythic character has been exposed by the present savagery, in which Israel is discovering the limits of its power. There is an internecine struggle taking place within the Palestinian community, a civil war really, and Israel cannot determine the outcome of this struggle. Israel cannot tell the Palestinians who they are or how they should govern themselves. Certainly no amount of Israeli concessions will satisfy the God-intoxicated, blood-lusting Jew-haters among them. So the historical agency of the Palestinians turns out to be as real and as irreversible as the historical agency of the Jews.

But I warn you, my friend, against resigning your analysis of the Israeli predicament to a pre-Zionist understanding. (Well, not only pre-Zionist: You are describing the return of the ein breirah mentality.) Israel is not helpless, to put it mildly. If it is ridiculous to think that Israel can determine the character of Palestine, it is equally ridiculous to think that Israel cannot influence the character of Palestine. Sharon's indifference to the needs of Abu Mazen was a scandal, whatever Sharon's expectations of the hudna. The Israeli policy of expanding settlements now is simply mindless, a perverse exercise in defiance that finally defies only Israel's own interests. And so on. If it is not completely true that Jewish fate depends on Jewish initiative, it is also not completely true that Jewish fate depends on non-Jewish initiative. Just because the Palestinians are inflaming themselves does not mean that Israel should also inflame them. There are intelligent and unintelligent ways to fight Palestinian terrorism. The unintelligent way is to do so in a manner that robs the future of political options. Of course there are some Israelis who would like to see the future robbed of political options (Sharon used to be quite explicit that this was the objective of the Israeli settlement in the territories), who believe that this is the future. But the belief that the present is the future is the very hallmark of the apocalyptic mind, which is supremely useless for the needs of politics, of strategy, of reason, of security. I do not see most Israelis thinking apocalyptically, even when their spirits are crushed. They are keeping their heads, for which my head is admiringly bowed.


Mr. Wieseltier touches on three important points:

(1) The complete failure of Israel's revered intelligence services in 1973, something which Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in depth.

(2) Ariel Sharon's failure to move quickly and impose a sovereign Palestine on Abu Mazen's watch may prove to be disastrous. Because...

(3) Israel's only hope for the future lies in a two-state solution. Demographics and Western morality are the real enemies here--once Palestinians are a majority in a single Israeli/Palestinian state they will be considered entitled to rule it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 9, 2003 11:16 PM

"[O]nce Palestinians are a majority in a single Israeli/Palestinian state they will be considered entitled to rule it."

Precisely. Well sort of, anyway.

And it's the reason why the Palesinians will never accept a state of their own. (Inevitability's so obviously going in their direction.)

Unless you hold that they will do their utmost to help out, to assist, to aid the Zionists with the latter's demographic dilemma.

(Ok, so you'll say that all Israel has to do is declare a Palestinian state. Yes, but how binding will this possibly be when the Palestinians and everyone else reject it?)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 10, 2003 2:13 AM

There's already one Palestinian state even though it was "stolen" from them decades ago. Is called Jordan.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 10, 2003 9:33 AM