Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I understand the desire of New York Times columnists to appear realist. Writers who advocate for US intervention to induce Israeli-Palestinian peace, in column after column, month after month, can get to look, well, idealist. Writers are assumed to be wimps anyway.

Still, something strange is happening. On two occasions in as many weeks, columnists who have written passionately about the US pushing peace have argued, in effect, that the Obama administration should just disengage. Last week, Tom Friedman wrote that it’s "time to call a halt to this dysfunctional 'peace process,' which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility." Today, Roger Cohen sees Tom Friedman's bid, and raises him, quoting Israel's most widely respected political scientist to boot:

Obama, who has his Nobel already, should ratchet expectations downward. Stop talking about peace. Banish the word. Start talking about d├ętente. That’s what Lieberman wants; that’s what Hamas says it wants; that’s the end point of Netanyahu’s evasions.

It’s not what Abbas wants but he’s powerless. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, told me, “A nonviolent status quo is far from satisfactory but it’s not bad. Cyprus is not bad.”

I have abiding admiration for Shlomo Avineri (and Friedman and Cohen as well), but there is something in this realism that lacks common sense. For it assumes that the status quo can remain peaceful, especially if "we stop talking about peace." That Palestinians can pursue some under-the-radar economic evolution, or that Israelis and their "security wall" can force things to remain quiet when they have to; that Obama and America are better off letting the sides pursue detente, not peace--as if "some non-violent status quo" will hold; as if only idealists like Obama are making the great the enemy of the good.

LOOK, THIS IS all dangerously wrong--and familiar. Moshe Dayan, too, had proposed an "open bridges" policy--in effect, the status quo occupation, in which Palestinians accommodate to economic peace, while Israel does its thing in Jerusalem and with settlements--and the 1973 War blew it up. This has happened again and again since. And today, too, the status quo is a powder keg, and the blasting caps are, among other things, "what Lieberman wants" and "what Hamas says it wants." Is a realist someone whose purchase on reality is so great there is nothing to learn from experience?
  • The wall has made a pathetic ghetto of the nearly 300,000 Arabs of Jerusalem. A couple of nights ago, a gang of youths from East Jerusalem had some fun--so my young friend, the journalist Benjamin Joffe-Walt, told me--attacking night-clubbers in Nachalat Shiva, right in front of his apartment, with electric cattle prods. The last two terror attacks against Jews in Jerusalem came from neighborhoods within the wall. South Central LA anyone? Do we even need more disturbances on the Temple Mount to get things to blow?
  • Nor, as I've argued again and again, can the Palestinian economy grow at nearly the rate it needs to--certainly not "like Cyprus"--if the occupation is not ended. IDF presence is largely meant to secure settlements in Area B and C--belts of land that surround Palestinian towns. So the occupation is a kind of antibiotic against Palestinian entrepreneurship. The Palestine Authority is much more likely to just collapse, or fold up, than engage in some "detente" with an ongoing occupation, with its closure regime. Read Shaul Arieli's urgent piece in today's Haaretz, which argues that the status quo, leading to the PA's "disintegration," would open the door to Hamas; or read Steven Cook's thoughtful piece in, of all places, The New Republic.
  • IDF units sympathetic to Greater Israel are already showing an unwillingness to follow any orders to evacuate settlements. This tendency will only grow.
  • If the West Bank blows, so will the Arab towns of Israel's little triangle, which Lieberman has already defined as alien to Israel (unless its residents, who have committed to Hebrew, also swear to uphold Israel as a "Zionist-Jewish" state). And when these towns blow, we will be in a Balkan-like civil war, with all the trappings: sniping, ethnic cleansing, terror on all sides.
  • Oh, and remember Hezbollah's and Hamas's missiles? If the Mubarak regime in Egypt falls to Islamist rioters, will that be good for America, let alone Israel? No doubt, such riots will have a formal cause in Islamist attitudes toward the West; but will not the efficient cause likely be yet more pictures on Al-Jazeera of Israeli bombs dropping on civilian buildings where missiles are launched? Will Mubarak protect the Israeli embassy yet again?
I could go on, but enough is enough. Leave this monster alone, and its violence will destroy the people who live here; and, meanwhile, the things Israelis do to avoid destruction will destroy everything Obama is trying to achieve in the Islamic world.

And as for Shlomo Avineri's sense of things, a little history. When I first got to know him, as a grateful graduate student in 1972, he chastised the peace movement that advocated for a Palestinian state. No, he said, Dayan's "open bridges," preserving the status quo, was the only realistic way to go. When Avineri was Director General of the Foreign Ministry under Yigal Allon in 1976, President Sadat sent Israel his first direct message that he was interested pursuing a comprehensive deal. The foreign ministry (among others in Prime Minister Rabin's government) rejected the overtures, since the National Religious Party, which was part of the coalition, had threatened to bolt if the West Bank would become a focus for any negotiation. Avineri, among others, supposed Sadat's initiative was unrealistic.

There is, in other words, a kind of realism that you can never look stupid peddling. It basically assumes the present exercise of force is always better than the prospect of making peace with political enemies, because the other side can never be trusted; that, Hobbes or no Hobbes, it is vain to try to conceive of institutions in which trust is hedged about by policing, clear commitments and simple justice. I am not sure why we need "political scientists" who do not help us conceive these very institutions, especially in the face of violence and threats. In any case, the only psychological force more powerful than realism seems to be repetition compulsion.


POtter said...

When you read about the behavior of trauma victims in the individual and apply it to a society as a whole like Israel or Palestine it seems to make a lot of sense out of what is happening.

Judith Herman has been very helpful to my understanding of tragedy and trauma in our own family. So I recommend "Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror" if you don't know it. But you probably do.

The collective experience seems( I have a hunch) to reinforce individual traumas and I suspect make it even harder to get out of this "repetition compulsion" cycle. If so this means we are watching more tragedy unfold if there is no wise/strong intervention of some kind. Too much hope was pinned on Obama and as usual when hopes are dashed, there is even more hopelessness.

My agreement with Tom Friedman had to do with a feeling of exasperation which seems to be in the air now- not knowing what can be done anymore. I agree there is no status quo and ill consequences for holding on to that illusion.

Thank you for yours above, the links to good stuff, and mostly for the hope and vision you continue to express even when it gets dark.

Kung Fu Jew 18 said...

Nice seeing you at the J Street conference. As a former student of economics, I really appreciate the expertise you bring to this conversation, Avishai. I attempted to conduct an economics research project on Jerusalem in 2004, to little publishable success, but it was plain to see what was so difficult to describe economically: livelihood will only stabilize society so far as it matches people's expectations of dignity. The two go hand in hand, they are not divorced from each other. As hand-in-hand as Israeli security seems to be with strangulation.

I co-publish Jewschool.com with a few others. We're big fans of yours. Many thanks for saying what is sometimes obvious, but needs an topic expert to say it.

hammeruk14 said...

I think anyone who thinks Palestinian economy which is not reliant on Israeli economy is frankly not living on Planet Earth. Palestinians will / do need some help to diversify their economy from just selling olives; who will help them their Arab neighbours I doubt it...

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