Thursday, January 29, 2009

Updike's Version

John Updike's death hits so hard because nobody has written about it as perfectly and for as long as he has--and he died all the same. Apparently, writing protects you only from life. I liked the Rabbit books, or the Rabbit prose, but after reading Self-Consciousness and Roger's Version, I felt we knew Updike's terrible idea of what he'd be thinking, or half-thinking, as he accepted oblivion. He writes somewhere of a man who, on his death-bed, realizes that he's utterly lost interest in the laws of physics because facts, in fact, no longer mattered. In Rabbit At Rest, Harry Angstrom thinks, clenched, what the people on that Pan Am flight over Lockerbie were thinking as the plane fell to earth, and he catches himself and thinks, we are all falling toward the earth, just a little more slowly. If Updike can die, then who won't? Listen to this wonderful interview of Updike in 2000 by Chris Lydon, who is, thank God, still alive.

Monday, January 26, 2009

One Dimensional

Bob Simon, a graduate of Brandeis University, told me years ago (over a balmy Tel-Aviv dinner, back at the time of the Camp David Agreements) that he got his break with CBS in the late 1960s because he was able to deliver an interview with Herbert Marcuse, the reluctant NewLeft icon. Marcuse had been Simon's teacher at Brandeis and his One Dimensional Man was then all the rage. I thought of this wistful conversation watching Simon's grim report on Sixty Minutes this morning. We will soon hear from media watch groups, accusing Simon of being one-dimensional, or questioning his feelings for Jewish battles. In fact, his report is a testament to how far into tragedy Zionism has come since the Camp David Agreements (and Brandeis hired people like Herbert Marcuse).

Regarding the Jewish hubris Simon exposes, add this to your reading list: the instructions offered by the IDF's Chief Rabbi to our callow boys, recently sent into Gaza; compare them to the pilot's letter I considered a few years back, and Ben-Gurion's instructions to read Natan Alterman's scathing poem Al-Zot to all IDF troops after a number of Israeli soldiers had shot indiscriminately at Palestinian civilians.  And regarding reading lists, many readers have asked me to consolidate the last two posts on U.S. policy, which Simon's report speaks to, into one document.  Here it is.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What's Love Got To Do With It - Part Two

(This is the second of a two-part post marking Senator Mitchell's appointment as Middle East Envoy.)

Make no mistake: Palestine is not Hamas and Israel is not its settlers, though the trends are depressing. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Palestinians still want peace with Israel: Palestinian elites look forward to cooperation with Israelis on advanced businesses, higher education, construction, and tourism; they may even have some affection for Israelis; they know that their economic dignity and secular life depend on staving off Hamas. 

And a majority of Israelis still want peace with Palestine, skeptical as they may be of Palestinian political institutions. Israeli elites are stirred by globalization and know that West Bank business infrastructure cannot development with 500 checkpoints. They know their own economic growth and cultural vitality depend on peace; their children, many of whom are leaving the country, hate guarding and paying for settlements.

Yet both sides’ leaders, no matter who they are, cannot break out of a now impossible bind. They cannot imagine prompting a near-term fight with their own rejectionists, which means wide-scale civil disobedience, even civil war, for a long-term negotiation that would be hostage to the first atrocity. Peace advocates are exhausted, increasingly cynical, overwhelmed by military professionals and insurgent militias depicting their own actions as preempting the other side in a fight-to-the-finish. Hamas and Israeli rightists do not oppose a peace deal the way Republicans oppose Keynes. They have killed their own leaders to get their way. And this—not just a stalled “peacemaking process”—is where America comes in.

THERE IS ONLY way out of this trap: the Obama administration must make it clear—crystal—that the deal embodied in the Clinton parameters is American policy and a vital American national interest. To oppose it is to oppose America. Negotiation is over the details of implementing it, like the Geneva Initiative group, but not over its main principles. For the record, the Israeli government under Ehud Barak accepted these principles in December 2000, while Yasir Arafat dragged his feet, accepted them with reservations, but then authorized the PA negotiating team to follow up at Taba (out of which the Geneva negotiations sprouted). Later in 2002, as the violence spread, Arafat accepted the Taba plan.

So in adopting the Clinton parameters, the Obama administration would not exactly be pushing on an open door, but it would be embracing the deal that any Israeli and Palestinian leader sincere about peace has already embraced. Adoption would certainly expose leaders who are not sincere about peace--people who use the other side's threat as a cover for ultra-nationalist ends. One such leader may soon be the Israeli prime minister. 

The PA's current leaders, many of whom have participated in creating the deal, are not likely to act in ways that will undermine it. They are its most obvious immediate beneficiaries, and will no doubt use it to gain international legitimacy for a stronger security force, and new infrastructural investment, leading to a Palestinian state. And adoption would reinvigorate the Israeli peace camp; it would immediately reimpose an invisible border. In any case, Israeli leaders must see that resisting this deal means foiling American interests, those of the European Union, and moderate Arab regimes, too; that this is the world’s deal, based on conventional notions of civil rights and utilitarian principles; that Israel risks growing isolation, political and economic, if it fails to adapt to it. New settlements beyond this border, in the West Bank or Jerusalem, will be met with sanctions.

Israel’s leaders, in other words, must start their planning for a permanent border, and new administrative arrangements for Jerusalem. As CBS’s Bob Simon put it, they must be put into a “panic” that American support is now conditional on specific behavior. The Road Map, which was Mitchell's brainchild, speaks of building confidence—Israel by stopping settlements, Palestinians by containing terror—before moving to a deal. If this sequence ever made sense, it now gets things exactly backwards. Both sides need the deal to be etched in their imaginations and reinforced by all manner of international actions. Only then does it make sense to speak of building confidence.

THERE IS A serious change in approach here, as there has been with the economy, but it is not hard to imagine how to proceed. Senator Mitchell is coming here next week, according to reliable reports. Secretary Clinton might come immediately after his initial meetings to address both the Israeli Knesset and what's left of the Palestinian parliament to announce that the Clinton parameters are American policy; that she challenges all sides to embrace them. Obama, for his part, should then stress how failure to accept the parameters will be viewed as inimical to American plans for the region.

In parallel, Clinton and the new National Security Advisor, General James Jones, should line-up support from the EU and the UN Security Council, which will almost certainly rally to them. But their vision should not end there. They should speak positively about President Sarkozy’s idea of a Mediterranean Union, with Israel and Turkey acting as anchors. Clinton should offer to help organize a start to a regional water carrier to bring Turkish water to Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. There should be talk of an common market between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Jones should speak about a bilateral defense pact with Israel and an American naval base in Haifa. The U.S. must get away from the idea that peace means "We give them land, and then maybe they'll leave us alone."

Rather, the deal should appear a part of an emerging global consensus—like cooperation on emergency financial reform, or police action against terror. The talk should be of new federal relations and new economic unions: a patently Jewish state that is also a state of global citizens; a Palestinian state linked to Jordan and Israel that is patently a state of laws and civil rights. People who oppose the consensus must be made to feel like international pariahs, not just opponents of some (spineless) domestic “peace camp.”

YET--AND THIS is crucial--President Obama should stress that implementation need not be rushed. As long as all know where we are going, we can get there with deliberate caution, in a gradual but time-certain way that permits affected parties--Israeli settlers, returning Palestinian refugees, Israeli defense specialists nervous about letting go of the tiger's tail--to take steps toward a new reality in ways that minimize the furies of disappointment and grief. A little compassion, and a lot of hopeful oratory, can go along way here. The deal will overturn many lives; it will take some time for people to see its virtues.  Obama's ability to speak about generational transformation is a unique asset here.

Israeli settlers must be given time, perhaps five years, to find new homes within the Israeli state. The Israeli state apparatus should have time to repatriate and compensate Israelis who return; to plan, with the help of international forces, to cut settlements off according to a time-table from the Israeli power grid and water network.

The PA, for its part, should be given time to develop an effective domestic security force, like the one in Ramallah and Jenin, to establish its authority throughout the West Bank. Before refugees begin returning, the PA must be given time to engender the businesses and construction projects that will employ them. The state must develop an “absorptive capacity,” as the British once said about the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. Only then will the PA be able to restart dialogue with Hamas from a position of strength. Meantime, the border between Gaza and Egypt should be opened.

Most important—and even before Israel terminates its occupation—the U.S. should lead the creation of a 10,000-person NATO force in and around Gaza and the West Bank, to monitor events and buttress anticipated areas of demilitarization. The force should give greater confidence to foreign investors, working alongside—not in place of—the emerging PA police. All members of the Arab league should make clear that recognition of Israel and full peace goes along with the deal; they should offer as down payment open academic and business exchanges with Israel. In this context, a peace with Syria should be concluded, with the demilitarized Golan turned into a demilitarized nature preserve.

The point is, if we have learned anything from this past year it is that things that “cannot go on” eventually can’t. The current carnage in Gaza is nothing if not a wake-up call: peace is not impossible, but Jerusalem could become a kind of Sarajevo in a matter of weeks, with Israeli Arabs joining in the fray. President Obama has the privilege of coming into power during a Middle Eastern crisis, which like all the other crises create opportunity. He can bring a new era to this region, but as with his plans for economic recovery, climate change, and the rest, the greatest danger is in thinking small.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What's Love Got To Do With It - Part One


(This is the first of a two-part post marking Senator Mitchell's appointment as Middle East Envoy.)

President Obama is getting nearly as much advice about Israelis as about puppies, and at times the advice seems eerily the same: we want them close, but they can get too scared, or wild, or selfish; we cannot indulge their ferocious instincts or territorial overreaching—anyway, they’ll need some leashing in. “Tough love,” writes the New York Times’ Roger Cohen, and this counsel—these very words—have been repeated (by my count) by five other prominent journalists and diplomatic hands in recent weeks.

The people offering this advice are thoughtful, even brave, given how tender (or wary) presidential love of Israel has been since Ronald Reagan took office. But I fear the advice is out of date, and not only because of Gaza. There are three implied premises here. If the new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, buys into them, he’ll just give us more of the same.

THE FIRST PREMISE is that U.S. intervention is for the purpose of facilitating a negotiation between the interested parties, Israelis and Palestinians, so that we can finally arrive at a deal. The second premise, closely related to the first, is that America is a disinterested party: a kind of Dr. Phil, strong and well-intentioned, to be sure, but a mediator who—how did former Secretary Powell put it?—“cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.” The third, and most important, is that Israeli and Palestinian leaders will sign a deal when they’ve overcome, or are cajoled (or bribed or “pressured”) into suppressing, psychological barriers—at which point they’ll exert sovereign power to implement what they’ve signed.

The inference for action is new invitations to summits and secret negotiations, more hand-holding—perhaps some public hand-wringing—with the U.S. providing diplomatic structure and a sense of urgency: in effect, a new Road Map like the one Mitchell gave us in 2002, albeit with a reinvigorated navigator. What we will not get is a precise destination or an American at the wheel, that is, a peace deal stipulated by the U.S. government itself and the patient, firm diplomacy over several years to bring outliers into line. Which means—no matter who wins the Israeli election, but especially with Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist bloc poised to reassume power—that we will not get peace at all, perhaps ever.

1. A reasonable deal is already known. It was all but negotiated in Taba in January 2001, between the outgoing Labor government of Ehud Barak and the Fatah leadership now in power in the Palestinian Authority; when the parties had got stuck the month before, the American president, husband of the Secretary of State-designate, offered bridging “parameters,” which along with the Taba agreements were given detailed articulation in the Geneva Initiative of 2003. The Clinton parameters were implicitly underpinned by the 2002 declaration of the Arab League.

Their terms are well known. They were spelled out recently by Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski: the 1967 borders, with minor, reciprocal and agreed-upon modifications; compensation and repatriation to Palestine as the way Palestinian refugees exercise their right of return; Jerusalem as home to two capitals, with creative ascriptions of sovereignty for the old city and Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary; and a non-militarized Palestinian state, reinforced by a significant "international presence."

The Clinton parameters were set aside by Ariel Sharon because he (and his rightist bloc) did not want to entertain its compromises; his disengagement from Gaza was meant to allow for consolidating Israel’s hold on the West Bank settlements and Jerusalem. In effect, Ehud Olmert implicitly endorsed the parameters all over again before the Gaza operation, though his decision to attack so violently may say something about his sincerity; Netanyahu says he will end any negotiation over them were he elected, for the same reason Sharon did.

2. America is itself an interested party. Israel and Palestine are really just two-city states, together about the scale of greater Los Angeles, fitting together like jig-saw puzzle pieces. The Middle East, which their conflict roils, has the span of a continent, with the world’s largest proven reserves of oil and dollars, teens and violence. The U.S. can have no leverage in its diplomacy with Iran, therefore, no orderly exit from Iraq, without a working partnership with the surrounding, “moderate” regimes of the Arab League—regimes that could provide peace-keepers, investment capital, understanding journalists, and diplomatic cover.

Which brings us to the “Arab street.” Anyone who’s visited Fez or Tripoli or Amman knows that a burgeoning Arab middle class hungers for Westernization; they look at Dubai and Tehran and choose Dubai. But they are surrounded by restless, mainly under-educated people, governed by mosques and fathers where state security services leave off. World economic stresses will only make them more volatile. Obama’s is the face of a more progressive globalization but, as in Tehran in 1979, a throng can become a riot, a riot a movement. How many Al-Jazeera-projected images of new violence in Gaza, or South Lebanon, before crowds inflamed by western “materialism” try to storm the Israeli or American embassy in Cairo? How many times can Mubarak’s police fend them off before somebody gets killed—and retaliatory violence spreads to take down Mubarak’s regime itself?

3. The deal is not getting done, not because of psychological barriers, but because each side’s moderates are in an impossible political trap, which only great power intervention can spring them from. Everyone knows by now that Palestine is really two entities, a West Bank majority, nominally led by the Palestinian Authority—really by a secular business and professional class in Ramallah—and, an Islamist minority, centered in Gaza, and run by an arguably pragmatic but inarguably totalitarian Hamas. What we have yet to learn, however, is that Israel is, in effect, two entities, also.

There is a slim secular majority, a Hebrew-speaking republic, anchored by Tel-Aviv, hugging the coastal plain, and profiting increasingly from the global grid. This Israel is McCainish about security and the IDF, but skeptical of annexation of occupied territory. It is comparatively highly educated and instinctively cosmopolitan, vaguely committed to democratic norms—or at least to a “Jewish majority”—and therefore to a peace process. It can imagine a Palestinian state alongside.

But this same Israel is not at all sure its own one-fifth Arab minority will ever accept a “Jewish state” or is even sure what this means. And since 1967, its anachronistic “Zionist” settlement policies, and laws privileging orthodoxy, have engendered a huge Judean state-within-a-state, centered on Jerusalem, largely theocratic, and deeply implicated in West Bank settlements. Judea is less educated than the rest of Israel and instinctively more tribalist. “Judeans” are largely wards of the state: most disdain peace (that is, a return of a couple of million of Palestinian refugees to Greater Jerusalem) as the end of their way of life. Diaspora Jewish big-shots are mostly smitten by Judeans, whose religious and survivalist rhetoric they understand much better Tel-Aviv’s eclectic Hebrew culture.

And here is the trap. West Bank elites may want to see Hamas undermined, but they will not fight Hamas supporters for the sake of Israel. Secular Israelis, meanwhile, will not fight Judeans for the sake of Palestine. All fear the loss of social solidarity. Moderate leaders on both sides are particularly stuck: on both sides, the years of vendetta make cynicism about peace sound smart and brave; deterrence by intimidation—that is, the killing of each other’s civilians to discredit the other side’s policies—seems the only way to get “quiet.” But when you consider that one quarter of Israeli first graders are Arabs, and another quarter are ultraOrthodox of various kinds, it is easier to anticipate a future of ethnic cleansing than quiet.

(Part Two, which considers what steps the Obama administration might take, will be posted on Sunday.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Speech: A Simple Gift

Sometime in the mid-1980s, my friend Chris Lydon, his eyes glowing and finally tearful, told me that he had joined the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Born a Catholic, raised to be erudite and free, he had been searching. The pastor, the Rev. Michael Haynes, once a friend of Martin Luther King, had gradually become his spiritual guide. Chris did not quite know how to explain this, and I did not quite know how to interpret it, but he told me with conviction that he had been "saved." I suppose my envy was a kind of faith.

Over the years, after many visits to the church--often just to see Chris' white face singing, shining, swaying, in an otherwise black choir--the word saved began to make sense to me, though not in a way that would redeem any doctrine. We would sing how He lifts me up, or how He keeps on blessing me, and "saved" just meant melting into the terrible mystery you felt as the hymns swept over you, a mystery of courage, hope, love, justice--terrible because these things are gifts, terrible because they are true only when you are ready for them, which is not exactly when you need them.

The most memorable of these visits was Father's Day about eight or nine years ago. Sidra and I were in Boston and had come to the church, as it were, by chance. One young man after another, graduating, or just having finished a school year with ordinary success, came up to be blessed by Rev. Haynes, and to acknowledge the mentor in his life. The June air was thick, mostly with gratitude, which is the only thing you really need God for. And Father's Day was always particularly poignant for me, for it was the day my father was buried, the Sunday in 1971 after taking his own life. I stood there, watching those young men, thinking about the responsibilities they were assuming in the face of so many discouragements, and the humility that unlocked, of all things, their autonomy. I thought especially about the mysterious truths my father had not been ready for.

I HAVE JUST read a series of columns about how Barack Obama's inaugural speech was, well, disappointing; I am thinking about the Twelfth Baptist Church. I confess Obama's words--pouring through my laptop on a tense Jerusalem evening--had me riveted, speechless, much the way that Father's Day did. I suppose we could have done without "rising tides" and "still waters," which came (alas) at the beginning. But like Chris' word saved, Obama's other very familiar words, "responsibility," "common good," seemed true, faithful, something hard won by a young man who, wondering about what to make of Father's Day himself, had put away childish things at a young age; who realized that, for him, soldiers fought, for him, marchers marched, for him, mothers scrambled.

The speech, some note, had no memorable lines, which is what others said about the speech on race. For me what was memorable was the plain struggle between the lines: the relief of a plain sermon, simplicity after complexity. I thought about Obama, like Chris (like me), rediscovering simple gifts. I thought about the way Rev. Haynes mixed unabashed political exhoratations with unabashed moral exhortations; how he put away childish things, like the need to say something memorable, because there was no point saying anything just once, or to people not yet ready to be saved.

Chris once told me that its black churches are the secret heart of America. The secret is out. In Dreams From My Father, Obama admits to crying for the first time, standing in church, finding commonwealth in the pews. The cadences and themes--and criticisms and cliches--of Obama's speech would have been inconceivable without those pews, I believe. The reinvention of America, and its global responsibilities, would be inconceivable, too.

Nail On The Head

She says: "His mother's white." 
He says: "So accordingly to Halacha he's white."

(Amos Biderman, this morning's Haaretz) 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Apocalypse Now?

How is it that Israelis, as Ethan Bronner reports, are almost universally in favor of the Gaza operation, including the way it's been prosecuted, while government leaders and educated people around the globe, even those disgusted by Hamas missile attacks, condemn the operation, and especially the way it's been prosecuted?

What's so strange, as veteran Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy rails, is that ordinary Israelis know as well as anybody that hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including perhaps 300 children, have been killed or maimed, and yet this horror has not become a significant part of public debate. For a small minority of peace activists, even a few people in the south, the price in blood has seemed much too high for ending random missile attacks. But most will argue, not entirely convincingly, for humanitarian relief—and then spur on the IDF. 

Israelis, I hasten to add, are as sickened and frightened by military violence as the rest of the world is, even by their own. They may feel a superficial pleasure in retaliation for the missiles, or a satisfied relief in seeing the IDF perform in a coordinated, disciplined way, but they are not immune to doubts. There were two blockbuster films over the last couple of years, both anti-war films lamenting actions in Lebanon, "Beaufort" and the throat-clenching "Waltz With Bashir." My Palestinian friends will cringe when I say this, but most Israelis think of Israeli soldiers as children, too.

Ron Ben-Yishai, the veteran war correspondent whose revulsion over Sabra and Shatila was featured in “Waltz With Bashir,” now supports keeping up "the pressure." One young soldier, interviewed this week on the radio, spoke with obvious sadness and compunction—but also with grim determination—about blowing up houses on the edge of Gaza city. He said, haltingly, that he feels he has had to harden his heart: "If it is their house or my house, I suppose I have to destroy their house," he said. 

HOW COULD THE vast majority of Israelis feel it morally defensible to take actions bound to result in the deaths of so many kids; how for the sake of gains everybody assumes will be, in the grand scheme of things, tactical and temporary?

There is a big clue in that soldier's apocalyptic language. Israelis speak about this operation entirely in terms of Hamas' capabilities. Israelis are asking: Do you not see that any pain they have the capability to inflict on us they will inflict, sooner or later, so we have to go after those capabilities, if not once and for all, then now, while we can? Have you not looked at their covenant? Can you not see how their Iranian patron is arming them? Israelis are intrigued by levels of Hamas' motivation, but never by Palestinian motives more generally. The latter are not ever mentioned because they are assumed to be irrelevant to the confrontation in Gaza. It is their house or our house.

Think about this. Occupation, preventive detentions, 300,000 settlers, the annexation and walling off of East Jerusalem, checkpoints, house demolitions, economic collapse, Gaza becoming Somalia—all the things that all Palestinians care about all the time, all the things that people abroad cannot get out of their minds—all irrelevant. Forget for a moment what Hamas is. The point is, for most Israelis nothing Hamas says—i.e., lift the siege, negotiate a “hundred year cease-fire,” subject any deal to a referendum—can be responded to by diplomatic or other means. Their sad choice, most Israelis think, is to attack Hamas, even at the expense of mauling Gaza’s citizens. Their vague goal—as Tom Friedman surmises, a little too much like King David counting up enemy foreskins—is that although the attack will redouble hatred for Israel , it will significantly raise levels of resentment for Hamas. Hell, hatred for Israel is absolute anyway.

WHY APOCALYPSE, of all times, now, when Israel’s military power seems so incomparable? Why extend the vendetta culture in which Hamas thrives?

What needs to be understood—and Israelis themselves don’t see this easily—is that Hamas’ professed commitment to Israel’s destruction torments a kind of collective unconscious. Any Palestinian threat seems an “existential” one. I am not referring here to some “holocaust complex” outsiders like to go on about (though, God knows, filtered memories of the European genocide are in the emotional background). Nor do Israelis fear that they could never make restitution to Palestinians for dispossession, for the Naqba, though this fear brings us closer to the truth. I am referring to something more actual, a kind of projection from everyday knowledge of Israel’s political and legal structure, which Israelis feel protective (if not vaguely guilty) about—a structure they rightly suppose no self-respecting Palestinian could ever accept.

Israelis, you see, ask another question, which is not at all about Gaza: How can we have a Jewish state if this cannot really accommodate non-Jewish citizens? Is it not obvious that, in the end of ends, they just don’t want us here? One can challenge Israelis on what Palestianians mean by "want" and "here." The great problem is that Israelis themselves don't really know what they mean by "us." This makes public debate increasingly defensive, frustrated, strident. It makes politics dangerous.

IT IS NO accident that—just last week, as the Gaza attack raged—Israeli Arabs took to the streets, while a majority of Knesset parties, including Kadima, voted to strip the Arab parties of the right to participate in the upcoming elections (a right, most agree, the High Court will restore).  For the growing discomfort of Israeli Jews with the country's Arab citizens, and vice versa, is very much reflected in Israel's fierce response in Gaza. The prosecution of this attack suggests, not just a fear of some next crisis, but of the chronic crisis; the presumed challenge to Israel always waiting around the bend, causing Israelis to prove—so they think—that they have overwhelming staying power.

What is the crime these Arab parties have committed? They insist on Israel being "a state of its citizens," not a "Jewish and democratic state." To foreign ears, this sounds like a distinction without a difference. Why not a democratic state, patently Jewish insofar as it is Hebrew-speaking, much like France is “French.” But since 1948, Israelis have allowed "Jewish state” to evolve in curious ways: most land is reserved for “Jewish settlement,” the state gives the orthodox rabbinate control over marriage and aspects of citizenship, the whole of Jerusalem is decreed a Jewish patrimony, and so forth.  (I take this all up in The Hebrew Republic.)

While the Arab minority, 20% of the population, has been marginalized, Israel has spawned a kind of Judean settler state around Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israelis are reluctant to confront for the sake of Palestinians. For most, the word democracy has come to mean, more than anything else, maintaining “a Jewish majority.”

And this Jewish state, Israelis know in a day-to-day kind of way, is something that they would reject if they were in the shoes of Israeli Arabs. Lurking behind this knowledge is the not unreasonable fear that any peace they make with the Palestinians will unravel as the rejection of Israel by its own Arab citizens unspools.

Sadly, you see, Israelis see their Jewish state as a bone in the throat of Palestinians, not just historically, but still. They feel themselves, increasingly, in a desperate “existential” fight where no holds are barred now, because no holds will be barred later. Show weakness about what is yours, and you are a baby-step away from Bosnia. Which is, of course, what Serbians thought, and how "Bosnia" began.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Playing Into The Hands Of Hamas


The following comment, which Sam Bahour and I wrote for this morning's Haaretz, suggests reasons for the rise of Hamas but, more important, is an implicit appeal for common ground.

Israel and Hamas are not equals on the battlefield - not at all, clearly - and when the power to harm or control others is this uneven, it is meaningless to speak about moral symmetry. But as the current onslaught in Gaza unfolds, it is sadly evident that both sides are continuing to respond to real provocations in ways that are not morally right, or even politically smart.

If Hamas thought that lobbing missiles into Israeli civilian neighborhoods was a decent or proportionate response to the grim realities of the occupation, they were wrong. On the other hand, if Israel thinks it can bludgeon the Palestinians into political surrender, or get Hamas - or the Palestinian community at large, for that matter - to acquiesce to military occupation then it, too, is wrong.

There is no military solution to this conflict. Until both sides fully grasp this, the world can expect only continuing violence and vendetta, with civilians on both sides paying the price for leaders who - because of pressure, ambition or hubris - feel that they must do the most damage, fire the last shot or make the most credible threat. Indeed, it is sad, and repellent, to hear military correspondents speak of "teaching a lesson," "increasing pressure," "making a statement," achieving "deterrence," when those they are reporting on are really trying to control the news cycle, or win arguable (and in any case temporary) psychological advantage, by killing, or accepting the deaths of, people at random on the other side.

Operation Cast Lead - the heart-wrenching death and wanton destruction the Israeli army is inflicting on Gaza as we write - is the product of just such thinking. In the first week, Israeli air raids killed over 500 people, many of them non-combatants; invading ground forces have now killed 100 more. Israelis knew in advance that Hamas forces are not a regular army; they will not come out of hiding and be mowed down like soldiers in World War I. To go after them effectively, in, of all places, the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on earth, the IDF would have to level its towns and cities, block by block, and intensify the nightmare of the Gazan population, more than half of which is children under the age of 15.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Man o'War

A young woman awakening to the first sources of her grief, while her scorned, scorning mother and Tomcat father watch guiltily (as parents must) from the margin; a photographer tripping endlessly over her talent; a Russian-immigrant groom trying to appease his unrealized bride, whose poetic lava will need morbidity to be released; a poised, erotically charged woman looking for the words to die; a caregiver from the Philippines, pining for her son back home, attending to an (ostensibly) implacable, sickly woman, whose daughter drifts into a performance of Hamlet, directed by a Arab, caught in a somewhat slanted avant-garde; an adorable she-child, dripping from the ocean, lost.  These are the unlikely, vivid dots connected by Shira Gefen's and Etgar Keret's stunning film "Jellyfish."

Actually, the film is called Meduzot in Hebrew, which like the English Man o'War implies the pervasive danger of a sting. You cannot see the film and not wonder if Tel-Aviv has become the new capital of an Eastern European ghost country; a city of angular, socialist architecture, housing budding bourgeois loneliness, what we use to call "alienation"; where political ideology, no longer worth debating, leaves a toxin whose symptom is anger. And yet a city where, if unexploded sadness is the problem, the artful, brilliant embrace of sadness is the solution. 

Jung said the pathway to love is through grief, which is almost always over childhood wounds: our unforgettable hunger for a mother's humility, or a father's cheek; pains that can never be banished but can eventually be borne, at least if we have the privilege of adulthood.

"Jellyfish" gives us the divine redemption of love in, of all ways, a secular film produced in the Jewish state. In these days when the anger seems so turned outward, it is perversely reassuring to know that it can also be turned inward. So see "Jellyfish" and then be brave: think about over 100 children killed in Gaza. Or be braver: think about what children see and feel and remember.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rocket Science

You’d need a slightly robotic view of human beings to believe this, but let’s say Hamas’ acts of terror, from suicide bombing to indiscriminate missile attacks, are the pure expression of a closed circle of jihadists, whose fanatic, intractable views are more or less conveyed by the organization’s charter: that the “land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [trust] consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day,” that Islam must “obliterate Israel,” and “all initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”

Think of Hamas’ message as code—as the Darwinist digerati say, a “meme”—that spreads and replicates itself under given conditions. Suppose that no peace process can survive its triumph, and that not only Israelis, but West Bank leaders and professionals, moderate pro-Western Arab regimes, Americans and Europeans—all advocates of civil society—have an interest in seeing it defeated. How to fight it? Is Israel’s attack in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, a kind of awful therapy?

Let’s leave aside for the moment whether Israeli settlement organizations express a corresponding fanaticism, or whether Israeli forces have ever committed acts that might qualify as terror, killing Palestinians indiscriminately (or accepting random “collateral” deaths), or whether people who were once terrorists, or actively tolerated terrorism, from Yasser Arafat to Yitzhak Shamir, might eventually be transformed into responsible political figures. No, let’s default to an extreme Machiavellianism, subordinate being loved to being feared, and entertain the idea that Israel should obliterate Hamas before Hamas obliterates Israel. Would we not first ask under what conditions the Hamas meme seems to have spread?

TWENTY YEARS AGO, during the first intifada, Hamas was a miniscule Islamist organization, preaching a vague jihadism and just beginning to engage in suicide bombing and kidnapping. The vast majority of Palestinians were insisting on national representation by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had begun angling for a two-state solution. Palestinians in the territories militantly resisted the occupation, but tens of thousands still worked on Israeli construction sites, and their mass demonstrations were not, on the whole, lethal: Most young men and women threw rocks and the odd Molotov cocktail at heavily armed soldiers and tanks. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, afraid that a show of weakness would encourage resistance, adopted the “iron fist” policy of repressing the uprising, ordering his troops to “break the bones” of demonstrators—an order some soldiers took literally. Hamas stayed underground. As the Intifada wound-down, Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups flourished.

The Oslo process put Hamas into nearly total eclipse. Under Israeli pressure, Arafat’s Palestine Authority imprisoned Hamas activists. Israel, for its part, began to engage in targeted assassination of Hamas leaders, especially in Gaza. Yet Hamas was never wiped out because, throughout the Oslo process, neither side had any idea where peacemaking was leading. Jewish settlements never stopped; in fact, the number of settlers doubled, and annexationist activities in Jerusalem redoubled. The schools of the PA continued to glorify armed struggle.

In Gaza, where the Israel Defense Forces’ defense of Jewish settlements from periodic attacks trumped everything else, there were often border closings, and per capita income of Gazans plunged to about half of what it had been in the early 1990s. Fatah leaders of the PA enriched themselves, often claiming monopolies through their “ministries” of food and building commodities. Finally, in 2000, a new intifada erupted. 

Ariel Sharon tried another iron fist, which he called Operation Defensive Shield. He belittled the newly elected Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, deeming him too weak to govern, while more and more Palestinians saw Fatah as Quislings. By the winter of 2006—after Sharon was forced to evacuate Gaza, much as Rabin had been forced to recognize the PLO—Hamas was strong enough to eke out a victory in PA elections. Hamas leaders even became culture heroes to Arab citizens of Israel who were increasingly frustrated by the exclusionary way so many Israelis defined the Jewish state.

THIS HISTORICAL SKETCH is seriously incomplete, but some patterns are clear. The Hamas meme spread especially when Israelis attacked in Palestinian towns to “reestablish deterrence.” The idea that the disproportionate power of Israel’s occupation was ever doubted, or that Hamas acts of “martyrdom” came because its youth were simply not afraid enough of Jews, rests on the kind of primitive psychology you get from combat generals, neocons, and battered children.

Actually, Israel’s expansive power has always been a part of the Hamas message: The Hamas charter continues, “After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates.” And how could Israelis seriously expect ordinary Palestinians in their towns to turn off any Hamas insurgency just because they were getting battered?

Hamas ideology spread, moreover, when Israel insisted that the occupied territory of the West Bank was actually “disputed,” or tried to dissociate its evacuation from Gaza from what it was doing in the West Bank. Hamas influence spread when circles upon circles of grieving youth fought out of rage and survivors’ guilt. It spread when settlers seemed able to push Palestinians who would otherwise support a two-state solution into calls for steadfastness; or when jihadists were themselves able to push Israelis, who are increasingly skeptical of the settlements, into calls for national solidarity in the face of “existential threats.”

Hamas ideology spread, especially, when Israel sealed the Gaza border in a vain effort to starve the place of Hamas influence. It spread when Palestinian economic life seemed futile, or inevitably corrupt—when a fight to the finish seemed the only chance at a meaningful life. Why would Gazans feel beholden to Hamas’ tunnels if they had an open border, relief from grinding poverty, and business opportunities with West Bank partners?

MAKE NO MISTAKE, even under international law, Israel has the right to respond to missiles on Sderot and other southern towns. And if Israeli forces could wipe out Hamas in a great, terrible blow, killing only people set to kill Israelis, one could hardly blame the IDF for defending Israeli lives. A ground attack has just begun, but nobody in their right mind thinks this will end as a surgical strike, which will excise the whole of the Hamas leadership, and not utterly destroy many neighborhoods; already, much of Gaza city is without power; to kill Hamas extremist Nizar Rayyan, a bomb killed his four wives and nine of his children. It is most likely that Cast Lead will end in a monitored cease-fire, and that Israel will be satisfied to have made what one Sderot resident called “a statement.” Unfortunately, this statement helps Hamas, or its successor, make its case—not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank, and among Israeli Arabs as well.

The point is, the rise of Hamas is a cautionary tale about trying to do quickly with military force what needs to be done over a generation with reciprocity. All along, Israel might have made a strong statement of a different kind. It might have endorsed the obvious features a two-state solution, like the ones worked out with President Clinton just before he left office in 2001. It might have helped strengthen the Palestinians' immunity to Hamas ideology, creating a stronger civil society, new businesses, new schools, new Palestinian cooperation with international peace-keepers and investors. 

Israel might have meanwhile announced, say, that it can know the precise location from which each Hamas missile is launched, and that it would bomb that location exactly ten minutes after each launch, giving surrounding citizens a chance to flee—and creating a mounting incentive for civilians to resist Hamas cadres using their homes as cover. One can think of any number of creative ideas that project strength, decency, and hope. This is not, well, rocket science.

(This post appeared first in The Daily Beast.)