Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Switching Gears

We are off to New Hampshire for the summer, where I'll be refocusing on the electric car: its commercial "ecosystem," the implications for public policy, and so forth--about which more soon. Watch this space also for updates and reflections on Obama's Middle East peace initiative as seen from the other side of the world.

If you've been thinking about becoming an email subscriber, you might pull the trigger. I expect posts will be more infrequent during the summer. Also, if you'd like to drop a line with suggestions, or simply to tell me how the blog is working for you, I'd be grateful: bernard.avishai@gmail.com.

I confess I am looking forward to spending time in America, to feeling the ambient pressure of ordinary liberalism, rather than the pressure of heroic solidarity. At the same time, I shall miss the narrowing instances of their combination, as captured in this marvelous poem by Lea Goldberg:

Is it true - will there ever come days of forgiveness and mercy?
And you'll walk in the field, and it will be an innocent's walk.
And your feet on the medick's small leaves will be gently caressing,
And sweet will be stings, when you're stung by the rye's broken stalks!

And the drizzle will catch you in pounding raindrops' folly
On your shoulders, your breast and your neck, while your mind will be clean,
You will walk the wet field, and the silence will fill you -
As does light in a dark cloud's rim

And you'll breathe in the furrow in breaths calm and even,
And the pond's golden mirror will show you the Sun up above,
And once more all the things will be simple, and present, and living,
And once more you will love - yes, you will, yes, once more you will love!

You will walk. All alone. Never hurt by the blazing inferno
Of the fires on the roads fed by horrors too awful to stand,
And in your heart of hearts you'll be able to humbly surrender,
In the way of the weeds, in the way of free men.


You can hear Chava Alberstein's wonderful rendition of this song-poem here. Take the time: it is lovely. (My thanks to Ganze Jahr Freylach, whose translation I am poaching.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Al-Safa, June 27, 2009

This, from my friend David Shulman, an activist in the Israeli-Palestinian peace group Ta'ayush, who has written widely about acts of witness in the South Hebron hills--including in this blog:

While Prime Minister Netanyahu scoffs at Ahmedinajad’s beatings of peaceful demonstrators, here is what happened yesterday, in broad daylight, at the village of al-Safa, inside occupied Palestinian territory. I am reporting the testimony of Dr. Amiel Vardi, and many other supporting testimonies. There is graphic photographic documentation, including a live video clip, which can be seen here. The pictures seen here are part of a series that can be viewed at this Flickr site.

Further photographic evidence will become available within the next day or two. (Israel has so far not resorted to blocking internet sites.) What Amiel reports is incontrovertible.

The activists arrived in the morning at al-Safa to accompany Palestinian farmers to their fields, since it is nearly impossible for these farmers to work their land without the physical protection of Israelis: violent settlers from nearby Bat 'Ayin invariably attack the farmers and chase them away. This time, however, the army and Border Police were waiting, in force—dozens of soldiers (the Border Police are part of the army), including two Brigade Commanders. As usual, they declared the area a Closed Military Zone.

But they also immediately arrested the activists and then attacked several of them brutally with fists, rifle butts, and other weapons. They rammed their heads repeatedly against the sides of the military jeeps (you can see this clearly on the Walla video). They severely beat the detainees while the latter were hand-cuffed and defenseless. Even worse, they continued to beat them while transporting them to the police station—stopping the jeeps on the way and attacking their helpless prisoners with clubs. One Palestinian activist, Yusuf Abu-Maria, suffered a broken leg. An Israeli activist, Sahar, had her armed savagely twisted, though fortunately not broken. Many were injured.

Incidentally, while this was going on, settlers from Bat 'Ayin set fire to Palestinian olive trees only a few hundred yards away; but of course the soldiers saw no reason to interfere.

This was not random violence. It’s the kind of thing that is directed routinely at Palestinian detainees, but this is perhaps the first time Israeli activists have been assaulted so brutally. The sense is that the Border Policemen were acting under direct, premeditated orders. The two Brigade Commanders—the senior officer in this zone, commander of the Etzion Brigade, and the commander of the Kfir Brigade— stood there overseeing the assault. Perhaps they had their orders from above. Internal Security in Israel is now under the direct control of the proto-Fascist party of Lieberman, the Foreign Minister.

Let no one claim that such things happen only in places like Iran but never in Israel. Let no one claim that Israel is an enlightened, free country, the very opposite of places like Iran. Let no one claim that the Israeli army is incapable of inhuman cruelty inflicted on innocent victims, whether they are Palestinian civilians or Israelis demonstrating peacefully against the occupation. Already now, as I write, the system Israel has put in place in the occupied territories is barbaric, in every sense of the word. Unless there is massive international pressure and effective protest, that system is not about to go away. Indeed, in the meantime, things are getting worse, on the ground, day by day.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Presence Of Justice - The Sequel

I noted back in March that Israel's High Court of Justice has been the only firewall Israel has against encroachments on civil liberties; that defenders of human rights have relied, in effect, on a self-perpetuating community of liberal-democratic jurists, enjoying (by means of law and precedent) the ability to remain self-perpetuating. (Former Justice Aharon Barak gave voice to the unique status of the court rather poignantly a couple of days ago, when he argued that Israel must be, after all, "a state of its citizens," code for the equality of Arab citizens--which caused a storm of criticism.)

Two votes in the Likud-controlled Knesset this past couple of weeks will almost certainly end this run of liberal-democratic jurists. Think of it as a quiet coup by the Judeans. The first is the appointment of Uri Ariel of the Kahanist National Union to the Judicial Appointments Committee. "As of today," writes Haaretz's Yossi Verter, "the committee has a bloc of four rightist and radical-right politicians, including Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman. All they need is a fifth member, probably one of the Israel Bar Association's two representatives, and they will have a majority on the committee and be able to do as they please. The three Supreme Court justices on the panel will become a negligible minority."

The second vote is an amendment that will require a majority of seven out of nine members of the Judicial Appointments Committee. If the amendment becomes law, which it almost certainly will, the government will have, in effect, a veto over appointments to Israel’s highest court, "the most significant change," says the Israel Policy Center, "in the balance of power between the branches of Israel’s government since the current system of judicial appointments was put in place in 1953."

Friday, June 26, 2009

State Of The Jewish People? Yes and No.

The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as "the state of the Jewish people" has at least three layers to it: The first is symbolic, without practical significance, and understandable. The second is partly symbolic, is meant to have future practical significance, and is contentious (though resolvable). The third, however, is legal, has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian (or democrat, for that matter) unacceptable. It is time to stop working through symbols and start saying what we mean.

1. Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust--a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries--that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism's DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.

When Palestinians say they recognize "Israel," they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging, to paraphrase Irving Howe, the name of our desire. At the most visceral level, when Israelis insist Israel be recognized as Jewish, they mean they want this narrative recognized, the same way they implicitly acknowledge the peculiar formative sufferings of Palestinians at the hands of Zionism when they say "Palestinians" and mean "not Jordanians or southern Syrians." When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way.

2. Why is this not enough? Because, claims Netanyahu (like Olmert and Livni before him), in any negotiation with the Palestinians it must be understood in advance that there can be no "right of return" for Palestinians to Israel--that accepting this formulation, "the state of the Jewish people," really means precluding a flood of Palestinian refugees into Israel's borders and onto its electoral roles.

But the claim is false and puts a stumbling block where a pathway needs to be cleared. You can obviously find a formulation for the refugees which does not ruin Israel's Hebrew character; one that preserves "the right of return" as a seminal piece of the Palestinians' narrative, the name of their desire. You can say the refugees have a right of return to their homes but that the forms of compensation, the number, etc., must be agreeable to Israel, and that, in any case, the vast majority will exercise that right by returning to the Palestinian state. The contradiction between "the recognition of Israel" and "the right of return" may sound impossible to resolve. In fact, it has already been resolved at Taba in January 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little tact will do?

3. Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase, "state of the Jewish people," also has legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); ramifications that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of Zionist ideas over two generations and which seriously impinge on democratic standards. It is one thing to think of Israel as a democratic republic whose citizens speak a dominant language inflected by Jewish nuances--you know, poetic allusions to classical Jewish texts and liturgy and the like. It is quite another to think of Israel as state that represents, or embodies privileges in law for, certified members of a world Jewish people:

I mean (as I've said often before) a state that allocates land almost exclusively to certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the material well-being of certified Jews, appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, founds an educational system to produce certified Jews, assumes a sacred capital to be a kind of theme park for the world's certified Jews--indeed, a state that presumes to certify Jews in the first place. Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this Jewish state. But then, neither can Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts. I, for one, do not.

By the way, if you want a poster-child for this creepy, growing Israel within Israel, you could do worse than Natan Sharansky, who has just been "elected" president of the Jewish Agency; a man who preaches Jeffersonian democracy to the world, but whose conception of democracy in Israel is, shall we say, squishy Rousseauian; a General Will interpreted by, well, generals.

"We're in a world where Jews are losing their identity," Sharansky says, "Israel and world Jewry are like receding galaxies, floating apart at a time when contact is easier than ever...Abroad there is the problem of assimilation, but in Israel, too, young Jews are growing away from their roots...The Jewish Agency is [a] meeting place, the ideal tool for developing that connection."

The disease that presumes itself the cure.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Military Intelligence

As I write, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of mainly young Iranians are deciding whether or not to risk going out into the streets. There is little someone like myself can add regarding the poignancy of their decision. Yet one thing seems obvious: a generation of Iranians has been changed by these rallies--changed in roughly the opposite way they would have been had Israeli military intelligence got its way, and won American and IDF agreement to an aerial strike on Iranian nuclear facilities earlier this year.

Even in the face of mass protest, not only did Mossad chief Meir Dagan refuse to admit the obvious--that an attack would have caused widespread carnage, put Iran on a war footing, and preempted its twittering liberalism--but he's had the audacity to predict to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee what nobody could possibly know at this point, that the protests will peter out; that, anyway, a Mousavi government would be worse than Ahmadinejad's regime, for it would give Iran's nuclear program a prettier face. ("To hell with those students; the PowerPoint is done.")

Still, it is not military planners like Dagan who seem reprehensible to me. It is the politicians and writers who channel them. We pay people like Dagan to sum the weapons of potential enemies and come up with ways to foil them. (The only reason we'll be able to live with a nuclear Iran, should this become necessary, is because military planners will have figured out how to position Israel's own nuclear deterrent.) And Dagan's main job is to think like a "made man," turning worst case contingencies into scenarios, and scenarios into "predictions." Mossad people say they also look at motive, not just capability. But who doesn't know how easily military people assume that capability translates into motive, much the way economists assume big money translates into investment. Motive? We are not talking about James Joyce here.

On the other hand, nothing seems more irresponsible to me than politicians and political analysts who lack the poise to stand up to military intelligence when important policy decisions are taking shape; politicians so eager to prove that they are not still trusting children that they remain forever sophomoric, defining the world as a test of wills, fearing (as Orwell did in "Shooting an Elephant") looking like a fool; writers so eager to prove that they are not just brainy wimps that they hang out with, and flaunt being respected by, officers.

So before the moment passes, we should give thanks that, owing (among other things) to McCain's defeat, this was one attack that never took place--and now never will, since it is obvious, even to the mullahs, I suspect, how the regime can simply be waited out, much the way Communist regimes were waited out; how they have lost the young.

And before the next moment of crisis, we should not fail to note some of the most irresponsible journalism of the last couple of years: Benny Morris' call for a limited nuclear strike last July, and, more recently, Jeffery Goldberg's implied endorsement of some kind of attack. (Both were given enormous space in, of all places, the New York Times op-ed section, so the editors should probably be remembered, too.) And who can forget Haaretz's Arie Shavit, who is silent about Iran this week, but is already taking credit instead for Netanyhu's policy of a demilitarized Palestine?

This accounting may seem small of me, but the celebrity culture being what it is, the periodic violence of extremists being what it is--and the fears summoned by ordinary neurosis being what they are--these writers will no doubt hang on nicely, cultivating their reputation for toughness (though Goldberg, to his credit, is repulsed by Dagan's statements, and seems to have come around to the idea that warning against the reckless use of force is not the same as weakness). Anyway, there is often credit for talking tough, while warning against violence is thankless. Just not at this moment, surely, and not in this case.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Presidents And The Middle East

The last word on why President Obama can do what none since Eisenhower could--or would.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Coda On The Speech

Perhaps the most depressing thing about it is how much it reminds one of Menachem Begin's response to Anwar Sadat in 1977. You get the feeling that the words are not simply tactical but come from Netanyahu's deepest convictions. Yes, he has declared a willingness to entertain the idea of a Palestinian state, so long as it is demilitarized. (For the record, Palestinian leaders in Fatah and the West Bank have never made an issue about having an army big enough to pose a threat to Israel--again, read the Geneva Initiative--and have often called for international forces to replace the IDF.) But he couched the point in Revisionist historical rhetoric that seems more an effort to wrest key Congresspeople from Obama than address the Arab world. My friend Sam Bahour in Ramallah told me he thought perhaps Hamas had written the speech, for all the good it would do Abbas.

Netanyahu has put, as Begin put, so many conditions on getting to a Palestinian state that one can understand the reluctance of Palestinian negotiators to get back in the room: recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people (readers of this blog do not require me to elaborate on why, as stated, this is impossible), Jerusalem, united, as the capital of Israel, natural growth of settlements, and so forth. Television commentators here immediately pronounced the speech a concession to Washington, at the same time as wondering if Washington will buy it. My unsolicited advise to Obama and Mitchell: put the speech in your pocket, declare it a breakthrough, and (as I said yesterday) start presenting details of a deal without imagining that negotiations will produce one.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Total Settlement Freeze? No, A Border.

Anticipating Bibi's speech, his coalition partners and Likud officials are flooding Israeli radio with interviews, insisting that settlements are not an obstacle to peace; that “natural growth” is, well, natural (“should parents tell their children they have to live elsewhere?”). Their claims will strike the ears of informed Americans the way old cigarette commercials do. You blush for people who think others this gullible, or wishful, or hooked. For my part, I have been waiting for an American government to insist on a total settlements freeze for over 30 years. One didn’t have to be a genius to see the danger.

Still, there is something about the anticipated stand-off between Netanyahu and the Obama administration that makes me queasy. Had Ronald Reagan, following Jimmy Carter's lead, demanded a total freeze in 1980, then we would have had something. Today the demand reminds me of the Steve Martin bit about the implacable customer at a restaurant who, having waited too long for his dinner, complains to the maître d' that he can be appeased only by being served his steak “15 minutes ago.”

Sure, Obama needs to make a clear break with the past, indeed, to make a show of force to Israeli rightists. But insisting on a total freeze today, when settlements have turned into substantial towns full of mobilized youth—towns whose residents should be understood as on a scale somewhere between Pat Robertson and David Koresh—seems false. The real goal is a fair, recognized border between two states as soon as possible, so that both sides will know how to plan. Focusing on a total freeze means insisting on the symbol, which cannot seriously be delivered, and deferring the fight over what is symbolized, which will require a hard line from America and the world anyway.

We are supposed to be telling truth to one another, you see, and the truth about these goddamn settlements is that the June 4, 1967 border is no longer feasible, even if the principle of setting a border on the basis of June 4th. is. The only hope is for America to come out, now, for the principle of a 1:1 land swap to achieve geographical area for Israel and Palestine equal to what existed on June 4; to appoint an international commission to suggest a map. This map will need time to sink in. And it will be a way to reconcile the Arab League peace initiative to the difficulties of moving settlers back into Israel.

OUT OF THE half million Israelis who live over the Green Line, about 400,000 live in densely packed communities, more or less contiguous with Israel (like Gush Etzion), or in suburbs of Jerusalem (like Gilo). Some 75-100,000 live in outlying settlements scattered around Hebron and between Ramallah and Nablus. It is these latter settlers who will have to be returned to Israel. The former are obviously staying put.

But just getting the outliers resettled will take years, just like moderating Hamas and rehabilitating the Palestine Authority, reviving Gaza, and so forth, will take years. The IDF and Israeli police could never muster enough boots on the ground to simply move these settlers by force—anyway, a good part of the IDF’s officers sympathize with settlement. If the government tried force, even just to halt construction in Gush Etzion, the settlers would almost certainly commit provocations against neighboring Palestinians that would get Israel’s Arab citizens up in arms. In this polarized situation, we’d be a step away from Balkan-style violence.

Indeed, to get these people out eventually, you have to 1) politically marginalize them, that is, create a conflict of interest between settlers who fall within an agreed border and those more fanatic types falling outside it; 2) induce them to return to agreed settlements or to within the Green Line with time-limited financial compensation; 3) threaten them with power and water cuts on this or that date; and, these measures failing, 4) remove them by siege and, if necessary, force. This is going to be very hard. The IDF should require NATO forces to replace its own forces as it withdraws.

In other words, Obama should use the dispute over a settlements freeze as an occasion to rally the world community to drawing up a permanent border, something along the lines of the one offered in the Geneva Initiative, where Palestinian representatives and Israel peace activists themselves understood the need for a new border—and international forces to help secure it. Obama should make clear that a border is not Israel’s internal affair. That, for example, the world will never recognize the town of Ariel as part of a future Israel (Olmert insisted that it is, which is among the reasons his talks with Abbas went nowhere). A strong sense of where America wants the border would be an early win for the peace process, which could unlock many other possibilities.

I KNOW THAT my Palestinian friends will find anything less than a total freeze infuriating. Every new apartment feels like a new slap in the face, a continuing insinuation that their tragedy doesn’t matter or never happened. In this sense the settlements are not just an obstacle to peace but the continuing cause for hatred and war. After all, Israel conquered something like an area equal to the West Bank during the 1948 war, declared its 400 Arab villages abandoned and more or less leveled them, preventing its 750,000 residents from returning. It then settled the new lands with about a million and half Jewish refugees of its own: survivors from Europe and people expelled from Arab states. In the 1920s and 30s, land purchases by the Jewish National Fund from absentee landlords—for example, from Beirut's Sursok family in the Valley of Jezreel—led to the displacement of tens of thousands of farmer peasants.

So according to the Palestinians, or shall we say (in nice post-modern language) the Palestinian narrative, the settlement project since 1967 only seems more of the same. Likud people, for their part, respond that there were no West Bank settlements before 1967, and Arab countries threatened attack anyway—as if Israelis were ever reconciled to Palestinian rights when Palestinians did not prove that they could not be overwhelmed militarily. Likud people also insist that if the Zionists are wrong to settle around Hebron now then they were wrong to settle around Haifa in the 1930s—a view breathtaking in its shallowness. As I've implied here before, we’d cheer Javert for hunting down Jean Valjean if, after the latter became a mayor, he continued stealing candlesticks.

NEVERTHELESS, VIRTUALLY ALL Palestinians I know are prepared to say what Obama said, that, tragically, the Naqba resulted from the Jews’ European tragedy, and that they will compromise on the 1967 border—so long as a way can be found to compensate and resettle the original refugees of 1948 in a Palestinian state—indeed, so long as the futures of Israel and Palestine are linked to larger federal arrangements. These two city-states cannot be disentangled economically or in almost any other way. We need a border even if five years after it is drawn hardly anyone will care where it is, except when elections are called.

And Obama is right to prevent any new settlement projects from being added to the 160 that already exist—right to insist that Israel remove new outposts, or prevent building that fills in the gaps between existing settlements; prevent projects that compromise still further East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Yet it is unimaginable to get a total construction freeze across the Green Line today. We need a border and we cannot depend on new negotiations to produce it. The original border between Israel and the aborted Palestinian state was produced by UNSCOP, not by negotiation. Something like a new international commission, reporting to George Mitchell, should go to work. The Roadmap is fine and well, but what good is it without a driver?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

People Of The Blog

Haaretz tried something this morning that feels curiously right in unexpected ways. To celebrate "Hebrew Book Week," the paper asked a dozen or so of Israel's best selling writers, Yoram Kaniuk, David Grossman, Etgar Keret, to go out and cover something. The result feels both reassuringly retro and visionary at the same time.

Retro, because the radically secular implication of Hebrew culture is not so easily taken for granted these days. When Netanyahu says "Jewish state," and both Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef and Las Vegas spiritual leader Sheldon Adelson nod approvingly, I know I am in trouble. Actually, the very name of the week in question implicitly acknowledges a continuing (dare I say Zionist?) delight in the sheer novelty of a Jewish experience grounded in an inclusive national language. Which is why Israelis still celebrate "Hebrew Book Week," after all--something like the French ordering French fries. Adam Lebor captures this celebration in his lovely piece about Tel-Aviv in the current Condé Nast Traveler.

But there is another remarkable thing about the paper this morning. It reads like a bundle of fine blog posts. There is voice and creative engagement in these pieces, which does not mean a want of facts or rules of evidence. As Ram Oren put it on Israeli radio this morning, we have a hundred ways of getting (and Twittering) breaking news qua happenings: the Supreme Court issued this ruling, the earthquake was this number on the Richter scale. But getting at the truth is another matter, and a writer has to ask, as Oren asks (using a somewhat materialist phrase, but never mind), "what is the value-added?" Haaretz did not quite ask that question this morning. But I suspect that, if it will still be here 10 years from now, it has given us a peek at the way it will survive.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Doing The Numbers: Obama's Window

The many questions in Yediot Aharonot's weekend poll gives us a feel for Israeli society, much like many touches give the blind man a feel for the elephant. My friend Jo-Ann Mort suggests that the key finding is a solid majority for evacuation of settlements; and its is true, and reassuring, that by 52% to 43%, respondents now actually favor a "freeze." But I think we might keep feeling around.

The responses do reveal Obama's window of opportunity. But the window is small and it will take consistent outside power, hard and soft, to pry it open. The questions are themselves a kind of code. The responses reveal a deeply divided country that would prefer not to confront its own divisions.

FIRST, THE BAD news. About 54% approve "natural growth" in the more than 150 settlements that already exist. So saying "freeze" new settlements may simply mean no new settlements are necessary to consolidate Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories, whatever the fate of this presence proves to be. Besides, the majority for a freeze, like the minority against "natural growth," includes Arab respondents. If we are speaking of Israeli Jews alone, the numbers are more discouraging.

To the question, "Should the illegal outposts be evacuated?," 70% say yes and 25%, no. Think of the latter number as the core of the hard right, people who will turn on Netanyahu as readily as they turned on Ariel Sharon if the settlement project is put in jeopardy. When you eliminate Arab respondents, you can assume about a third of Jews. The larger right, about 41%, says Israel should "not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal." Think of them as a layer of reactionaries added to the ideologues.

We are not looking here at Pollster.com data about, say, whether Virginia will fall into the blue column. This is not winner takes all. It is loser spoils everything. Israel's right is more like Serbia's in the 1980s than Virginia's in 2008. They live in a world apart. Some 12% say they will "resist" the evacuation of settlers. This is about a third of the third, 600,000 people, as many people as those who lived in the Palestinian Jewish Yishuv in 1948. They are armed. My working hypothesis, based on results of the recent election, is that these people disproportionately live in and around Jerusalem, the territories and in the development towns of the south.

WHICH BRINGS ME to the peace camp. To the question, "Should the birthrate in the settlements be taken under consideration and therefore allow construction for the sake of natural growth?," 54% say yes, 42% say no. The latter number is, in this case, the peace camp's core constituency, people who have come to regard the settlers and the orthodox as a threat to Israel's future and place in the world; they are unwilling to cut settlers any more slack. Their number is almost exactly equal to the 41% who say they are not "disappointed by Obama's policy towards Israel," and the 44% of those who say Netanyahu will "eventually agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

But we are speaking here mainly of people in the upper crust of the Tel-Aviv-to-Haifa corridor on the coastal plain, people with their face to America, Europe, and global opportunities. We are also speaking here of Arab citizens who, in a climate of tension, withdraw from ordinary politics entirely. Levels of cooperation between Israeli Jews and Arabs in political life remain slight, even in the peace camp, alas. If the right, opposing the government, provokes open violence, Israeli Arabs will themselves become violent and push the center to the right.

I have said often that the core constituency of the peace camp is very wary of directly confronting the core of the settlers and their sympathizers. The evidence for this fear is in the response to the vague question: "Is Obama's policy good for Israel?" This really translates as, Wouldn't you rather have a president like Bush who just loved us to crazy and helped us preserve the status quo? Some 53% say Obama is bad for Israel, and only 26% say good. There is an inchoate tension underlying this response, not a dispassionate assessment of whether the policy itself is right. There is no other way to explain why only 26% say Obama's policy is good, but some 55% say Israel should "agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal." (Again, take out Arabs and we are looking at a small minority of Jews eager for a confrontation.)

THE GOOD NEWS is really in the question, "Should Netanyahu acquiesce in Obama's demands or reject these even at the cost of sanctions?" Once the question is, in effect, What do you fear more, a confrontation with the settlers, or a world without America?, 56% say go with America. Note well: the rightist 40% say, fuck it, if America wants a showdown we'll give them one. The swing here, 15-20%, are mainly Russians, more educated Mizrahi Jews, and young people who otherwise imagine themselves strategic hardliners, but cannot imagine Israel as a Western pariah state.

And here, precisely, is Obama's opening. If he can maneuver Netanyahu into becoming, like Tzipi Livni, an advocate for preserving relations with America over any other concern--if Obama can, as he started to even before the Cairo speech, change Israel's national conversation from Iranian power to American power--he can at least hope to get a cooperative government that will enjoy majority support in the face of provocation from the violent minority.

If, for example, Obama and the Quartet can get Netanyahu to sign off on "two-states," which carries greater symbolic importance after Cairo, it seems almost inevitable that Netanhayu will give Livni what she wants to join a National Coalition. Among Kadima voters, 52% to 41%, would want Livni to join.

A unity government organized to respond to Obama will marginalize the hard right in the government, something that cannot be done in the streets--at least, not immediately. It will take a generation of shows of force by international troops and investors, of secular peace and economic growth, to thin out the Israeli right. Ditto Hamas. If Obama started a peace process in Cairo, this is it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama In Cairo: Going Meta

Immediately after President Obama's speech, Israeli television interviewed a strapping West Bank settler: "It was very professional," he said, "very well crafted. It focused brilliantly on the rights of man. But he also quoted the Talmud; and if he read that, then he knows that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel."

This curious response suggests why, yet again, Obama's instincts are better than mine.

You see, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of people like this. In the end they will have to be confronted. But though the end cannot be allowed to seem far away, the end is not the beginning. Why push people into a corner before showing them the corner--before showing them also the people who will be pushing with you? Why not take things in their natural sequence which allows everybody to adjust to the new reality?

Obama's problem, however, was that if he didn't do something dramatic, he ran the risk of losing the people he would need for his coalition even before he began to rally them--because so many presidents have made promises in the past (condemned settlements, called for a two-state solution) and then remembered something better they had to do. Obama, I thought, should not miss this chance to issue some concrete warning or present the elements of a concrete plan--something vivid to stand for the sincerity of his intention--to reassure people who had heard it all before, especially the people in the streets from Casablanca to Islamabad, who were after all the point of the exercise.

Of course there was another way to prove his sincerity, which hadn't really occurred to me. It was to frame the whole problem in such a subtle and honest--and vivid--way that nobody hearing the speech could doubt his sincerity; to go meta on the problem and make his intentions clear to anyone (that settler included, obviously) without needing to make threats or draw up plans. (The final deal is obvious, anyway.)

And it was foolish of me not to anticipate this solution, since this is exactly what he did with his speech on race. Obama is many things, but I'm coming to understand that he is, almost more than anything else, a natural teacher. He knows how to start from where his audience is and connect the dots. He knows the ring of truth. (Just to be sure, I called a couple of Palestinian friends who were skeptical when Obama was elected. They were deeply impressed--certainly enough to stay in the "process.")

The speech did have a few innovations, moreover, which were moving in the elegant way they broke taboos. Obama not only spoke about the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but did so in a way that laid the ground for eventually getting nuclear weapons out of the entire region, Israel included. He plausibly linked the toppling of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 with the kidnapping of American diplomats in 1979. He spoke of human rights and the rule of law in Egypt without appearing to undermine Mubarak. Obama said in a way that could not have offended Jews that the holocaust engendered a tragic injustice for the Palestinians. Finally, and most important, he made the justice of a Palestinian state seem an American interest without denying unbreakable links to Israel, that is, the state Israel would be once a deal is done.

It is a little frightening how indispensable this man is becoming.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Holy Jerusalem

Here is a little thought experiment. Imagine that both the Islamic world and the Palestinian nation suddenly agreed that the mosques on the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem's old city were not that holy after all; that the Jews were welcome to take them down and build a temple if they wanted to. Could Jews really want this? Okay, forget the animal sacrifices. I mean a temple that, whatever its rites, purports to be ground zero of divinity, the building of buildings on the spot of spots--the here and now of a holy of holies. If Jews believed in such things would they be practicing Judaism at all?

This is not a merely hypothetical question. Very few Jews speak seriously about rebuilding the temple in question, but very many--perhaps a majority--are deadly serious about the divinity of the mount in question. From the mayor on down, ordinary Jews in this city seem overwhelmed by the mount's gravitational pull. Close, it is said, matters only when playing at horseshoes, but close also matters greatly when playing at Jerusalem. Most reject out of hand any notion of surrendering Israeli sovereignty over the mount. They think next to nothing (to take just one example) of leveling the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in order to build a kind of biblical theme park close to the mount. Even secular writers say casuistic things like "there is no Zionism without Zion," Zion being the mount overlooking the mount. (In fact, the original halutzim, and Zionism's Emerson, Achad Haam, avoided the place, but never mind.)

JUST TO BE clear, I am not speaking here about "holy" in the garden-variety sense of being understandably valued, sacred in the way your dead father's tallis is sacred, or even possessing what Walter Benjamin called "aura." I don't mean a very, very important place of prayer, a place of utmost authenticity, a place whose stones and contours organize a collective experience that harkens back to a cherished remembered experience. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is holy for Christians in this sense: they don't know where Christ was actually crucified, but they know (as Mark Twain writes) where others before them acted as if they knew. It is good enough for pilgrims to follow in the footsteps of pilgrims.

Indeed, the Noble Sanctuary, whose gorgeous mosques still call the faithful to prayer, is holy even to vaguely secular Muslims in just this sense. Who knows exactly where Mohammed ascended to heaven? Nobody. But all know where generations since the 7th. century ascended to pray. Similarly, the Wailing Wall (whose sovereignty is not in dispute) is "holy" for most every Jew. The night my son was born, in June 1973, I myself cradled my head in its stones and shared my joy with my deceased parents. But I did not do so because I thought I was close to the destroyed ancient arc of the covenant. Rather, I thought I was close to the ghosts of the many Jews who had wept there before me, nursing their losses and mysterious hopes.

Anyway, Jews who claim the Temple Mount today mean holy in a more muscular sense than this. Their Psalmist's Hebrew often sounds like a mental straight-jacket. They imply that the soil of the mount carries traces of God's existence, like basements carry radon. They mean holy in the take-off-your-sandals sense of the word: objectively dangerous, not subjectively poignant. They mean something they are prepared to take on the whole world for, fight and die (and kill) for. Is this Judaism?

MY WIFE SIDRA DeKoven Ezrahi writes more eloquently about these matters than I can here. But even on their surface, her answers make you wonder where traditional Judaism has disappeared to, and how crazed Jerusalem is making its inhabitants. For Judaism, Sidra explains, has always been a religion of distance from the divine, a religion of substitutions. The synagogue is a mikdash m'at, a little temple, that stands-in for the place that is gone, the way debate over Jewish law stands-in for a divine intention, and the Torah stands-in for a God that--so the Torah says--cannot be seen face to face. To put things simply, perhaps a little melodramatically, if the ancient temple were to magically appear, Jews--who are, after all, not just ancient Judeans--would have to destroy it themselves, much the way they would have to break idols and reject a man who claimed to be God.

The Wailing Wall, insofar as it is a kind of synagogue, has something authentic for traditional Jews, she concedes, but not really because of where it is. The wall gestures, like all synagogues only more so, toward what is missing (as does the golden-domed Mosque of Omar, ironically). The wall suggests the supersession of a form of worship which has been long abandoned, and was challenged by Pharisees even in its time--abandoned for good (Hegel might say cunning) reasons that Roman centurions could hardly understand when they tore the temple down: a self-perpetuating priesthood, a hierarchy of fetishists, a sacrificial cult, a comic understanding of sin.

Sidra insists that, after the temple was destroyed, Jews were left, not with divine places or stuff, but only metaphor (God is like this, God is like that). This invitation to poetic innovation engendered our talent for freedom. The Wailing Wall's holiness depends on the Temple Mount being bare of anything meaningful for Jews except for the reminder of the immensity of absence itself. The wall is the evocative symbol (in a religion of symbols) of what is no longer there and, by itself, no longer evocative.

Nor does one have to be a Jew to grasp Sidra's point. My friend Jim Carroll was once asked if his faith in the Resurrection would be shaken if the bones of Jesus were found. No, he said, and he meant pretty much the same thing. Perhaps the most beautiful contemporary work I have seen about the supersession Sidra is talking about is Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal. (Trust me: see the film and you'll understand.)

In any case, something new is happening in this city, and it isn't either the Judaism I knew as a child or a return to an ancient practice. It is a hybrid politicized religion, if that's the word; a new claim of return, much like Mussolini's claim to return to Rome; a claim carried by ward-of-the-state orthodox families averaging seven children each, reinforced by neo-Zionist devotion to settlement, and a deep sense of grievance over a more recent destruction of European life, what Sidra calls Judaism's new "ruined shrines."

Make no mistake: the people who wish this new Jerusalem to rise will not be talked out of their goals, certainly not by speeches or editorials (or bloggers). The only hope is that what's left of Israel's secular majority will be pushed, and supported, by what's left of the West to stop them. One more generation, I am tempted to say, and it will be too late. But nothing is ever too late for this benighted, beautiful city, which thrives on the hubris of every conqueror.