Thursday, September 22, 2011

Half-Truth For A Half-Loaf

President Obama's U.N. speech was a sad spectacle, even if it was utterly predictable, a kind of tribute to the militant defensiveness of organized American Jews (which I encounter in every lecture these days) and the limited attention span of American voters in general. It is discouraging to see a good man saying half the truth you know him to know in order to save half loafs you know he knows he might lose.

These half loafs, from universal health care to tax equity, are hardly trivial. The first took a century to enact, largely because of the obstruction of southern politicians who saw helping the uninsured as a way of taking from whites to help blacks. FDR pandered to them to hold his coalition together to enact such things as Social Security. So you can imagine why our first African-American president should want to pander to Democrats who fear Israel is a test. Clinton did precisely the same thing.

And yet you could almost hear Arab streets groaning when Obama spoke, and see him hearing them with his third ear. Funny, when he was first elected I thought he would save Israel from itself. Now I wonder if we are not finally getting a mounting opposition in Israel to counter the Netanyahu government's demagogy, which will help Obama.

A case in point is Ehud Olmert's op-ed in today's Times. It contains nothing that readers of this blog don't already know, but the timing is significant--and brave. Moreover, Labor has a new leader, Shelly Yachimovitch, who has been a kind of poster child for "quality of life issues" in Israel, and may just steal votes, not only from Kadima, but from Likud, if she maintains a populist appeal.

Of course the relevance of any new Israeli election depends on whether violence in occupied territories can be preempted. A new piece in Foreign Affairs by friend-of-the-blog Alvaro de Soto is worth reading, if only to help with that question. On to Friday.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mr. President: Play Jujitsu With The U.N. Vote

The most frustrating thing about Gershom Gorenberg's smart letter to President Obama in The American Prospect is that there is nothing in it that its recipient does not already know:

Abbas is going to the U.N. Security Council because bilateral negotiations have become fruitless and embarrassing; the pursuit of statehood is actually a last ditch effort to save the two-state "peace process"; U.N. membership for Palestine would not preclude future negotiations but would clarify their terms and strengthen Abbas, the best of all possible partners in building peace; membership for Palestine in boundaries based on "the 1967 border" is an historic precedent that also confirms Israel's border.

An American veto will sour, if not poison, what residual prestige Obama has gained among the young makers of the Arab Spring; a veto will only throw the issue to the General Assembly, and a defiant vote there by an international majority will intensify Israel's isolation; a General Assembly vote will likely touch off rebellious demonstrations across the region, including, ominously, the West Bank (which the IDF has no way of handling peacefully); acceptance of Palestine by the General Assembly will give it "observer state" status, like the Vatican, and open Israel to proceedings in the International Criminal Court.

Why then is Obama backing Netanyahu in this matter? There is nothing about the decision that we don't already know: 9% jobless, Greece; Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; AIPAC's email list; Eric Cantor's House; Dennis Ross's hubris; a media that swarms to "disappointed" Democrats (among them, editors of The American Prospect).

It is pretty clear that Obama has about as much room to do what Gorenberg suggests as revive plans for the "public option." Or is it?

I WANT TO stress that I am not among those who have lost respect for the president over the past two years. If anything, his treatment by Democratic "progressives" who can't seem to count to 41, and professional journalists who can't seem to tell correlation from cause and sabotage from strategy, has only increased my admiration for his poise. More on that another time.

But I believe Obama still has an opportunity here, one that plays to his considerable strengths, and it may not be too late to seize it.

Ross and David Hale have tried and predictably failed to preempt the U.N. vote by getting the sides to agree on a formula to resume negotiations. Let us assume the administration goes ahead and vetoes any Security Council resolution, insisting that full statehood must nevertheless be a product of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This will, again, only shift diplomatic activity to the General Assembly.

So why not use the larger forum to sketch out much more completely and assertively what, in America's view, a negotiated settlement would look like? Why not announce support for upgrading Palestine to observer statehood along with a commitment to veto any House resolution to cut off support for the PA? (J Street has, in effect, suggested a move of this kind, supporting the veto but leaving open the possibility of endorsing a General Assembly resolution while strongly opposing cutting off help to Ramallah.)

Just to be clear, I share Gorenberg's wish that Obama's administration had acted more aggressively last spring, though I understand the president's need to pick fights (and bundlers) judiciously. And I realize this approach to the General Assembly is a little fancy: for many, the U.N. is the U.N., a vote is a vote, the media's question is whether you are "pro-Israel" or not.

But as Abbas well knows, this U.N. move is political theater for everybody. The question is whether the Obama administration can play jujitsu with it, turning negative energy in the Security Council into a positive energy in the General Assembly hall, that is, force the writers of headlines around the world to think of something more nuanced and hopeful than "Obama Sinks Palestinian State."

The president has already stated his view that negotiations should proceed on the basis of the 1967 borders. Why not use this occasion to endorse the rest of the Olmert-Abbas package: an international Holy Basin in Jerusalem, a formula to acknowledge the rights of refugees, a series of steps to promote regional integration? The vision would resound in the Arab world, especially if Obama wins endorsement from the EU (and finds a way to be photographed with leaders of the emerging Libya).

Instead of just opposing Abbas's U.N. initiative, then, the administration could try to shape something more popular with Israel's perplexed majority. It is in this context he might have adopted Dan Kurtzer's suggestion that a General Assembly resolution be based on the original partition plan, which ratified international recognition of a vaguely "Jewish state."

THE LOBBY'S HARD-RIGHT forces will never forgive Obama for this, anymore than for the '67-border thing, and (as Gorenberg suggests) would never vote for him anyway. But 60-70% of American Jews are more admiring of David Remnick than Ed Koch. They will support a clear path to peace if they can be sure Obama is generally sympathetic to Israel, which (alas,) the Security Council veto will prove. It could be followed up by a trip to Jerusalem and rally in Tel Aviv. In for an agora, in for a shekel?

Anyway, the possible loss of some Jewish voters is far less important to Obama than the possible gain of voters who will see his global spine. Doing something unexpected, but something everybody from New York Times editors to David Patraeus, Tony Blair to Haaretz, can publicly defend, is worth the risk.

Obama, after all, can win over the predictable demographics and still fall short next November--unless he can turn around the perception (not deserved, but there you are) that he has been playing much too safe. We write about "independents" as if they are independent minded when they are mostly people waiting to see who others are flocking to; people impressed by trends and "strength" and Bin Laden assassinations. They are waiting to see if talking heads start calling Obama bold again, if his own start calling him theirs again.

Obama does not have many more dramatic ways to turn things around with domestic policy. Here is his chance to show courage in foreign policy, and about the region he is most heavily invested in. He can do it with a step that feels consistent with his policies and values (and unearned prizes), not some opportunistic lurch--indeed, at a time when forces at home are putting Netanyahu on the ropes. Throw Palestinians and the Israeli peace camp a life-line, Mr. President. Save yourself.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Upcoming Lectures: Please Come

I'll be speaking at Boston University tomorrow night, Thursday, September 15th., on the agreeably general subject: "Israel and the Emergence of a Palestinian State." (Actually, I'll be trying to think through why we are so stuck.) I'll be speaking on the same topic for the Houston World Affairs Council next Wednesday, the 21st., and at the University of Texas on Thursday, the 22nd. I'll be coming to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, October 11th. More details soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back To Basics: The Heartbreak Of 1948

I have been backing off this blog lately, finishing up longer projects, but also trying get some distance from events that are forcing us to face up to things in a radical frame of mind. The U.N. vote on Palestine is going ahead, and I'll have more to say about it. In the meantime, I can't add much to Brad Burston's reasons for Israeli liberals to support statehood.

Yet a move to statehood, even if this were to precipitate more productive negotiations, or just make Israeli hardliners increasingly besieged--even if it led to a Palestinian state founded in a border deal with Israel--will only open the door to even more more basic and long repressed challenges, namely, the relations between Israel and a Palestinian state and the kinds of states these will be: the cultural distinction of each and the rights of individuals in each, including rights accorded citizens of the other state.

As I argued in The Hebrew Republic, and subsequently with my friend Sam Bahour in Haaretz, independence will in any case need to be shaped by interdependence if, for example, the Palestinian right of return is ever going to be resolved or, indeed, if the economic integration both sides need is going to be managed. What we think of as states will have to be expanded; much of what has been built will gradually have to be redesigned. Dafna Leef, the remarkable young woman who helped rally 450,000 Israelis a couple of Saturdays ago, told the assembled throngs in Tel Aviv: "Every heart is a revolutionary cell." I suspect that hearts will be tested and changed a good deal in the months ahead.

So perhaps this is the time to open them some, by looking back, in sadness and new found empathy, at the formative events of 1948. What happened then still matters now--the pain still matters now. Most readers of this blog have, I suspect, a pretty vivid image of Israeli military heroism in the 1948 war, and the justifications for making a stand. Just this morning, I was sent a bulk email exhorting me to watch this moving film, "The Volunteers," about Jews from around the world who came to Palestine in 1948 because they believed they might be needed. (I did the same in 1967, though I was clearly not needed by the time my plane took off.)

But I wonder how many readers have ever seen this stunning film, "Sands of Sorrow," about the Palestinian refugees of 1948. There has been much dispute about whether (or how many of) these shocked people left out of fear or by expulsion. This has been a silly dispute. The governing fact is that they were not allowed back, and that Israel formed around that decision.

Before the war--so the historian Hillel Cohen shows--Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had planned a democracy with a large Arab minority living, Ben Gurion wrote, in “complete equality, ” and “ethic autonomy.” Even during the war, debate about the nature of the state was tortured.

“An Arab also has the right to be elected President of the state, if he is chosen for this role,” Ben Gurion told the government in June 1948; “If in the United States, it is not possible for a Jew or a Negro to be elected president of the country, I have no faith in the quality of its civil rights…Were we to enforce such a regime—well then we will have missed the raison d’ĂȘtre of a Hebrew state… denying the most treasured elements of our Jewish tradition.” Nevertheless, Ben Gurion’s mounting fear of a fifth column eventually proved decisive. He wrote in his diary: “We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return... The old will die and the young will forget.”

Anyway, the young did not forget--and will not. Nor should we forget "the most treasured" Jewish values underlying a "Hebrew state." Is it really too late, even after 60 years, to design political institutions in a way that reconciles the Israelis' stand to the Palestinians' justice? Do we care?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dark Winter: 10 Years

As in past years, I'd like to share this song, "Dark Winter," written and recorded by my daughter, Ellie Avishai. Ellie is now a distinguished young educator, but on September 2001 she was an aspiring singer-songwriter. When the towers were attacked, she wrote "Dark Winter" almost in one sitting, and I still cannot think about that event unaccompanied by its music and (prophetic) lyrics.