Magazine

Decency abhors a vacuum

It may well be that there is no solution to the conflict in which we are now mired. But that is no reason not to keep trying.

IDF soldiers and Palestinian at protest near Ramal
Photo by: AP
The creation of Ehud Barak’s Independence faction, with its collateral damage to the already hemorrhaging Labor Party, puts Israel into that rare category of First World countries without a social-democrat-like party of any significance. Yet even Labor’s opponents ought not breathe a sigh of relief. Our ossified government, with no opposition to goad it into action, is passively presiding over the demise of much of what we have toiled to build.

True, the blame for the demise of Israel’s Left really lies with Yasser Arafat. When he unleashed the second intifada (more aptly called the Palestinian terror war) after Camp David sputtered, he proved once and for all that the Palestinians (at least under Arafat) had no intention of making a “land for peace” deal. The Left lost its plausibility, and barring a radical change on the Palestinian side, its demise became all but inevitable.

Blaming Arafat, however, is now irrelevant. Arafat is dead.

What matters now is what will become of us, and the picture is not pretty. Outside our borders, the noose is clearly tightening. The world is losing patience with the peace process, and with us, and is increasingly inclined to impose a solution. Numerous South American countries have recognized Palestine.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, who could not even visit because of a Foreign Ministry strike which the enmity between Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman prevented anyone from solving, then announced that Russia would follow suit. For the first time in history, the Palestinian flag was hoisted in Washington, DC. At the UN, a resolution condemning settlements was much discussed, and more than one American Jewish group suggested aloud that the Obama administration not veto it.

Anyone who imagines that (just because there is no fighting on any of our borders at the moment) the status quo is tenable is sorely mistaken. The writing on the proverbial international wall requires no deciphering. Without some serious attempt at making progress – even if Palestinian recalcitrance ultimately renders it wholly unsuccessful – Israel effectively contributes to its own marginalization.

DOMESTICALLY, TOO, we are doing ourselves enormous harm. Something ugly and dangerous is bubbling to the surface of society, endangering the very democracy and decency that have rightly been the very source of our pride for decades. There is a move for an investigation of the funding of left-wing groups (rather than a law requiring financial transparency for all nonprofits, which would have made much more sense).

Rabbis urge Jews not to sell or rent property to Arabs, effectively making rabid racism a rabbinically-sanctioned position, and rabbis’ wives follow suit, warning parents to distance their children from Arabs. (Just imagine a rabbi in the US saying that same thing about African-Americans!)

Recent polls show that one-third of Jewish Israelis oppose giving equal civil rights to Israeli Arabs, and in the modern religious community the rate is double.

At a moment in which the world (largely hypocritically) seems ever more inclined to decide that the State of Israel is morally corrupt and thus fundamentally illegitimate, elements of our society seem determined to provide them all the evidence that they need. We allow the world to draw the conclusion that we have no interest in moving some semblance of a peace process forward, and internally we allow a revolting ugliness to endanger our democracy, corrupt those of our children who are still decent and poison the world’s assessment of us precisely when we are most vulnerable.

Our emasculated political leadership – ossified by the unmanageable coalition it created – is endangering the very survival of the values and hope that have long led the Jewish people to live in – or rally around – this country. That is what makes the diplomatic vacuum that this government has allowed to develop so very dangerous. Yes, it is probably the case that no sensible deal Israel offers will be accepted. After all, why should the Palestinians make any concessions now, with their hand only growing stronger with each passing year?

YET THERE are at least two important reasons to keep Israeli initiatives at the forefront of the negotiations, no matter how fruitless they may prove. First, we have evidence aplenty that without them the world is going to impose a settlement on this region that will not be the one we want. Successive American presidents, Democratic and Republican, have been substantially less supportive in their second terms than they were in their first. We’ve seen the tenor of Barack Obama’s first term. Do we really want a second-term Obama working in a setting in which Israel has proposed nothing and seems perfectly comfortable with the status quo?

And no less important, an Israel not working publicly to move the peace process forward is one that says to its young people that the Arabs are our enemies, always will be and that, frankly, we don’t care that much. A young generation witness to a government that does not even make a pretense of working toward peace concludes that it will be at war forever. “We will fight,” young people conclude, “and when we have children, they, too, will go off to war in a conflict that will never, ever end.”

In that suffocating mind-set, instilling commitments to decency, liberalism (in the philosophical, not political, sense) and even democracy becomes almost impossible.

It may well be that there is no solution to the conflict in which we are now mired. But that is no reason not to keep trying. One day, our enemies might just decide that they want a future for their children better than the past they inherited. Even more importantly, however, the failure to try is poisoning us. We are already witness to what happens to a society when it gives up trying. Without some dramatic change in our diplomatic orientation and internal discourse, we are going to prove that one can, indeed, win a never-ending war, and still not survive.

The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and the author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), which won a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.


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