Editor's Notes: A consensual vision

Truly, an astounding speech on Sunday by Jimmy Carter. A dramatic shift to the most unexpected positions.

June 19, 2009 12:28

Truly, an astounding speech on Sunday by Jimmy Carter. Remarks that left Israelis dumbfounded. A dramatic shift to the most unexpected positions. Truly, an astounding speech on Sunday. Remarks that left Israelis dumbfounded. A dramatic shift to the most unexpected positions. No, I'm not talking about the prime minister's Bar-Ilan University appearance - the landmark lecture in which Binyamin Netanyahu described a demilitarized Palestinian state as a central component of "my vision of peace, in this small land of ours." I'm thinking of the brief address to reporters by Jimmy Carter earlier that same day. Having spent two hours chatting in the Neveh Daniel living room of Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein, with a small group of (evidently highly persuasive) local Jewish residents for company, the former president - he of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid notoriety - emerged to declare that the Etzion Bloc "settlement area is not one I ever envision being abandoned or changed over into Palestinian territory." Was this April 1? Purim, perhaps? Surely it had to be one of them, for this was truly a world turned upside down. Isn't it the likes of Carter who are supposed to be trying to force Palestinian statehood upon wary Israelis in general and an implacably opposed Israeli Right in particular, and the likes of Netanyahu who are supposed to be making insistent speeches about the permanent retention of major settlements, and minor ones too for that matter, in Judea and Samaria? And surely, were a Likud prime minister to suddenly veer away from the traditional policies at the heart of his party's platform, and start trumpeting the Labor manifesto "of two peoples" living "freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect," each with "its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government," then the Likud Knesset faction and its rank-and-file supporters would rise as one in angered tumult and demand that leader's resignation? But no, it was neither Purim nor April Fool's Day, just plain old June 14, and the coincidence of Netanyahu's and Carter's "reversed" positions says much about the failures of Israel's political leadership over recent years and the self-defeating superficiality of our partisan internal climate. BICKERING AND sniping across party lines, sinking to political assassination at our lowest point, we have continually allowed our differences to skew our national interest, depriving ourselves of the capacity to find a consensus on the basic contours of the Jewish state we seek to maintain and the means to guarantee our long-term security. Not so many years ago, Labor-led governments argued, incorrectly, that Israel could achieve a viable permanent accord with the Palestinians and still retain 10 percent, or perhaps even more, of our biblical, historic heartland in Judea and Samaria. And Likud-led oppositions lambasted those governments for sanctioning the very notion of Palestinian statehood at all. As we ripped ourselves to political pieces, and discredited ourselves internationally, the Palestinians exploited our differences and, at the moments of diplomatic truth, rejected our peace overtures and skillfully deflected blame onto us. Increasingly desperate, Israeli leaders, heading collapsing coalitions, offered the Palestinians still more territory with fewer discernible security safeguards - culminating in what amounted to a 100% West Bank withdrawal under prime minister Ehud Olmert just months ago: relinquishing almost all of the territory, offering land-swaps for the remaining few percent, going so far as to reportedly sanction a limited influx of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Still, as Mahmoud Abbas confirmed to The Washington Post three weeks ago, the Palestinians said no. So inadequately has Israel grappled with the question of where its territorial red lines really must run and what other protection a shrunken Israeli reality would require, so debilitating have been the domestic disputes, that we have now reached the dismal low where a former US president's endorsement of our right to maintain land that was privately purchased by Jews before the establishment of the state is received with surprise and pathetic gratitude. Twenty years ago, even 10, few in Israel would have conceived that the international community would doubt our long-term claim to the Etzion Bloc. Yet today, after four decades in which we failed to reach a unified position on which settlement areas were vital and which were not, the current American president, Barack Obama, has essentially adopted a mirror image of our disinclination to differentiate. In his vision, all settlements must go. Watching the street protests in Teheran this week, the vicious constraining of democracy there, one can only lament the negligent abuse of our ample democracy here - the self-interested fights and hypocrisies that have left government after government incapable of effectively representing the wider good of our state. How much partisan vitriol was poured out down the years, and how much consequent damage done to us all, over the "crime" of endorsing the principle of Palestinian statehood, when our united focus should have been on formulating and articulating to a wearied, often uncomprehending watching world our essential needs, the dimensions of the Palestinians' rejectionism and the need for their reform as a vital condition for any accommodation? And why, now, for that matter, the ongoing superfluous divisions? The Israeli electorate, in its utterly confused vote four months ago, gave no single party real political weight. It made a wide coalition a political necessity. It provided party leaders with the perfect framework within which to seek consensus. To date, they have failed us again. BUT TODAY, now that Netanyahu has put aside the debating society arguments of recent weeks about "we won't say 'two states' because they won't say 'Jewish state'" and taken the pro-Palestinian-state-in-principle plunge, what's required is domestic cooperation and partnership. We need to galvanize the best minds, representing the widest proportion of the political mainstream, to ensure that the Israeli government's goals are carefully and competently formulated, and then are recognized as truly representing Israel - the better to try and realize them. Netanyahu has internalized and given public expression to the fact that if we want to salvage Israel as at once an overwhelmingly Jewish and a firmly democratic state, we have to seek a path to separation from the Palestinians - for our sakes as much as, if not more than, for theirs. That separation, he has sensibly made plain, can only be achieved under terms that do not threaten our physical safety. Bloodied and battered by the terrorists who have thrived in Palestinian areas - and only too aware that endemic Arab hostility to Israel predated the 1967 war and the capture of the additional territory that the Arab world now claims lies at the root of our conflict - Israel dare take no chances with its security. There was much for all Israelis to applaud in Netanyahu's speech - not least his emphatic response to Obama's false depiction of Israeli-Jewish sovereign legitimacy stemming from the Holocaust rather than from our historical connection to this land. But there are also reasons for Israelis, from their differing perspectives, to feel misgivings about the new Netanyahu vision - skepticism that stems from those decades of bitter experience with Palestinian intransigence, concerns about the viability of mechanisms to ensure demilitarization, reservations about the prime minister's capacity to hold to his positions when pressed from all sides, questions as to whether this was expedient rhetoric or heartfelt strategy. Those on the Right who criticize Netanyahu because they believe he capitulated to American pressure and sold out the Likud; those who would prefer to sacrifice our democracy rather than relinquish territory; those who believe that Israel should expand sovereignty across Judea and Samaria and seek to restrict the Palestinians to some form of autonomy - all have good reason to feel abandoned by their presumed champion, though few will have been surprised. Those on the Right who enthusiastically applaud him are in murkier waters. Critics to the left can ask why it is that Palestinian statehood, a veritably treasonable conception when expressed by some of his predecessors, is now acceptable, uniquely, when endorsed by Netanyahu? There are numerous ways to justify the shift - among them that Netanyahu is trying to make the best of an immensely complex situation, some of whose complexity is a direct consequence of poor policies and mishandled negotiations in years past. Then there is the fact that Netanyahu's attitude to the settlement enterprise remains markedly more supportive and empathetic than that of others who have filled his post. And, of course, there is the insistence on recognition of Jewish Israel and the military constraints he has made central conditions of Palestinian statehood - though quite how demilitarization could effectively be enforced is wide open to question. Less credible are the claims by those who defend Netanyahu by arguing that there was less to his speech than met the eye - that the prime minister doesn't really mean what he says, that he was simply getting the Americans off his back, and that the Palestinians can be relied upon to doom any substantive negotiations anyway. This echoes the initial, rather desperate response of some of Ariel Sharon's supporters who tried to reconcile their support for Greater Israel with his abandonment of it. Certainly, Netanyahu can be expected to take a more cautious negotiating stance than certain former prime ministers. Certainly, too, one of Netanyahu's imperatives was indeed to reduce tensions with the Obama White House in order to better work together against Iran's nuclear program. And certainly, the hysterical Palestinian dismissal of Netanyahu's new policies confirms the ongoing rejection by even the "moderate" Palestinian Authority of our most basic legitimacy here. But the prime minister's Sunday speech was not a grudging, indeed deceptive, acceptance of Palestinian independence. It was not, if measured by his own words, the enunciation of a route he has absolutely no intention of following. It was, rather, an avowed delineation of a vision - a road, as he put it, to "reconciliation with our neighbors." And even if Netanyahu believes it will lead nowhere, it is a road that the energized Obama can be relied upon to do his utmost to strong-arm both sides into traveling. We might reasonably ask ourselves why we couldn't have unified around this goal - a cautious, consensual approach to a model for Palestinian statehood that does not threaten Israel - years earlier? Better, though, to now unite behind a prime minister who is speaking to the mainstream, work together to forge consensual positions and revitalize the arduous process of coopting the international community to our legitimate cause. That way, the Palestinians are exposed in their abiding, resolute, benighted intransigence. Or, just possibly, slowly, insistently, they are pressured, in a partnership belatedly unifying Israel and the international community, to come to terms with the fact of our existence here and to gradually accept the terms of viable reconciliation, now espoused by Netanyahu, that would make all of our lives better and safer. "These two realities - our connection to the Land of Israel, and the Palestinian population living within it - have created deep divisions in Israeli society," the prime minister said on Sunday. "But the truth is that we have much more that unites us than divides us. I have come tonight to give expression to that unity, and to the principles of peace and security on which there is broad agreement within Israeli society." However belated, and however complex the road ahead, a heartfelt "Amen" to that.

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