Several weeks ago I went to see Habimah’s production of The Merchant of Venice – which leaves much to be desired, both in terms of the staging and the acting.

I must admit that even at its best (for example, with Al Pacino playing Shylock) The Merchant of Venice is not one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, largely because I find the portrayal of Shylock as a Jew objectionable and even embarrassing. Objectionable because Shakespeare was apparently not really familiar with the Jews of his era, but also embarrassing because I recognize in Shylock some characteristics of many contemporary Israelis.

On the one hand it seems unlikely that a Jew at the end of the 16th century – only a century after the Spanish Inquisition – would deliberately provoke his gentile neighbors, upon whom he was totally dependent for his livelihood and mere existence, with objectionable behavior, just for the sake of revenge.

On the other hand I recognize in Shylock’s conduct our own inclination as Jews, living in a Jewish state, to adopt and persist in positions that are ab initio unacceptable to most players in the international arena, possibly with the expectation that divine intervention will somehow get us through.

The current campaign against Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip is not one of these situations.

Israel had to react, or else lose whatever credibility it still has vis-à-vis the Palestinians in Gaza, and the more realistic and pragmatic ones in the West Bank, who are certainly following this round of hostilities very closely. So far it certainly looks like our leaders have learned the lessons of the previous campaign in the Gaza Strip, and are doing everything in their power to avoid past mistakes.

The problem is what preceded the current situation. In the past few days we have heard from Jerusalem Post columnist and peace activist Gershon Baskin that Israel was very close to a cease-fire agreement with Hamas before it decided to assassinate the head of its military wing, Ahmed Jabari.

This is not the first time we have become involved in armed hostilities, even though there were serious attempts being made to avert them, and one could argue that we didn’t really give these efforts a fair chance.

For example, for several years preceding the Yom Kippur War serious efforts were made by the American secretary of state William Rogers and UN emissary ambassador Gunnar Jarring to work out an agreement between Israel and Egypt.

The attitude of then-prime minister Golda Meir to these efforts was unenthusiastic, to say the least, and many accused her of missing a golden opportunity to reach an agreement with Egypt without the heavy cost in lives and national debt resulting from the Yom Kippur War.

The problem with such speculation is that we do not really know what would have happened “if.” Would Anwar Sadat really have been able to make the move to reach a peace agreement with Israel without the psychological boost he received from the initial success of the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack on October 6, 1973? Or, in the current situation, was Hamas really willing and capable of reaching a cease-fire agreement with Israel that would be acceptable to the Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups operating in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula? We shall never know.

However, the point that I should like to make is that the difference between an Israeli policy that at least the democratic world is willing to recognize as legitimate, and an Israeli policy that no one (except perhaps the more fanatic evangelists) is willing to accept, is very much a function of the answer to the question whether or not Israel is seen to be making every feasible effort to reach an agreement, or at least not block the way to such an agreement in future.

In the eyes of the democratic world, Israel’s insistence on expanding existing settlements in Judea and Samaria and legalizing illegal ones (insofar as one is willing to consider any of these settlements as legal), and its policy of relentlessly punishing the Palestinians collectively in the name of security for Israel’s Jewish citizens, is not much different to Shylock’s demand for a “pound of flesh.”

I believe that the difference today between the political right and the political left in Israel is not in the reading of the current regional map, which seems to preclude a viable peace agreement in the foreseeable future. There doesn’t even seem to be any disagreement about the necessity of the Pillar of Cloud operation.

The difference is that in the current situation one can hear a sigh of relief coming from the Right, that is not interested in a settlement based on territorial compromise and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and a sound of despair coming from the Left, that feels that Israel’s current leaders have been deliberately acting to prevent any movement in the direction that might lead to a settlement in the future.

What the Israeli Left argues is that there is another approach, and that this alternative approach is not anti- Zionist, neo-Zionist, defeatist or an expression of self-hatred.

It is a rejection of Shylock-like pigheadedness, in order to avoid the dead end that the merchant of Venice got himself into at the end of Shakespeare’s play – involving the loss of his possessions, his status, his honor and worst of all in his eyes – his daughter.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.

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