A few weeks ago, Jeremy Ben- Ami of J Street and I debated each other in Atlanta. It was labeled a “conversation,” but it was really a debate.
Very civil, more than a bit of humor, rather conversational and all that, but still a debate. (You can find the video on YouTube or Google.) Ben-Ami made his points, I made mine. Mine were very simple: He and I both want the same thing. He wants (I was willing to assume for the sake of the argument) a secure and Jewish State of Israel. So do I. He wants (no question about this one) a Palestinian state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I would be happy to see such a state (and would vote for significant territorial compromise) if it would mean an end to the conflict.
Though we disagreed about many things, there was one major point of contention that was more significant than all the rest. He’s convinced that a deal for a two-state solution is within reach, and I was, and remain, almost entirely certain that it’s utterly impossible.
So, for a good portion of the time, I laid out my case for why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will not make a deal. He’ll never give up on the right of return. His refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a symptom of the sad fact that the Palestinians hate Israel (and let’s be honest, the Jews, too) far more than they care about themselves.
There’s the problem of Hamas and Gaza, and Abbas’s worry about Hamas potentially taking over. There’s the unpleasant fact that even if Abbas did agree, what happens when he or his successor is overthrown? What happens when Ramallah turns into Tahrir Square? Where will we be then? Nothing new in all these arguments – just a summary of what most people who think already know.
And then I sat down.
Then it was Ben-Ami’s turn to respond, and he made the most important comment of the entire evening. “I just find that so depressing,” he said. In not so many words, he was just saying that he cannot accept a world in which the options are so bleak – so he chooses to believe that there is a way out.
Because my view is depressing, it must be wrong.
It was the most significant comment of the evening, I thought, because it was also the most honest. What defines Israel’s position in the world today is a division not so much between those who care about Palestinians and those who don’t (though there are sadly many of the latter), not between those who tolerate the Jews and those who can’t stand them (though there are tragically a growing number of the latter), and not between those committed to a secure Israel and those who would be happy to see Israel crumble (though there are many of those, too).
The real divide is between those who can accept reality for what it is (with all the sadness thereunto appertaining), and those who cannot tolerate that bleakness – and therefore opt for delusion.
Take all the ostensibly fair-minded people who argue that Abbas’s refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is legitimate, indeed noble, because he is seeking to protect that status of non- Jews in Israel. It’s a clever argument, but also malevolently dishonest. Israel has defined itself as a Jewish state since the Declaration of Independence was adopted in May 1948, and a Basic Law of 1985 added the notion of “Jewish and democratic” (interestingly, the Declaration of Independence says nothing about Israel being a democracy, but that’s an issue for another time). But has that stopped Israel from appointing Arabs to the Supreme Court? From having three Arab parties represented in the Knesset? Does it stop Beduin women from becoming doctors in Israel? There is obviously much about the status of Arabs and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel that can and must be improved, but does anyone seriously believe that Abbas is holding out to accomplish that? Anyone fair-minded understands that Abbas will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state because once he does, he undermines the argument that the refugees must be returned. And he needs the return of the refugees to destroy Israel.
But that means that there’s no deal to be had, because Abbas won’t give up the fight, and Israel will not commit suicide.
Which is depressing for those who want a deal more than they like reality.
So now US Secretary of State John Kerry is telling Israel that it should give up on that demand. Why? Because it’s easier, and less depressing, for Kerry to tell Israel to be flexible – even at the risk of its very raison d’être – than to admit that he is going to fail.
Masks and pretense were for Purim, but Purim is behind us.
The world in which we live is an increasingly bleak place. But that does not mean that the solution is to pretend that matters are other than what they were. The US pretends that it is going to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but it is clear that it will not.
The international community pretends that it has the willpower to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist drive (the end of which one cannot even begin to imagine), when it is clear that America under US President Barack Obama is under a full-speed retreat from leadership. And the international community insists that if Israel budges just a bit on one issue or another, the Palestinians will make a deal, when it is clear that this is utterly myopic.
There is much that Israel has done wrong in recent years, and Israel’s administration has undoubtedly contributed to the Jewish state’s lonely place in the world today. But let us be honest about at least one thing, even in the face of the sobering – yes, depressing – reality we face.
The prime reason that Israel is so maligned is that it, alone, simply refuses to be part of the charade. ■
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the Core Curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was just released by NextBook.