Even would-be friends of Israel don't know which vision of the country they should be defending. How can they know, when we won't make up our own minds?
The elections are still more than a week away, but I can tell you already who lost. Israel did.
The polls consistently indicate that Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud will be the biggest party in the next Knesset. Tzipi Livni's Kadima would have to manage a late surge to surpass it, but having long since lost the center-right, it is now losing part of the center, too, and is slipping backward. Ehud Barak's Labor party has been bolstered by his perceived efficient performance as defense minister in the confrontation with Hamas. But Labor lags far behind, and is looking over its shoulder, worrying that Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu will overtake it as Israel's third largest party. We will, thus, almost certainly be electing a right-wing or center-right government to replace the center-left coalition led by Kadima.
All this I know, as do you. What I don't know, clearly and specifically, is which Israel it is that these key parties want to lead toward, if given the opportunity by our voters next week. Many of the smaller parties do have defined positions; these more minor parties, though, will not be dominating the next coalition.
Most importantly, I don't know if the Likud, our likely new party of government, is committed to dramatically expanding Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, as several of its Knesset members-in-waiting dearly hope; whether it will restrict expansion to "natural growth," without building new settlements, as Netanyahu has indicated; or whether it might even prove susceptible to pressure for a settlement freeze and the dismantling of homes.
Will the man who chose not to firmly oppose the Gaza disengagement until it was too late to stop it, now seek a hard-to-discern middle path on security and negotiation? How will he reconcile pressures from the Obama administration, on one side, and the hawks on his own Knesset list, on the other? Does he have a clear goal in terms of Israel's permanent contours, or will his be a reactive prime ministership, defined by the pressures placed upon him at home and abroad and his ability to maneuver, short-term, between them?
Likewise, I don't know if Kadima, in the unlikely event of its continued primacy, is bent on accelerating the negotiations its outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been conducting with the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, in which Olmert was desperately striving to reach an accord on all areas of dispute, involving unprecedented readiness for territorial compromise. Or whether Kadima's new leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, would adopt a more cautious approach, notably as regards the fate of Jerusalem. Or whether a more hawkish stance, as set out by her defeated party leadership rival Shaul Mofaz, would prevail.
Then there's Labor, the party that, at Camp David in 2000 and in the subsequent final months of president Clinton's administration, sought and failed to achieve a permanent agreement with the Yasser Arafat-led PA. I don't know whether, even as a junior coalition partner, it would push for further concessions than those considered by Barak back then. Those concessions, it will be recalled, fell some way short of the parameters apparently contemplated by Olmert in recent months. Labor in the years up to and including Camp David, after all, confidently predicted that it would be able to reach a permanent accommodation with the PA while expanding Israeli sovereignty into five, 10 or more percent of the West Bank.
And finally, there is Israel Beiteinu, enjoying a dramatic rise in the polls by playing on rising Israeli Jewish concerns over deepening Arab hostility. I don't know how seriously it would seek to press its trademark demand for a remaking of Israel's sovereign borders, to redraw the line so that predominantly Arab areas adjacent to the West Bank border in northern Israel were redesignated as part of a Palestinian state, in return for the annexation by Israel of parts of Judea and Samaria with a heavy settlement presence.
Since our politicians have refused, entirely predictably, to reform our dismal electoral system, and we are thus condemned to further years of multi-party paralysis - excuse me, multi-party government - this already muddy picture will be further confused by the conflicting goals of the coalition partners.
And, yes, Israel will be the loser.
ISRAEL'S OFFICIAL public relations head honchos are feeling rather pleased with their performance during Operation Cast Lead. They note, accurately, that articulate spokespeople were made available to set out Israel's case in a variety of languages as the conflict unfolded.
They note that when the IDF killed 30 or more civilians at a UN school in Jabalya on January 6, the heavy civilian loss of life did not prove a turning point that massively exacerbated international criticism and constrained ongoing military action - in contrast to a similar incident during the war against Hizbullah in 2006. The difference, this time, was that the IDF Spokesman produced a chapter-and-verse response almost immediately, including the contention that a Hamas mortar battery had fired on the IDF, the names of two Hamas operatives purportedly killed in the return fire and footage of fire from the same school area in 2007.
But such "achievements" notwithstanding, any official Israeli PR contentment is wildly misplaced. Israel achieved impressive, if limited, military success against Hamas, confronting, though still not yet entirely halting, the rocket fire, while keeping IDF losses to a minimum and enjoying the backing of an efficiently marshalled home front. The portents are not good, but the jury is necessarily still out on the efficacy of the much-touted new mechanisms to prevent Hamas from rearming and strengthening.
But overall, on the media-diplomacy battlefield, Israel suffered a stinging defeat. Its legitimate insistence that Hamas brought disaster down upon the people of Gaza has not widely resonated. Its legitimate assertion that it sought to minimize civilian fatalities - pursuing pinpoint targets and warning locals to leave areas that were about to be attacked - when fighting an enemy that had ruthlessly placed Gaza civilians in the line of fire, is widely dismissed.
And if that uncomprehending trend in world public opinion is largely the fault of superficial international media coverage, Israel contributed to the momentum by failing, 2006-style, to prepare the media and diplomatic ground for its resort to force with the same kind of efficiency it displayed in its military preparations. Just as the army carefully researched and selected its Hamas targets in the months ahead, success on the public diplomacy battlefield required - also for months ahead, in all diplomatic and public frameworks - highlighting the avowed destructive goals of Hamas, the relentless threat of the rocket attacks, and the untenable reality these had produced for southern Israel.
Once the conflict began, the IDF contributed further to the negative perception by failing to produce figures on the number and nature of the Palestinian dead to counter Hamas-Gaza government claims that most of those killed were civilians, including many hundreds of women and children. Belatedly and off-the-record, Israeli officials now assert that the overwhelming majority of the Gaza fatalities were Hamas members, and even claim to have identified the vast majority of them. Too vague. Too late. As Israel had to know it would be, the toll of the civilian dead was the barometer by which Israel's purported "disproportionate" response was measured; all evidence that Israel had of the skewing of that total needed to be produced with the same urgency as was displayed in the response to the shelling of the UN school.
The negative diplomatic fallout - emblemized by the UN Security Council resolution - was an inevitable consequence of the critical media coverage. And the aftershocks, already felt far and wide, will also linger long. Latin American countries severing ties; Turkey shifting from ally to enemy; a global spike in anti-Semitism - these are the most overt indications. But the damage is more severe still.
Ordinary people watching TV everywhere, people who consider themselves "right-thinking" decent folk, were terribly affected by the footage from Gaza - as, of course, we were here, too. But here we could see what was off-camera. We recognized that Hamas had been gradually acquiring the capacity to terrorize all of Israel, and was holding (a largely sympathetic) civilian Gaza hostage in the hope of deterring Israel from tackling that threat. We knew that the IDF was striving to defang Hamas without setting off the booby-trapped schools and apartment blocks in which Hamas was hoping more Palestinians would be killed. We knew that Hamas was fighting out of uniform and that the Palestinian "civilian" death tolls were distorted.
Nowhere else were viewers as able to absorb those wider, perception-shifting factors. And so, inevitably, they have drawn erroneous conclusions about Israel and Hamas, protector and aggressor, right and wrong.
BUT WHILE the challenge of explaining Israel's actions in Gaza was daunting - and Israel was defeated on that second battlefield by the mix of its own public diplomacy shortcomings and media superficiality - it is dwarfed by the wider task of explaining Israel, and defending Israel and "selling" Israel, even to our friends, when we have yet to decide which Israel it is we wish to be and thus to sell.
In every conceivable forum - every media panel, every conference, every diplomatic gathering - representatives of Israel speak in a jarring discord of patriotic voices. Israel should retake Gaza; no, it must open the borders to Gaza and negotiate with Hamas. There can be no compromise on Jerusalem; no, we must relinquish the Palestinian neighborhoods of our capital city. Israel must retain all of Judea and Samaria, and hang the consequences in terms of our own democracy and international support; no, it must return to the pre '67 lines, stay Jewish, take security risks; no again, we must find a new middle ground short of the "Auschwitz borders."
Is an international political "friend of Israel" someone who pushes for the kind of accord advocated by our departing prime minister - someone, that is, like France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, who passionately tells us that "the future of Israel is at stake" and that we must show trust and take risks for peace? Or does that stance render Sarkozy a liability to our true cause? Is the Obama administration's likely maintenance of long-standing American opposition to the settlement enterprise proof of its flaws, or evidence that it has accurately judged where our best interests lie? Are the Greater Israel Christian Evangelists our worst nightmare or our best true friends?
There is no consensual Israeli answer to these questions. Our diplomats and advocates are thus left promoting a product whose most basic dimensions they cannot decisively describe. Our friends cannot know which Israel they ought to be supporting; we haven't told them.
Contrast that with the Palestinians. They speak with just two voices. What we want, the Abbas-led PA and its supporters chorus in unison, is a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem and a just solution to the problem of the refugees. What we want, counters Hamas, is the elimination of Israel, albeit with the possibility of an interim accommodation along the '67 lines. Duplicitous or not, it's a clear agenda, offering a clear choice to both the Palestinians themselves and would-be peacemakers.
What, meanwhile, does Israel want? For the 41-and-a-half years since the Six Day War, we have insistently not made our minds up, even as facts shifted inexorably on the ground. For much of that time we deluded ourselves that Arab intransigence to any notion of compromise rendered such a decision irrelevant. Our heads are in the sand even as it shifts.
Of course, all other democracies strive to reconcile internal divides, but only in ours have the arguments, decade after decade, failed to produce a workable consensus as to the very contours of our nation.
A week-and-a-half from now, across these unresolved fundamental divides, we will be unhappily casting our uncertain ballots for representatives who, on the whole, have managed to avoid setting out their own red lines and telling us their own specific conception of Israel - representatives who, in some cases, aspire to lead us without even having made those conceptual choices themselves. The blind led by the evasive.
What does Israel seek for itself? The day of fateful choice is upon us again. Watch us duck it.