Politics is the art of the possible - not the barren art of avoiding vital decisions in the unreasonable hope that everything will somehow resolve itself.
Early on Monday afternoon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman convened a press conference in the Knesset to explain that he could not conduct negotiations with the US about a settlement freeze because he is himself a settler, and one who lives "in a small, isolated settlement" at that.
"From my standpoint there is clearly a conflict of interest," he said. He wouldn't want to be blamed, he added, "for intentionally torpedoing important diplomatic negotiations."
Just a little earlier that same day, on a hilltop within sight of Lieberman's home settlement of Nokdim, southeast of the capital, an articulate resident of Ma'aleh Rehavam was explaining the realities of outpost life to a visiting group of American Jewish lay leaders.
She sketched the outpost's history - it was founded almost eight years ago, and named for tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, the former general and emphatic settlement supporter who had just been assassinated in Jerusalem's Hyatt Regency Hotel by Palestinian gunmen. Accessed via a bumpy road from the Kfar Eldad settlement, it was not fenced off - insistently not, she said, since Israel and the Jews had the right to live everywhere in Judea and Samaria and should not enclose themselves in restricted enclaves. And there had been no incidents of violence with Palestinians in the area, she added, looking out across the surrounding empty hillsides.
She spoke of the rich variety of fruit trees that are one of the community's hallmarks, mentioned the latest births that had helped lift the outpost's population from its three original trailers to about 40 residents, noted that they were a rare mix of Orthodox and secular, and enthused about Shabbatot where everyone usually gravitated to one or other of the prefab homes in an informal celebration of their pioneering community.
She also said that Ma'aleh Rehavam was established with hundreds of thousands of shekels of assistance from various government ministries. She said it was built on land that was allocated years ago to Lieberman's Nokdim; indeed Ma'ariv recently lost a libel case for falsely reporting it was constructed on privately owned Palestinian land. She reported that it receives water, power and telephone service via neighboring settlements. And she pointed to the prefab where the IDF parks its jeep during pauses in its 24/7 security patrols.
In other words, she made clear, all the necessary requirements for viable living were and are provided by the state and its various arms and institutions.
But Ma'aleh Rehavam has also been threatened with demolition for most of its brief lifespan. And, as she acknowledged, Defense Minister Ehud Barak - who just happened to be discussing settlement freezes with US envoy George Mitchell that very same day in London, and pledging the imminent demolition of two dozen West Bank outposts - had refused to sign the paperwork that would legitimize its existence.
MA'ALEH REHAVAM is a quintessential example of Israel's abiding confusion as to its priorities and needs in the territories of Judea and Samaria - areas it captured in the preemptive war it fought for its survival in 1967.
Forty-two years later, that confusion - that immaturity - is coming home to roost.
For four decades, our national policies beyond the Green Line have reflected an unresolved, often conflicting maelstrom of imperatives.
For some governments, and some Israelis, this was territory to be used as a bargaining chip for the normalized ties we sought with the Palestinians and the Arab world; territory that we lacked the numbers to dominate demographically; territory it was morally and physically costly to seek to retain; territory where, like it or not, another people lived.
For others, we had liberated historically resonant land, and won it fair and square, moreover, in a war forced upon us. This was land that could give us greater security and protection, land to which we had a peerless claim but that had been denied us when our sovereignty was revived, and land that should now be populated with Jews.
For most governments, for most Israelis, it was a mixture of both imperatives. Most governments, most Israelis, wanted it all - regional peace, viable coexistence with the Palestinians, a permanent stake in biblical Judea and Samaria, greater strategic depth. But while the people may be forgiven for dreaming impossible dreams, governments know - or should know - that we cannot have everything we want. As Otto von Bismarck recognized, they should know that politics is the art of the possible - not the barren art of avoiding vital decisions in the unreasonable hope that everything will somehow resolve itself.
LIKE IT or not - and opinion polls carried recently by The Jerusalem Post strongly suggest the latter - the world's only superpower appears to have decided that Israel's best interests require it to freeze construction beyond the Green Line.
Like it or not, the Obama administration - unmoved by Israel's entreaties and even by voices at home suggesting it is subverting its own interests in obsessing over a settlement freeze - appears convinced that this is the way to extract meaningful steps toward normalization from a recalcitrant Arab world.
Like it or not, Washington appears unimpressed by Israeli assurances that it is hardly building anyhow, that it is restricting construction to within existing settlement parameters, that it is providing no government incentives for migration to the settlements. America has misgivings over such assurances in good part because of the relentless stream of reports to the contrary, and in part, too, because some of the criteria for measuring growth were never actually pinned down.
In his extensive interview on these pages last week, Ariel Sharon's former bureau chief Dov Weissglas expressed the concern that the Americans, in their attempted drive from settlement freeze to dramatic Middle East progress, might be tempted to convene some kind of international conference and to seek to impose their vision of a permanent accord, leaping over all the monitored phases of the road map approach to Palestinian statehood.
Weissglas did not anticipate this happening in the next month or two - but urged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make sure it couldn't happen at all by insisting immediately on the upholding of the road map sequence.
But Weissglas, who mused about an American leap to final-status talks "in another year, if things in 'Palestine' are moving in a positive direction," may have been overly sanguine. The American focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, and the settlement freeze in particular, does not bespeak an administration ready to twiddle its thumbs for another 12 months.
FOR ALL that Netanyahu is today veritably extolling the virtues of the two-state vision he had so long resisted, for all the pressures he is now beginning to feel from within his own party, for all the precariousness of the current relative stability in the West Bank and the inconvenient truth that a robust terrorist organization rules Gaza, the Obama administration seems bent on what it sees as saving Israel from itself. First-year hope trumping bitter experience, it seems convinced it can create a climate via Israeli concessions in which true Palestinian compromise and wider Arab reconciliation will flourish.
So if, as he now declares, the prime minister has a vision, let him urgently transform its sketched parameters into substance. If, as he now claims, he can drive a better bargain than his predecessors, let him move beyond the rhetoric.
Let him take the challenge that previous governments have ducked for 42 years, and reconcile Israel's conflicting desires for normalization of ties and for retention of territory. Puncture the confusion; prioritize, allocate and relocate. Tell the residents of Ma'aleh Rehavam, and of countless other committed focal points of Jewish life, whether they sustain or undermine the Zionist enterprise. Tell them unequivocally, and tell the world, too. Set out our true needs, clearly and comprehensibly. Then vigorously pursue them.
Netanyahu does not enjoy the luxury of doing a Lieberman, of removing himself from the equation. He must lead.
For if we don't make up our minds, if the prime minister doesn't make up his mind, the signs are multiplying that others are bent on making our minds up for us.
And while we may be untenably confused and conflicted, they may be dangerously ignorant.
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