One afternoon last week, I hosted a debate devoted to Israel's political horizons, for an audience of mainly foreign journalists, between Labor's Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Kadima's Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and the Likud's Yuval Steinitz. The way the seating panned out arbitrarily, I found myself with Steinitz to my immediate right, Sheetrit to my immediate left, and Tamir on the far left.
What seemed most appropriate in that coincidental seating arrangement was that Sheetrit and Tamir were next to each other, since their positions on peacemaking with the Palestinians seemed so similar. One member of the audience was even moved to ask Sheetrit to detail the differences on this issue, if any, between Kadima and Labor. Sheetrit didn't have much of an answer to that, beyond making the dubious claim that there didn't have to be major differences between parties to justify their separate existences, and remarking, later in the debate, that Labor's Ehud Barak was probably positioned to his own political right.
Sheetrit and Tamir were equally effusive in their backing for the latest US-led push for substantive progress on the Palestinian front, and equally reluctant to grapple with that notably aggressive fly in the ointment, Hamas. Tamir mused hopefully that any steps forward on the diplomatic front could serve to undermine the Islamists' popularity, since Hamas-voting West Bankers, and especially Gazans, might internalize that there were ways other than violence for advancing their cause. Sheetrit was downright cavalier, declaring that "I don't care" about what happens to Gaza or in Gaza, and only backtracking slightly when he was reminded that, among other highly relevant repercussions, what happens in Gaza has an immediate daily impact on what happens in Sderot and much of southern Israel.
I was thinking of these and other irresponsible throwaway utterances by our politicians when I then read an article in The New York Times, published earlier this month, entitled "Getting Iraq Wrong," in which the Canadian politician and former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff tried to explain why the political judgment of President Bush, and of commentators such as himself who had backed the invasion, had failed them over what he called the "unfolding catastrophe" there.
Leaving the Iraq case study aside, Ignatieff differentiated astutely between false ideas pursued relatively harmlessly by academics, and false ideas which, when followed by politicians, "can ruin the lives of millions." And he quoted the late philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin as underlining the "sense of reality" crucial to good political judgment. "What is called wisdom in statesmen," Berlin wrote, "is understanding rather than knowledge - some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that it enables those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot; what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know."
Updating Berlin, who was thinking of the likes of Churchill and Roosevelt, Ignatieff added his own definition of good judgment as also including "being a critical judge of yourself... People with good judgment listen to warning bells within. Prudent leaders force themselves to listen equally to advocates and opponents of the course of action they are thinking of pursuing. They do not suppose that their own good intentions will guarantee good results. They do not suppose they know all they need to know. If power corrupts, it corrupts this sixth sense of personal limitation on which prudence relies."
WHAT'S STRIKING, when measuring some of the political thinking on the Palestinian front by world leaders and our own against these highly sensible standards, is how dismally, risibly short it falls. And the failure is all the more galling because, unlike President Bush in Iraq, we've already traveled much the same road with the Palestinians in the past, and seen untested ideas and wishful thinking and the failure to think things through and heed opponents' concerns all blow up in our faces.
Here we are, after the first intifada and the failure of Camp David, and the second intifada and the detonation of unilateralism, patently short of wisdom and understanding, and stubbornly deaf to warnings both internal and external. Here we are, defiantly none the wiser, with one government minister expressing gentle, thoroughly unsupported optimism about a possible shift in the Palestinian mindset, and her colleague, a man with prime ministerial aspirations at that, just plain wishing Gaza away.
The sadly proven fact that should have long since been internalized is that Mahmoud Abbas has neither fought the terrorism that has blighted our day-to-day life here, nor even been moved to stave off his own political demise by reforming the governance his rotten Fatah apparatus offers his disillusioned people. His Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, the new great white Palestinian hope of the world diplomatic community, meanwhile, is paying the salaries of the very Hamas politicians who seek his humiliation and ouster, and even funding some of Hamas's murderous gunmen, albeit apparently because of some nefarious machinations in the PA's computer room.
Rewarding all this failure with an attempt at substantive diplomacy smacks of desperation - by the Bush administration, by the Quartet, and by Israel's government. It smacks of wishful thinking, of the pursuit of false ideas. And it won't work, because it can't work.
No diplomatic framework can succeed so long as the killers who seek its collapse are free to detonate bombs, gun down civilians and fire off rocket barrages at the first hint of real progress. That's why the only process that can possibly succeed is one that places the countering of terrorism, and the attempt to marginalize it, as the first crucial step.
Funding and arming and embracing Abbas's hollow Palestinian Authority without demanding the tackling of terrorism is a veritable disincentive to reform. It prevents Abbas from so much as telling his own people that terrorism must be rooted out as a precondition for progress. And consequently it is a recipe for disaster.
Far from guaranteeing good results, the good intentions of Bush, Rice, Blair and Olmert, pursued via this track, are guaranteed to fail.
At last week's debate, Steinitz was adept at detailing why the new diplomatic moves are destined to self-destruct, and predictable in advocating that Israel hang tough and protect itself as best it can for now, steer clear of false diplomatic dawns, and do what it can to encourage the emergence of Palestinian leadership that is not merely rhetorically moderate, but gutsy. Trouble is, the wait won't be short, and time is not on Israel's side.
At the other end of the political spectrum, past the unthinking Sheetrit and the hopeful Tamir, there are those who advocate grappling with the reality of a Hamas whose rise to power in Gaza is near complete, and whose stranglehold on much of the West Bank's local government is being willfully underestimated by those who are betting, again, on Abbas.
Competent leadership would measure the practicalities of dealing with the extremists against the possibilities for marginalizing them, assess the prospects for genuine reform of the PA, listen to advocates and opponents, heed its own warning bells, and marshal its own wisdom and understanding to formulate the most effective path forward. What we have instead, domestically and chivvying from the outside, are wishful thinkers. But wishful thinking won't make Hamas go away.