daniel gordis 88.
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He was in his 20s, the young man with the question after my lecture. He couldn't have asked it more kindly or gently. Without a hint of cynicism or anger, he expressed what was clearly on the minds of many of the people his age in the crowd: "Can you justify a Jewish state," he wanted to know, "when having a Jewish state means giving up on so many of Judaism's values?"
Here's what he didn't say: Israel is the root of evil in the Middle East. It's the cause of checkpoints, of roadblocks, of a big ugly wall that runs along a border no one has agreed to. The Palestinians are desperate, and in the massive imbalance of power, they have no chance and no hope. Israel is the nuclear bully in a region that, were it not for Israel's existence, would no longer be on the front page. To achieve peace in the Middle East, Israel just needs to be subdued. Break Israel's intransigence, and we'll finally see progress.
That was his unspoken claim, and now it's also the position of the Obama administration. At AIPAC's recent Policy Conference, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John Kerry made it clear that for the US to support Israel on Iran, Israel must settle the Palestinian problem once and for all. It has been widely reported that Rahm Emanuel, in an off-the-record session, said precisely the same thing. After decades of tacit agreement that the US would remain silent about Israel's nuclear capability, a State Department official publicly suggested that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as if, on the eve of Iran's going nuclear and with Pakistani weapons in danger of falling into the hands of the Taliban, Israel's nuclear arsenal is the world's most serious concern.
A new message is afloat - Israel is the problem, and the US has had enough.
Even the pope couldn't help himself. His comments about the victims of the Holocaust were so tepid as to be outrageous, but he had no problem calling urgently for an immediate Palestinian state, as if Israelis haven't tried to create one for decades.
The young American Jews in my audience, clearly struggling with the morality of a Jewish state, now have the Obama administration and the pope echoing all their misgivings.
I have no illusions that all this can be changed overnight, but with the upcoming Binyamin Netanyahu-Barack Obama meetings putting Israel into the spotlight once again, I'd like to propose the following thought experiment - at least to these young American Jews, and possibly to Obama himself.
IMAGINE THAT ISRAELIS decide that by Jerusalem Day, this coming week, they want a deal. So we take down the security fence. We remove the checkpoints. We open all the roads, and Gaza's sea and air routes. We agree publicly to return to something closely approximating the pre-1967 borders, and we accede to the demands that parts of Jerusalem be internationally governed, or even put under Palestinian control.
Does this end the conflict? Of course it doesn't. The Hamas Charter calls not only for the destruction of Israel, but for Islamic war on Jews everywhere. (Why do we consistently refuse to believe that Hamas means what it says?) What would change? The noose would tighten. The rockets would be fired from a shorter distance and the demand for the return of refugees (thus ending the Jewishness of the state) would persist. As was the case when Israel left Lebanon in May 2000 or Gaza in the summer of 2005, Israel's enemies would smell a weakened, bloodied state and would prepare for the next stage of their war.
But peace would not have come. Much as we all want this conflict to end, does anyone really doubt that? There is, as honest brokers must admit, nothing that Israel can do to end this conflict.
NOW, HOWEVER, TRY the opposite side of the thought experiment. Imagine that the Palestinians decide that they have tired of the conflict, or their electorate begins its long-overdue rebellion and insists on a settlement. So the Palestinians, Hamas and Fatah, demand everything Israel's agreed to above - an end to roadblocks and the wall, an opening of Gaza, a bridge or a tunnel between Gaza and the West Bank and a return to the 1967 borders. Let's say that they even insist on Palestinian control of east Jerusalem.
But they also recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. They agree to an immediate and permanent cessation of hostilities and violence (this is a thought experiment, after all) and insist that any other outstanding issues be negotiated and resolved with the US and the Quartet as intermediaries. And they require Israelis to vote within a month, no longer, on whether to accept the deal.
Will there be Israelis who object? Will there be residents of the West Bank who will resist leaving their homes? Yes, there will be. But would an Israeli plebiscite overwhelmingly approve the offer? Without question. In a matter of weeks, three quarters of a century of bloodshed and suffering would come to an end.
This, of course, is not going to happen, because all the new rhetoric notwithstanding, and all the confusion of today's young American Jews aside, there's always been one party that's sought peace, and another that's rejected it. It was true in 1948, and it was true in Khartoum. It's no less true today.
It's never been up to us, and it's always been up to them.
But this simplistic thought experiment is worth considering not because it can be implemented, but because it brings one unfortunate truth into stark focus. Young American Jews ought to take note: Israel cannot end this conflict. It can weaken itself, but the only way it can bring peace to the region is to go out of business.
If that is what the peacemakers really seek, we'll see that soon enough, with frightening clarity.
The writer is senior vice president and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, was published in March. He blogs at www.danielgordis.org.