Think Again: The counsel of despair

Acting out of conviction that the status quo is unsustainable can only cloud our judgment.

tzipi livni_311 (photo credit: Idan Gross )
tzipi livni_311
(photo credit: Idan Gross )
Less than a week from now, we will read in the Book of Ruth on Shavuot morning about the terrible fate that befell Elimelech and his sons Machlon and Chilyon when they left Eretz Yisrael for Moab, in the midst of a terrible famine. Some commentators explain that as leaders of the people, their departure caused widespread despair, and for that they were punished.
And in two weeks’ time, we will read of the Sin of the Spies. Again, many commentators note that the great Sin of the Spies did not lie in their report of the Land, but in their insistence that the Children of Israel would be unable to conquer the land. They actively discouraged the people from undertaking that which they had been commanded.
ISRAEL IS still rife with such naysayers today, chief among them opposition leader Tzipi Livni. While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was still trying to figure out how to address the lastminute curveball thrown by President Barack Obama, as he was about to embark for the United States, Livni rushed to condemn the prime minister for having brought American-Israeli relations to an impasse. About the American president’s attempt to box in Netanyahu prior to his address to a joint session of Congress, about the shadow of illegitimacy the president cast over all territory held by Israel beyond the 1949 armistice lines, and about the short shrift the president gave to Israel’s security needs, most particularly the requirement of holding the Jordan Valley, she had not a word to say.
Livni appears to view the role of the prime minister of Israel as acquiescence in whatever the American president desires, as if Israel had no interests of its own and no independent evaluation of what serves those interests.
Israel is an American satrapy, Livni suggests. So much for a free and sovereign people in their own land. Zionism’s forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.
ON THE charitable view that Livni’s statements are not solely dictated by blind ambition and the compulsive need to criticize Netanyahu’s every move, she has fully internalized the perspective of her Kadima predecessor, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who famously said that without hope for a two-state solution, “the State of Israel is finished.”
Such statements presume that peace with our Arab neighbors is not only a desideratum for Israel, but the very purpose for which Israel came into existence – a point eloquently made by Daniel Gordis’s teenage daughter in the opening chapter of his Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End.
Statements like Olmert’s are not only false, but counterproductive, for they further push off the peace the speaker so ardently desires. Arab leaders and clergy constantly proclaim that time is on their side, and that the life-loving Jews will eventually run away in the face of constant threats. To the extent that Palestinians believe this frequent trope of their own propaganda, why should they engage in serious negotiations? Better to wait for the Jews to return to Germany, or Poland, or Morocco, as Helen Thomas suggests.
When Israel’s leaders proclaim their weariness and hopelessness, they provoke Israel’s enemies to test its resolve and encourage war. Only when the Palestinians come to the recognition that Israel is not going to disappear or throw in the towel is there any hope of their ever embarking on serious negotiations.
In his May 19 speech, Obama did everything possible to encourage Israeli despair. He spoke of Israel’s increasing isolation in the international community as something inexorable. He did not acknowledge that there is a good deal the US can do to prevent that isolation or point out the hypocrisy and manipulation of the language of human rights that underlies that diplomatic isolation. For good measure, the president discussed the demographic threat to Israel – a majority of Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – if Israel cannot find a way to separate itself from the Palestinians. (Actually, the demographic trends are now in the opposite direction.) These warnings are of a piece with the oftrepeated judgment of both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The status quo is unsustainable.” And it is true that the threat of international isolation is not a small problem. Nor is the cost of being intertwined with the daily lives of many Palestinians in the West Bank, despite the high degree of Palestinian autonomy today.
BUT ACTING out of conviction that the status quo is unsustainable can only cloud judgment. And if the ability to bring about a sustainable and stable peace is not in our hands, it is the counsel of despair, for there is truly no hope. But a nation of such remarkable vitality and achievements as Israel, despite never having known peace, facing the world’s leading mendicants per capita, need not be despondent.
“Never change a winning game; always change a losing game,” my tennis coaches used to preach. And in tennis that makes a lot of sense, since there are only two possible outcomes – winning and losing. But in the real world, even if one finds oneself in a difficult situation, there are two possible consequences of a change in strategy: One can make things better or one can make them worse. Sometimes the only course is to play the hand that you have been dealt with calm and patience and, above all, without panic.
In his May 19 speech, Obama admitted, perhaps unwittingly, that peace is not on the horizon for Israelis and Palestinians – indeed, that it is not even attainable in the current constellation of attitudes. Wherein lay that implicit admission? In his insistence on pushing any discussion of the Palestinian “right of return,” and thus any recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state, to the end of the process.
Obama knows that no Palestinian leader can publicly compromise on the “right of return.” Yasser Arafat told Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 that such a concession would make him a dead man walking. And if that was true then, it is 100 times more so for the far weaker Mahmoud Abbas, especially with Hamas breathing down his neck.
Yet recognition by the Palestinians that Israel will not commit demographic suicide is the one Palestinian concession that would be of any meaning to Israelis. In the absence of some public acknowledgment of that fact, no Palestinian education for peace can even begin. Nearly 20 years after the handshake on the White House lawn, there has still been no mitigation of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda in the Palestinian media, schoolbooks, and among PA-supported clergy. If anything, the situation has worsened, with the development of an officially sponsored cult of martyrdom. Not surprisingly, every Palestinian public opinion poll shows an overwhelming rejection of any conceivable peace agreement with Israel.
Israel has paid a heavy price for listening to the voices of despair. Yossi Beilin, one of the principal architects of Oslo, once said, “I could not bear to live in a world in which peace is not possible.” To preserve that hope, he decided that it was worth the risk to rescue Arafat from the dustbin of history in Tunis. Yet his inability to live without illusion resulted in nearly 1,500 Israelis losing their lives to terrorism in the first decade after Oslo, 450 of them after Ehud Barak’s generous offer to Arafat at Camp David in 2000 that went far beyond the Israeli consensus. The increased missile threat after the Gaza withdrawal is another example of what happens when we fantasize that it is within our power to bring about piece unilaterally and convince ourselves that we have no choice but to try to do so.
Our Sages teach that the consequences of the Spies’ counsel of despair is still with us. The evidence is all around.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.