The pity of black-and-white politics

Israel’s domestic and international issues are complex. Over-simplifying them is a serious mistake.

housing protest 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
housing protest 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
What a pity it is that we in Israel have black-and-white politics. The fact and it’s enormity both become very clear when we face combinations of great challenges or opportunities, in either the political and in the social-economic sphere. It just happened to us again this past week.
The UN drama is perceived by some in Israel as a great victory for Israel and the Netanyahu government because of the explicit, and not-to-be-taken for granted, US support. Many others see it as a sign of Israel’s and the government’s great defeat due to the royal welcome the Palestinians and their cause received at the General Assembly. The former recommend continuing with what we’ve been doing. The latter demand an immediate new political initiative to save the day, if not an early election to facilitate a new approach. I believe both perceptions, and therefore both sets of recommendations, are misguided and fail to do justice to the complexity of the situation.
Allowing Palestine to become a UN member state without first obtaining – from an effective Palestinian government – some commitment regarding the concessions it will need to make to realize the vision of two states for two peoples is a very bad idea. It will not promote the kind of process required to make this dream a reality; the making of very difficult concessions by both sides.
At the same time, not to welcome at least in principle a move that means additional support for the two-states-for-two-peoples vision (notwithstanding the fact that many of the countries voting for Palestine would be quite content with it being merely an introduction to the dream of one, united Arab Palestine), is also a very bad idea.
Only such an in-principle endorsement could gain a credible voice for Israel in drafting the GA resolution in a way that will promote the two-state solution rather than the one-state reality. Equally important, such an in-principle endorsement would make it easier for Israel to form a stable coalition within Israel itself and with Israel’s friends in the international community.
Last but not least, support within Israel for the two-state-solution as a way to maintain Jewish independence in at least part of the land of Israel is substantial and solid. It is not based on partisan divides. It can be united on an understanding that while we affirm our historical and cultural ties to the whole of the land, we are willing to consider a political reality under which political sovereignty will be divided, in a way that will permit Jews to maintain ties to all of the land, just as Palestinian Arabs can live and keep their attachments to all of the land.
Thus accepting either that we should just say “no,” or should just endorse the Palestinian move as it is, would both be very bad mistakes. We must find a way to work in the middle space. Taking the position that only the extremes are possible means that we’ll never succeed.
Similarly, we seem to be trashing an unbelievable opportunity to enlist the fantastic wave of social protest that erupted over the summer to create some indispensable structural changes in the social-economic reality in Israel. We have resisted these changes until now because, among other things, the political will was more occupied with short-term coalition building than with the strategic need to build a stable and growing society based on values of responsibility and solidarity.
The summer’s protests tell the government that this cannot go on and that the public wants a serious attempt made to deal with these issues, even at the cost of some of those coalition-making requirements. We must draw a guideline for lowering the defense budget, without harming security, by initiating processes of increased effectiveness. We must tie benefits to norms of participation in the workforce and contribution to the strength of the economy by all residents and groups. We must make the social and economic system more responsive to the new challenges while providing meaningful education and opportunities. And we must do this with great responsibility.
The Trajtenberg recommendations do not meet all the protesters’ hopes and demands. Of course they don’t. No one could.
Maybe they could be better in some selected points, but that is not the issue. They present a very impressive and well-targeted package that together addresses in a serious and responsible way many of the structural ills that sent hundreds of thousands to the streets.
If the move and the mood started by some of the leaders of the protest triumph, we may miss this very rare opportunity. There will be many within the government who will be too happy to drop the whole package. The only way to make politicians do what is hard for them short term but critical for all of us long term is to not give them excuses to reject or dilute these recommendations. And we can do this only if we all demand that, at least for starters, these recommendations are followed. In addition, the protesters should seek to translate their power into a permanent political voice and power that will work in a combination of parliamentary and public modes to see to it that the right things are done.
There are huge opportunities in our path for the next year. They are very rare. We cannot afford to let them go.
The writer is the Haim H. Cohn Professor of Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.