TERRA INCOGNITA: Israel needs its Bobby Kennedy moment

The country needs either a transformative leader or a responsible brain trust to advise its government on how to articulate a viable future.

knesset  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Bobby Kennedy may have risen to power largely on his brother’s coattails, but he understood the importance of vision. Unqualified to be attorney general, he did a decent job and presented himself for presidential election in 1968, only to be gunned down by a deranged Palestinian- American, Sirhan Sirhan. One of RFK’s well known aphorisms was “there are those who look at things and ask why, I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
Israel needs a Bobby Kennedy moment. There are serious questions that need asking. When we look at Israel’s politics, the country is forever lurching from crisis to crisis.
And Israel is good at micromanaging crises. It thinks it won the Gaza war through effective conflict management. It thinks it is winning the “Jerusalem intifada” through effective conflict management. For each cut there is a bandage. For each seeming “red line” when it comes to foreign relations, there is always another.
For the most part that is true. The current controversy over “Givat Hamatos” appears to be as overblown as the Har Homa “doomsday” controversy of the 1990s. “This too shall pass,”goes the famous saying, attributed to a Persian Sufi poet.
There is another quote, attributed (probably falsely) to Sun Tzu: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” Some in Israeli political circles seem to think this applies to Israel’s enemies – after all, in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” they do seem to be floating by. But there was an interesting video posted online last week, of a young Arab girl shouting at Israeli Border Police in the Old City.
“All the world hates you, they are with us, get off my land,” she shouted. She was expressing that long-held Palestinian view that time is not on Israel’s side. Most of the Israeli Left thinks this way also.
Gidi Weitz, interviewing former Meretz leader Haim Oron for Haaretz while relaxing at his bucolic kibbutz, noted, “Some say the only way for collective awareness to be forged that peace is an existential need, is for a purely right-wing government to be formed, one that will refuse outright to negotiate, and bring about an international boycott and economic crisis.”
That was an incisive comment. Weitz let down the curtain a little and let us see behind, into the thought process of some on the Left. Yasser Arafat once supposedly boasted that “the womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon.” Whose game is Israel’s government currently playing? That’s always the question. Israel’s opponents view it as an inevitable anachronism.
They talk about the fall of Rhodesia, Apartheid South Africa, and French Algeria. When asked about Israel’s apparent strength, they’d turn to the declaration of the Republic of Rhodesia in 1970 by Ian Douglas Smith.
Smith had said then that “things are going to flow, improved trade and in time diplomatic recognition.” They point to South Africa, when P.W. Botha said in 1985, “Today we are crossing the Rubicon, there will be no turning back, I have a manifesto for the future of our country.” They see the slow march to recognition of Palestinian statehood as progress. A little bit at a time.
ISRAEL HAS made several major strategic redeployments in the past based on a reading of the tea leaves. The Egyptian-Israel peace treaty in 1982, Oslo and the Jordan treaty in the 1990s and the Gaza disengagement in 2005. If you’re counting, these strategic readjustments come about every 10 years, which would mean Israel is about due for another. The radical Left and the anti-Israel voices abroad want Israel to dig its own grave, to throw itself in the river as it were; they wring their hands in delight as time goes by.
Israel’s political leaders need to be honest with themselves about the situation. Political relations with the EU are not going to improve. It isn’t like there is some massive pro-Israel generation about to come of age in Europe. To the contrary: in retrospect, Israel may see its current relations with the EU as a high point.
The situation in Gaza and Jerusalem and the West Bank is not going to improve. Gaza isn’t going to have a sudden epiphany of liberal democracy. Jerusalem Arab children raised today are not going to like Israel more than their parent’s generation. Mahmoud Abbas is not going to be head of the Palestinian Authority forever. Did everyone forget he was born in 1935 in Safed, in Mandate Palestine? He has, at best, less than a decade of rule left.
And his closest allies in the Fatah Central Committee, Ahmed Qurei (born 1937), Nabil Shaath (born 1938, also in Safed), Abu Maher Ghneim (1937) and Yasser Abed Rabbo (1944) are of the same generation. The “next generation” are no spring chickens, either: Saeb Erekat (born 1955), Mahmoud Dahlan (1961) and Jabril Rajoub (1953).
Is there a Bobby Kennedy moment on the horizon? Israel’s leaders are currently focused on outlasting the Obama administration. The view now is that the current crisis, called “the worst in 50 years” by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, will bloom after November. Solution: Outlast. Just two years. It’s like in the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when spymaster Control tells his deputy George Smiley to “sweat them, bully them, any damn thing, give them whatever they eat, I need time!” Events move quickly. The Arab Spring began as recently as December 2010, and Islamic State emerged basically a year ago.
Smart political strategy is about reading time. George Kennan, architect of containment during the Cold War and Winfield Scott, architect of the Anaconda Plan to beat the US South in the Civil War, understood that time was clearly on their side. Israel’s political strategy doesn’t posit that time is on Israel’s side, but having read those tea leaves, it doesn’t acknowledge that major, sweeping and revolutionary policy plans should have a 10-year action plan for moving the goal posts in Israel’s direction.
Israel’s greatest fear should be a “perfect storm” of circumstances, like when the stock market moves against an over-leveraged hedge fund position. Such an event might be a low-intensity war with Gaza, coupled with unrest in Sinai, with an event in the West Bank that leads to mass rioting in Israel and attacks on security forces in the territories.
Cross-border attacks by al-Nusra Front fighters in the Golan, or by Hezbollah, along with a full-court press by the EU on the Palestine issue, could create a snowball effect.
Milosevic never foresaw the rapidity with which Yugoslavia would fall apart and international leaders would line up against him.
Privately, some prescient Israeli politicians understood the creation of Kosovo to be a strategic precedent threatening the Jewish state.Discounting such a disaster, the mere closure of Israel’s major airport and ports due to a rocket threat would be a national disaster, the kind that creates a domino effect.
Do Israel’s enemies smell blood in the water? Not yet.
“Play the short game,” the devil whispers.
And Israel is playing that game. But it is sorely in need of a long-term strategy. No more “plugging holes in the dike,” and “straws on the camel’s back.” It isn’t a surprise that the English language, often borrowing from Latin, is dotted with these phrases like “head in the sand,” “who dares, wins” and “fortune favors the bold.” It’s too bad, given this need for bold leadership, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admires the Carthaginian Hannibal Barca; ultimately a failed and tragic figure, a military genius who could not defeat the Roman anaconda that strangled his mercantile North African Republic.
Israel must find its future voice. Its Left mourns every year at Rabin Square and waxes nostalgic about the 1950s “when we ran things.” Its blubberous and ultimately politically flaccid Center forever flops around for a populist policy, usually centered around congealed pasteurized food products or the ultra-Orthodox, neither of which offer Israel a future policy. The Right seems to have given Israel all of its leaders, from Rivlin to Livni, none of whom seem to be able to articulate much of a policy.
We hope the country will find a Bobby Kennedy moment. Reactive policies, spats with the Americans, the inevitable EU march toward more Palestinian support, is circumscribing Israel’s political maneuvering room.
The country needs either a transformative leader or a responsible brain trust to advise its government on how to articulate a viable future.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman