Saturday, March 29, 2008

A New Gulf

Despite the US Congress's predictable, one sided expressions of support for Israel, there is a widening gulf of understanding between Israelis and Americans regarding US policy in the Middle East. If a Democrat is elected president, especially if it is Obama, the next administration and Israel are likely to be at odds over whether Israel needs to take any steps toward settling its conflict with the Palestinians or cooperate with the United States in seeking some stability in the Middle East. This is because the present limbo is far more acceptable for many Israelis and their government than outcomes of steps toward accommodating Palestinian needs and Syrian interests. To them, the rockets falling on Sderot, the threats from Hezbollah, the building demographic problem and the risk of become evermore an apartheid state are minor compared to fears about a coherent Palestinian state, an invigorated Syria, and a region where nations compete for preeminence without assured outside intervention.

Without claiming that Israel through its American neo-con supporters shares some responsibility for the invasion of Iraq, one can easily argue that Israel welcomed and benefited from it and the subsequent occupation. The invasion removed Saddam, a feared, if over-rated enemy; the occupation has prevented the reconstitution of a state whose leadership would likely be hostile to Israel. More importantly, the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, bracketing Iran dissuades any conventional, direct action against Israel, that Iranian ideologues might consider. On the other hand, the Bush administration's perceptions of Iranian meddling in the occupation strengthens its inclination to use force to thwart Iran's presumed ambitions, most notably the acquisition of nuclear weapons, a possibility that Israel dreads. No one wonder John McCain, with his open-ended commitment to keep US troops in Iraq and his declared hostility to Iran, is the favored presidential candidate in Israel and among its right wing supporters in the United States.

Signs of the potential gulf have already appeared at the rhetorical and symbolic levels. The Bush administration has finally heard that pushing Israel toward peace with the Palestinians can help restore the US's prestige in the Middle East and the world at large. So W. has declared his desire to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace by the end of his term and pushed Israel and the PLO government (nominally in control of only the West Bank) to restart formal negotiations. Each side has declared its desire to meet Bush's goal, the leaders and negotiating teams have met, but nothing has changed on the ground. The IDF continues in full the West Bank road blocks and travel restrictions, which fragment the territory and undermine the possibilities of its economic development. Israel continues building and settlement activities instead of freezing them as required by the roadmap. Gaza remains under Israel blockade and Hamas which controls it is excluded from participation in any negotiations. For its part, the Palestinian Authority (a.k.a. Fatah) remains unwilling or unable to suppress activities by terrorist groups in the West Bank. It has failed to soften Hamas's insistence on Israel withdrawal to the 1967 borders as a precondition for any change Hamas's rejection of Israel, and Hamas continues to reject Fatah's claim to lead the Palestinians. The headline, as Secretary of State Rice admitted a few weeks ago, is neither side has done enough to move the peace process forward. But the not-so secret story is nobody in the Bush administration, Rice possibly excepted, cares. She is now in the Israel and the West Bank trying to restart the negotiations for the third or fourth time. A fool's errand or photo op?

But the next administration will need to move to a more substantive level. In some way, the US will need to extricate itself from Iraq; the cost of its present engagement is unsustainable. One of the better scenarios for the pullback will involve a loose regional alliance of the Arab states and Israel partly to promote stability in Iraq and partly to blunt Iranian ambitions in the region. That can only happen if Israel begins serious efforts to settle with the Palestinians. At its meeting last week, the Arab league, perhaps recognizing the possibilities for such a scenario, again endorsed the Saudi proposal for peace with Israel on the basis of total Israel withdrawal to the 1967 borders and creation of a Palestinian state. The next administration might have little choice but to accept that, rather than the status quo, as the starting point for negotiations with the Arab states and an Israel government would do well to recognize such constraints on its American partner. Otherwise push could come to shove.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Purim and Narratives

This past weekend, some Jews observed Purim with food, drink, costumes, gifts of food, charitable donations and hearing the Book of Esther. Purim commemorates events described in that book, principally the intervention of a Jewish royal concubine to foil a plot to exterminate Jews in the Persian Empire and the Jews in turn slaying the would be exterminators. The story is apocryphal, although it may have echoed incidents of inter-ethnic violence in the Persian Empire as well as steamy Persian romances. Despite this, the book's failure to mention God and the heroine's sexual conduct, the Rabbis of the first century C.E. readily included it in the Bible. Perhaps Purim by then was too popular a holiday for them to do otherwise.

Like other carnival days, Purim, as the story suggests,celebrates reversals of fortune: the lowly can pretend to be royal; the down-trodden rulers; the poor rich. It encourages conduct disparaged at other times, like public drinking and mocking the powerful. There is also a darker side to the holiday: a call to vendetta. The Rabbis highlighted that by associating with Purim the Torah's account of the Amalek tribe's attack on the Jews who followed Moses in the desert. The Torah passage enjoins Jews to remember the episode and annihilate descendants of Amalek. According to Midrash, Haman, the Persian plotter against the Jews, was one such descendant, and according to some commentators, every generation has an Amelek avatar. In short, Purim was a round in a trans-historical vendetta.

The Likud and Religious Zionist versions of the Israel national narrative are anchored in such bedrock. It explains the evil of the enemies who beset Israel and Israel's obligation to fight back, without reliance on supernatural help or negotiations. So it was not unexpected to hear vendetta thinking in the eulogy for the eight Jerusalem yeshiva students gunned down by a Palestinian at the beginning of the Hebrew month Adar, two weeks before Purim. The head of the yeshiva, who delivered the eulogy, first characterized the killings as a continuation of the 1929 massacre of religious Jews in Hebron by local Arabs. He then labeled the killer and his cohorts as Amalek and castigated the Israel government for trying to negotiate with such people on the basis of territorial division. Present political exigencies and metaphysical, eternal struggles were seamlessly fused in his speech, at least for the well versed in his audience.

Other narratives in Israel have diluted this vendetta thinking by treating Jewish achievements and tragedies as history rather than sacred struggles, dismissing Amalek along with most of the Bible as a dead letter and treating Purim as pure carnival. Some folks, troubled by the vengeful message of the holiday, have muted its celebration or ignored it altogether. The philosopher and educator Ernst Simon took another approach to its celebration. He was an observant Jew, but along with Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, he advocated a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Simon reportedly would spend the usual day of Purim (Adar 14) in Jerusalem, where people celebrate on the following day (Adar 15). Then as night and the start of celebrations in Jerusalem approached, he left for Tel Aviv, where the celebration was ending.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


The coincidence of (Catholic & Protestant) Easter and the celebration of Purim in Jerusalem (a day later than elsewhere) seems an ironically appropriate day to resurrect this blog. Since we last posted a scant 18 months ago, a few changes have occurred in Israel and among the Palestinians. Two thirds of the spectaculary unsuccessful triumvirate (Olmert, Peretz, Halutz) that led Israel into the Lebanon war are gone, the President of Israel, accused of rape, resigned but plea bargained out of jail time. A US instigated Fatah-led coup against the Palestinians' Hamas government failed. leaving Hamas in control of Gaza, and Fatah in control of the West Bank. Efforts at their reconciliation have gone nowhere. For the last year, Hamas and other militants have been firing home made rockets from Gaza at Israeli southern cities and settlements, while Israel has responded with targeted killings, incursions resulting in broader killings and the blockade of Gaza. Or is it the other way around? Gaza has become arguably the world's largest prison and a humanitarian disaster, an outcome which just perpetuates Hamas's rejection of Israel and Israel's retaliation.

George Bush, building upon the failures in Iraq, New Orleans, the US economy, etc., visited the area a few months ago, called upon Palestinians and Israel to make peace by the end of this year and pledged US help for that end. (A day late and a few billion dollars short?) That touched off the charade of the powerless Israel PM Olmert and the powerless PA President Abu Abbas meeting -- to the exclusion of Hamas -- to discuss the conditions for discussing the conditions for peace, only to emerge from their meetings with different accounts of what was discussed. Bush's pledge explains US Vice-President Dick Cheney's presence in Jerusalem today. It was Purim; he was masquerading as a peace-maker.