GM as Parable, and Israel's Sudden Choice: Obama or Kahane

07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even in Israel, the bankruptcy of General Motors has much to teach.

In fact, it seems oddly fitting that a month which may recast the direction of the Middle East, and of the future of Israel, opened with an event which until recently would have redefined the unthinkable: an African American president of the United States discussing the impact of the collapse of what was once the world's largest company, and warning that it would take "a painful toll on many Americans."

The bankruptcy of General Motors bears a number of lessons Israelis would be well advised to consider, especially in view of Barack Obama's imminent overture to the Muslims of the region.

One has directly to do with a society's most fundamental and protected of sacred cows, in Israel's case the settlements and their outlaw spinoffs: Sacred does not mean immortal. Nor, in an atmosphere of moral bankruptcy, does sacred necessarily mean moral.

Another lesson is this: Choices which may have for decades seemed indefinitely far in the future, may suddenly and unavoidably become the province of the here and now.

And one more, for the settlers, especially: Do not underestimate Barack Obama. If the untouchable General Motors has been toppled, can the sacred cow of unfettered settlement be far behind?

For Israel, the choice of paths is becoming clearer by the day. There is the way being pointed by Obama, characterized by an intensive search for creative ways in which the main players in the conflict are to receive long-desired benefits in return for sacrificing certain -- often self-destructive -- policy platforms and practices.

The other choice, it develops, is that of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the man who first embodied what might be called the disgruntle strain of hardline Israeli politics: In all things, act and speak so as to belittle, besmirch, and disgrace Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, and Muslims in general, couching all of it in the baldfacedly bogus guise of an imperative of Jewish law or in Orweillian demands for Stalin-worthy fealty to a theoretical, on-the-books reality.

In recent weeks, we have seen the hideous markers of the Kahane approach, notably in the legislative proposals highlighting Jewish insecurity over the "Jewish Zionist" future of Israel, and a we-have-much-to-hide attitude toward the circumstances of Israel's birth. Kahane's legacy is even more evident in the current eruption of violence in settler outposts, with masked Jewish youths hurling stones and other objects at passing Palestinian motorists. We have watched these "most excellent of our youth" as they fight Israeli police and soldiers who have the temerity to enforce Israeli law and are thus routinely branded as Nazis by the pro-outpost hoodlums.

Disgracism, as an ideology, extols the settler hotheads' and rabid rightist rabbis' brand of abject disloyalty to strictures imposed by the state, even as it condemns Israeli Arabs for suggesting that members of a minority should be able to simultaneously hold both citizenship and their own opinions.

In the end, the disgrace shown the Arabs does deep disgrace to the perpetrator, but, more importantly, does the deepest disgrace of all to the State of Israel.

At the same time, we have seen the indications of an effort to stem the tide of unfettered and illegal settlement in the West Bank. This, despite the blackmail of religious and right-wing politicians, who brandish the third-act pistol of coalition demolition every time they take an oath to support a new government.

The most applicable lesson of GM's fall might be gleaned from studying perhaps the most honored misquote in history. Until now, the settlers and their supporters have insisted by word and deed that what is good for settlement is good for the State of Israel.

But the original quote bears repeating. In 1953, facing a Senate hearing over his nomination for secretary of defense, then-General Motors president Charles Wilson came in for questioning over the large amounts of GM stock he owned. Given his investments, he was asked, could he make a decision as defense secretary that would hurt the company?

"I cannot conceive of one, because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country."

Wilson, it should be underscored, sold his shares. It is time for extremist settlers and their blind supporters to sell theirs -- to be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the country, rather than expecting the country to sacrifice itself for them.

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