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Carlo Strenger

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Israel at 64: Farewell to Hysteria -- Welcome to Pragmatism

Posted: 04/25/2012 3:33 pm

First of all Mazaltov to us all: Israel is celebrating its 64th independence day. We will all go to parties, see friends, and probably eat too much at tomorrow's barbecues.

The festivities will make us forget for a day that, at 64, Israel's internal discourse is haunted by profound insecurities: will the country still be around in another two generations? Will it retain its democratic character? Will it have to go through more terrible wars? Will it be able to bridge the enormous chasms between competing visions of its future that range from national-religious dream of reviving the ancient kingdom of David, complete with Temple and sacrifices to the vision of Israel as a secular state of all of its citizens?

This may be a good moment to take a wider historical perspective: For states 64 years is actually a very young age. At 64 the U.S. still had slavery in the South, and the Civil War that created the final structure of the federation was still to come. Germany at 64 was still to go through the darkest age of its history, as was Italy. States take a long time to evolve into mature democracies, to develop a culture of bridging between ethnic and religious differences and to de-dramatize politics into what it should be: the craft of managing a country's conflicting needs, wishes and aspirations pragmatically.

From such a historical perspective Israel needs to be compared to states like India, Pakistan and Ghana rather than to today's Britain or U.S. -- and by that standard Israel has been doing phenomenally well. Most of the basic institutions of its democracy are quite stable; its economy has been doing remarkably well in these last years of a world economic crisis and Israel continues to be one of the world's powerhouses of technological development.

Why then the existential insecurity? Some of it is fed by obvious factors: Israel is most definitely not placed in the midst of Benelux, but in one of the world's most instable regions: Syria's Assad continues to slaughter his own citizens daily; we are yet to see in what direction Egypt is heading; more importantly, Iran's clerical regime makes sure to promise every other week that Israel will be wiped off the map; Hezbollah is armed to its teeth with more than 50,000 missiles aimed at Israel, and Hamas' leadership solemnly declares that it will not accept any peace agreement with Israel.

This of course fuels the fears Netanyahu keeps fanning. It seems to indicate that he is right in saying that Israel lives in the midst of forces of darkness; that the next holocaust is around the corner; and that he and only he can save the Jewish people from extinction. Netanyahu will continue to harp on these themes, because so far this tactic has done well to keep him in power.

But this does little for Israel's political well-being, whether internally or externally, and it is certainly not the way to deal with Israel's uncomfortable position of being perched on a small stretch of land on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

A welcome alternative is presented by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's interview for Yom Hatzma'ut. On the one hand he emphasizes that the military threat on Iran needs to be credible to keep up the pressure. On the other hand, as opposed to Netanyahu, he thinks that the increasing sanctions on Iran are quite effective and that Iran's regime is unlikely to decide on developing nuclear weapons. Instead of fanning anxiety, his tone is measured, calm and practical.

There is a lot to be learned from Gantz's reasonable approach. He does not belittle the dangers Israel is facing, and he takes his job of preparing for all eventualities very seriously. And yet he succinctly says "Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria."

This is possibly the most important conclusion to be drawn at Israel's 64th independence day, because hysteria has been rampant in all camps. The right thrives on it, but the left has been guilty of its own forms of hysteria. In its desire to reach Peace Now, the left often wanted too much, too quickly and didn't take into account either the complexity of Israel's internal composition or the complex, painful reality of the Arab world's developmental problems.

The growing divisions within U.S. Jewry with respect to Israel mirror the hysterical quality of much of Israel's internal political discourse. On the one hand AIPAC faithfully adheres to the principle that every step that Israeli governments must be supported uncritically, even if some of its policies like building settlements in the West Bank are, as Paul Krugman recently wrote, a "gradual, long-run form of national suicide". On the other hand some liberals like Peter Beinart present Israel's plight in oversimplified terms and come up with ineffective suggestions like boycotting products from the settlements.

There are today options of thinking about Israel's future beyond hysteria, whether of the nationalist or of the left-wing sort: newly elected Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz has proposed a two-phased peace plan that would give Palestinians immediate sovereignty over sixty percent of the West Bank. This would liberate more than 99 percent of Palestinians of Israeli rule immediately without compromising Israel's security, and would create favorable and calmer conditions for the negotiation of a final status agreement.

The problem, of course, is that it is very unclear when such negotiations can be undertaken fruitfully, given the internal divisions within both Israeli and Palestinian society. This situation has been addressed creatively by the founders of Blue-White Future, a movement headed by former Commander of Israel's Navy Ami Ayalon, High-Tech entrepreneur Orni Petruschka and Attorney Gilad Sher, formerly chief of staff to the Prime Minister and peace negotiator (for fair disclosure: I am part of the Blue-White Future's public council).

They have presented their position lucidly in a recent New York Times op-ed entitled 'Peace without Partners' arguing that given the current level of distrust between Israel and Palestine, negotiations are unlikely to lead to quick results, but that this should not lead Israel to freeze the status quo. Instead they present a series of constructive unilateral steps that would prepare the ground for a future two state solution. Blue-White Future wisely assumes that, in the end, any such move must be supported by a wide consensus, and conducts intense dialogue with all walks of Israeli society, including the settlers -- a strategy that I have actively endorsed for some time.

These are eminently pragmatic suggestions that might gradually provide Israel's mainstream with reasonable alternatives to fear-mongering on the one hand and self-righteous utopianism on the other hand. So let's celebrate this year by singing the Beatles' immortal 'When I'm sixty-four' along with Hatikva.

 
 
 
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