THE BLOG

The Winter of Our Discontent

03/20/2015 07:27 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Today's theatre-goers -- or, what is more likely the case, readers -- often mistake the meaning of the opening line.

In Shakespeare's Richard III, "Now is the winter of our discontent" literally refers to the end of Gloucester's depression as winter woes turn into summer sunshine brought on by the punned "sun of York," namely, Gloucester's brother, who has become King. Instead of deconstructing any optimism, however, we moderns tend to imbue the line with literalness, where winter is a fixed season rather than a mere and passing prelude. On this view, winter is not the end of our discontent but simply the present period of it.

Maybe we do this because our ears miss the rhythm -- the inherent ornateness -- of Elizabethan English. Shakespeare, after all, didn't tweet, and his dialogue wasn't wrapped in pictures and surrounded by music. Whatever narrative force existed was largely made real by the power of the words.

But maybe we also do it because the line had double meaning, the second of which comports with today's often mistaken understanding.

For it is also the case that Gloucester's optimism is more than false, his "winter" of discontent hardly over as he bemoans an ugliness that makes him luckless in love, which he then uses to justify his planned villainy.

In any case, a similarly confusing "winter of discontent" is now upon us in the Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu has just been re-elected Prime Minister of Israel. He hasn't actually formed a government yet, but his party -- Likud -- captured 30 seats in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament -- which, when combined with the seats won by more conservative and Orthodox parties to Likud's right, will give him more than the needed 60 votes to do so. He beat a re-constituted center-left party called the Zionist Union, which was heir to the Israeli Labor governments of yore, and truth be told, the old line founding Zionists of the Israeli state. Zionist Union won 24 seats and represents a now sizable minority of the Israeli population (and a majority in more secular places like Tel Aviv).

Netanyahu also won ugly. Just before the election, he renounced the two-state solution, and on the day of the election, he juiced his turnout by telling Israeli Jews that that the "Arabs were flocking to the polls." The latter was to be feared in his mind, even though the flockers were bona fide Israeli citizens. Today he asserted that he was not a racist and that he had not changed his views on the need for two independent states -- Palestinian and Israeli -- as the basis for peace. He explained his pre-election comment as merely indicating that the time for such a solution was not now.

So...

When will "now" arrive?

According to Netanyahu and many others, now will come only when all the Arab states, the Palestinians, and Iran (i) concede Israel's right to exist and (ii) lack the ability to attack or otherwise terrorize the Jewish state. If so, now is a long way off and probably will never come. Indeed, though not a theoretically impossible state of affairs, there are not negative numbers high enough to describe its practical unlikelihood. Hamas and Hezbollah could cease to exist but the Iranian bogeyman, with or without nukes, would still foreclose a Palestinian state; the sheer proximity of eternal haters would almost certainly render the second condition unattainable; and in the meantime, continued occupation of and settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank will fuel those hatreds.

The real question for Netanyahu is this -- if Hamas and Hezbollah were eliminated and the threat of rocket attacks gone, would he cut a deal and create a Palestinian state? Or would he insist as he has in the past on other conditions under the rubric of demilitarization, such as no Palestinian-controlled airspace, conditions -- it should be added -- to which other nations with whom Israel has made peace and whom Netanyahu has praised (namely Egypt and Jordan) never had to agree?

In the New York Times today, Thomas Friedman claimed that Netanyahu was moving Israel in one of two directions -- either to a "non-Jewish democracy" or to a "non-democratic Jewish state." He reasoned that, absent a two-state solution, Israel will either absorb the occupied territories and let the Palestinians vote, in which case the Arab birth rate will ultimately allow them to outnumber Israeli Jews and the state will no longer be Jewish, or it will not extend the vote to Palestinians, at which point Israel as a Jewish state will have been assured, but it will cease to be a democracy.

A friend later told me that Friedman's choice was a false one because Israel will never annex the West Bank. I agree that Israel will not do this, but I do not think that undercuts Friedman's point. As a practical matter, establishing impossible conditions for a two-state solution means that the default reality is one state. Even a state with un-annexed Palestinian territories is still one state, regardless of how it is described legally. Such a state is also un-democratic as a practical matter in that large swaths of the controlled population have no say in the laws that effectively govern them.

My friend also thought that Friedman's analysis omitted the most likely scenario, which in his view is war or a series of wars. This too appears accurate as a matter of fact; Netanyahu never stands down (nor should he) in the face of Hamas's or Hezbollah's rockets and we can expect more of what transpired last summer.

As to Iran, however, the option of war will be enormously costly, and here, Netanyahu did his country no favors in accepting John Boehner's invitation this month to speak to Congress. Netanyahu claimed that the current negotiations with Iran will produce a bad deal; that no deal is better than a bad deal; and that sanctions can ultimately get Iran to give up any nuclear arms program. The first flaw in his argument was to characterize the would-be deal as a bad one. On the one hand, no one knows its specific terms yet; on the other, what we do know suggests that the Iranians will be foreclosed for at least a decade and will not be able to produce arms in less than a year even if they decide to thereafter.

There is nothing bad about that deal. It gives the world time, presumably within which Iranians will enjoy the absence of economic sanctions and some sort of renewed prosperity they won't want to lose 10 years hence. It isn't final, and absent effective verification and inspections, Obama won't cut it. It also won't be perfect, but no deal with a committed adversary is, and in any case, the notion that we should not strike a deal with a non-nuclear Iran is historically obtuse. We have negotiated and dealt with far more fearful adversaries throughout our history and there is no reason to assume we cannot do the same with Iran. Nor do we have to "trust" Iran. The deal will provide for verification and without that, it will not occur.

The second flaw is the assumption that future sanctions will bring Iran to its knees and force it to give up its nuclear program. That type of approach has not worked to date and the sanctions regime already has been fairly draconian; there is no reason to assume that the Ayatollahs will bow to more of the same. In addition, the efficacy of the sanctions depends on the world -- not just the West -- enforcing them, and here, Netanyahu's Congressional speech may have done the most harm, especially if the Russians and the Chinese decide that Bibi and the GOP neo-cons are responsible for killing any deal with Iran. For, without Russian and Chinese support for sanctions, they are probably useless.

Now is the winter of our discontent.

If you believe Netanyahu and the neo-cons here and in Israel have some sort of war/sanctions strategy that will not create unintended and un-manageable consequences (wars have a habit of doing that) and will ultimately, however long the time horizon, lead to the kind of peace Netanyahu says he is after, that winter may be long but will be followed by a summer sun.

If, however, you believe that the failure to negotiate any deal with Iran, coupled with a frozen status quo in the occupied territories of Israel, is more or less a recipe for war that cannot be controlled...

Then...

The winter of our discontent won't just be a passing season.