03/19/2009 05:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Israel on the Brink

You learn the most about a person, an institution or a state by the ease with which it handles the most vulnerable, particularly when it can get away with bad conduct. That's why the world got so peevish with us over GITMO; it had nothing to do with the avoidance of constitutional principles; it had everything to do with what the strong could do to the weak with impunity. It made us look bad in the sort of way that will have consequences for many years to come. No matter how charming our current President or respected our Secretary of State around the world, we'll be working off the bad rap for decades.

Israel, however, makes our mistakes look like those of kindergarteners. All the ingredients are in place: an electorate feeling besieged by decades of threat, an incoming prime minister who makes Donald Rumsfeld look like a Girl Scout and a soon-to-be foreign minister who can out-extreme Cheney and Limbaugh. So potent is this cocktail of mishap that is has had the effect of turning Hamas into the European cause célèbre, despite the organization's blasé attitude about killing women, children and the elderly - so long as they're Jewish. (They only shoot their Fatah rivals in the legs.) In the meantime, a whole lot of Palestinians in Gaza are suffering horribly and being driven to further extremism.

For the record, I am Jewish, believe in the necessity of Israel and want to see its continued existence. I get angry when I read in The New York Times - as I did today - that Israel has put half a million settlers on land it captured in 1967, without bothering to mention that this only happened after a coalition of Arab countries invaded the country with the intent of destroying it. I also tire of the high and mighty European lectures. Apparently, they have forgotten what it is like to have a few shells per week lobbed into their major cities. (Remember what happened after the murder of Theo van Gogh?)

None of this means that Israel itself is without fault. Its system of government guarantee that religious zealots call the shots. Often, their attitudes are simply inexcusable. In addition, the ennui of the Israeli public toward the peace process is hardly helpful; they no longer believe that an absence of ware is possible, a problem exacerbated by eight years of Bush's "let them eat lead" foreign policy. And the attempt to stop the rockets by military force and economic misery has been the rough equivalent of trying to rid New York of cockroaches with nuclear weapons. (I'd bet on the roaches by the way.) Throw all of this into a cauldron of a global economic malaise, and not even the mighty - and it is - pro-Israeli lobby in Washington will not be able to hold back the world's ire.

What all this means is that Israel should make the difficult decisions: restart the peace process; work vigorously toward a two state solution; deal with the reality that Hamas isn't going anywhere. Catering to short-term populism is not the answer and will only reduce the Israeli capacity to negotiate a defensible peace. Let's not forget into the middle of all this castigation that Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran all favor wiping Israel off the face of the earth.

How the country should do this is beyond me, but it probably will have to start with Netanyahu thinking more about his people than his political fortune. That's no easy pill to swallow, but it beats the alternative - more war, more enemies and less US support, which will be necessary to get all the other recalcitrants to play ball. If Israel wants to steer clear of the precipice, it should start by taking one very brave step back and challenging everyone else to do the same.