Jim Sleeper: Israel's Only Way Out

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

Everyone who has followed the Gaza war should read M.J.'s brave and necessary post, just below this one. I'm less hopeful than he that American news media are focusing on the suffering in Gaza, which requires and delivers little more political enlightenment than does their coverage of any other disaster. Still, Israel's long, incoherent, destructive strategy for Palestinians comes into some focus with the images of 1.5 million people in a holding pen, as I noted here on January 4. So where does Israel go from here?

True, history cuts both ways. Soon we may learn that Hamas has tortured, maimed, or killed hundreds of Palestinians since Israelis left on Jan. 20. Slowly, American bleeding hearts will stop bleeding. The tragedy is that Israel's parliamentary democracy -- in which even the briefly-banned Arab parties will participate on Feb. 10 thanks to a Supreme Court unlike any other in the Middle East -- doesn't seem able to short-circuit the country's own part in this destructive spiral.

Israeli voters seem traumatized, paranoid. They can't blame only Hamas' and Hezbollah' obvious totalitarian and nihilistic streak, including the loathsome suicide bombings of 2002 and 2003, which some of Israel's critics oddly never mention. These nihilists have done much to push matters beyond the point of no return.

But not they alone. A lot must be blamed on Israel's excessive courting of big-power gamesmanship, against which Hannah Arendt warned so presciently; its rapacious market priorities (including arms markets); and its bone-headed citizenship, religious, and settlement policies, which have ratcheted up racism even (sometimes especially) among the 40% of Israeli Jews whose parents or grandparents grew up speaking Arabic in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

The cold bottom line is that for 40 years Israelis have tried to reduce Palestinians in the territories to the condition of American Indians, a defeated people surviving on smaller and smaller reservations or, at best, Bantustans. Where was the Marshall Plan or the confederative economic, EU-style effort backed by Israel (and the US)? I see only gestures and bromides along those lines from the three leading candidates in the Feb. 10 elections.

As the Gaza War raged this month, Michael Walzer, a political philosopher who edits a small journal called Dissent, lectured its readers on the proper use of the term"proportionality" in assessing the calculated relation of means to ends in Israel's venture. Walzer might now turn his talents to elucidate the proportionality of means to ends in Israel's policies toward Palestinians since 1967.

If Walzer would have us sideline the conflict's emotional and moral dimensions in order to think strategically, can he do it to help us see, factually and strategically, what Israel's intentions and conduct toward the Palestinians have been since 1967? Can he show us the tough choices and hopeful efforts that Israel made and that he supported, only to see them thwarted by unbending Arab rage?

Can Walzer recount how leaders of Labor, if not Likud, tried to nudge Israelis toward an understanding that Israel could survive only if Palestinians were enabled to build something better than Bantustans and Indian reservations? If he can't do that, could he please stop urging we understand proportionality as a calculated relation of means to ends?

The ineradicable difference between American Indians and Palestinians, of course, is that demographically and politically the tide is on the side of the latter. Israel can survive as a Jewish fortress state if it becomes like Singapore-- as an increasingly authoritarian, racist society garrisoned against surrounding threats and desperation. Otherwise it will have to consider possibilities like those suggested by Seyla Benhabib in a recent essay,"What is Israel's End Game?", that is getting the attention it deserves.

Every step Israel takes in the direction of Singapore is killing off its beautiful, even unprecedented, social-democratic experiment with a rich confluence of cultures, including those of its Palestinian citizens and the Arabic strains in much of Israel's Jewish life. I have little patience with critics of Israel who know nothing about this and want to know less. If they knew more, their hearts would be bleeding out of both sides.

But I do hope that the shift in American public opinion which M.J. describes will strengthen President Obama's ability to send strong signals in the next few days that re-open Israeli political debate, and leadership, between now and the Feb. 10 elections. Otherwise, Israel will become a society that is harder to defend, and even to love.

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