November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.
I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.
The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.
Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.
Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.
Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.
October 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
After what many viewed as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s boosterism on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 and his meetings in New York last month with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there has been inevitable chatter about how Israeli politics is impacting the U.S. presidential election. For what it’s worth, I thought in 2012 that Netanyahu largely got an unfair bad rap over allegations that he was trying to influence the campaign, and I give him credit this time around for having clean hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu gave zero encouragement to Trump when he was making noise about taking a campaign trip to Israel last spring, made no independent effort to meet with the candidates while in the U.S., and made sure to reach out to Clinton to schedule a meeting only after Trump asked for one first. While there is plenty of speculation about the Israeli government’s preferences and how those preferences will impact the election, the more interesting angle goes the other way. The U.S. election has the potential to wreak havoc on Israeli politics, and it is forcing Netanyahu to make some potentially momentous choices with regard to his own political positioning.
The past couple of months have not been kind to Netanyahu and Likud insofar as the polls go. In early September, public opinion surveys showed Yesh Atid pulling ahead of Likud were elections to be held, with Yesh Atid more than doubling its current seats and Likud’s share cut by 25%. Another poll in late September confirmed this trend holding, with Yesh Atid ahead of Likud by four seats despite more respondents preferring Netanyahu to Yair Lapid as prime minister. While the numbers dictate trouble ahead for Netanyahu and Likud politically absent some sort of course correction, there is one important way in which the polling acts to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Israeli government coalitions are notoriously unstable – Netanyahu’s most recent government lasted just over two years, and there have been nine governments in the twenty one years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – and it oftentimes takes little to bring a government down. Coalition partners are able to hold the prime minister hostage by insisting on an array of demands and threatening – explicitly or implicitly – to bring down the government and force new elections if they aren’t met. Conversely, when the polls show the leading party benefitting from new elections, the prime minister will often force a crisis, such as when Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in December 2014 in order to try and pick up more seats and bring the Haredi parties into the government.
The current government is in many ways one that should be particularly susceptible to hostage taking behavior by Likud’s coalition partners. The coalition is 66 MKs – and was only 61 MKs until Avigdor Lieberman brought Yisrael Beiteinu into the government in May – and it can be unilaterally brought down by four out of its five coalition partners, since a defection by any of the four would put the coalition under a majority of 61 Knesset seats. It is filled with party leaders, such as Naftali Bennett and Lieberman, who harbor ambitions to replace Netanyahu, have extremely checkered pasts with him, and are also widely reputed to loathe him personally. It contains parties with wildly different priorities, from Habayit Hayehudi and its focus on its settler and rightwing nationalist constituency to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their championing of ultra-Orthodox welfare and religious priorities. It has been plagued with fights surrounding the budget. In short, few people thought this government would last particularly long.
The recent polls change that calculus, because the prospects of Yesh Atid winning and forming the next government mean that Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties would be doomed to irrelevance. Despite Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely partnership of strange bedfellows in the previous government, it is difficult to foresee a coalition led by Lapid in which their two parties coexist. The Haredi parties are also terrified of Lapid, despite his recent efforts to take a softer rhetorical line on their pet issues, since he represents the secular elite with whom they clash and his late father, Tommy Lapid, was Israel’s most ardent and outspoken secular leader and Haredi opponent. In addition, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party would nearly disappear if new elections were held today, and Kahlon’s future political career is dependent on his banking some tangible policy victories as finance minister. In short, Netanyahu’s partners can no longer afford to make idle threats of bringing the government down, which makes Netanyahu’s coalition far more stable in inverse proportion to how strong Likud is polling.
Which brings us to the wrinkle, which is our presidential election here at home. Currently, Netanyahu’s biggest fear is that President Obama will do something on his way out the door related to the peace process and/or settlements, ranging from what Netanyahu views as disastrous (a binding UN Security Council resolution) to enormously inconvenient (a speech laying out Obama’s views on parameters for future two-state negotiations). Netanyahu and Israeli officials have been furiously lobbying everyone from the president on down not to make any moves on this front, and they have been counting on the uncertainty of the election outcome to forestall any surprises, since Obama will not want to do anything that may drive Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states toward Trump. After the election though, all bets are off, and this is particularly so in the unlikely but still possible case that Trump wins, since then Obama will have no concerns about saddling his successor with a policy on Israel that may not be to his liking. Even if Clinton wins as expected, the unusually harsh American response to the Israeli government’s plan to build a new neighborhood in Shilo for the relocated Amona settlers makes Netanyahu and his coalition partners fear that there is an American sword of Damocles waiting to drop.
In Netanyahu’s calculations, the one possibly foolproof thing he can do to head this all off at the pass is to bring Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union party into the government and make Herzog foreign minister, which explains the dalliance with Herzog a few months ago and the constant reports that he and Herzog are once again cooking up plans for a unity government. Netanyahu thinks that bringing in Herzog and giving him the diplomatic portfolio will signal to the world that he is genuine in his desire to see a two-state solution, and that it will prevent a post-election move from Obama while starting him off on the right foot with Clinton should she win. It will also not bring down his government if Herzog can bring enough Zionist Union MKs with him to replace the eight from Habayit Hayehudi who will leave should Zionist Union join, and while it leaves Netanyahu with a suboptimal coalition from a policy standpoint and creates future political problems for him, it gives him diplomatic breathing room.
I am skeptical that Netanyahu’s fears are well-placed since I think the likelihood is greater than not that Obama does nothing earth shattering on the Israeli-Palestinian front before he leaves the White House, but there is also little question that Netanyahu’s calculus on this is presenting him with a political choice and that he is weighing his options. So the intersection of American politics and Israeli politics are indeed important for the next few months, but the impact will be far more heavily felt in Israel than here.
October 13, 2016 § 4 Comments
When your work centers on Israel, you spend a lot of time contemplating existential threats. Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, Hizballah and Hamas terrorism, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the specter of Israel ending its presence in the West Bank, the monopoly of the Orthodox on Israel’s religious and family institutions, the threat of allowing the non-Orthodox a say in Israel’s religious and family institutions – everyone has their favorite doomsday scenario for what will bring the end of Israel. I don’t want to debate whose alarmist tendencies are most on point, but there is one clear and present danger looming on the horizon that nobody should casually dismiss, and that is the potential presidency of Donald Trump.
Let’s begin with the easy stuff. American Jews often like to talk about whether or not a candidate feels Israel in his or her kishkes, and for many it can be a quick and easy litmus test for pro-Israel voters. If this is the standard that you employ, there is no conceivable argument that Trump meets it. Trump seems to know nothing about Israel other than that it has built a wall. He has suggested cutting all U.S. foreign aid – which would include the military assistance to Israel – and then embraced making Israel reimburse the U.S. for the defense aid it receives. He then switched course yet again and defended the annual military assistance and missile defense cooperation not on the grounds of Israel being an important ally or because its safety is an American interest or because Israel doesn’t exactly live in a friendly neighborhood, but because it is an “excellent investment.” Given Trump’s history of bailing on investments that have turned sour and leaving his creditors high and dry, I don’t know why anyone would assume that he would treat Israel otherwise were his views of its investment worthiness – whatever that even means – to change.
But let’s leave aside Trump’s emotional attachment to Israel or lack thereof. The actual policy agenda that he has embraced would be disastrous for Israel as well. Trump has made his disdain for allies and alliances clear, treating every relationship that the U.S. has as a transactional one. For a country that relies on the U.S. for weapons, security guarantees, diplomatic assistance in the United Nations and other international forums, and intelligence sharing, to list only a short part of a long menu of items, it would be four or eight years of constant walking on eggshells, hoping that a President Trump views Israel as pulling its perceived weight.
Trump does not actually understand Israel’s specific policy concerns. The major area of disagreement between the U.S. and Israel during the Obama administration has been Iranian power, and yet at the debate this past Sunday night, Trump repeatedly expressed his preference for farming out responsibility and influence in Syria to Iran and Russia so that they could assist Bashar al-Assad. In short, Trump actively wants to further empower Iran in establishing a permanent and dominant presence in Syria, creating the biggest threat on Israel’s immediate border in decades and ensuring that Hizballah has even freer reign than it ever has to stockpile missiles and menace Israel. He has called for Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear weapons, which would permanently eliminate Israel’s qualitative military edge. Does this sound like someone who even understands what Israeli security concerns are, let alone a great and glorious friend?
Trump does not understand Israel itself. He has stated that if he is not elected president, the Iran deal will lead to Israel’s elimination. We can debate the merits of the Iran deal from now until Election Day – and Trump is correct that Israeli officials, including those in the security establishment and not just politicians, are not exactly fans – but the notion that only Trump can save Israel runs counter to anything and everything for which Israel stands. It betrays an utter ignorance of the very essence of Zionism, of Jewish power and survival embodied in the Jewish state. It betrays an utter contempt for the Israeli ethos of self-reliance and making “Never Again” more than just a hollow slogan. It betrays an utter incomprehension of Israeli military power, intelligence, and capabilities. It betrays an insulting narcissism that pays lip service to Israel without bothering to learn the first thing about it.
Trump does not understand the U.S.-Israel relationship. He thinks that it is based upon the shared darkness of struggling with terrorism rather than the shared values of democracy. He seizes upon suboptimal choices that Israel has reluctantly made out of necessity – the separation barrier, profiling at Ben Gurion Airport – to bind himself to Israel, never for one second comprehending that Israel does not take these measures with the glee that Trump evinces when discussing them. Every time he unfairly tarnishes Israel by using it as his justification for pushing a set of noxious policy prescriptions that are completely devoid of the Israeli context, Israel’s standing in the U.S. suffers. When naysayers doubt the values aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they tend to focus on Israel’s democratic deficit, warning that Israel is in danger of losing its appeal in the eyes of Americans. Not only do Trump’s words of damning praise threaten support for Israel by continually shining a spotlight on Israel’s least attractive side, a Trump presidency will take this dynamic and turn it on its head, making Israel diplomatically captive to an America whose moral leadership is eroded and tarnishing Israel with a guilt-by-association. It is difficult to have a robust alliance that is based primarily on shared values when one side of that alliance is run by an imperious megalomaniac obsessed with punishing his political enemies and eviscerating the rule of law.
During Sunday night’s debate, I tweeted that Trump is an authoritarian. Over the next 24 hours on Twitter, I was called an oven dodger, a dumb kike, a hook-nosed Jew, a Jewish subversive, a traitor, told to “get your ass back to Tel Aviv” and to go back to “your country Israel,” among other pleasantries. My characterization of Trump did not even hint at anything having to do with Jews or Israel, yet the putrescent sleaze emanating from his fans was quite narrowly tailored. I do not hold Trump responsible for what his supporters do and say, and thankfully none of these mental midgets will be responsible for his Israel policy. But think about the political persuasions of Trump’s most ardent fans and remember that this is a man with no real policy ideas that do not involve sound bites and who is captive to whatever crazy idea is the latest to penetrate his skull. And then ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the most powerful leader in the world being someone who lies awake at night retweeting the kind of people who think that an American Jew whose family has been here for over a century should “pack your bags for your walled ethnostate.” There is a wide universe of policies that can be deemed pro-Israel, but I don’t trust that any of them will be reliably implemented by an unapologetically oblivious and proudly uninformed cretin whose policies and statements present a danger to the long term health and interests of his own country’s democracy, let alone one six thousand miles away.
October 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
The American and Israeli governments are in the midst of the latest chapter of their ongoing dispute over West Bank settlements, with the spark this time being Israel’s announcement of its solution to the problem of Amona, an issue about which I wrote last month. The solution, such as it is, is to build a new neighborhood in the settlement of Shilo consisting of 98 new houses for the residents of Amona, which the Israeli government insists is simply building on empty land within the current municipal boundary of an existing settlement, and the U.S. government insists is the creation of a brand new settlement and runs contrary to assurances from the Netanyahu government that it would not build new settlements in the West Bank. Consequently, the Obama administration issued an unusually harsh condemnation on Wednesday, while the Israeli Foreign Ministry and various ministers fired right back on Thursday. All of this comes on the heels of the recently concluded $38 billion ten year military assistance MOU between the two countries, and in the middle of rampant speculation as to what the White House will do (or not do) regarding the peace process or settlements on its way out the door.
The tragedy here is that this dust up could have and should have been easily avoided with some more measured moves on both sides. The Israeli government has a problem, which is that it needs to evacuate these settlers who are living in a settlement that was illegally built on private Palestinian land, but it is constrained by a coalition that cannot countenance any policies that appear to be selling out the settlers or limit Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The U.S. government also has a problem, which is that it has taken a tough line with regard to Israeli settlement activity and cannot sit silently by as Israel announces new settlement construction in a place that is outside any conceivable boundaries of what Israel will annex under a permanent status agreement, but also does not want a high profile fight with Jerusalem in the midst of a presidential election and so soon after the successful MOU negotiation.
The solution to this lies in the plans that have been developed by the Commanders for Israel’s Security, and in measures for which I have previously argued. Shilo is a clear example of a settlement that is beyond the security barrier, has not been proposed by Israel to be retained under any round of peace negotiations, and will eventually be evacuated. There is no earthly sensible reason to move the Amona settlers there, since it only complicates the situation down the road and is guaranteed to raise hell from the U.S., the E.U., and nearly every international observer. But if the Israeli government were to take the commanders’ advice and complete the security barrier while renouncing all territorial claims to land beyond it, then it could move the Amona settlers to one of the bloc settlements on the west side of the fence. This would abrogate the need to build new housing in a place that is literally closer to Jordan than it is to the Green Line, make it clear that Israel’s intentions are not to gobble up as much of the West Bank as possible, and still mollify coalition partners by keeping the settlers in a settlement. Concurrently, the U.S. government could recognize that not all settlements are equal, that saving its fire for settlement construction exclusively in places like Shilo rather than equally condemning construction in places like Ramat Shlomo inside the Jerusalem municipality might actually lead to better outcomes through creating a different set of incentives, and ensure that a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank remains a possible outcome.
Is this a perfect solution? Not at all. I would much rather see the Amona residents move to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But clearly what’s happening now is not working, and the politics both in the U.S. and Israel make more drastic measures from both sides impossible. Amona should never have been built in the first place, and this entire mess should never have gone this far. But even so, if Israel were to act a bit smarter and not kowtow so far to the right, and the U.S. were to keep an eye on the long game rather than sweat the relatively small stuff – even when the small stuff is legitimately infuriating, as it is in this case – then everyone would be a lot better off.
October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
What does a state owe its citizens, and what do a state’s citizens owe their state? It is a question that has been front and center in the U.S. stemming from what seems like an avalanche of police shootings of African Americans and the resulting demonstrations, including those of NFL players not standing for the national anthem, but in the last week it has been occupying my mind due to events in Israel. Both sides – state and citizens – appear to be forgetting that there is a mutual obligation to each other that can and must be divorced from specific policies lest the entire system suffer a crisis of legitimacy.
At Shimon Peres’s funeral last Friday, there was a cavalcade of world leaders, cultural luminaries, and Israeli politicians and officials in attendance. Notably absent were Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the other members of his Knesset faction, a move that Odeh defended later that day by arguing that Palestinian citizens of Israel have no part in Israeli national mourning and that Peres was responsible for policies that Arab Israelis cannot forgive. Odeh singled out the Israeli narrative and Israeli symbols that exclude him as a non-Jewish citizen, and also specifically mentioned Peres’s role in building up the state’s defenses as something that he cannot celebrate. As to be expected, Odeh was roundly criticized, but stuck to his guns that not attending the funeral or issuing any official statement of condolence was the appropriate move.
Then this week, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked served as the mirror image of Odeh, arguing in a HaShiloach journal article entitled המשילות אל מסילות (The Tracks to Governability) that the more Jewish a nation Israel is, the more ipso facto democratic it will be. The core of the article is actually an argument for the primacy of the legislative branch and its right to be largely free of unwarranted judicial checks, but Shaked spends the third section of the article making the case that Judaism reinforces democracy and that there is not actually any tradeoff between Israel’s Jewish character and its democratic character. So while Odeh made the point that Israel’s focus on its Jewishness makes aspects of it inherently illegitimate for its non-Jewish citizens, Shaked made the point that Israel’s Jewishness makes it more legitimate as a democratic state that represents all of its citizens.
You can fill an entire library with books and articles of political theory and law dealing with the question of what a state owes its citizens, but I’d boil it down to a very simple precept: a state is required to protect and represent all of its citizens equally. By the same token, citizens owe a basic allegiance to the state; not to the government or its specific policies, but to the state itself. That is why both Odeh and Shaked are wrong in this case, and if you pursue their rationales and justifications to their logical conclusions, you end up with a complete disaster.
Let’s start with Shaked, which is in some ways the more straightforward case. I am an unapologetic defender of Israel as the Jewish homeland and as a Jewish state, and in my view the need for a Jewish state and the right of Jews to realize their nationalist aspirations require no apology or qualification. Nonetheless, since Israel is not a state only for Jews, this requires a delicate balancing act that takes into account the fact that democracy requires equal rights for non-Jewish citizens and identical treatment under the law. It is possible to have a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as Israel demonstrates every day, but it is plainly wrong to assert that these two elements can both be fulfilled to their utmost capacity simultaneously. A perfectly pure liberal democracy would not have the Law of Return; a perfectly pure Jewish state would not have non-Jews serving in the Knesset, Supreme Court, or IDF. The fact that Israel is not an ideal type of either of these things is something to be celebrated rather than criticized, but to assert that the two elements march together in perfect lockstep is a statement of ideology rather than logic. But more crucially, it risks destroying the balance and leading to a situation in which Israel is not fulfilling its obligations to its citizens by protecting and representing them equally to the best of its ability. Legislation that prioritizes Jewish law for domestic legal purposes will discriminate against and disenfranchise non-Jewish Israelis, and advocating for such betrays a lack of understanding about how democratic states must operate.
This brings me to Odeh and his view of what he owes the state. I understand and sympathize with Odeh’s dilemma, given his struggle for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to be free of discrimination and to have their narrative not only understood by Israeli Jews but respected and acknowledged by the state. Israel is far from perfect, and perhaps no better than adequate for a Western democracy, in the way it deals with its non-Jewish minority. Nevertheless, in skipping Peres’s funeral Odeh and the Joint List elevated the “Palestinian” part to the complete exclusion of the “citizens of Israel” part. Leaving aside the somewhat perplexing move of demonizing Peres of all people, and ignoring his later role as a genuine peacemaker in favor of his earlier role as a hawk and champion of settlements, Odeh and company did not snub a man but the state itself. Peres served as president, prime minister, and in a host of other cabinet positions, and was the last member of the state’s founding generation. I do not for a second begrudge Odeh and Palestinian citizens of Israel their Nakba narrative or their view that the founding of Israel was a tragedy, nor do I believe that any criticisms they have of Peres should be kept under wraps (although Odeh’s decrying Peres for his work defending the state in which Odeh and his family live boggles the mind). But as Israeli citizens and members of the national legislature, who rightly demand that the state fulfill its obligations to them and participate in the state’s politics and governance, I expect them to have a baseline respect for the state itself, whether they like the state or not. I keep on thinking of the West Wing episode in which the president hires the wildly eccentric and inappropriate Debbie Fiderer to be his secretary because in a letter she writes to the White House suggesting that arsenic be put in his water, she still refers to him as President Bartlet, showing her respect for the office despite her feelings about the man occupying it. The more appropriate move for Odeh and the Joint List MKs would have been for them to attend the funeral and then spend the rest of the day loudly broadcasting their criticisms of Peres in every outlet they could find.
Israel successfully walks a very fine line between competing pressures of governance every day. Neither Shaked nor Odeh seem to appreciate this balancing act, nor to understand that a state must have a basic respect for all its citizens while its citizens must have a basic respect for their state if the polity is to be successful. What makes Israel unique is the unprecedented experiment in Jewishness and democracy simultaneously, and it will be tragic indeed if a vision for Israel emerges victorious that does not have sufficient room for both.
September 28, 2016 § 7 Comments
Unlike many authors of his obituaries this week, I did not know Shimon Peres. I met him briefly a couple of times, where I heard him extol the virtues of being a dreamer and admired the way he was able to churn out pithy and poignant aphorisms, but I don’t have any personal stories about him or particularly meaningful encounters to relate. Nevertheless, I have always found him inspiring because he is the personification of one of the most important lessons for being successful in life, which is how to overcome failure.
Shimon Peres was good at many things, but his chosen profession was not one of them. Unlike many of Israel’s founding fathers, he did not have an illustrious or decorated military career and chose much earlier to go the political route, but he was, at best, a middling politician. He failed in his early jousts with Yitzhak Rabin to become party leader of HaMa’arakh (Labor’s predecessor), only succeeding in taking over the party when Rabin had to resign as prime minister and party leader because of his wife’s foreign bank account. He then immediately presided over his party’s first electoral defeat in Israel’s existence following 29 years of uninterrupted rule, losing to Menachem Begin and Likud in 1977 and setting off a new era of rightwing dominance that continues to this day. He lost the next election in 1981 as well, and finally won an election in 1984 only to fail at putting together a coalition and being forced into a power sharing arrangement with Likud and Yitzhak Shamir in which they rotated the offices of prime minister and foreign minister. When Peres lost the 1988 election, he agreed to form a unity government with Shamir once again, but without being able to extract the same concession for a prime ministerial rotation that Shamir had been able to extract from him. After Rabin’s tragic assassination, Peres served as acting prime minister for seven months until he promptly lost the first post-Rabin election to Bibi Netanyahu, an election that arguably should not have even been close but was lost partially as a result of Peres’s poor political instincts. The next time he ran for office was in 2000 when he stood for president, an election in the Knesset that everyone predicted he would win handily but which he lost to the undistinguished future convicted felon Moshe Katzav, thereby becoming both the first candidate for prime minister and the first candidate for president to ever lose to a Likud opponent. Peres won the presidency in 2007 on his second try, marking his first unambiguous electoral victory for high national office, although it was not an embrace from Israeli voters but one from the 120 Knesset members who vote for president.
Why am I inconsiderately recounting this embarrassing history of the last member of the state’s founding generation before he has even been buried? Because to me, the greatness of Shimon Peres stems precisely from this embarrassing history. Peres is being feted as an Israeli hero, as someone who was responsible for more Israeli military and diplomatic achievements than any other figure, as the high prophet of Israeli technology and ingenuity, and as the ultimate striver to realize his otherworldly vision of Israel at peace with its Palestinian neighbor. Yet, Peres never won an outright election to be prime minister. He was not, until his last decade, truly loved or embraced by the Israeli public. He was continually overshadowed by his rival Rabin. But rather than become the Adlai Stevenson of Israel, he became the Shimon Peres of Israel. He understood that failure was something that you overcome rather than something that defines you. He took whatever situation he was in and elevated it to something sublime and heretofore unimaginable. Has there ever been a more tireless or successful foreign minister? Is there anyone else who could have taken the completely ceremonial and entirely ignored position of Israeli president and transformed it into the bully pulpit and clarion voice of moral order that it has now become? By all rights, Peres should have disappeared from Israel’s political scene decades ago, yet the more time went on and the more electoral losses he racked up, the more influential and visionary he became.
Peres did not only rebound from failures. Equally important, he learned from them, and did not allow them to constrict him going forward. Many will note in the coming days the contradictions of Shimon Peres and his legacy; how he was derided by the military establishment despite being the most important figure in Israel’s acquisition of military assets and weapons in the state’s first decade and the godfather of its nuclear arsenal, or how he was lauded as a peacemaker despite being an early and effective champion of settlements, or how the world sees him as the face of Israel despite his being a non-sabra, suit wearing, European accented Hebrew speaker. But these contradictions were another key to his success, because when he was wrong or when something did not work, he was able to pivot and embrace something else. It is true that he was a hawk for most of his life, but he was a dove when it mattered. It is true that he encouraged the settlement enterprise and protected settlements as defense minister, but he was able to see how that policy would lead to Israel’s destruction and came to advocate for a Palestinian state. It is true that he spent years championing the concept of economic peace, but he eventually saw that it would never be sufficient without addressing the political aspect as well. Peres will go down as one of history’s greatest dreamers, but he was able to dream big because he was willing to stand on the rubble of his own previous failures of imagination.
The last giant of Israel’s founding generation is now gone. Shimon Peres’s death marks a new era for the Jewish state, whether Israel is ready for it or not. Peres’s death leaves a gaping hole and his legacy is overwhelming. May his memory be for an eternal blessing, and may Israel always embrace his ethos of never giving in to failure, elevating the mundane into the lofty, and constantly pushing against the limits of what appears possible.