Monday, April 08, 2002
I spent this past weekend in Rochester, on a visit to my wife's family. On Sunday we went to a solidarity rally at Temple Brith Kodesh, the large Reform congregation in Rochester. It was quite gratifying to see how many people turned out - according to the organizers, at least 1,000, which is very impressive considering the size of the Jewish community in Rochester versus New York (12,000 at the rally at the U.N.), Chicago (2,500), Cincinnati (2,500) or Toronto (3,000). It was particularly gratifying to hear a strong statement of support from the mayor of Rochester. The other speakers - rabbis, Federation leaders, etc. - could be expected to say what they said. The mayor could have gotten away with a bland statement of support and for a condemnation of terrorism. He did far more than that, stating in very clear terms what the ethical stakes are in the conflict, what all people will have lost if a liberal democracy is allowed to be destroyed by murderous thugs. He didn't pull any punches, and I want to thank him for it.
I want to thank him particularly because I suspect that voices like his - liberal voices strongly raised in support of Israel - are about to get a lot harder to find. Things are about to get a lot tougher, and when the going gets tough, well, you find out who your friends are, let's just say that.
The DEBKA-oids have just put out their first piece in a long time raising questions about the Bush Administration's public support for Israeli self-defense. They have been extremely confident of the Administration's support, overt and covert, for many months. My line has been that as long as DEBKA isn't worried about this Administration, I won't be worried either. Now they have changed their tune, dramatically.
Their three major points:
- One objective of the current offensive was to collect direct evidence linking Arafat to the suicide bombers. This was found, and presented to the Bush Administration as a justification for removing Arafat from the region. Washington refused to receive the evidence. The implication is that Washington is still committed to Arafat, regardless of his complicity, and if the current offensive does not remove Arafat then both Sharon and Bush know that it has no long-term purpose.
- For the first few days of the offensive, Bush in his public statements never called for an immediate withdrawal, preferring to emphasize that peace can ultimately only be achieved by negotiation between the parties (something Israel has always supported) and that therefore Israel should withdraw as soon as possible (i.e. as soon as Israel's major targets are destroyed or captured). Yesterday, the tone changed, with Condoleeza Rice - a strong supporter of Israel - calling for an immediate withdrawal. That's a major change, not just one of nuance, because it suggests that Washington no longer cares whether the Israeli offensive succeeds - i.e. whether terrorists are defeated.
- Bush has had a very hard time lining up any support for an attack on Iraq, the top Administration priority for the next phase of the war on terror. Tony Blair has been notably supportive of the Bush administration in this priority, to the point of being significantly out of step with his own party and with Britain as a whole. Blair's price for support on Iraq, according to DEBKA, will be a distancing between Bush and Sharon. (I suspect, though DEBKA does not say this, that this is part of a larger strategy by Blair to assert his own leadership in Europe: if he can bring Bush closer into line with European opinion on Israel while bringing Europe closer into line with Bush on Iraq, he will have significantly augmented his own diplomatic prestige and his chances for long-term leadership in the EU. STRATFOR has a somewhat different but not incompatible take on the same Bush-Blair confab.)
If they are right, then we can expect at least a public distancing between the Sharon government and the Bush Administration. Hopefully this will only be cosmetic, an official cooling that masks close cooperation behind the scenes.
The best evidence that they are right is that Sharon has brought the NRP into the governing coalition. As several commentators have noted, this simultaneously strengthens Sharon's position vis-a-vis Labor in the coalition and puts pressure on Labor to leave the coalition rather than be dragged into cooperating with a significantly right-wing government. It looks very much like Sharon is laying the political groundwork for a confrontation with America and the consequent collapse of the unity government.
The implications are significant. The unity government has been Israel's biggest asset in its relations with America. The U.S. has been a strong ally of Israel's since the Johnson Administration, and the Bush Administration has, I believe, been the most loyal pro-Israel Administration since Truman. But America has always been more comfortable with Labor than with Likud because there are elements in the Israeli right that are opposed to compromise on principle. By and large these elements have left Likud and set up shop in Ihud Le'umi/Yisrael Beiteinu or in the NRP. But these are precisely the elements that are either now joining the Sharon government or are likely to join in the near future. And if Labor refuses to remain in coalition with these parties, the Sharon government will be beholden to elements of the irridentist right, elements that no American government can support.
This is not what Sharon wants. It is not what is best for Israel and it is not what will best defeat the terrorist alliance that is bent on destroying Israel. It is, in fact, what Arafat has been trying to provoke since Sharon came to power, as he provoked the fall of Peres and of Netanyahu and of Barak before him: Arafat wants to destroy another Israeli Prime Minister to prove that he is the one really in charge, that Israel's tanks and helicopters are worth nothing because he is, in the end, more powerful than the government of Israel, able to shape it to his will and bring all the nations of the world into battle on his side to give him an unearned victory. Sharon has allowed Shimon Peres to operate as a rogue element within the government, and has placed Israel's defense in the hand's of Labor's Fuad Ben-Eliezer, because he valued a unity government more than anything, including a clear policy. But the Labor Party in Israel may decide that it, no less than the Bush Administration, cannot be seen as the active supporter of Effie Eitam and Avigdor Leiberman, and so they may scuttle Israel's greatest diplomatic asset - the unity government - in the name of political principles which they themselves have been unable to articulate (see this article by Yossi Klein Halevi in last week's New Republic for a good illustration of this incapacity).
If this does come to pass, many people who now are sitting on the fence will slide over to the side of opposition. On both right and left, history will melt away, and those with reasons - economic, psychological, political - to oppose Israel will feel more comfortable doing so. Israel will be governed by a coalition that Europe will have even less trouble calling a Nazi government. Trade relations will be severed, diplomats expelled; Jews will increasingly be unwelcome on that continent. And here in America, the bare consensus that Israel and the U.S. are fighting a common war will dissolve. I'm not saying it's bound to happen, but it's a real possibility. What's an American Jew to do?
Among some of my friends, particularly those who are strongest in their support of Israel, I foresee a backlash against America. I remember something similar in 1982 when the Reagan Administration leaned hard on Begin to let Arafat escape from Beirut. The Reagan Administration was very good for Israel - if for no other reason than it brought an end to the Soviet Union, Israel's largest and most dangerous enemy. But many Jews, preferring bitterness to complication, turned harshly on that Administration for restraining Begin and Sharon. I do not think that this is productive.
And among others of my friends, those more inclined toward the so-called "peace" camp, there will be a palpable relief at the fall of the unity government. Now, it will be possible to rail against Sharon and his right-wing government without feeling guilty. Now it will be possible again to say that one supports Israel just not the Israeli government. But this is worse than non-productive: it is dangerous.
Israel's security and, indeed, survival depends on a revolution in the Middle East, a revolution that ultimately involves significant chunks of the Muslim world self-identifying as part of the global, universal Western civilization. This is not impossible. It is a transition that Turkey began in the 1920s under Attaturk. It is a transition that Japan, a thoroughly non-Western country, made after the war, under American tutelage, and that Korea made more recently, under American protection and pressure. It is a transition that Mexico and Russia are making today, breaking with longstanding anti-American histories to join the United States as partners. And it is a transition that, I have strong confidence, could be made by Iran and Iraq after the overthrow of their evil regimes. Israel's only long-term hope for peace and security is in the triumph of Western civilization in the Middle East, and a precondition (though by no means a sufficient condition) for such a cultural triumph is the triumph of American arms in the war on terror.
And I want to stress that: American arms. Not Israeli arms. Israel cannot now and never will be able to be an inspiration to the Arab world until such time as the Arabs see themselves as part of the same global, liberal, Western civilization, and Israel can do little to nothing to bring that date closer. America can do much.
To be loyal Jews, then, we must be loyal Americans. Even as America treats with regimes far from friendly to Israel, even as Jews die from a policy of equivocation and restraint. What loyalty means is a commitment to something larger than oneself, even against one's own parochial interests. Israel was founded on a single hope (and ultimate expectation): for Jews to be a free people in their own land, the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. But no people is free in the sense of being unfettered by reality; only God is thusly free. Our freedom is bound up inevitably in the freedom of others, and it is no weakness and no contradiction for us to recognize that fact and act accordingly.
But America's aims cannot be achieved by selling out Israel. This Administration - including Colin Powell - understands this, as does the American people. If terrorists are able to destroy Israel - or even to achieve major victories over her, emasculating her deterrent and reducing her to an outright dependency on Western goodwill - a calamity will ensue for America. The forces of enlightenment that do exist within the region will see that, in the end, America is at best a fair-weather friend and at worst a paper tiger, and they will look to buy protection from the forces of darkness. And those forces of darkness will be emboldened to strike harder than ever at their primary enemy.
To be loyal Americans, then, we must be loyal Jews. We must unceasingly repeat the fundamental truth about the region: that the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the refusal of the Arab world to accept a Jewish state in their midst. And we must unceasingly repeat the fundamental truth about Oslo: that it failed because the Palestinian leadership, with Arafat at its head, chose war rather than peace, and chose a coward's war against civilians, against women and children, rather than an honorable course. And that evil cannot be granted legitimacy. We must not look to anyone for reassurance nor expect salvation from any human quarter, but must speak the truth with the same voice to everyone. Doing so only strengthens Israel, but it also strengthens America, as the truth always does. This in particular is an Administration that can be swayed by truth, and that is what we must speak.
If we truly believe that the Oslo war is the continuation of the War of Independence, then we must truly speak with one voice. There is no time, now, for threatening to leave the table, whether because one opposes uprooting settlements or because one opposes military operations in Area A; whether one favors a separation of synagogue and state or the establishment of a halachic state. In time of peace, there is strength in a society that can engage in argument about its fundamental principles. In time of war, strength is measured differently: in the willingness of people who still disagree about the meaning of these fundamental principles to subordinate that disagreement to agreement on the primary objective: victory.
Over the years, many of us have thought that we were right, and if only everyone would listen to us all the problems of the region would be solved. I may have felt this way myself. But it takes little courage to be right. It takes courage to be loyal.