I am sure of one thing. The Gaza operation has even further harmed the perception of Israel throughout the world. Is that important?
The answer is ‘yes’, unless the Gaza operation is such a success that the success of the military action dwarfs the loss of sympathy and understanding which it has generated. And with regard to the success of the Gaza operation, I have no clear concept whatsoever.
What is success? Establishing a set of circumstances that would end hostilities on both sides and lead to long term peace, and eventual cooperation with each other. Using that definition, it will surprise me if success is the result of this situation, but I am more than willing to be surprised.
Now it is true that Israel is in a situation which no other country finds itself in. Neighbors who want to destroy it, who challenge its right to exist, who believe that it exists on land belonging to others, who are numerically much superior, and who have the sympathy of their billion plus co-religionists. No other country faces this, and the pressures are extraordinary and from time to time, the situation is bound to explode.
To make matters worth, we don’t know if these explosions are feared by many Arab nations, or welcomed. It may be that any action Israel takes that makes it look bad is welcomed, as one more step towards Israel’s implosion or destruction, no matter what the consequences in the short term.
I have just read The Price of Empire, written in 1989 by former Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. Although the book was written twenty years ago, it could have been written yesterday. Fulbright was a true maverick as a United States Senator. On all issues other than civil rights (he says that promoting civil rights during his early years of Congress would have not helped the civil rights situation and guaranteed the end of his political career), Fulbright was not afraid to stand up and say what he thought. His primary interests were international. You may remember that he, at first alone in the Senate, opposed the Vietnam War on both ideological grounds and pragmatic grounds. He believes that American action in Vietnam (read: Iraq) was just an example of our trying to throw our weight around, that nothing good could possibly have come out of the situation, that Americans were losing their lives for nothing, and that we would be better off trying to be friends with Ho Chi Minh, rather than his enemy). He was all for arms reduction, saying that increasing our military might only required the Soviet Union to do the same, and that we should have taken Khrushchev and attempted to befriend him, and not demonize him. He believes that our constitutional structure of a balance of power, where the executive and legislative branches are separate, is a guarantee of governmental paralysis, and that we would be better off with a parliamentary system, where the legislature chose the prime minister, and could get rid of him/her by a vote, not by starting long impeachment proceedings. He believed that Americans were not superior to others, and the United States was a great country, but not necessarily the greatest in all ways, that national sovereignty is not necessarily a good thing, and that international organizations, such as the U.N., should be encouraged, bolstered, and given authority to regulate national actions in a number of ways. He believes that acting other than in accordance with these positions would, even if success seemed attainable, end with defeat.
Knowing all of this (most of which you might agree with), would you be surprised to know that Fulbright was considered by many to be anti-Israel? This is not surprising, because Israel, as a regional superpower, did all of the things that the United States did as a global superpower.
When Fulbright talks about Soviet-American arms negotiations, his positions seem reasonable. When he talks about Israeli-Arab relationships, although his thinking is consistent, he raises red flags in my mind. That is because, behind all of the bluster, the USSR did not ever think it would, or want to, destroy the United States, and the USSR after all did want to live a peaceful existence. As I said above, this seemingly obvious state of affairs falls to pieces when applied to the Arab-Israeli situation.
And, truth be known, this is not only because of the way Israel continues to act. It is equally the case because of the way the Palestinians act.
So, what to do?
It has long been said that racism in America is not a black problem, it is a white problem, and only whites can solve it. So it is in the Middle East. Anti-Israel sentiments are not an Israeli problem; it is an Arab problem, and only Arabs can solve it.
There appears to be little that Israel can do to make the Palestinians and their allies (including non-Arab Iran, of course) accept its right to exist. Even if Israel were, or could, return to pre-1967 borders, there is no assurance this would happen. Clearly, evacuating Gaza didn’t do the trick.
But if the Arabs acted non-threateningly towards Israel, if the fear that the Israelis rightly have about their neighbors could dissipate, it would be that much easier (with international pressure, to be sure) to work out the difficult territorial issues that must be addressed. But I think they could be addressed in ways that, as long as there is a continual threat of war, and sporadic outbursts of war, cannot otherwise take place.
In 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Albert Einstein said: “Now everything has changed except our manner of thinking.” We do need to change our manners of thinking. We need to think, as they say, “outside the box”. We need true mavericks in our world leadership.
Is any of this possible? That is the big question, of course. War has been around a long time. Aggression is clearly inborn in mankind. The capacity to demonize our adversaries is apparently a universal one, as is the tendency of the demonized to begin to think and act as their enemies perceive them.
In this regard, last night, we saw a wonderful one-woman show, called “Dai” (enough in Hebrew; think Dai, Dai, Daiyenu), where writer/actor iris Bahr plays ten different people, drinking coffee in a cafe in Tel Aviv, when a suicide bomber attacks. Some are men; some are women. Most are Israeli; some are Israelis who live outside the country, or foreignors who, for various reasons, have come to live in Israel. One is even a Palestinian university professor. They each enter a one-sided dialogue through which they tell a little about themselves. Some are more likeable than others; some are politically militant, some are not. Some care nothing about politics at all. But they are all recognizable as people, sharing traits of people we all know.
Of course, Tel Aviv is not the only place with cafes. You find cafes in every Arab city in the world. And, with not that many changes, you could set this cafe in Amman, or Ramallah, or Damascus. Only the suicide bombing would be omitted (OK, put it is Baghdad, and you can keep that as well). This is because these people are just people. They are not to be demonized. On either side.
A friend of mine has said that January 1 was not the start of this New Year, but that January 20 will be. I wish I had his optimism, but can only wish Mr. Obama all my best. And is it too much to hope that, especially with his background, he may be able to find some leaders in the Moslem world who are willing to think outside the box? If he only found one such person, perhaps it would be Daiyenu.