We all need to help Israel shift

By Jonathan Freedland, November 9, 2012

You wait years for big elections that will shape the world, or at least shape a part of the world you care about, and then three come at once. This week, has seen a US presidential contest and a change at the top in China (admittedly without a single democratic vote cast). And the third? That’s coming in Israel in January.

So far, all eyes have been on Bibi Netanyahu, who seized the initiative with two bold strokes: calling elections a year ahead of schedule and merging his party with the ultra-nationalist vehicle of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The resulting entity — “Bieberman” — is projected to dominate the next Knesset and enable Netanyahu to return as Prime Minister. It also confirms the rise and rise of Lieberman. The man who believes the country’s Arabs should be stripped of their citizenship if they cannot swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state is now leader-in-waiting of the Israeli right, with a clear path to become the country’s prime minister.

I’ve been looking, though, at the other side of the political divide. I’ve been wondering if Labour’s new-ish leader, Shelly Yachimovich, might lead a dramatic revival of that party or whether fellow journalist Yair Lapid could be the man to make the breakthrough. I’ve followed the speculation that Ehud Olmert is set to make a comeback, perhaps leading a new centrist bloc that would merge Kadima, Labour and others and be a match for Bieberman.

Scanning the Israeli centre-left is a habit. I’ve done it for the best part of two decades, certainly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 17 years ago this week. Election after election, like many of those who long for Israel to be at peace, I’ve searched for an Israeli leader with the strength and vision to do what’s needed to make a two-state deal stick. Surely Shimon Peres would be able to complete Rabin’s mission. Maybe it took the military credentials of an Amram Mitzna or Ehud Barak. Perhaps Amir Peretz could finally recruit Israel’s mizrachim to the cause of territorial compromise.

Or possibly, on the Nixon-to-China principle, it had to be a man of the right, like Ariel Sharon. Or a woman of the right, like Tzipi Livni.

Time after time, the peace camp has allowed itself to hope

Time after time, the peace camp has allowed itself to hope, me along with them. But it’s not worked out. Israel remains as stuck as ever. The prospect of Israelis and Palestinians sharing the land between the river and the sea, forming two viable, secure states has, if anything, deteriorated — thanks in part to a pattern of West Bank settlement that makes partition look ever more remote, if not impossible.

So I’m done looking for a saviour. What’s needed now is not merely a change at the top, but a deeper movement from the bottom up, among Israelis and all those who care about them. Such a shift would entail a realisation that, as Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, argues, the paramount question of Israeli security remains not Iran but the conflict with the Palestinians. It would also mean admitting that Israel remains locked on a path that can only lead to an outcome most would lament: either a binational state, in which the dream of Jewish self-determination would become a memory, or a state in which a Jewish minority with a right to vote rules over a non-Jewish majority denied that right — and we all know the name for that.

Making that shift is a task not for one individual but for the entire Jewish people. Dreaming of the Messiah may be part of our tradition. But politics lacks the patience of religion. And Israel cannot wait.

Jonathan Freedland is a ‘Guardian’ columnist

Last updated: 2:45pm, November 9 2012