Israeli fatalism may be fatal

The notion that only the Right can bring peace is simply ridiculous

By David Aaronovitch, February 12, 2009

So, Israel picks up and starts again, further back than it was before. We can talk a bit, if we like, about the toytown election system, which turns voters into adolescents who expect their exact political view of the moment to be represented in their choice, rather than making the adult compromise — the necessary decision between several less-than-ideal coalitions — themselves. Israel is a land desperately in need of leadership, where the mechanism for electing governments makes it almost impossible to lead. Except when there’s a war to be fought. Some Israelis and some Jews, when they talk about “strong leadership”, only mean more guns and swagger.

I was at a JC question-time session at a shul last week where some intelligent people were regretting that Israel hadn’t “finished the job” in Gaza. What, I wondered aloud, would “finishing the job” look like?

But the system exacerbates the problem of a failure in leadership, it didn’t create it. Though I’m trying to take comfort from the fact that the vote for the swaggerers was slightly less than anticipated in the polls, it isn’t working. Compared with what needs to happen, the election result marks a retreat — a victory of fear over hope.

I do not, for five seconds, believe that Binyamin Netanyahu, who is clearly still a power in the land and may be in government by the time you read this, can lead a peace process. And let’s just nod here to what might be called the Nixon-in-China objection or the Begin Syndrome — the idea that leadership towards peace is more likely to be offered by someone from the anti-compromise Right (not least because they don’t have to contend with themselves calling themselves traitors).

It happens sometimes, but usually it doesn’t. I don’t hear many takers for the thought that President Ahmadinejad is just the chap to take the Middle East towards an era of unprecedented peace and democracy, or that Khaled Meshal represents the greatest hope for reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

A further point on this: Kadima itself was just such a construction; a movement from the right towards peace. Now, for all its single seat advantage, it is simply another fairly weak centrist party, forced always to look off towards its right for fear of being accused of weakness.

You can partly blame Hamas for the decline of Israel’s Left, just as you can partly blame the Israeli Right for the eclipse of the pro-peace party amongst Palestinians. These things are a malign reflection of each other. What is interesting is that — still — there are majorities on both sides who can envisage making the painful concessions necessary for a settlement. But they then go out and vote for Hamas or Lieberman, or anyone but those parties actually advocating movement towards such concessions.

In Israel, I am told, the prevailing mood is one of an embattled fatalism. All that many Israelis see is Iran and rockets. Far from feeling more secure after the military actions of the last three years, Israelis feel that only their hard power lies between them and an undefined pincer movement, with the claws in Gaza and Lebanon, and the muscle in Tehran.

And, of course, that’s a mirror image of the way that many Palestinians understand it too. Much as they might want peace, they increasingly cannot see how it can be brought about other than by their own destruction or that of Israel.

Appallingly, the lack of any process atrophies support for those parties that most argue for a process. What’s the point of voting Labour if there’s no task for it to fulfil? And peace parties in Israel, partly stymied by their own fear of being thought weak, have connived over time at their own destruction. When Ehud Barak turned his back in theatrical disgust after the failure of Camp David, he effectively began the destruction of his own party. Why is massive egotism such a constant feature of Israeli politics?

For Jewish communities around the world, the result may mean very hard times ahead. It is a supremely unlovely choice between allowing the increasingly strident and unreasonable anti-Israel campaign to go unchallenged, and giving full support to an Israeli polity that seems to have only one heavy club in its golf-bag.

Let us recall that 83 per cent of American Jews who voted, cast their ballots for Obama. I think many of them were hoping for a better response in Israel itself.

My argument is not (as this argument is so often characterised) that Israelis should imperil themselves for the sake of weedy diaspora Jews whose discomfort seems positively luxurious compared with Sderot. It is that Israeli fatalism has consequences far beyond the borders of the Jewish state and the Palestinian territories.

One of the worst of those possible consequences is that everyone else becomes fatalistic too; that round the world it comes to be seen as inevitable that there can be no settlement until one side or the other is utterly vanquished.

Last updated: 11:34am, February 12 2009