Israel and the Politics of Paroxysm
Jim Sleeper 25 March 2015

My assessment is that the situation is indeed grim and spiraling away from politics into tragedy, but not because “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” as Abba Eban, an Israeli foreign minister, once quipped. For some time now, it has been Israeli leaders who’ve never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and what they’re missing right now is that many Palestinians are terrified enough of ISIL and resentful enough of how Hamas is ruling Gaza to contemplate a reasonable deal, perhaps one involving nominal Palestinian statehood and, as Seyla Benhabib has suggested here in Reset-DoC, a functional federation, funded generously with EU and US help.

I first toured Israel in the mid-1960s with cheerleading Jewish student groups. I returned again in 1969, only two years after Israel’s supposedly glorious victory in the Six Day War, on an Arab-Jewish relations project that involved long conversations with Israeli Arab citizens, including college students in Haifa and writers and activists in Acre and the Galilee. After these experiences, I was something of an optimist about Israel’s incredible accomplishments and potential, and I wrote up my impressions for an anthology, The New Jews (Vintage, 1971) that I edited with Alan Mintz.

I am no longer an optimist, but neither have I much patience for people who enjoy taking warm baths in morally self-righteous pessimism. You can read my more recent assessments in a collection of columns, “Israel’s Tragedy, America’s Folly,” here.

Last year, Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian writer and former president of Al Quds university, outlined the shape of a Middle East deal in a poetic, heart-rending lament for the Israel in which he’d once placed some hope. That essay has been brought to Americans’ attention by the Bard College Hannah Arendt Center’s director Roger Berkowitz in his own powerful and poetic essay.

These are the two most important pieces I’ve read anywhere about the current situation, although there are many other, well-grounded contributions.

Nusseibeh writes:

“Indeed, the one thing that Israel can do right from the outset is to declare… that it henceforth will begin a wide-ranging initiative aimed at changing the political climate, in preparation for a proper solution… Israel can turn over a particular part of Area B (under shared Israeli and Palestinian control) into part of Area A (under full Palestinian control), somewhere; likewise, a particular part of Area C (under full Israeli control) into an area B. And it can allow, experimentally, people over age 60 from the West Bank or Gaza to begin to move freely throughout the country, therefore enabling them also to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem.”

“Supposing the first steps work (meaning, without negative security consequences, and with decreased sentiments of hostility), Israel could take the next step. Margins of breathing space can be incrementally expanded, each time providing more space for the well-being of Palestinians. Will Palestinians go for such steps? Who wouldn’t? And why wouldn’t they?”

Does Netanyahu’s Likud Party victory prove that the Israelis are incapable of seizing the moment? Very possibly. This is a polity whose original idealists, whom Nusseibeh describes unforgettably in his essay, are being swamped by “Greater Israel” religious fanatics, nationalist yahoos, real-estate profiteers, a million politically cauterized, right-wing Russian immigrants from the Soviet Union, and their pathetic American neoconservative cheerleaders and funders. Collectively, they have no idea how the nature of war-making and wealth-making have changed and are changing the circumstances under which they think they can win.

Still, The Atlantic writer James Fallows cautions wisely that detractors from abroad would be as wrong to blame Israelis as a whole for Netanyahu’s victory (and the demagogic intransigence it reinforces) as other observers abroad were wrong to blame all Americans for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004.

Fallows reminds us that even after Bush won, he changed: “Dick Cheney was corralled; the U.S. undertook no new wars and began repairing some of the relations it had frayed or broken.” The American electorate changed, too, not so much in composition as in judgment: Four years after Bush’s victory, “the same U.S. electorate made an entirely different choice.” Fallows doesn’t predict any such shift by Netanyahu or the Israeli electorate, but he reminds us that elections often have unintended consequences.

I’d add that Americans who’ve called for boycotting Israeli universities as carriers of Netanyahu’s doom-eager worldview (actually, Israel’s universities are often centers of dissent) should, by their own logic, have called for a boycott of American universities between 2004 and 2009. They didn’t, of course: They’d have had to boycott themselves. You might imagine that this thought would give them pause before broad-brushing Israelis, but you’d be wrong. Moral passion and distance eclipse moral and political judgment.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick, as close and sober an observer of Israel and Palestine as any American writer, notes that even though “nearly two hundred former Israeli military and security chiefs, none of them naïve about the multiple dangers of the Middle East, have declared that further brinkmanship threatens the long-term stability of the nation,” Netanyahu is still “sure that he knows better. The tragedy is that the likely price of his vainglory is the increasing isolation of a country founded as a democratic refuge for a despised and decimated people… [A]s he forms an unabashedly right-wing and religious government, he stands in opposition not only to the founding aspirations of his nation but also to those Israelis—Jews and Arabs—who stand for tolerance, equality, democratic ideals, and a just, secure peace.”

We’ll learn, probably all too soon, whether Israel vindicates Fallows’ characteristically American hopefulness or Remnick’s moral pessimism. Berkowitz’s must-read essay argues that the nature of war itself has changed enough that massive militaries are useless and that war itself is unwinnable by any “side.” His essay opens with Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation that since sovereign states have no “last resort” except war, then “if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.”

What Netanyahu’s victory probably does prove is that many Israelis, for compelling, understandable, but tragic reasons – and their American cheerleaders, for reasons that are far less compelling or excusable – aren’t ready to internalize this new truth about war and make new history by supporting a viable federation with Palestinians along the lines Nusseibeh sketches. Paroxysms can’t be reasoned with. And Berkowitz explains why, when they’re militarized, paroxysms can’t win. We have to hope that they’ll burn themselves out before they draw everything else down with them and that some new combination of circumstance and persuasion will deter them

The original version of this article was postet on The Washington Monthly on March 24th, 2015.

Jim Sleeper
is a lecturer in political science at Yale, teaches seminars there on “Global Journalism, National Identities” and “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”