Sunday, June 29, 2008

Israel's Identity Crisis

Who if not Adam LeBor understands that the ways out of our political quagmire cannot be easily encapsulated? I trust that I shall not seem ungrateful for his nuanced, warm reading of The Hebrew Republic by rushing to clarify something a phrase-turned-caption left ambiguous in his TBR review (“Israel’s Identity Crisis,” TBR, June 29, 2008).

The caption reads: “Avishai argues for an Israeliness that is not predicated on being Jewish.”

One of my book’s main points is that an egalitarian, secular democracy whose language is Hebrew would be a Jewish country, in the same identifiable (and marvelous) sense that a Yehuda Amichai poem is a Jewish poem. Indeed, such an Israel continues to be the Jewish national home, and refuge from anti-Semitism, as Zionism’s most original thinkers conceived it. These days, too much attention is paid to the "one-state solution," and too little to trans-national arrangements (like the EU) in which every country's cultural distinction is assured. So Israelis and Western Jews are naturally growing fearful of people who are cavalier about the continuity of Jewish culture. I should not like to appear cavalier in this way.

Nor do I believe (as one might also infer from the caption) that "being Jewish" should somehow be superseded by Israeliness. I want to see Israel confer only one nationality: Israeli. Israel should not have a legal definition for Jew, and should not have laws that require one. But this does not mean I want Israel in the identity business. Rather, Israel should be, like any European democracy, a commonwealth of laws with a distinct language, meant to enable persons, families, communities—citizens—to explore their own identities, religious imaginations, etc., as they see fit. Again, the living Hebrew language makes such exploration congenial for Jews. But it does not determine what a Jew is, or who contributes to our understanding of Jewishness.

I want Israel’s “identity crisis” to remain unresolved. When people use Herzl’s term, “The Jewish State,” I want them to qualify it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dream Team

Unity, it turns out, is only a half hour from Wilmot, so how could I resist?

I know all the reasons why BHO should not choose HRC. None of them seemed very cogent to me this afternoon. Her campaign has made her the iconic figure she was not before the primaries. She connects. ("Bush and McCain are two sides of the same coin, and it doesn't add up to a lot of change.") The debate with the Republican Veep will also be consequential.

In fact, HRC has developed so much as a national figure in recent months, it will be hard for BHO to explain why not choosing her is not an act of pettiness or wimpiness or something bad. Hard, not impossible.

Anyway, it was hard to tell what he is really thinking, though from where I was standing, Reagan gave Gorbachev a warmer hug.

BY THE WAY, where I was standing is itself a story. While my daughter Tamar (the newly-minted art historian) and I were waiting outside the compound, in a long, patient line, a young woman from the campaign came up, out of the blue, and offered us (really, offered Tamar) a red wrist-band, which authorized us to jump the line and sit behind the candidates. We were, that is, invited to be in the world-historical photo-op. She didn't say why she chose Tamar. I wonder.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Game Of Chicken:The Winner Is...

...Ehud Barak.

Prime Minister Olmert has decided not to simply resign, but to face a party primary by September 25; this vote, he knows, will almost certainly force him to step aside without scuttling the current coalition.

Barak has proven that he is prepared to stand on a matter of principle, and even face the voters if necessary—in short, that he has the guts to lead, which is the last thing you’d expect Israel’s most decorated officer to have to prove.

But there are other winners. Olmert has won back a measure of his dignity. His many friends should be happy for him. He has even valorized an important judicial principle—academic, perhaps, when applied to sitting prime ministers who admit to taking bags of greenbacks to run a campaign—that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

The real winner is what’s left of the peace process. All the talk about Israeli plans to attack Gaza, or bomb Iran, should not distract us. Leaked descriptions of IDF planning are as consistent with the idea that Barak is trying to create leverage for serious, three-front negotiations as the idea that he seeks military solutions. Barak knows the limits of military power; he is the one who pulled the IDF out of Lebanon, after all.

Anyway, to have negotiations of any kind, you have to avoid elections just now. With Olmert’s announcement, the current, centrist coalition has a realistic chance of surviving for another two years, which means Netanyahu has, for the moment, been blocked. True, if Shaul Mofaz loses the Kadima primary, and leads Shas and Kadima rightists out of the coalition, we might get an election anyway. But the optimism of the will savors one victory at a time.

Netanyahu has responded that Barak has “spit in the face of the Israeli public,” though polls continue to show the public both supports the government’s diplomatic surge and doubts that anything will come of it. Clearly, the government needs new leadership and more time: to work with the new American administration, to preside over a period of calm.

But one can see why Netanyahu is upset. Perhaps Sheldon Adelson will soothe him with more containers full of greenbacks from Macau, now that Maariv seems to be for sale again.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Israeli Arabs? Yes.

For people who think that Arabs cannot integrate into Israel's Hebrew civil society, or that the only reason for peace is the so-called demographic threat, consider this: 77% of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than in any other country in the world.

Doves Playing Chicken

Just to be clear, if that’s the word, there is a little glitch in Israeli law that creates a difference between a prime minister “resigning” and “stepping aside”—and helps explain, on the one hand, the parliamentary game of chicken being played between Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Barak and, on the other, the opposition to Barak’s moves by his own most dovish Labor ministers.

If a prime minister resigns, or if the government loses a vote of confidence, the government automatically becomes “transitional,” ministers may not resign from it, and the Knesset has 90 days (well, depending on the timing of the summer recess) to pass a law mandating a date for new elections, which would then have to be held within six months. If Olmert did resign, we would almost certainly have new elections by, say, late next winter. Polls show pretty clearly that Netanyahu’s Likud will win, given the grim public mood. As I’ve written here before, Bibi would bring us a government dominated by Likud’s hardest-liners, back-to-the-Land-of-Israel cultists, ultraOrthodox claustrophiles, Russian reactionaries and oligarchs, and General-opportunists.

But if a prime minister is incapacitated in some way, because of health or (in Olmert’s case) legal troubles, he or she may just step aside, and the leading government party would be able to appoint (or elect) a replacement. Then, the existing coalition may serve out its full term, in this case, at least until March of 2010. If Olmert stepped aside, then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would likely take over and most believe she and Barak would be able to create a stable coalition for two years more. Olmert’s government has initiated a series of peace moves, which the public is cautiously supportive of—anyway, much more so than supportive of Olmert himself. He is in no way indispensable to continuing the peace process as a whole. Livni and Barak would probably have a better chance of selling any deal to an always skeptical Israeli public.

With this in mind, consider what Olmert is doing. If indicted, he says, he will resign—not step aside, resign. Barak just announced that, if Olmert does not step aside, then he will instruct the Labor Party to support an impending Knesset vote of no confidence. Olmert has responded, nah-nah, do that and he’ll fire any minister who votes for the bill—thereby bringing about the loss of his majority—in effect, resign, not step aside.

What all of this amounts to is that Olmert is threatening his own coalition, and even the judicial √©lite—formally neutral, but generally people who favor the government’s centrism and peace initiatives—with a Netanyahu victory. If he were serious about leading the country to peace, and not just leading the country for a few more months, he would go, but not resign. The only supporters Olmert has left are politicians who really, really fear Bibi (that is, Labor’s leading doves), or politicians who really, really fear that any new election will wipe them out.

Barak, for his part, may have no choice but to push the pedal to the metal; he knows he will have to face Bibi sooner or later. He beat him once in 1999, and if Tzipi Livni wins in Kadima, the two might eke out a victory. Anyway, Barak knows that most people want political moderation. He also knows they won’t vote for a politician who seems afraid of them. Like Olmert.