Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Dangers Of National Unity


"Can't you understand simple arithmetic? Why, the very point of [our] program is to have as much land as possible and as few Arabs as possible!" 

Avigdor Lieberman in 2009? Actually, Yitzhak Navon, Labor leader, and former president of the state, at an election rally in Yoqneam in 1984.  

My point is that there is a bigger crisis here than the emergence of a "neo-fascist," as Marty Peretz called Lieberman (or shall we say even Marty Peretz, as Fareed Zakaria implied). There is the question of what national unity means, or at least how it plays. By 1984, the great danger to Israeli democracy was allegedly Meir Kahane, the caustic, menacing, ultra du jour. But his power stemmed, much like Lieberman's today, from his saying bluntly what a generation of leaders before him had fudged politely.

That Israel is for Jews, and let's not be too fine about what Jewish means. That "Jewish and democratic" means doing what we've done to privilege "Zionism"--exclude non-Jews from "nationalized" land, empower (or pander to) orthodox rabbis, root identity, even citizenship, in bloodlines, sacralize Jerusalem--and continue doing so as long as there are more of us than them. That Israel's fate is to hit regularly at Palestinian insurgents and other enemies--"mow the lawn," in the words of an Israeli intelligence officer I know--and that so long as we are not at peace, we might as well cultivate national unity by supporting, or just overlooking, West Bank settlements, whose leaders are custodians of classical Zionism's heroic spirit.

Lieberman ran on the unremarkable idea that Israeli Arabs are not really capable of feeling allegiance to this Jewish state; that they should be denied citizenship if they fail to swear allegiance to it. In practical terms, Lieberman's line means "as much land as possible and as few Arabs as possible," that in any peace deal entertained by Israel, the Israeli Arab villages of the Little Triangle should be transferred to a Palestinian state. Incidentally, not four years ago, in the fall of 2005, Peretz's New Republic published an article by Uzi Arad--the former head of research at the Mossad, the Princeton-educated convener of the prestigious Herzliya Conference (a man I know and otherwise respect)--that called for exactly the same plan as Lieberman's.
 
I DO NOT mean to dwell on little hypocrisies, which we all engage in at times.  But it is important to emphasize how this trans-Atlantic handshake reveals what is conventional, and dangerous, in Lieberman's thinking. Netanyahu is calling for national unity, to "topple Hamas," face the threat of Iran, and meet the "economic challenge." He is begging the question, and inviting Tzipi Livni and other centrists to go on begging it with him. But Livni surely knows (and how can Netanyahu not?) that he cannot attack Hamas more without strengthening it even more; cannot take unilateral action against Iran; cannot do anything significant to alleviate the effects of the world economic slump, at least no more than the mayor of Los Angeles. 

What he can do is stall on confronting the sorry legacy of Israel's national unity: stall on confronting a settlement project that continues to spread like a cancer across the West Bank (and with over 160 settlements, Netanyahu's claim that he will only allow "natural growth" is like a doctor saying, after metastasis, that he will only allow natural growth); stall on confronting a warped Israeli state apparatus that is turning Arab citizens into radical enemies.

IT IS HARD to know if Livni will go along. If Lieberman has become the poster-child for the logic of the "demographic problem," she has become the poster-child for a professional and entrepreneurial class that knows Israel cannot at once embrace globalization and defy the globe. All she can really do by joining the government is help Netanyahu charm American officials and otherwise stand up to pressures to change the status quo. Of course the status quo is a disaster, and many in the Tel-Aviv middle class voted for her because she seemed, precisely, a force for change.  

At the same time, it is not at all clear that her vision, or Ehud Barak's for that matter, is much different from Netanyahu's, or Lieberman's for that matter--one of the reasons Livni has been so coy. Indeed, it is not at all clear, as Haaretz's Nehemia Shtrasler wrote recently, that Israel really has a political party that envisions both secular, democratic principles as the basis for internal peace, and global enterprises as the building blocks of an external peace.

This is the great disappointment of the last election, a shame, truly, since so many Israelis would know what to do with peace. Just last week, as was widely reported, a team of Israeli scientists announced a breakthrough invention, an "artificial nose" that was able to "sniff" cancer in 92% of cases. What was not widely reported is that the lead doctor, Hossam Haick, is an Arab from Nazareth, the child of a family which a 1948 version of national unity failed to drive away.

One last thing: if Netanyahu were serious about creating a "unity" goverment to take hard decisions, to tip from defending the inertia of the "national camp" to cooperating seriously in a regional diplomatic initiative based on the Saudi Plan, all he would have to do is form a coalition with Kadima and Labor.  But then he would be, in effect, the junior partner, and half of his own party list (Benny Begin, Moshe Yaalon, and others) would go into a kind of internal exile. This is his moment of truth, too, and ours about him.