There are only two political parties in Israel, really, the party that dreads the loss of Greater Israel, i.e., the party of settlements, and, the party that dreads the isolation of global Israel, i.e., the party of America. Think of the country as paradigms, the first focused on Jerusalem's fire, the second on Tel Aviv's cool. The Likud is mainly in the first party, as are all of Netanyahu's coalition partners, save Labor. But the prime minister supposed he could keep a leg in both, or at least preclude the need for Israelis to choose, by focusing everybody, including American diplomats and generals, on the dread of Iran--also by activating neoconservative allies in the United States to downplay settlement activity in the face of Islamist violence.
Netanyahu's stance, or ploy, finally came unraveled last week, not only because of the dustup with Joe Biden about new construction in East Jerusalem, but because Gen. David Petraeus finally weighed in with a statement of the obvious, that America's long acquiescence in Israel's occupation "was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region." Netanyahu is trying to pretend that the crisis with Washington was precipitated by bad timing. That's a little like saying the announcement of AIG's bonus pool was bad timing. Nobody's really buying it, and with Petreaus in the mix, the neocons can hardly sell it. We have come to a moment of truth that is long overdue. The Israeli media is, gratefully, growing preoccupied with its implications, not the least of which is just how divided the country is, and how its citizens must indeed choose.
REVEALINGLY, BIDEN'S GOOD speech at Tel Aviv University last week spent a good deal of time anticipating (or preempting) Netanyahu on Iran, reassuring Israelis-in-general about their existence-in-general. But this sounded more like a preliminary hymn than the necessary sermon. The university is ground zero of the America party. Biden looked a little surprised when he found that his only strong applause line was an unequivocal condemnation of new Jewish settlements, which would further "prejudice the result of negotiations." This caused Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, the hack conscience of the settlers party, to issue a condemnation of his own, namely, of the Tel Aviv University audience.
The point is, there is a culture war in Israel now, and the only way the liberal side of it can mount an offensive is if America keeps the heat on. It is futile to treat Israel as if it were the embodiment of some big Jewish psyche in need of reassurances to trust the world. In fact, Israeli governments refuse to depart from the status quo because a large and hardened minority, perhaps a third of Jewish Israelis, regards peace as an end to the divinely self-enclosed way of life they have established in and around Jerusalem. The squishy, declining, more cosmopolitan and secular majority is unwilling to confront them for the sake of Palestinians, that is, not unless they have to. Israelis have to see that there is something to lose.
NOBODY HERE KNOWS how violently the Israeli right would be prepared to defend the settlement project against the Israeli state itself. To the extent that Israeli politics are merely electoral politics, the fight is clear, however. It is over swing voters: immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their acculturated children, better educated Mizrahim, traditionalist Jews drawn to orthodoxy but who have traveled the world. In recent years--what with the collapse of Oslo, the suicide bombings, the rise of Ahmadinejad, etc.--these voters have swung sharply toward the settlers. A recent poll of high school students reveals that over half would deny Arab citizens of Israel the right to vote. To be for peace, you see, is to be naïve, trusting of "the Arabs."
The global party can win back the initiative, but this means giving swing voters something new and more urgent to be not naïve about, something like reliance on Likud, AIPAC, etc., to deliver America. Reports of Clinton dressing down Netanyahu on the phone were just a beginning. Labor's dissident former leader, Amir Peretz, was on Reshet Bet radio this morning sounding charged up for the first time in two years. He told listeners it was time to "grow up." There are rumors that Kadima's Tzipi Livni has sent Netanyhau a message that she'll join the government if he gets rid of Shas and Leiberman, in effect, if he is prepared to try to drag the whole of the Likud to the party of America, even if this means he loses absolute control over the cabinet. This is his moment of truth. If Washington lets up, critics of government policy will slump back into their corner.
THE NEXT TWO weeks may prove critical. Netanyahu is coming to Washington, or is at least scheduled to, to address the AIPAC convention. Meanwhile, Obama's international prestige will be riding on his final push to get healthcare legislation passed. The EU's foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, has rebuked Israel and strongly backed Clinton's stand over Jerusalem construction. Kadima is waiting for an answer. The Arab League is meeting in Tripoli later this month, and who knows if their 2002 offer of full regional peace with Israel, in exchange for the 1967 borders and a resolution of the refugees issue, will be renewed?
Meanwhile, in Jerualem, plans are proceeding to have Ruby Rivlin rededicate an ancient synagogue in the old city today. Arab men under 50 are being kept away from the mosques, and everyone is bracing for the closures of the Passover holiday. The anticipated proximity negotiations of George Mitchell have been deferred. There is talk of a temporary general strike. There are fresh riots at Birzeit University in Ramallah. The region, in short, will not be the same a month from now. Even the effort to reimpose the status quo ante Biden will seem a provocation.
Like all administrations since Ronald Reagan, Obama's will be tempted to have representatives to AIPAC mollify what seems the natural leadership of American Jews, though AIPAC is not anything of the kind. The temptation must be resisted. Perhaps this was inadvertent, but there is now an expectation across the West Bank, and the Israeli political class, that Washington has, in effect, finally told Israel to stop all settlements, period, even in East Jerusalem. If ever Obama needed the realism and nerves that Eisenhower had when he told Ben-Gurion to vacate Sinai, this is the time. Peretz told the radio that the government has "dried the brush," so that any match can light a wildfire. Obama's return to business as usual, that is, to the inertia from which only the Israeli right gains, can itself provide the spark.