Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Welcome to my neighborhood

It was exciting to have President Biden here in Israel last week even if, as some analysts have asserted, we were just a waystation on his way to his real objective, Saudi Arabia.  It's understandable if we were second fiddle; U.S. gas prices were topping five bucks a gallon and Saudi Arabia has  oil.  We've got computer chips and falafel.

Our apartment is very close to the President and the Prime Minister's residences, so we had some inconvenience but we also really felt the activity.  It was refreshing to have a President of the U.S. and a Prime Minister of Israel who acted like adults and conducted themselves civilly.  No incidents, no embarrassing statements by either side, no significant gaffes. Disagreements handled smoothly and respectfully. Warmth exuded.

Regardless of  politics, a lot of people here in Israel are thankful that visit went smoothly and safely.  There was a collective sigh of relief when Air Force One took off.

Prime Minister Lapid, having just recently taken office upon the downfall of the Bennet coalition that Lapid knitted together and facing an election on November 1st, acquitted himself well.  He displayed some class and graciousness, characteristics often missing in Israel politics and in politics generally.  He broke protocal by inviting his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, to the airport to greet Biden and his entourage.

And he demonstrated class and sensitivity to Defense Minister Gantz, a man who betrayed his commitment to Lapid and those that voted for him not to join a Netanyahu-led government based on Netanyahu's commitment that the prime ministership would rotate to Gantz, a commitment that, out of about 9.5 million Israelis, only Gantz and perhaps his wife believed had a chance of being kept.

Despite having ample reason to shun Gantz, Lapid, knowing that Gantz's mother, like Lapid's father, was a Holocaust survivor, included him in Biden's visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and an obligatory must-stop for visiting dignitaries.

A major point of agreement:  Both Biden and Lapid expressed their support for a "two-state solution."  And both agreed that it is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Tom Friedman's recent column discussing the visit takes off from his long-stated belief that without the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel is headed to a bi-national state or a non-democratic state.

While often wrong in his assessments of who is to blame for the lack of  a Palestinian state and in his prescriptions for how to get to a resolution, Friedman is correct in the premise behind his support of a state: that we must not continue to have ultimate control of and responsibility for an area with millions of Palestinians.  As I've argued before, eventually we will not have a Jewish state.  I have yet to hear a credible argument that counters this conclusion.

A bi-national state will not work.  See, e.g., Lebanon to the north of us. And see Belguim, which shows bi-nationalism barely works in a peaceful country in a sometimes peaceful  region.

It is discouraging that more progress has not been made toward a two-state solution.  In many ways, things have regressed.  We could discuss the reasons for that until the cows come in.

At the end, as a pragmatist, I want to solve the problem, not because I think the Palestinians have worked constructively to build a country, but because I want a Jewish and democratic Israel, and because, even though they may not love me and my country, I don’t like the thought of other people, even people who might not have worked for it all that much, not having independence.  I don’t want to rule over them and to be responsible for them.

In his usual hyperbolic way, Friedman argues that Saudi Arabia and Israel Arab voters are the ONLY way to save Israel from the otherwise inevitable path of losing its Jewish or democratic identity, Saudi Arabia because Israel desperately wants recognition and a relationship with it, and the Israeli Arab voters because their coalition of parties could hold the key to forming a future Israeli government.

While it's doubtful Friedman has identified  the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, it is a plausible pathway.

However, Friedman understates some major problems:

-- Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have very little support and are incredibly corrupt and ineffective.

-- Hamas and Fatah are deeply split, and both are not adverse to using violence against their opponents.

-- Palestinian society is sorely lacking in a civil and economic infrastructure.  There is no free press, no independent judiciary, no viable non-violent opposition.  Corruption in government is rampant and goes to the highest levels.

-- Hamas has not given up the dream of the destruction of Israel.  Abbas and many in the upper echelons of the P.A. talk a peaceful game in English while in Arabic continuing to deny the Jews' connection to Israel and Jerusalem and while encouraging extremists among their population.

Various Israeli governments could have done more to assist the Palestinians in the development of an independent government.  But that would have been nibbling at the edges.  The bulk of the blame for the Palestinians' predicament lies with the Palestinians and their enablers like the EU, UNRWA, and well-intentioned supporters of two states in the U.S.

Israel has a place in Biden's heart, and by the accounts of people who know him, he is a decent and sincere guy. He wants to see Israel safe and secure and Jewish, and he wants to provide a just resolution for the Palestinians.

But it appears that he is likely to go down the same hole as the Obama Administration and several  other prior U.S. administrations who thought they had a key to solving the dispute. His approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an old one that has failed:  treating the Palestinians as if they have no agency.  Feeding their sense of victimization.  Not holding them responsible and accountable.  Not demanding that they develop the basic infrastructure of a functioning state.  In short, not getting when you give, and not giving intelligently and strategically.

Exhibit No.1 that the Biden Administration will make the mistake of feeding the problem rather than solving it is the decision to open up the spigots for UNRWA.  This is an organization that does more than any other to fuel the Palestinian sense of grievance and victimization.

It helps to perpetuate the fantasy that Palestinian refugees (the tens of thousands from 1948) and their millions of descendants who never lived in Israel are going to “return” to Israel.  It conducts itself according to a principle applied to no other group of refugees in history:  that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees should effectively be treated as refugees themselves.  There is ample evidence that it has provided cover for and resources to those that engage in terrorism.

President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken and their Middle East advisors would do well to read “The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace” by Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz.

After the demise of the Oslo process, two liberal two-state supporters, one a former Knesset member from the Labor Party and the other a former reporter for Israel's leftist paper of record, Ha'aretz, decided to investigate the reasons and came to a conclusion that most two-state supporters won’t or can’t consider and assimilate: that the root cause of the problem is the inability of the Palestinians and their leadership to accept the Jewish right to a nation, the refusal to give up on their maximalist position that they will "return" to all of Palestine, a political culture based on an overwhelming and all-encompassing sense of grievance and victimization, and an unwillingness to foreswear violence as a tool toward accomplishing their objectives. Wilf and Schwartz make the case that the approach of the United States and most of the Western world aggravates and feeds the problem rather than contributing to a resolution.

The President and his Middle East advisors, and anyone else interested in solving the problem and being truthful, should quit kidding about the nature of a future Palestinian state.  There is little reason to believe that a Palestinian state will be peaceful.  There is no reason to believe that the establishment of a state will resolve the deep dispute between Fatah and Hamas, and there is no reason to believe that the parties will not use violence against each other, as they have in the past and sometimes do today.

It is likely a Palestinian state, or parties based there, will continue to engage in terrorism and other aggression against Israel.  There is little evidence that they will give up their belief that Jews have no right to be here or that they will someday have an Arab country "the river to the sea."

Based on the history of the P.A. and Hamas and on the surrounding Arab nations, the chances of a Palestinian state being  democratic, or tolerant, or much of an economic success are zero to nil.  For Biden and his aides to keep saying otherwise demonstrates incredible naivete or deceitfulness, and it costs them terribly in terms of credibility in Israel and, most likely, in much of the Arab world.

The reason for supporting two states is not because it is going to be a panacea, or even a good solution.  The reason from the West's perspective should be that it is the least bad of a lot of bad alternatives.  The reason from Israel's perspective is that while it will not bring a peaceful, democratic, successful neighbor, it will ensure that Israel continues to be a democratic, Jewish state.

For that reason, one hopes that Friedman, who is often wrong, is right this time.


For an insightful look at Zionism, its history in the context of decolonization of the 20th century, its challenges, and why it is a success, see Brett Stephens latest piece in "Sapir."   https://sapirjournal.org/zionism/2022/05/zionism-remains-a-freedom-struggle/   

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)





  1. Interesting and insightful, as always!

  2. I have always liked Lapid!

  3. Tom Friedman is dreaming. The Arab parties unite to agree on something. Give me a break!