Leon Wieseltier and the case for hope

Last week, I was invited by a friend to speak at my former sixth-form college on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In so doing, I stressed that we can only understand the present real estate dispute when we comprehend the land as having been twice-promised, two peoples having two strong claims to the same stretch of terrain. I also covered the hinge events which have led Israeli and Palestinians towards the awful status quo: the Arab-Israeli War; the Six Day War; the failure of Camp David in 2000; the al-Aqsa Intifada; and the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza.

There was no intention on my part to paint a grim picture of the current state of play. It is just that when the incidences of the past one hundred years are strung together – up to and including Benjamin Netanyahu’s petulant approval of the E1 project east of Jerusalem which would render a Palestinian state unviable – it can appear as if the arc of history, far from bending towards justice, has brought Israelis and Palestinians to a place where peace seems altogether unlikely.

It is this downbeat interpretation of the past and our present that has, it would seem, brought The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier to an abandonment of hope, to a sad conclusion that it is implausible for “peace between Israelis and Palestinians [to] occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views,” he adds, “I have merely lost my hopes”.

Certainly, the current state of the relationship – or, the total absence of one – between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships is just cause for despair. Shortly before Palestinian non-member observer state status was confirmed at the United Nations, Mahmoud Abbas stood up before the world and proclaimed Israel to be a racist, colonial enterprise, responsible for “one of the most dreadful campaigns of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in modern history”. Wieseltier calls Abbas’ speech “small and mean”, to which he could just as easily have added nasty, thuggish, mendacious, unlettered, and ahistorical.

At once, the current Israeli government does not appear to have compassion for the plight of the Palestinian people, nor does it see the need to end the dehumanising occupation to ensure the future of Zionism. Indeed, their chauvinistic solutions to the conflict are undesirable and non-implementable, from substantial land and population transfers (Avigdor Lieberman) to financially-induced emigration of all Arabs out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza (Moshe Feiglin). It was Lieberman also, whom Wieseltier describes as “the fascist face of Israel”, who was reported to have drawn up plans to launch a coup d’état against Abbas in the event of enhanced UN status.

“Sure, the struggle continues. The debate must go on,” Wieseltier concludes. “But how long is an interim? What if reason never comes? When does hope become illusion?” It is a sentiment one cannot help but empathise with, and I heard it too in the questions of the sixth-formers I spoke with. Towards the end of the meeting when, having heard about and discussed the state of Israel and Palestine, one asked, What hope is there for peace?

The students were right to lodge such a query, and perhaps it is Wieseltier who is now correct on this point. Perhaps this is an instance where George Orwell’s dictum has been proved correct, that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. Perhaps the hope, as Wieseltier suggests, has become illusion.

Then again, perhaps not, for notwithstanding the foregoing I cannot help but feel that the very surrender of hope constitutes total surrender to fanaticism, an abandonment of the pursuit of peace itself. To give up on the idea that two states for two peoples can be brought about in the near future is to validate the narratives of those in Israel and Palestine for whom stalemate, conquest, or annihilation is the aim of the game.

Hopelessness is not only defeat, but it is also a luxury, since Israelis and Palestinians have no alternative but two states. The present condition of occupation and subjugation cannot last without it corrupting the soul of Israel beyond redemption and rendering the Palestinian people permanently hermetic. Moreover, a single bi-national entity between the river and the sea would never last, since neither side would acquiesce to living in a state with the other. The one-state solution is no solution at all, for as Gershom Gorenberg foresees, “virtually every question that bedevils Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will become a domestic problem setting the new political entity aflame”.

Hope, therefore, must be placed in two states, and in those on both sides who remain disposed to concord. Gallup polling found that 68 percent of Israelis and 63 percent of Palestinians still support the peace process as a matter of principal, with 65 percent of Palestinians and 61 percent of Israelis stating preference for non-violent forms of resistance and negotiation to achieving national goals. More specifically, Hebrew University data showed last year that, for the first time since 2004, a majority on both sides favoured the Clinton Parameters as a basis for an agreement. “Those times when the two parties could not even pronounce each other’s names are past,” Amos Oz writes in How to Cure a Fanatic. “Most people on both sides now know that the other is not going to go away”.

On the political level, the Palestine Liberation Organisation now acknowledges “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”, accepts UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 which demand the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” towards all actors in the region, and is committed to resolving “all outstanding issues relating to permanent status” through negotiation. In its best light, Palestinian admission to the UN General Assembly can be viewed as an affirmation of these principles. It was a tacit acknowledgement that the borders of the Palestinian state cannot extend beyond the Green Line, and a surrender of irredentist claims to Haifa, Jaffa, and the extinguished villages of the Mandate.

Successive Israeli governments since Yitzhak Rabin, meanwhile, have moved beyond the dead stance of Golda Meir that there is “no such thing as Palestinians”. The PLO is recognised as the representative of the Palestinian people, and Israeli governments continue to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority on civil and security matters. Regarding peace, Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both offered solutions to the question of partition which, while not acceptable to the Palestinian leadership on first viewing, might have come to something if negotiations had continued.

The flaw in Wieseltier’s pointed and earnest take on the contemporary standoff, thus, is that it is contemporary, that it is short-sighted. In electing to attach all of his dreams and inspirations to the likelihood of Benjamin Netanyahu sitting down at a negotiating table and doing a damn thing to aid the coming of the two-state solution, he is doomed to inhabit a condition of hopelessness. For Wieseltier, and for those questioning sixth-formers, the hope ought to rest in the people themselves, and the knowledge that however disgraceful one considers the governments of Netanyahu or Abbas to be, the people will see to it that they cannot rule in perpetuity. Everything is forever, until it is no more.

About the Author
Liam Hoare, a freelance writer on politics and literature, has written for The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Daily Beast