Political pundits the world over are scrambling to analyze the prospects of the recently reignited Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, at least in part to hide the embarrassment of nearly unanimously dooming their possibility in the first place. To the pundits’ dismay, Bibi Netanyahu has flip-flopped to the left on his role in a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a whimsical flurry reminiscent of former hawkish Israeli premiers.
It is hard to recognize the new Bibi considering his migration from opposing Palestinian statehood just a few years ago to recently suggesting that the binational alternative to two states is undesirable. In a recent address to the Conference of Presidents, Bibi evenhinted at acquiescing to dividing Jerusalem – a move he has previously sworn never to entertain. Talk is cheap, but Bibi has thus far backed it up by agreeing to return to the negotiation table at the cost of releasing tens of Palestinian prisoners – many of whom have spent dozens of years rotting in Israeli prison for flagrant offenses.
Yet in times of pleasant surprise, it is important to temper newfound optimism with the pragmatic reality. No matter how hard it is to believe, this was the easy part. The road to two states only gets steeper from here.
Netanyahu will not make it to the finish line solely at the behest of international pressure. He faces some seemingly insurmountable obstacles ahead: quelling the Israeli public’s cynicism, finessing a mutiny within his coalition and perhaps even his own party, and – obviously – actually coming to an agreement on a peace deal. To make it through, the Prime Minister needs a whole lot more than good intentions and an American midwife. Like Kerry has done, Bibi needs to dedicate himself to the plausibility of a viable Palestinian state more than the rest of the world rejects it. Very few, including myself, believe he can become that man.
Yet if he is to do so, the key lies in J.J. Goldberg’s insight that Bibi is torn between his head and his heart. Netanyahu struggles with the knowledge that ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank ensures Israel’s secure, democratic future while simultaneously feeling emotionally wedded to defending the settlements enterprise and intensely distrustful of his Palestinian interlocutor. So what exactly would it take for Bibi to trust his intellect and have a genuine change of heart?
My research on global Jewish connections to Israel provides a clue as to how youth are transforming gut reactions to the Jewish homeland. Vanderbilt Sociologist and Jewish Studies Professor Shaul Kelner writes that, “Home is not just a swath of territory claimed by the ethnic group. It’s something that is supposed to manifest itself on an individual level through a person’s emotional relationship to a place.” For the Jews I interviewed on the UC Berkeley campus in Northern California, this emotional relationship with their home away from home was largely expressed as a “love for Israel.”
When I asked one Berkeley student about her first trip to the Jewish state, she replied without hesitation: “I fell in love.” “If you weren’t entirely in love, head over heels into Israel,” she continued, “then you clearly didn’t understand.” Another student, speaking of learning about Israel as a young boy, recalled how his father “wanted [the children] to, hopefully in our hearts, nurture that same love he had for that place.” “I think [my love for Israel] is a love for my parents,” a third student remarked, “it is something that has always been there.” At the culmination of the Birthright trip I studied, one participant christened the journey’s end with a climactic Facebook status: “Last day in Israel. Love my second home! <3.”
But what does it mean to love a nation-state and what does this have to do with Bibi’s potential for a volte-face? Executive Director of Berkeley Hillel Adam Naftalin-Kelman provides the answer. In our interview, he attributed an explanatory power to the love metaphor which can help us understand how Jewish youth are able to drastically change their emotional connections to the Jewish homeland. “When you get back from Birthright,” he explained, “that is a relationship [with Israel] of a 5-year-old son.” “The [child] just love[s] being around you, but he doesn’t understand the difficulties you go through, he doesn’t understand the faults you have… that is what it means to be five.”
On the other hand, the relationship with Israel can mature and “[handle] tension in a healthy way,” he went on. Instead of the love a child has for a parent, Naftalin-Kelman analogized a healthy relationship as one between equal, mature adults. “I argue with my wife and we understand how to make up and reconcile… just because I say that my brother is wrong and we fight doesn’t mean that I can be like: ‘Now, you’re out.’” Naftalin-Kelman uses this as a model to guide his students’ discourse about Israel. “You [can] disagree with things happening in Israel,” he resolved, “[but] does that mean that you cannot have a deep connection for the people and the place?”
For Jews concerned with whether their criticism of the Jewish State necessarily negates their love and concern for it, Naftalin-Kelman’s paradigm is a godsend. One student spoke of an “attempt [to] reconcil[e] what I felt was an absolutely unconditional love for Israel… with feeling that there are actions that could be critiqued.” “I was able to critique Israel and not be any less of a Zionist, and not be any less of a Jew,” he demanded. Speaking of asking his father about discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, another student affirmed that his questions “in no way… diminish[ed] [his] love for Israel, in no way changed anything [he] grew up with.” “With more criticism,” a third declared, “comes more appreciation.”
Of course, Bibi does not have a five-year-old’s relationship with Israel. He would, however, do well to challenge and transform his gut reaction, just as these matured youth have. As one student plainly put it: “You can still love something unequivocally and recognize that it would be better if things were a different way.” The Israeli Prime Minister is staring at a chessboard and he knows the right move – for Israelis, for Palestinians, for everybody. But his gut is holding him back. The slim chance we have for peace this time around rests with him changing his heart to accommodate his head – a metamorphosis of an old dog’s obstinacy.