Coming back to Jerusalem for my long annual stay here, I find that question ringing loudly in my ears. Is it too late to save the State of Israel, both from its very real enemies and from its own worst self?
The answer is by no means obvious; I hear many – on both sides of the ocean – hanging their heads and quietly saying “Perhaps it is.” The despair, desolation, and lack of hope I hear from Israeli friends are devastating. They, of course, are much closer to the pain of this moment than I am, even as I sit here writing from Jerusalem. They are all grateful that I have shown up here, but none of them greets me with a message of any cheer or hope. I find them still deeply traumatized, wound up in the shock of their feelings, and not yet ready to face the question: “What are we supposed to do now?”
The most frightening of their messages is that they have been awakened to the reality that Hamas is no different from ISIS. They seek to slaughter Jews, endlessly and in the most bestial and degrading ways possible. The mask has been pulled off their face; we must realize that this is who they really are: Jihadis, for whom this is an absolute and endless war. There is no talking to such people or negotiating with them. All we can do is kill them and weaken their forces as much as we can. Then we wait for the next round, when we will seek to do the same again. “Mowing the grass,” in Netanyahu’s awful choice of metaphor.
That used to be the self-understanding only of the Israeli far right. Some of them combined it with messianic dreams. But now I seem to be hearing fears of jihad from people who are far from being messianic Jews. For them, the new center-right of desperation, it is a message of gloom, not redemption. Everyone who lives in the Middle East knows the history of the Crusaders, Westerners who eventually gave up on the Holy Land, deciding that “kill or be killed” was a zero-sum game no longer worth playing. They are the stuff of Hamas’s fervent dreams and Israel’s worst nightmares.
The Crusaders, of course, like modern colonialists, had mother countries to go home to. Israelis, as they frequently remind us, do not. There is a significant Israeli diaspora, but that is not the answer. Reports of Israelis buying land in Greece or Portugal were popping up in the earlier part of last year, amid the legislative outrages, but are no longer being heard. Although there are no statistics, there seem to have been more Israelis living abroad who have come home since October 7, whether to fight, to volunteer, or just to be with family, than there are those who have fled the sirens.
Much has been said of the tremendous and often well-organized spirit of volunteerism that has swept through this country. To some degree (though not completely), it has brought together those who were so bitterly divided by the issues that dominated in the first two thirds of 2023. A remarkable new study of quality-of-life issues that was released and much discussed last week attested to a strong sense that Israelis are happy living here, even now, especially because of the strong social and familial ties that characterize this society, and are not about to pull up their roots so deeply planted in this soil to turn elsewhere.
How do we put these two realities together? Increased despair about the future and a strong sense of “Here we stand.” Are we just headed for another great Masada-like suicide? Is there any alternative to it?
There must be. Here we need to turn to Israel’s greatest resource, its amazing human and intellectual capital, and to get it marshaled and working together toward a resolution. The same brain power that wrought “start-up nation” can also help shape beginning steps toward building a “survivor nation,” an Israel of Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, Western and Near Eastern citizens who ultimately want this country, with all its great promise, to exist.
The first thing that must happen is the liberation of such creative thinkers and planners from beneath the suffocation administered by generations of corrupt, boorish, and thuggish politicians. The abysmal quality of political life in Israel and the low level – both morally and intellectually – of many (of course not all!) who are attracted to it, is well documented. They must be forced out of power.
Israel will have to dispose of Netanyahu and his merry band of nation-destroying ministers. This haplessly failed government will need to be replaced by a very broad centrist coalition, one that will take it as its task to work toward a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It must act something like a “caretaker” government for a fixed period, similar to that which has been proposed and undertaken at various times for the Palestinians. I believe that the Israeli voting public is too traumatized right now to make intelligent long-range decisions and is too likely to vote itself into oblivion.
This radical suggestion will require the cooperation of the United States, the Saudi and Gulf State governments, and the European Union. They will have to pledge support, including future peace agreements, military guarantees, and economic benefits to such a broad Israeli coalition committed to seeking a political resolution to the conflict. The new government will need to create an Israeli “Peace Cabinet,” parallel to the current “War Cabinet,” but broader, that will have authority beyond that of the Knesset to work on negotiations and design of future arrangements. Only at their conclusion will the package be voted on by a national referendum.
Something parallel, of course, but even more drastic, will need to take place on the Palestinian side. Hamas and others devoted to the bloody destruction of Israel will need to be thoroughly removed from leadership. The Egyptians (who have some experience in rooting out the Muslim Brotherhood) and the Jordanians (who fear Hamas at least as much as we do) will need to take an active role in this process. A new Palestinian leadership team will need to be forged, including a younger generation from within the Palestinian Authority, but also especially Palestinian intellectuals from the diaspora and Israeli Palestinians willing to serve as a bridge.
As these supra-political “Peace Cabinets” from the two sides meet over a fixed period (perhaps 2-3 years) under the aegis of the international coalition, they and their respective teams will also be responsible to see to it that on-the-ground movement is taking place that leads toward, rather than away from, the planting of seeds for peaceful co-existence. This will need to include the non-expansion of existing settlements, the restoration of illegally seized lands, the disbanding of militant groups, and the active rebuilding of Gaza as a home for a significant part of its prior population.
This is a drastic proposal. It temporarily limits the freedom of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens from determining their own future. But it also limits their power of casting themselves any further into the abyss.
Very wide cooperation will be needed to make this happen. The United States will need to take significant leadership. It will need to bear both carrot and stick, seeking concrete ways to reward steps that leads toward resolution and clearly punishing those that move in the opposite direction. Fortunately, doing so might now be to President Biden’s political advantage. This display of American initiative in the power game that underlies the current conflict might also be very useful. But courage, stamina, and new creative thinking will be required of all.
I conclude by repeating the final sentences of a column I sent out on October 15:
I ask you to join me in calling upon the Israeli government to rescind the blockade of Gaza when it comes to food, water, and medicines. Our tradition tells us when it comes to feeding the hungry, we do not ask who is a worthy recipient. Let us not be seen as a people seeking to starve our enemy into submission. That is not, and may it never become, our way.