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Peace partners? A question for the ‘pragmatic’ right

Claims that “there is no partner for peace” and “only the right can bring peace” may have been true in their time, but today they've lost their validity; so what's holding Israel's right back from pursuing the two-state solution it ostensibly embraces?

Like many of us, I was both drawn in and disturbed by the rancor around Peter Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism.” I noticed that much of the criticism did not come from the ideological rightist camp, e.g. those inside the settler community (who mostly ignored it), but from what I will call the pragmatist rightist camp. As in most protracted political battles, definitions of “right” and “left,” in this case related to Israel/Palestine among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, are often in flux. For the purposes of this essay, I will subdivide each side (right and left) into two sub-categories that I will call the ideological left and pragmatic left and the ideological right and pragmatic right. I use these rubrics for purely heuristic purposes, fully acknowledging that pragmatism is fed by ideological commitments on both sides and also that these “boxes” are far too neat to contain the multifaceted attitudes of all parties involved. I simplify the complex nature of both sides to address two issues: (1) why the self-acclaimed “pragmatists” (who sometimes call themselves “realists”) on both sides cannot seem to engage in constructive conversation and debate; and (2) to question the precepts of the pragmatic right in relation to the present situation. I write as an open partisan of the left and thus fully acknowledge that a similar challenge can be waged from the right.

The ideologues

Many in the ideological left question the viability of a “Jewish” state, preferring a liberal democratic state, a state with equal rights for all its citizens; in short, a kind of one-state solution. Many are anti-nationalists more generally and oppose ethnic nation-states in particular (not just Israel). For many of them, the occupation should end not because it is hurting Israel politically or demographically but because it is morally wrong. A Judeo-centric form of the ideological left views Israel as a place for the instantiation of what Martin Buber called “Hebrew Humanism.” While often branded “anti-Israel” and sometimes even anti-Semitic (and this camp certainly includes some who are), the ideological left also includes many who are neither and simply desire Israel to become the humanistic society some of its founders envisioned.

Hebrew Humanism. Martin buber (photo credit: public domain)
Hebrew Humanism. Martin buber (photo credit: public domain)

The ideological right consists of a combination of Zionist revisionism and theological messianism – embodied in icons such as Zeev Jabotinsky and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, respectively – each making an exceptionalist claim regarding the Jews; either through history (Jabotinsky) or theology (Kook). While some refuse to acknowledge the existence of an “occupation” at all, others acknowledge it but do not view it as a reality Israel can, or should, resolve. And Israel is surely not obligated to do so. The ideological right moves from Revisionist territorial maximalism, as necessary for Jewish survival, to Kookean territorial maximalism as a prerequisite for redemption.

The pragmatists

The pragmatic right and left are harder to define. The pragmatic left often uses rhetoric from the ideological left, but attenuates it in terms of the welfare of the Jewish people. While many in this camp believe the occupation is morally wrong, they increasingly use language that speaks to the ways in which the occupation is compromising Israel’s democracy. In America, J-Street and Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism” are two examples of this approach. Perhaps Tikkun Magazine occupies the left flank of the pragmatic left camp.

The pragmatic right does not dwell on theological assumptions, nor does it openly advocate Revisionist militancy. Much of its rhetoric is couched in the language of liberalism, albeit a liberalism that includes an exceptionalist claim regarding the Jews, often looking to Jewish “history,” as opposed to “theology,” to make its case. The fundamental argument of the pragmatic right is “security.” This is why the Holocaust is deployed so frequently among pragmatic rightists. It claims that given the proper conditions, it is “willing” to support a two-state solution. But “willingness” is an ambiguous term. It may be encapsulated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new catch-phrase, “a responsible peace-process,” “responsible” operating as a term that enables an ostensible commitment to peace while maintaining unilateral control over the conditions of negotiating that peace. The pragmatic right is popular with Diaspora audiences nervous about anti-Semitism and Jewish identity more generally. Its caveats (i.e. “willingness” “responsible”) also avoid direct confrontation with members of the ideological right, for whom two states are either unacceptable (if they’re Revisionists) or blasphemous (if they’re messianists). I would place AIPAC, The Shalem Center, and Abraham Foxman in the pragmatic right camp.

The politics of suspicion

There is little the ideological right and left have to say to one another. They each construct their world-views in ways that exclude the basic principles of the other side. The pragmatic camps should be conversation partners. But as we saw from many of the reviews of Beinart’s book, they are not. The discourse between them breaks down when each claims the other is really a front for the more ideological position. This may sometimes be true. Many of the so-called pragmatists on the left may secretly harbor more ideological leftist views, which they decide to couch in the liberal (as opposed to radical) discourse of political pragmatism and allegiance to the Jewish people. Conversely, many of the so-called pragmatists of the right may secretly hold more ideological positions, but, realizing these positions will not sell in the larger Jewish (and non-Jewish) world, they couch their rhetoric in the language of liberalism.

Is Peter Beinart an ideological leftist in disguise? (photo credit: CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)
Is Peter Beinart an ideological leftist in disguise? (photo credit: CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)

This politics of suspicion may have informed the criticism of Beinart’s book. For example, one critic kept asking why Beinart “detests Israel (emphasis added),” implying, I believe, that while Beinart claims to be a pragmatic leftist he is really an ideological leftist and thus outside the orbit of legitimate discourse. This also may underlie AIPAC’s claim that J-Street is “anti-Israel” and J-Street’s claim that AIPAC is not, as it claims, simply a lobby to support Israel. The pragmatists on one side attempt to discount the pragmatists on the other side through an accusation of ideology.

Precepts of the pragmatic right

As someone who is a border-crosser between the ideological and pragmatic left, I want to engage the pragmatic right on this phenomenon. I assume for the sake of argument that many on the pragmatic right are not crypto-ideologues. What I am asking can equally be asked about the pragmatic left. But that is a topic for another essay.

As I understand it, the pragmatic right is founded on two basic principles that have become dogma: (1) “there is no partner for peace”; and (2) “only the right can bring peace.” The first is in relation to the opponent, the latter an internal comment about the political process. The first was born in the “three noes” of the Khartoum Resolution in September, 1967, where the Arab League issued an unequivocal response to the Six-Day War: no treaty, no recognition of Israel, no direct negotiations, and a call for the right of the Palestinians. While some, including Avi Shlaim, suggested that there was more room for maneuvering than is commonly thought, the doxa “no partner for peace” could easily be viewed as a legitimate Israeli response to Khartoum. The second precept, “only the right can bring peace,” was a call of the Likud government in its argument that the left did not “understand” the Arabs (this is reminiscent of the Revisionsists) and that only the right had the force, and the fortitude, to strike a deal that would ensure Israel’s security.

Is there no partner for peace?

Both of these precepts have a logical foundation if taken independently. Each one is also flawed in the following ways: (1) each assumes a particular historical context (1967 for “no partner for peace” and the first intifada in 1987 for “only the right can bring peace”), and (2) together they make no sense if we assume the pragmatic right is not a veil for the ideological right.

Here is what I mean. “There is no partner for peace,” is not an axiological claim but an understandable response to a historical reality. Arafat strengthened that claim in his intransigence, as did the Palestinian Authority in its early years, the popular victory of Hamas in Gaza, and continued terrorism. But pragmatism is founded on historical reality, and not rooted in metaphysical or essentialist claims (i.e., “the Arabs only know violence,” “God gave all of Erez Israel to the Jews,” etc.). Thus, the Arab Peace Initiative (2007), while far from perfect, in fundamental ways undermined the Khatroum Resolution. While the pragmatic rightists can be, perhaps should be, skeptical and cautious of this gesture, to deny its fundamental reversal of previous precedent, at least in principle, would be hard to defend from a pragmatic and non-essentializing position.

Another example is the continued attempt to paint Abbas as no different from Arafat or to claim Fayyad may be a moderate but “has no power.” This is not to argue that the Arab Peace Initiative and Abbas are all that is needed to resolve this dilemma — the Palestinians and their leadership have made many mistakes. It is to say, rather, that from a pragmatic point of view, the first precept of the pragmatic right cannot be maintained, surely not like 1967 and even not like 1987. Abbas has created a PA police force that, in conjunction with the Israeli security forces, has done a great deal to curb terrorism in the West Bank. And Fayyad has been enormously successful in creation an economic infrastructure for statehood.

Is Mahmoud Abbas just another Arafat? (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Is Mahmoud Abbas just another Arafat? (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Pragmatists will then point to Abbas’s willingness to form a unity government with Hamas. This is no small matter, but even here I think pragmatists — those who say they want to end the occupation if not as a moral obligation than at least from national necessity — should be paying close attention to the changes going on in Hamas and, just as important, the attitudes of the Palestinian population on the question of two states. Hamas has been operating a force in the last few months focusing on preventing rogue organization from firing rockets to Israel. In some recent polls by the respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, many Palestinians are giving up on — rather than rejecting — the possibility of two states. There is a big difference between these two attitudes. And this does not deny the fact that rockets are still launched fromGaza. Neither side is innocent of continued aggression. Both sides continue to terrorize one another.

Can the right bring peace?

As to the second precept, “only the right can bring peace:” this too had logical validity in its time. However, we need to consider whether it is still holds true. The rightist coalition that has been in power for the past three years, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, an ostensibly pragmatic rightist, has done little to move toward a resolution. Settlements, and even illegal settlements, continue to be built, and the Israeli government has yet to respond to Abbas’s various plans with a concrete plan of its own. I am not criticizing this on its own merit; it may be that the pragmatist right cannot agree to a settlement freeze; for example, because of pressure from the ideological right. I am only saying that if the government is a pragmatic rightist government, it is doing a poor job of resolving what it ostensibly wants to resolve.

More troubling, though, is the double standard built into this second precept. Oddly, while Israel can, perhaps must, have a rightist government to bring peace (“only the right can bring peace”), the Palestinians are expected to elect some reincarnation of Mahatma Ghandi or “they are not a partner for peace.” I do not think it is radical to say that, given their rhetoric and records, Abbas and Fayyad are as much “partners for peace” as Netanyahu and Lieberman. Both sides openly express a willingness for a two-state solution, and each side has equal validity is questioning the sincerely of the other. Both sides have coalition partners who are opposed to resolving the conflict: Hamas on the Palestinian side, and, on the Israeli side, elected Knesset members such as Moshe Feiglin and others in Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and Shas, as well as parties such as HaBayit HaYehudi. If it is the case that “only the right can bring peace” on one side, why is it not equally true on the other side? And if so, why is there “no partner for peace”?

My point is not to get embroiled in the Israel-bashing/hasbara name-calling that seems to dominate the pragmatists’ debate. I understand the ideological right and I understand why it supports the pragmatic right — as long as the pragmatic right doesn’t actually apply the dictates of pragmatism. I also understand why ideological rightists and leftists no longer see it as beneficial to express their position in the language of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook or Leon Trotsky.

Benjamin Netanyahu with President Barack Obama (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu with President Barack Obama (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

As a member of the left, I ask the pragmatic rightists the following question: What are the foundations of the pragmatic right’s position if “there is no partner for peace” and “only the right can bring peace” cease to be operational dicta in accord with historical and empirical reality? If we can agree that the pragmatic left and the pragmatic right both want to end the occupation through a viable two-state solution, why are both sides wed to viewing the other as covert ideological operatives? The ideational principles of the pragmatic right were born in the 1960s and the 1980s. In their time, the two precepts were both legitimate. But when these precepts become dogma and are no longer evaluated in relation to changes on the ground, when ostensible changes are always explained away as insincere, insignificant, or insufficient, pragmatism becomes calcified into, or reveals itself as, ideology. If this is the case, let it be said openly and even proudly, and let the chips fall where they may.

I understand the followers of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook. Their ideology is both consistent and coherent. If I believed in their world-view, I would be one of them. But I don’t and thus I am not. What I do not understand is the present pragmatist claims that still voice the two precepts “there is no partner for peace” and “only the right can bring peace” as if they made sense together and still accurately described the present situation.

About the Author
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington. His most recent book, 'From Metaphysics to Midrash; History, Myth and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbalah' (Indiana University Press), was awarded the 2008 American Academy of Religion Best Book in Religion in the Textual Studies Category. His forthcoming book, 'American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society,' will be published with Indiana University Press in the winter of 2013. He writes regularly for Religion Dispatches, Tikkun Magazine, Shma Magazine and Zeek Magazine. He is also the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Sea View, NY.