Friday, May 20, 2011

Will the Arab Spring Lead to Israel’s Fall? (What I’ll be looking for at the AIPAC Conference)

Ari Fleischer will be addressing us on Friday evening at the conclusion of our 7:30 service (word to the wise – get here early, we’re expecting a crowd); Then, I’ll be going to the AIPAC conference in Washington on Sunday, along with a record 10,000 others. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be speaking. Already we’ve heard Obama’s speech, and here are oodles of reactions culled by the right-leaning Daily Alert, a Jerusalem Post commentary on why Bibi acted so peeved, one on why the Palestinians are dismayed and here’s the text of the speech itself. As they say, “You decide.”

My first questions to Ari Fleischer, which I suspect he’ll have already answered, is whether Obama’s declaration of the 1967 cease fire line as a baseline, with land swaps to account for core settlement groups, differs substantively from the Bush pledge in 2004. Is it a real change in American policy? That’s a key question that will be discussed over the coming week. What really is the Obama Peace Doctrine? See ambassador Susan Rice’s response to that question here. And will all this lead to another Intifada? Ha’aretz commentators say no.

This could well be one of those weeks that will define the next few decades. Yes, we’ve heard that so often before, but we are heading into something so new and so dangerous that for once, virtually all of Israel’s supporters agree on something, whether they are from the left or the right. This is a time of existential peril for the Jewish state.

Google “existential threat” and you’ll see how cliché the expression has become, and how, if you add “Israel” you get 149,000 results (by contrast, add “climate change” and you get only 144,000). The word “existential” has been bandied about so often lately that I half expect Prime Minister Netanyahu to meander into the House chamber wearing a beret, smoking incessantly and lugging his tattered copy of “No Exit.”

Unfortunately, for the Peace Process, the problem is that there is No Entrance.

Still, it’s nice to see everyone agreeing on the existential nature of the threat. The left and right also agree on something else: that the Palestinians are absolutely serious about going to the UN this fall for international recognition of statehood, unilaterally if need be. It is hoped that President Obama, in flexing his post bin-Laden muscles today, now has enough influence to forestall that effort.

The left and right divide on how to respond to unilateralism.

Right wingers, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, feel that Israel needs to hold firm on not negotiating with the Palestinians as long as Hamas is part of a governing coalition, or until Hamas recognizes the Jewish state and ceases to endorse terror. A reasonable request, but where will that leave us in the fall? Prime Minister Netanyahu was much more forthcoming this week in addressing the Knesset and is now openly willing to give up most (Much?) (Some?) of the West Bank to establish two states, depending on how you define the term “blocs.” His goal now is to deny the Palestinians recognition from the Big Powers should they make their unilateral push in the fall, but to do that he must convince them that he is willing to make major concessions. Without a big power block on Palestinian statehood, Israel’s isolation will magnify and erode its own legitimacy – a mortal threat.

And let’s not forget Iran. Giving in to Hamas only opens the door to greater Iranian influence in the region.

The left feels that this right wing government has squandered an enormous opportunity to negotiate a deal and that Israel is being held hostage by extremist parties with apocalyptic visions. Once a Palestinian state is declared, not only will Israel lose legitimacy, but two states will no longer be a possibility. Israel will face a new kind of intifada, and we saw a glimpse of it last weekend (with more promised for this Friday). Its borders will fill with hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians symbolically marching back to their “homes” in Israel. This non-violent mass movement, modeled on the Arab Spring, will gain world wide support, including that of the U.S. (since it is precisely that type of grass roots movement that Obama has endorsed) and Israel will be cornered into making far greater concessions than it would need to make now – or face mortal danger.

And let’s not forget Iran. More isolated than ever, Israel will become more vulnerable than ever to the Iranian threat.

So there is great consternation right now, and both sides are ready to pull out all the stops, as has been evidenced most recently by the ads placed in Thursday’s New York Times, from the ADL on the right (Can’t talk to Hamas) and J-Street on the left (Israeli generals and other dignitaries saying we need a two state solution now). We’ll continue to see the battle of the ads play out over the coming days, plus the hyperbolic press releases (ZOA called the 1967 ceasefire line as the "Auschwitz indefensible armistice lines"), along with the battle to delegitimize the other side. We saw that play out in the nasty treatment accorded the newly designated head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, because of his left-leaning views.

The problem is that although both sides agree that Israel faces a mortal threat, they also think that the other side’s blindness is part of that very threat. So the demonization of the other side becomes prerequisite to resolving the problem. We’re in a terrible spot, where for many of Israel’s strongest supporters, the only way to save Israel will be to utterly discredit others who also love Israel – primarily fellow Jews.

I will be very interested to see how this plays out at AIPAC. A couple of weeks ago, I was convinced that the tone of conference would tilt dangerously to the right, in lockstep with the Netanyahu party line and assertive in its willingness to challenge any Obama efforts to pressure the Israelis. But since then, the Palestinian reunification and the killing of bin-Laden have shifted the landscape dramatically, and last week’s protests on Israel’s borders have too. Plus, the continued bloodbath that has become Syria has also changed the equation.

Now I see an emboldened Obama holding added clout that could move Netanyahu off of square one – and possibly some significant support among AIPAC delegates to do that; but he also demonstrated a greater sympathy with Israel’s position regarding Palestinian unity and unilateral statehood. Because of the pending UN action, along with elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, there will be extraordinary pressure to get a deal done, at least defining borders and security guarantees, as Obama described today, leaving Jerusalem and refugees for later. I am wondering just how much Netanyahu will resist that – and how these signals are read by Democratic and Republican leaders, who will also address AIPAC.

There are no votes at AIPAC conferences. Everything at the plenary sessions is extremely scripted, and the speakers will pander, as they always do. But I’ll be especially interested in listening to the nuances, and to what people are saying in the halls and over coffee. I’ll be spending lots of time with rabbis there, many of whom have been directly in the line of fire as the left / right tensions have risen. This will be an interesting week.

I believe that Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game in expressing his anger at Obama so publically. He is banking that by circling the wagons, AIPAC delegates will fall into line, voicing full support (and possibly giving only respectful applause to Obama) and this will be seen as a sign that American Jewry fully supports his positions and will punish at the polls those who do not. I hope – beyond hope – that he is not doing that, because if he is, he is misreading both American Jewry and underestimating the popularity and political skill of the President. And I hope that, at least behind the scenes, the leaders of AIPAC are counseling him against such a tactic.

So how do we respond to all the confusing signals and to the tremendous upheaval that is today’s Middle East?

Here’s a rule of thumb, modeled after one of my heroes, my car’s GPS. Accept no knee-jerk clichéd responses from pols and pundits. When my car veers off the planned trajectory, the GPS flashes frantically “recalculating” and then offers an alternate route. The pols and pundits tend to respond to these earthquakes by regurgitating rather than recalculating, trying to shoehorn these new events into their tired old theories. That is as true on the left as it is on the right. Bret Stephens and Tom Friedman always sound convincing, but lately it’s as if they’ve been trying to fight World War Two from behind the Maginot Line. None of us has any idea what is going on. There are no experts.

But the ones I will listen to are the ones who are constantly recalculating, like my GPS. It’s not about how to fit the Palestinian march to Majdal Shams into my preconceived theories about Assad, Lebanon, and Arab Spring; it’s about how each new event has now reconfigured everything else.

But all of this recalculating should not lead to paralysis. I personally believe that the unfolding big picture presents enormous opportunities for Israel, despite the known risks. At the very least, the prime modes of acceptable protest in the Middle East right now are ones that don’t involve guns and suicide belts. I’ll take 10,000 peaceful marchers any day.

My hope and prayer that brave leaders will emerge that will take their people to a better place, and that Israel and all nations of the region will emerge from the Arab Spring with more freedom, more security and the promise of a brighter future for all.

PS - Some required reading: For some balanced dialogue on the contrasting historical narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, take a close look at this month's Sh'ma, and from the Forward, Two Narratives for Two Peoples.

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