Gil Troy: Center Field: Tzipi: Don’t do an Al Gore

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-16-09

In one of the few charming moments in Israel’s bleak election campaign, an Israeli rocker who called himself “Tzipi Livni Boy” rapped a love song to Tzipi Livni. It was called “Tagidi Li Ken” – tell me “yes.” Who knew so many others would echo that cry for the Kadima leader after the election?

Many Israelis from across the political spectrum – and many of us who care deeply about the future of Israel and the Jewish people – are begging Tzipi Livni to please say “yes” to joining a coalition with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud. There are, admittedly, many valid reasons for Livni to say “no.” She has insisted on a rotating premiership, considering that her centrist Kadima party won one more seat than Bibi’s right-wing Likud. She has demanded Netanyahu endorse a two-state solution, so that she does not find herself representing a government whose policies she rejects.

But even if Netanyahu rebuffs those demands – and reports suggest he has agreed to relinquish the premiership to her after three years – Tzipi Livni must say “yes” to his invitation and remain Israel’s foreign minister. This would keep Netanyahu’s government from lurching too far right while preventing the alienating farce to the Western world of Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman becoming foreign minister. In calmer times and in a less dysfunctional system, being an effective opposition leader would be enough to put the brakes on Netanyahu, who was weakened by an abysmal showing in the election. But with so much power concentrated in Israel’s cabinet and in internal coalition politics rather than broader Knesset dynamics, if Livni stays out of the government, her oppositional darts will be about as effective as spit-balls against tanks.

Livni can help manage the two most critical files in Israel’s foreign affairs directory: relations with the United States and Iran. The recent images of Livni palling around with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton illustrated the personal warmth she can inject into this critical alliance. Everyone knows what is coming down the pike. Israel’s relations with Barack Obama’s administration will endure enough strain. Having Livni as Israel’s public face will help alleviate tensions, as will the ability to describe Israel’s government as centrist, pragmatist or even torn – rather than right-wing, racist, or irredentist.

The deeper, more substantive reason has to do with the biggest threat to Israel’s survival, Iran. Despite the Palestinian conceit – and the growing left-wing assumption – that solving the Palestinian problem is the key to Middle East peace, or even world peace, Iran’s rush toward nuclear power is a much bigger problem, for Israel, the US and the West. Left and Right in Israel and the US should agree on this issue. Limiting nuclear proliferation used to be a core value for leftists – until their strange and growing inability to criticize anything Muslims do kicked in. Even if Iran never uses the bomb, Iran has a thirty-year track record as a global troublemaker, funding, training and coordinating terrorists. A nuclear Iran will be more aggressive, more of an outlaw. If the existential threat to Israel in 1967 could encourage a National Unity government joining Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin, the Iranian threat should be sufficient to unite Livni, Netanyahu – and Labor’s Ehud Barak as Defense Minister.

Some supporters have encouraged Livni to stay out of the coalition, invoking Al Gore’s example. It is worth learning from Gore – as a cautionary tale. Gore, like Livni, had that heartbreaking, frustrating experience of attracting the most votes in the 2000 presidential campaign, yet not winning the desired office. Just as that “democratically-elected” Hamas government of thugs in Gaza teaches that true democracy requires more than elections, democratic rules sometimes deprive the biggest vote-getter of power. True, Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize while his rival George W. Bush ended up with eight years of headaches and historically low public opinion ratings. But Bush changed history, for better or worse; Gore became a footnote.

When Gore lost, he could have functioned as an effective alternative to Bush – and a strong brake on Bush’s administration. The American system does not encourage power-sharing in the executive, like Israel’s does. But in the modern media world, Gore could have led the Democrats aggressively, emphasizing Bush’s limited mandate, forcing occasional compromises and running in 2004. Instead, for the first few years after his loss, Gore went into a kind of public exile, mourning his misfortune. His recent emergence as what President George H.W. Bush once mocked as “Ozone Man” has helped raise environmental awareness. Still, all the celebrity accolades count little compared to what Gore could have and should have accomplished.

Tzipi Livni faces a similar career and historical crossroads. She can help her country in some of the ways she promised her supporters she would, even as foreign minister. It will be exasperating to serve as Bibi’s second banana – as maddening for her as it must be for Hillary Clinton to be Barack Obama’s secretary of state. But her country needs her. Her people need her. The world needs her.

So Tzipi, listen to the siren call of “Tzipi Livni Boy” and millions of others. Please say “yes,” pushing for as good a coalition deal as you can get, making it clear what red lines would indeed compel you and your partners to leave Bibi’s cabinet. But, most important, work on a strategy that maintains Israel’s warm relations with the US and helps stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threat.

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Gil Troy: Center Field: A Yom Kippur for the Left

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-11-09

Regardless of who ends up as prime minister after what seems to be emerging as the Israeli equivalent of the George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock of 2000, Election Day 2009 was “a Yom Kippur for the Left,” as one Meretz activist called it. The once-dominant Labor Party and once-rising Meretz Party have both been humiliated. The elections’ three winners, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, all launched their careers from the Right, while Lieberman’s aggressive campaign demonizing Israeli Arabs set the election tone.

As Israel’s critics around the world and at home mourn this “rightward shift” and the rise of the “ultra-nationalist” Lieberman, as they fret about dimming prospects for a two-state solution, instead of further demonizing the country they should apologize, in the true spirit of Yom Kippur. The rightward shift resulted from the failure of the Left’s ideas at home – and the betrayal by liberals from around the world.

Israelis have turned rightward because the failure of territorial concessions has been compounded by a broken covenant with the world. For decades liberal critics pounded two ideas into Israelis’ heads. The first was that if the country withdrew from the territories it conquered in 1967, Palestinians – and the rest of the Arab world – would make peace. The second, related, assumption was an implicit compact that whatever security risks Israel took by ceding territory would be compensated for by the world’s friendship.

TRAGICALLY, NEITHER the Oslo peace process nor the Gaza disengagement produced the desired results. In fact, many Israelis feel that the more they risked for peace, the more they suffered from those risks, the greater was the world’s disapproval. Of course, Israel is not blameless. But whatever missteps it made pale in comparison to the three tragic truisms now dominating the political consciousness: Oslo’s concessions resulted in terrorists murdering more than 1,000 people; disengaging from Gaza resulted in thousands of missiles raining on the South; and both times, when the country finally defended itself, the worldwide chorus of denunciation was so intense it fanned the flames of anti-Semitism.

It may be a reflection of living in a small, embattled democracy surrounded by autocrats and terrorists demanding your destruction, but Israelis are particularly sensitive to world opinion. Moreover, the mainstreaming of rhetoric that “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and that Jews are “apes and monkeys” is particularly painful for a people still healing from the Holocaust. True, talking about “the world’s” attitude vastly oversimplifies. But the shorthand works, considering how monolithic the criticism seems to be and how lethal previous rhetoric proved to be.

IT IS PARTICULARLY demoralizing to see how anger at Israel’s behavior absolves Palestinians of responsibility – and seems to sanitize terrorism. “The world” should denounce Palestinians for harming the possibility of a two-state solution, first in turning away from negotiations and toward terrorism in September 2000, then again for choosing to build Gaza into a base for launching Kassams rather than a model for a future state. “The world” should be furious at Hamas’s rise, with the Islamists once again murdering supposed infidels while killing or maiming fellow Muslims who dare to disagree. “The world” should demand Palestinians change their culture of martyrdom, taking some historic responsibility for their failures to compromise.

“The world” should note that Israel’s Arabs fueled Lieberman’s campaign against them by applauding demagogic leaders like Azmi Bishara who spew hatred against the Jewish state. Instead, Palestinians’ crimes or excesses are tolerated and rationalized; “the world” gives Palestinians a free pass.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, it is remarkable that so many remain willing to risk for peace, that so many former rightists like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert now champion the two-state solution. Even Lieberman is open to territorial compromise. This willingness reflects how ingrained the culture of peace is. For all the talk we hear about the “rightward shift,” Kadima, Livni’s centrist party, seems to have won the most votes. The estimated Right-Left breakdown in the Knesset of 64 to 56 remains quite balanced – and Israel remains the only liberal country in the Middle East, judging by its commitment to equality, to democracy, to social justice, of sensitivity to women, to homosexuals, to racial diversity.

Over the next few weeks, as politicians use the votes they earned to bargain like peasant merchants at a Middle Eastern shouk, world opinion should note the subtleties amid the crudity. No matter what the ruling coalition’s constellation, no matter who leads, the country will still seek a true peace.

While its critics will always look – almost exclusively – at the cards it holds and scrutinize whatever it does, Palestinians will remain far more in control of their destiny than their enablers admit. If Palestinians want a state – and want peace – they need to build a political culture devoted to nation-building, not martyrdom. And if leftists want to see progress in the Middle East, they must push for Palestinian reforms while rebuilding the world’s covenant with Israel.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and thus renewal. Perhaps this “Yom Kippur of the Left” will lead to a new Middle East dynamic that replaces the “bad Israel, blameless Palestinians” paradigm with one of mutual responsibility leading to mutual trust, with gradual steps toward stability, not headlong rushes into one-sided blame games.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

The lessons of Oslo

By Gil Troy, THE JERUSALEM POST, Sep. 23, 2008

Wouldn’t it be great if we could greet Tzipi Livni’s ascension by applauding her honesty and being satisfied that integrity was enough? Wouldn’t it be reassuring if all we had to speculate about was her economic sophistication and her social vision for the country? Unfortunately, the major question Livni will face, should she become prime minister, is “How effectively will she protect Israel?” This question takes on particular prominence as her razor-thin Kadima victory coincided with the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords and growing concerns about Iran’s nuclear threat.

Normally, a question like “why did the Oslo Accords fail” could be left to historians. But while historians can help clarify, providing evidence, context, insight, perspective, every Israeli leader – and voter – must come to grips with what occurred. The conclusions Israelis draw about what happened to Oslo yesterday is essential to figuring out what to do today and how to build toward a stable tomorrow with the Palestinians.

It is scandalous that Oslo’s architects, especially Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, have not accounted for why Oslo failed. The point is not to make them wallow or even apologize. Rather, the challenge is for them – and others – to draw the appropriate lessons and plot a realistic future course.

While the history of the Oslo Accords is as complex and subtle as the agreements themselves, there is one clear, crude, depressing explanation for why Oslo failed. Israel’s leaders – and the world – failed to appreciate most Arabs’ and specifically most Palestinians’ violent hostility to the Jewish state’s very existence.

THIS FAILURE is, in many ways, lovely and understandable. The Western mind is too rationalist – and, frankly, too self-absorbed – to appreciate the depth of the hatred. It was easier to condescend toward Yasser Arafat, assuming that when he advocated violence in Arabic he was just playing politics, than to take his words seriously and realize that when he smiled and negotiated with Westerners he was just toying with them.

Shimon Peres’s New Middle East pipe dream was rife with Marxist assumptions, supposing that an Israel-fueled materialism could dull the fires of maximalist Palestinian nationalism. The Oslo delusion was secular, underestimating Islamist radicalism’s intensity and popularity. The Oslo apparition was also a peculiarly quixotic Zionist miscalculation. Despite the anti-Zionist narrative claiming that early Zionists alternately ignored Palestinian Arabs or brutalized them, a strong Lawrence-of-Arabia streak in early Zionism also romanticized Arabs, dreaming of a Jewish state lovingly embraced by its neighbors.

Nevertheless, the failure of leaders to comprehend the intensity of Palestinian rejectionism was also inexcusable. A state’s first goal is to protect its citizens. The fact that Israeli policy resulted in a prolonged war against the peace process, with more than 1,000 Israelis murdered by weapons which Israel helped deliver to the terrorists, is a failure of historic proportions. Fifteen years later, viewing the anti-Israel maps and textbooks the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority spread, assessing the culture of enmity and martyrdom that festered in the territories, Arafat’s war seems utterly predictable.

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS after the Yom Kippur War, Israelis still wonder about and try to learn from that intelligence failure. It is equally essential to remember and learn from the inability – and outright refusal of some leaders – to anticipate the burst of Palestinian terror reignited in 2000.

Tragically, Arab hatred continues. We cannot become inured to the pornography of Palestinian violence, the lurid addiction to shooting yeshiva students, bulldozing commuters, blowing up boulevardiers, for effect. Nor should we become blasé about the broader epidemic of Islamist hatred. The world should be outraged by the report, just days before Livni’s election, that a leading Muslim cleric in England, Omar Bakri, threatened Paul McCartney’s life if he performed in Israel. “If he values his life, Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there,” London’s Sunday Express quoted Bakri as saying. “The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him.”

McCartney heroically refused to be cowed. Judging by the news coverage, however, neither Bakri’s threat nor McCartney’s steadfastness triggered much commentary, when the papers should have been filled with editorials furiously condemning the cleric and celebrating the singer.

The tricky question, then, is not whether this hatred exists, rather how to respond to this unfortunate reality. Acknowledging the hatred does not necessarily preclude withdrawing from territory; it should, however, avoid withdrawing with unrealistic expectations. In fact, the Oslo wake-up call spawned the West Bank security fence, which buried the delusions of the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right.

BOTH EXTREMES underestimated Palestinian nationalism. Leftists assumed Palestinians were as willing as they were to jettison core identities. Rightists assumed the Palestinians were pushovers willing to accommodate Jewish territorial ambitions. In building the barrier, the Israeli left abandoned its illusion that fences were unnecessary in a world where Arab and Jew would soon embrace. The Israeli right abandoned its illusion that territories housing millions of Palestinians could be integrated easily into the Jewish state. The security fence – which Livni should complete quickly – provides necessary security to Israelis while reminding them that Palestinian nationalism is real, hostile and not disappearing.

In fact, Oslo teaches that the two-state solution is the only viable path for Israelis and Palestinians. Talk of a one-state solution is really advocating a no-Jewish-state-solution. And Jewish nationalists who demanded their own state should respect Palestinian nationalists’ desire for their own state. But Zionists should not expect to see the characteristic Zionist pragmatism in the rival movement. Oslo teaches that whatever agreement Israel makes should come without romantic expectations of warm relations and from cold-hearted calculations aiming for stability.

Oslo’s paradox is that this tougher, more pragmatic, but not soulless approach may be the way to break the logjam and reorient Palestinians toward building their state rather than dreaming of destroying ours.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.