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Hope Envy

November 5th, 2008by Gershom Gorenberg · 4 Comments · Politics and Policy

For nearly all of the 31 years that I’ve lived in Jerusalem, I’ve felt that this is where history happens, that my old friends in America are merely in the bleachers. For the past few months, and especially last night, the roles were reversed. Over there, back in the old country, they were making the world new, while we could only watch, applaud, and envy the renewal of hope. Yesterday was a rare moment that I wished I was over there – standing in an unexpected line to vote, celebrating afterward with friends in the streets of Washington, New York or Chicago, getting up this morning wondering what special blessing a religious Jews should say for such an event.

Hope is in short supply here. Next week in Jerusalem, we will have a local election in which the choice of candidates is, as Yossi Sarid put it well – he puts it well so often – a choice between plague and contagion. In February, we’ll have yet another national election. They come altogether too often, offering much too little. The only candidate with the ability to give a speech is the candidate of fear, of being very afraid, Bibi Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni, the only other realistic contender, has defined the election as a decision on whether to continue the peace process. (As leader of Labor, Ehud Barak seems destined to lead the party from irrelevance to extinction.)

Livni is right, in the sense that the election could decide whether Israel will willingly participate in talks. Whether she intends to complete those talks is a separate issue. If she had truly recovered from her rightwing past, if she fully understood how close this country is to losing the chance for a two-state solution, she could have avoided elections. She could have formed a coalition including Meretz and at least of the Arab parties, finally treating Arab voters as equal partners in the country’s future. There’s no sign she even considered that opportunity for courage.

So far, the only quality that Livni seems to share with Obama is being coolheaded. She will not give speeches that inspire. She has not yet shown willingness to confront Israelis with the choices ahead of us, demand that we give up illusions in order to make a better future.

To be fair, one reason that Americans could talk about hope and change is that there problems are largely internal. That includes the old racial hatreds that were rejected yesterday. Much as the Republicans tried to define the dangers as external, as a vast juggernaut of terror threatening America, most American have gained enough distance from 9/11 to realize that drastic mismanagement was a greater threat.

For Israel to move forward, its Jewish majority must understand that the deepest threat to a Jewish state’s future is our entanglement in the occupied territories. If not ended, that entanglement will lead us to the one-state non-solution, to a state built on an internal eternal ethnic conflict.

The fact that we do face very real external threats makes it much more difficult for any politician to help us see that the shadow of what we fear is much bigger than the thing itself. It’s hard to draw the line between rational and irrational fear. Hope is more difficult to convey under such circumstances, much as its needed. Livni does not seem like the one who will convey it.

Nonetheless, the US election could effect Israeli politics in two ways. As a pageant, a vast morality play, it has taught the lesson that a nation can reinvent itself. On some instinctive emotional level, some Israelis might resonate.

Practically speaking, if President-elect Obama (what a lovely set of words) makes it clear that he wants to pursue Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Israeli voters might ask themselves which prime minister will be better suited to maintain our relations with the Empire – the candidate of fear, or the candidate of negotiation.

At least, I’d like to hope that voters will ask that question.

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