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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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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Raed Kami // Nov 6, 2008 at 4:56 am

    So much intelligence going to waste to figure out what every 5 year old knows. What is stolen must be returned to its original owners. Palestine must be returned to its original owners. Every child knows you can have Israel or peace, but not both. The most insulting thing is that you consider yourself a progressive when you occupy stolen land. From the standpoint of those who revere international law and justice, you are indistinguishable from Baruch Goldstein

  • 2 sean // Nov 6, 2008 at 8:57 am

    It’s confusing to me that you’d call the one-state solution a non-solution and imply that the two state solution would work in the long term.

    One would think that Obama’s election would be a sign that ethnic and religious pluralism is a good thing that doesn’t have to result in “internal eternal ethnic conflict.”

    I can understand how one might think mixing would have to lead to such conflict forty-five years ago, when blacks couldn’t even vote in Virginia or North Carolina, or sixty years ago, when state legislatures were thinking about extending Jim Crow separation to Jim Crow counties (bantustans).

    But today, to dismiss the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy between the Jordan and the Mediterranean seems to have missed the entire point of what makes Obama’s success such a watershed.

  • 3 Haim Watzman // Nov 6, 2008 at 9:18 am

    “… a choice between plague and contagion”! Sarid certainly has a way with words, but his call for Jerusalem’s liberal-left citizens not to vote for mayor is unconscionable. There’s a clear choice in the mayoral race, as I’ve written here (http://southjerusalem.com/2008/10/haaretz-gets-it-wrong-in-jerusalems-mayoral-race/). Our opposition to the construction of settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem must not mislead us into dooming our city to five more years of corrupt sectorial government.

  • 4 Michael Star // Nov 6, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    The first two comments to this post make a strong argument for those who would argue that your ideas, while possibly justifiable and meritorious in some sort of theoretical realm of ideas, in reality serve only to pull the rhetorical advantage over to the side of those who would rather see Israel not exist.

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