Israel-Palestine polemicists have much to learn from Sean Wilentz’s thoughtful essay Who Lincoln Was in the current issue of The New Republic. Wilentz argues that politics is not an obstacle to the achievement of ideological goals, but rather a necessary and valuable means of achieving them. Lincoln ultimately succeeded in freeing the slaves, Wilentz argues, not because he put principle above politics, but because he was a genius at using politics to pursue principles.
Furthermore, he maintains, Lincoln understood that the preservation of the Constitution and the rule of law was essential if he was to achieve real and sustainable change. This necessarily meant accepting a Constitution that permitted slavery. Lincoln thought slavery was an unmitigated evil. But he understood that to end it he had to create a coalition of disparate groups that had been convinced that the end of slavery was in their own interest. Preaching principle would not do the job.
Quoting James Oakes, author of The Radical and the Republican, a study of Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass, Wilentz writes:
Lincoln had enormous power and enjoyed its possession, and accepted the mottled responsibilities of the presidency. Those duties, in his understanding, necessitated pragmatic compromise and negotiation in step with public opinion, as well as adherence to his official oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. “It is important to democracy that reformers like Frederick Douglass could say what needed to be said,” Oakes wisely observes, “but it is indispensible to democracy that politicians like Abraham Lincoln could do only what the law and the people allowed them to do.” And, he might have added, it was indispensible for the nation, and above all the slaves, that Lincoln performed as president as well as he did.
Purity can be the enemy of true and lasting change. That’s true in the context of Israel and Palestine as well. Too many pixels are wasted on each side of the debate accusing the other side of crimes and perfidy; too many words are thrown away branding this or that leader or writer as pure or impure. Leaders on both sides seek to be right rather than to be smart, when what we need are politicians who can create coalitions for peace and human rights within their respective communities.
Lincoln’s example is instructive. It’s essential that our leaders have a moral compass and that they know what is right and what is wrong. And there’s a role for the Fredrick Douglasses, who serve as society’s compass needles and as their people’s clarion. But, in the end, Jews and Arabs, Israel and Palestine will learn to live together not because it’s right but only when they are convinced that it will better serve their interests than will war and conflict.
Leaders on both sides may engage in rhetoric and pursue policies that displease the purists. If the leaders without a view to their people’s long-term interests in reconciliation, they are poor leaders and poor politicians. But good leaders and good politicians may also displease the purists. It doesn’t mean that the ideologues should shut up, but it does mean that the ideologues should not automatically dismiss, execrate, and reject leaders who pursue pragmatic routes to building coalitions for peace.
It would please me no end to discover that Binyamin Netanyahu is a Lincoln. Unfortunately, his record offers little reason to think so. He’s more likely to be the Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan of Israeli history. Let’s hope that a Lincoln is in the making.