Lincoln in Jerusalem?

Haim Watzman

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.

17 thoughts on “Lincoln in Jerusalem?”

  1. The 650,000 deaths directly attributed to the Civil War are a testament to inability to adhere to a moral goal. General William Sherman had no issue with slavery, his complaint was succession and the preservation of the Union. Lincoln was not a “gung=ho anti- slavery man in the beginning and would have foregone the Radical Republican plan if he could have preserved the Union. Alas the South gave him . no option. His death gave the firebreathers the upper hand because they lacked his foresight and political astuteness :thus the South in retaliation gave us segregation, the KKK and a South to this day that exhibits some of that good ole plantation thinking.

  2. Keep dreaming, Haim. There is not even the faintest of hints that a Lincoln-like figure is on the horizon in Israel. Not even a Roosvelt, or, for that matter, an Obama (whose promise is still to be). At best you can aspire to an Andrew Jackson, among whose great accomplishment was the trail of tears for the Indians (and of course, the dismantlement of the US Central bank).

    What you do have instead, is a series of moral midgets who are in their own minds political giants. A president standing indicted of rape, another who is dedicated to his own imaginary reputauin (they call him P(e)res, don’t they?), an ex-PM who was seen to receive envelopes stuffed with cash in broad daylight, a foreign minister who is suspected of money laundering. That’s not even to include the ones engaged ias we speak – in grand larceny – of the truth, if not the cash. All rulers in their own minds. All living among shadows of an imagined past and consigned to shadow futures, while still flailing in the present.

    And that’s no accident that there are no leaders worthy of being even obliquely compared with Lincoln, though you may have some who aspire to being mini-Nixons. It’s no accident because Israel is a highly militarized society that reveres its generals and special force operators above all else. The discourse in Israel reflects the values of israelis. The right wing parties that won the election may just reflect the fascist instincts of the population that elected them rather than the aberration you imagine it to be. Possibly, just possibly, the current “leadership” of israel is as petty, small-minded, chauvinistic and jingoistic as the electorate that voted them in..

    Democracy works well in israel, and as much as you would like to keep your head in the sand – the people do tend to elect the leaders they deserve. The chances that israel could produce anyone like Obama rising to power are virtually nil. Much less a visionary with realpolitik skills like Lincoln. In fact, the mere comparison to Lincoln is a sacriledge to the many good people in the US and elsewhere – especially to those working day in, day out in the scorching fields of the west bank trying to protect the hapless palestinian farmers, guilty of nothing but desiring to work their fields. Israel in my opinion is instead on a full blast reverse trip back from Jim CROW’S SOUTH TO THE SLAVE OWNING PLANTATIONS of a more distant past. Yet you dream of going forward, and taking heart from Lincoln?

    Tell you what – on the day when Dov Khenin can be elected to be mayor – I’ll be willing to reconsider.

  3. Dana and Haim-
    And where, pray tell, is the Palestinian-Arab Lincoln? Dana, since you put the onus on Israel for the lack of peace, you certainly must have a Palestinian leader who is indeed offering a realistic peace to Israel. Who is he?

  4. South Jerusalem criticizing Bibi for putting “principle above politics.” Let’s pause for a moment and savor this criticism of Bibi as too idealistic.

    OK. Here’s an improved Lincoln analogy. Imagine a world where the US in 1860 is a weak client state of one of the Great Powers of Europe. The Great Powers, including the patron state of the US, are exerting heavy pressure on the Union to negotiate an independent Confederate States of America. (In fact the Great Powers really did move towards recognizing the CSA, causing the Union to vehemently protest against European violation of American sovereignty.) What would a statesman like Lincoln do in this hypothetical situation from his position of national weakness, assuming that he viewed the possibility of the breakup of the Union as a disaster? My guess is that he’d pay lip service to Southern secession – a vassal couldn’t openly defy his suzerain on so big an issue – all the while doing whatever he could, including notes, preconditions, facts on the ground, to prevent it in practice.

    You believe that Palestinian statehood in the near term is good for Israel. Bibi believes otherwise. It would make sense to argue against Netanyahu that statehood is the proper goal, but that’s not what you did here. It would make sense to argue about the rationality of Netanyahu’s means to attaining his own goal as Netanyahu himself sees it, but that’s not what you did either. What doesn’t make sense is to criticize Netanyahu’s means as inappropriate for achieving your goal (creating coalitions for what you call “peace” and “human rights”), when that is a goal that he rejects.

  5. 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.

    This is interesting, because as it is, the status quo is only mildly uncomfortable for Israelis but pretty miserable for Palestinians. So by this logic, the only way for Israel to be amenable to changing the status quo would be for it to be much less comfortable.

    To answer the question of where are the Palestinian Lincolns, I’d wager that more than a couple of have gone the way of Ghassan Kanafani.

  6. Sean-
    Who is Ghassan Kanafani? I was asking about all the potential Lincoln’s who are in power-i.e. FATAH people like Abbas, Erekat,etc, and HAMAS people in power such as Mashal. Which one of them is ready to make peace with Israel?

    Read this:

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1100313.html

    This shows that Olmert was willing to meet almost all the territorial demands of the Palestinians. Okay, not 100%, but almost all. Abbas walked away. So the Palestinians seem to like being uncomfortable, so long as they feel they are still fighting. That is what they want, not a state. So making Israel “uncomfortable” (a nice Orwellian way of saying “killing Jews”) will not bring them a state.

  7. An Israeli Lincoln would wage a civil war that would end with the Palestinian Arabs being separated from Israel (including Israeli Arabs). A Palestinian Lincoln would wage a civil war that would result in the expulsion of all Jews from Palestine. Each way would be accomplished with high casualties. Be careful what you wish for

  8. Pierce, Buchanan? How ’bout [uh-hum] Ohio native Warren Harding? Finally Haim! I can say I “gotcha!” Just kidding. Keep up the good work. – Lloyd

  9. Calling on historical examples such as Lincoln begs the question for the present impasse in Israel. Nimrod’s examples of what Lincoln would do reveals a lack of rudimentary scholarship on Lincoln.Alas, we can’t just fit Lincoln’s uncanny political aplomb into a formula for all seasons especially when,say, viewing Bibi’s program.
    A people who have suffered the slings and arrows of enemies and oppressors that the Jews have for centuries are entitled to their paranoia but , maybe it’s time for some good therapy and even a cup of hot chocolat but it can’t be a one way street. The Arab world could stand some mellow- out time too. Do the Palestinians have psychiatrists ?Have they, or do they, recognize Sigmund as a notable-quotable?

  10. Y Ben-David asks: “And where, pray tell, is the Palestinian-Arab Lincoln? Dana, since you put the onus on Israel for the lack of peace, you certainly must have a Palestinian leader who is indeed offering a realistic peace to Israel. Who is he?”

    Nice try. Put the onus on the palestinian arabs and deflect from the topic of discussion. Is that your shtick?

    Your question is a classic one – since i criticize the israeli [public] for not having the oomph to come up with a lincoln like figure – I surely must have one in mind for the Arabs?

    Someone please help me – there must be a good latin-legalese word for what Ben-David is doing here.

    I wonder how this line of argument would work in a court of law:

    Me (attorney for the defendant accused of rape): “Your honor, surely you cannot hold my client guilty of the crime of which he stands accused. After all, the [purported] victim in this case has shown no indication that she is capable of upstanding, non-bitchy behavior herself. In fact, I have eight witnesses here willing to speak to previous bitchy and taunting comments made by the [purported] victim while still in high school. Wasn’t she in fact part of the “gang of popular girls” teasing my client mercilessly by merely being there? wouldn’t that not only accuse his behavior but in fact explain it as justified response to intolerable provocation by one of the “popular girls”? I hereby ask your honor to dismiss all charges forthwith and without prejudice”.

    That’s Ben-David for you. Have I done him justice?

  11. Ghassan Kanafani was one of this century’s best Arabic writers. He was also a spokesman for the PFLP, the second biggest party in the PLO.

    In 1972 at the age of 36, he and his little niece were blown up by the Mossad in a car bomb in Beirut.

  12. 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.

    I think Haim’s comment on the Lincoln article had to do with pragmatism via effective politics to get to what is in the long-term interest of the people. And I think this must mean realizing that this means working towards what is in the long-term interest of both peoples.

    It’s not so complex. It’s being more of an Obama or even an Abbas than a Netanyau or GWBush.

    Dana is that term you are looking for “non sequitur”?

  13. Sean-
    The PFLP was always considered one of the “rejectionist” movements of the Palestinians. That was the organization of George Habash and Leila Khaled. IIRC they were responsible for the quadruple hijacking of airliners in 1970. Are you telling me that Kanafani was, in 1973, calling for a reasonable peace with Israel? Was he blown up because he was a terrorist or because he was a “moderate”?

  14. George Hillborn asks: Do the Palestinians have psychiatrists? Have they, or do they, recognize Sigmund as a notable-quotable?

    They’ve got their psychiatrist all right, but it’s not Sigmund Freud, it’s Franz Fanon.

  15. Suzannes – non sequitur is perfect. Just what I was looking for. Thanks.

    I like the following illustration for the direction to which Ben-David’s fallacial argument style leads:

    1. Israeli [Jews] failed to produce a Lincoln
    2. Arabs failed to produce a Lincoln
    3. Jews are Arabs. QED

    I think that in my not-yet-unveiled blog (oy vey – not that one again!), I’ll have a special column for non-sequitur of the week……plenty of material, surely.

    George Hillborn – funny you should have mentioned Sessions. I happened to watch some of the Sessions session earlier in the day and that could well be waht gave me the idea.

  16. Ploni:I think you mean Frantz Fanon , the malatto,and his best book , Wretched of The Earth , and his condemnation of colonization and the call to arms to overthrow the colonizers. In his case the French ,in the case of Israel , the British. He of course uses socio-economic deprivation for justification for violence and the psychiatric disorders of the oppressed. Sigmund never I could tell gave “two hoots ” about the underclass. Fanon had quite a bit of self-loathing in his makeup something akin to Justice Clarence Thomas.

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