The Gordian Knot

Yesterday’s vote in the UN on Palestine has stirred a lot of emotions on the left; I’ve taken the time to read the responses across a few blogs this morning, and for the most part they’ve been considered and judicious. So here are my two pfennigs.

When the world’s three most powerful faiths declare a piece of real estate “holy”, that causes problems of a sort not found anywhere else. To the Jews, it is the “Promised Land”, vouchsafed to them by God unto the last generation. To Muslims, it’s holy because God walked in it with the Hebrew patriarchs, whom they consider earlier prophets; and, of course, they believe Muhammad made his Night Journey to heaven from the Temple Mount. To Christians, obviously, it was the land where Jesus lived, preached, and died. The deep emotional and religious attachments are not to be disregarded.

Throw into this mix the history of the past 2,000 years—oppression and genocide of the Jews; the shattering of the Islamic commonwealth and its colonization and domination by Western Christians; and the Crusades, the memory of which seems to have grown in the Arab psyche ever since the Zionist project began to be implemented—and you have a situation not paralleled anywhere else. Certainly, there are many dark places in the world; but, aside from perhaps the Korean peninsula, none of those conflict zones promise to ravage the world as does the Arab-Israeli stand-off.

There’s plenty of blame to apportion. The Arabs rejected the UN partition in the 1940s out of a sense that Jews were getting too much land in relation to their population. David Ben-Gurion accepted the partition deal, but had every intention of trashing it once the new state was in a stronger position. Chances for resolution have been squandered by both sides, as the weight of historical wrongs overshadow the imperatives of present peace.

For reasons of both history and realpolitik, the US is guarantor of Israel’s security. It’s a truism that no Israeli prime minister can survive the wrath of his electorate if he imperils that relationship. We’ll see if that hold true in January, with the new Knesset elections. Will Israeli voters reject the extremism of the Likud coalition, or will fears of being driven into the sea throw them into an even more desperate embrace with it? Whatever the outcome, the basic parameters of the US-Israel relationship won’t change much.

Of course, the US also has close relationships with the surrounding Arab states. In a real sense, it is the guarantor of their security as much as it is of Israel’s, especially against an Iran with dreams of hegemony in the region. US Middle Eastern policy is, at its best moments, a dance on broken glass in which the only victory is not getting its feet completely mauled.

But the situation has reached a breaking point.

With the Arab Spring, citizens of Arab states are no longer willing to be placated by their governments. They are feeling their power, and their common cause with Palestinian Arabs is the one thing which unites the disparate nations of the Middle East. Governments brought to power by these revolutions are expected to push the West—and especially the US—to dictate a settlement to Israel, regardless of Israel’s concerns.

And the right wing in Israel grows a bit stronger as it sees the world arrayed against it. In the US it sees a callow ally waiting for the right opportunity to cast it aside and join against it with the more numerous—and oil-rich—Arabs. That view has no bearing to reality, but, no less than the Palestinians, Israeli Jews live with an existential dread, one which they see can only be assuaged by brute strength, not careful diplomacy to integrate themselves into the region, rather than remaining an outpost of the West. The left in Israel has been nearly impotent since Yitzak Rabin’s assassination; the Right has dominated the political discourse for almost 20 years, even when it hasn’t held the reins of government.

The Israeli Right thinks it has a trump card in the American Israel lobby. And its strongest supporters in that lobby are, oddly or not, right-wing Christian evangelicals. Unfortunately for Israeli Jews, Christian Zionists aren’t so because of a sincere belief in the right of Jews to have their own state after 2,000 years of Christian persecution. No. The creation of the State of Israel is just another eschatological milestone on the journey to the Second Coming. They would like to see nothing less than a radical Israeli government demolish the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount and build the Third Jewish Temple; at that point Jesus would return in power and glory, and Jews would either accept him as Messiah, or be cast into hell with most of the rest of humanity. These “friends of Israel” would precipitate a global catastrophe in pursuit of their religious aims. Of course Jesus won’t return; but, more importantly, the world would very well be a wasteland.

President Obama will have a very tortuous path to tread. Domestic politics won’t allow him to put the type of pressure on Israel that the Arab states demand. But those same demands from allies in the region and in Europe will also create a call for him to be more severe with Israel. And he has to do all this while managing tensions with China and Russia, securing the US’ position in the new global economy, and refashioning the American commonwealth at home, all in the face of an opposition’s intransigence not faced by any other US President in the post-World War II era. I do not envy him his task, and I’m prepared for the possibility that it may very well elude him, as it has every other US leader since Truman.

But if Mitt Romney had won, the George W. Bush policy of siding with Israel as a Christian Zionist imperative would have returned, but with even fewer checks, as Romney would have served as even more of a rubber stamp for the most radical elements of the Right.

Just as it took Nixon to go to China, it will take Obama to make a final peace between Israel and Palestine. No Republican in this current iteration of the party could ever go against an Israeli government, no matter how recklessly it behaved. A Democratic president, in whose coalition American Jews play a major part—and who want to see a just peace between Israelis and Arabs—is the only one who can broker a deal.

So, like the rest of the world, I wait, and will see how the pieces are moved. It will be a game with consequences for us all.