Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Shamir Paradox: Why Do Israelis Think Like Shamir But Act Like Netanyahu?

Most Israelis embrace Shamir's view of the futility of territorial concessions yet support withdrawals needed to implement the two-state solution 

Around the time the death, at age 96, of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir  was being announced in Tel Aviv, a Muslim Brother was taking the oath of office in Cairo as Egypt's new president.  

In Ramallah, the comparatively moderate – though politically and fiscally bankrupt –  Fatah-led Palestinian Authority was reveling in a "report" it had issued charging that Israeli textbooks engaged in "incitement" for describing the West Bank of the Jordan River as Judea and Samaria.

Even as his premier Salam Fayyad was pleading with Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to use his good offices to help keep the PA solvent, an intransigent Mahmoud Abbas was reiterating his rejection of direct negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and promising never to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

On the East Bank, where the Palestinian Arabs have long been the majority, a wobbly King Hussein was welcoming Hamas chief Khalid Mashaal to Amman while a delegation of Palestinian Muslim Brothers from Jordan was in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Over in Syria, the weekend saw continued Sunni-Alawite bloodletting. 

And in nearby Lebanon, the fabric of the failed Hezbollah-dominated Beirut regime was strained further by Sunni discomfiture over Hasan Nasrallah's  support for Basher Assad.   

In other words, Shamir's assessment of Israel's neighbors as fanatically uncompromising was on display for anyone willing to take it in.

As the obituaries have made clear, Shamir was "laconic," and "stubborn." He did not have a need to be liked. 

A politically incorrect heretic, he dismissed the "land-for-peace" mantra; and certainly had no use for unilateral concessions such as Israel's Gaza pullout.  He would not play along with the description that any of the territories Israel captured in its 1967 war of self-defense against Egypt, Jordan and Syria as "occupied."

Egged on by the Reagan administration and then-Labor Party chief Shimon Peres, much of the organized U.S. Jewish community had opposed Shamir's "peace-for-peace" approach as unsellable and untenable.  

American Jews cheered Shamir's defeat by Labor's Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 that paved the way for the 1993 Oslo Accords which ultimately imploded with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2001.

Shamir believed that for the foreseeable future the conflict would remain a zero-sum game even if worldly-wise Arab spokesmen sometimes feign peaceful intentions.

To embrace Shamir's views nowadays is to place yourself beyond the Israeli consensus.

With eyes wide shut a majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state even though just 38 percent say they think that Palestinian aspirations would be satiated by a two-state solution.  

Of course, suspicions are mutual, yet overwhelmingly Palestinians tell pollsters that their end game after a peace deal is Israel's destruction.

So there is a paradox.  

Most Israelis have embraced Shamir's view of the futility of territorial concessions yet support territorial concessions needed to implement the two-state solution articulated by Netanyahu in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech.

Centrist Israelis know in the heart of hearts that Arab rejection of the Jewish state is at the end of the day not about settlements, boundaries or refugees.

Let me make this personal.  I have hanging in my study a stunning  photograph of Shamir sitting underneath a portrait of his mentor Ze'ev Jabotinsky that was taken by the great Jerusalem Report photographer Esteban Alterman. Yet I supported Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza and reluctantly recognize the need for an Israeli pullback from parts of the West Bank as part of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has explained this contradiction  (Foreign Affairs, December 10, 2011) -- how Israelis like me can be simultaneously fed up with our country's continued administration over a hostile Palestinian Arab population in the West Bank, and the attendant de-legitimization of the Zionist enterprise this stokes among Israel's fair-weather friends -- while fully appreciating the Palestinians' real intentions.
As Halevi frames it, "Arguably, no other occupier has had to worry, as Israel does, that withdrawing will not merely diminish but destroy it." Our choice, he's written, isn't between "peace" and "Greater Israel" since neither has ever been a realistic option
So why do we back -- in large numbers -- Netanyahu's accommodationist  policies? 

Partly, to buy time and play along with Europe and America which, unbelievably, take Palestinian protestations of peaceful intentions at face value. 

And partly because we know that the Palestinians really are "occupied" even if we can't possibly be "occupying" our own heartland.

The Land is not occupied. The hostile population living there feels "occupied."

We tell ourselves that we're being pragmatic. If the world wants to delude itself about Palestinian intentions any dissonance on our part will be perceived as intransigence.

And recall that Shamir was also pragmatic on tactical issues. 

As foreign minister he supported the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty though he didn't think it was worth paying for it with the Sinai Peninsula.  As prime minister during the First Gulf War he did not order Israel to retaliate against Saddam Hussein's SCUD missile attacks on Tel Aviv so as not to jeopardize  the American-Arab coalition. 

Shamir agreed to attend the October 1991 Madrid talks though these included West Bank Palestinians vetted by an unreformed PLO because he wanted American loan guarantees needed to re-settle a million Soviet Jews in Israel. [The loan guarantees came through only after Shamir was out and Rabin was in.]

Shamir famously said that, "The Arabs are the same Arabs and the sea is the same sea." Meaning not much was going to change. 

Of course he wanted a viable peace but one that did not diminish Israeli security; that did not sacrifice Zionist principles. He believed that "the search for peace has always been a matter of who would tire of the struggle first, and blink."
I think Israelis have blinked time and again.

And gotten little credit for their trouble.

Can the country that has become "Start-Up Nation," that wants to be normal in a crazy part of the world find the strength to realistically calibrate our desire to end this 100 year war with what we know about bellicose Arab intentions? 

The answer may depend on whether Netanyahu can better learn to channel more of the unflappable Shamir as he navigates us through the Islamist seasons ahead.  

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