Defending Identity


Natan Sharansky’s previous book, “The Case for Democracy,” changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President GeorgeW. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky’s second book, “Defending Identity,” came out this month, I thought I’d better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

“Yes,” Sharansky says, “a cappuccino.”

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God’s eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky’s. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And he said, ‘That makes sense.’

“So, later, Putin says to me, ‘Why no tie? Is that a protest?’ And I say, ‘No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'”

Sharansky is awake now, and it’s time to talk identity.

In “Defending Identity,” Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains “post-identity” thinking: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil.”

Sharansky’s book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be “used destructively,” he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, “are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities.”

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky’s own life.

“I have been extremely lucky — twice lucky in fact,” Sharansky writes. “I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously.”

The first third of Sharansky’s life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. “The only thing Jewish in my life,” he writes, “was anti-Semitism.”

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. “I started realizing I was part of a unique history … that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope.”

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

“I discovered that only by embracing who I am … could I also stand with others,” he writes. “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

While Sharansky’s biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn’t see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn’t be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in “The Dignity of Difference,” wrote that “universalism can also be deeply threatening.”

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don’t suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

“Exactly!” he says. “Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy.”

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky’s now-classic one on democracy.

“Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian,” he says. “But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let’s have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom.”

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes — Sharansky — trashes another — John Lennon. But if Lennon sang — with a bit of irony — about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

“The free world is in a big, big danger,” he says, “because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don’t.”

Golan’s Druse live with hope and anxiety


Under a darkening sky in the northernmost corner of the Golan Heights, a small crowd gathers at the town square in this Druse village late in the afternoon and unfurls a few Syrian flags.
 

Bush Touts Palestine in Europe


Â

President Bush is declaring his hope for a Palestinian state loud and clear, and no wonder — it’s almost the price of entry to the alliance with Europe that he urgently wants to revive.

Some in the American Jewish community at first were uneasy about Bush’s push for the Palestinians, but Bush’s actions show that his commitment to Israel remains as solid as ever.

Just as Bush repeatedly has touted the benefits of a future Palestinian state at each stop along this week’s European tour, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is determined to keep the discussion limited to the here and now when an international conference on the Palestinians convenes March 1 in London.

Rice will not allow the conference to consider the geographic contours of a Palestinian state, and instead will focus on how the United States and Europe can help the Palestinians reform a society corrupted by years of venal terrorist rule under the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“This will definitely have a more practical and pragmatic orientation,” an administration official said.

That’s fine with the Europeans, who are happy to see progress on a topic they once felt Bush neglected — even if, for now, the progress is rhetorical.

“This is probably good music to introduce the London conference,” a European diplomat said of Bush’s repeated reference to his hope that he will see a democratic Palestine.

Bush’s push for Palestinian empowerment at first alarmed some Jewish organizational leaders, who wanted to see if newly elected P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas would carry out Palestinian promises to quash terrorism.

Now that Abbas apparently is beginning to make good on his pledge — deploying troops throughout the Gaza Strip to stop attacks, and sacking those responsible for breaches — Jewish communal leaders are more on board.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations this week formally welcomed Israel’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, and congressional insiders say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had a role in making a U.S. House of Representatives resolution praising Abbas even more pro-Palestinian then the original draft.

One factor that temporarily tempered Jewish enthusiasm was Bush’s determination to rebuild a transatlantic alliance frayed by the Iraq war.

Bush wants the Europeans on board in his plans for democratizing Iraq, corralling Iran’s nuclear ambitions and expanding global trade. But Jewish officials have felt burned in recent years by the Europeans’ perceived pro-Palestinian tilt and their failure to contain resurgent anti-Semitism.

Don’t get too exercised, cautioned David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We should be careful every time we hear the word ‘Europe’ not to get allergic,” he said. “Bush is trying to channel the Europeans to focus more on consensus issues.”

That may be so, but the consensus appears to be shifting. Bush’s calls for Palestinian statehood have never been so frequent or emphatic.

“I’m also looking forward to working with our European partners on the Middle Eastern peace process,” Bush said Tuesday after meeting with top European Commission officials.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair “is hosting a very important meeting in London, and that is a meeting at which President Abbas will hear that the United States and the E.U. is desirous of helping this good man set up a democracy in the Palestinian territories, so that Israel will have a democratic partner in peace,” Bush continued. “I laid out a vision, the first U.S. president to do so, which said that our vision is two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. That is the goal. And I look forward to working concretely with our European friends and allies to achieve that goal.”

The day before, at another Brussels speech, Bush was applauded when he called for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and a freeze on Israeli settlement building.

More substantively, Rice last week broke with years of U.S. policy and told Congress that $350 million in aid Bush has requested for the Palestinians — including $200 million to be delivered as soon as possible — will go directly to 34 P.A.-run projects, and not through nongovernmental organizations, a practice that had helped to lessen corruption.

The administration believes “that’s the quickest way to do it,” Rice said. “This is not the Palestinian Finance Ministry of four or five years ago, where I think we would not have wanted to see a dime go in.”

That stunned members of the House Appropriations Committee, where Rice was testifying. Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich.) asked Rice to repeat her reply because he couldn’t believe it.

“You can understand why we’re a little tense about that,” he told Rice.

One reassurance for anyone skeptical of the administration’s plans: The Israeli government is at ease with the aid plans and is happy to sit out the London conference.

But while Israel welcomes European assistance with economic and political reforms in Palestinian areas, it looks askance at any European attempt to help with security. Israeli officials prefer to channel all security measures through the Americans, fearing that multiple security initiatives run by different partners will create chaos.

The Europeans have not entirely abandoned the idea, however. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary-general of NATO, said sending troops to keep the peace might yet be considered.

“If there would be a peace agreement, if there would be a need for parties to see a NATO role, I think we would have a discussion around the NATO table,” he said Tuesday on CNN.

While the Europeans are happy to limit discussions for now to such issues as infrastructure and democratic institutions, that won’t always be the case.

The London conference “will show the Palestinians that the world is getting things done, and now it’s their turn [to implement reforms],” the European diplomat said. “But you can’t pretend that what is achieved in London will last 25 years. We need to go on from there.”

Â

U.S. Faces Tough Policy Challenges


 

With Sunday’s elections, the Bush administration got something it demanded from the Palestinians: the beginnings of a democracy. Whether that produces a real, functional democracy remains to be seen — and as that drama plays out, the administration faces some tough decisions and some big policy snares.

Mahmoud Abbas won the battle to replace the late Yasser Arafat as undisputed Palestinian leader, after a campaign that included both examples of his vaunted “moderation” and statements suggesting that he isn’t so different from his predecessor, after all — such has his insistence that he will never abandon the demand for an unlimited Palestinian right of return, a guaranteed deal breaker.

Peace process supporters in this country say that was just an acknowledgment of the political realities he faces; critics say it’s the same old Palestinian line in a new package.

All of this will create some huge challenges for the Bush administration in the months ahead. Here are a few of the big questions officials here will face:

How Much Democracy?

When, exactly, will the Palestinians have achieved enough democratic reform to justify a serious, new U.S. peace push, not just feel-good talk about Palestinian statehood?

Abbas will probably be a big improvement over Arafat, but he will be setting up his government in a society seething with undemocratic forces and in a region where democracy is regarded as toxic by autocratic leaders.

The transition will be uneven and incremental, providing the perfect excuse for those here and in Israel who want to use the democracy demand as a way to bar any new peace negotiations or any new U.S. pressure on Israel.

Finding a realistic democratic threshold that encourages the Palestinians to move forward and strengthens Abbas, without letting him get away with just the trappings of democracy, will be one of the toughest tasks for the administration in the next few months.

What About Hamas?

In recent municipal elections, the terror group decided to engage in the electoral process and did much better than analysts predicted. It boycotted the presidential election but did nothing to interfere, and has promised to cooperate with Abbas.

What will the U.S. attitude be if Hamas involvement grows, especially after parliamentary elections in June?

Will the Bush administration make the judgment that these groups are moving toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, and that participation in the emerging Palestinian democracy could accelerate the process? Or will it react according to its post-Sept. 11 view of a world sharply divided between terrorists and their uncompromising opponents?

A lot of that will depend on how Hamas leaders respond. Softening their rhetoric, curbing attacks and indicating a willingness to accept Israel’s existence will make it easier for the administration to give a cautious yellow light to their political involvement, or at least not to regard it as the poison pill of Palestinian democracy.

The Corruption Conundrum.

International donors have met in recent weeks to discuss a big infusion of aid to help a Palestinian population mired even more deeply in poverty, and President Bush has given $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, with promises of more to come.

But this time, international donors are demanding mechanisms for accountability and transparency to make sure that the money doesn’t end up lining the pockets of P.A. officials or financing new weapons. But financial responsibility — not exactly the norm in the Arab world — won’t come overnight, and the need for an infusion of aid is immediate and overwhelming.

Just how accountable do the Palestinians have to become before they get the aid that’s been dangled before them? Without aid, the plight of ordinary Palestinians will not improve, spawning new terrorism and dimming hopes for new negotiations. But throwing more money at corrupt officials could undermine the Palestinian experiment in democracy.

Dealing With Sharon.

With Abbas’ election, there is a widespread assumption that the administration will become a little firmer in pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill his part of the Mideast “road map” peace plan, including freezing settlements and rooting out illegal outposts. But Sharon is also in the middle of a ticklish Gaza disengagement plan, which the administration has incorporated into its road map.

Just how hard can Washington push without creating a domestic backlash in Israel that will make it harder for the premier to get out of Gaza quickly?

Too often in the past, Sharon has used the specter of domestic opposition to turn aside prodding from Washington, but with settlers in open revolt and the threat of virtual civil war looming, there’s little question he faces an unprecedented domestic challenge.

Pressure is a matter of fine tuning that will test the talents of incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Too much pressure could topple Sharon’s shaky coalition and derail the Gaza plan; too little could damage U.S. credibility in the region.

What About Europe and the Arab Nations?

How can the Bush administration encourage these countries — too often the willing enablers of corrupt, reckless Palestinian leaders — to play a more constructive role?

Without U.S prodding, these nations could lapse back into their unhelpful role, but too much prodding will only play into the reflexive anti-Americanism that leads many to oppose almost anything America proposes, with especially disruptive results in the Middle East.

That will require nuanced diplomacy, not the brute-force approach to international relations that characterized the first Bush administration.

 

U.S. Wavering on Mideast Democracy


 

Last week, President Bush said it plainer than ever before: Palestinian democracy, not just an end to terrorism, is the essential precondition for any new U.S. peace efforts in the region.

With Palestinian elections only a month away, the Bush administration hopes the vote will serve as a launch pad for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a face-saving boost to its sagging Middle East democracy initiative. But the U.S. push for Palestinian democracy will be an outright disaster if it proves to be nothing more than the latest excuse for U.S. noninvolvement in Mideast peacemaking.

It is likely to have only limited impact if Bush refuses to invest any real diplomatic capital in imposing the same standards on some of his best and most undemocratic friends, starting with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Initially, the Bush administration had a straightforward approach to dealing with the Palestinians: end the terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, and then we can talk about new peace negotiations.

As terrorism diminished — the result of fierce Israeli action, not P.A. efforts — the administration shifted its emphasis to the need for “new leadership” among the Palestinians and an end to endemic corruption. That was the gist of Bush’s June 2002 speech forever casting Yasser Arafat into the diplomatic deep freeze.

But officials here didn’t want too much democracy while Arafat was alive, fearing a new vote would just reaffirm his power. Now that Arafat is dead, the administration has resumed its active talk about Palestinian democratization and made it the new benchmark for improved U.S.-Palestinian relations.

Bush said it plainly last week during a visit to Canada: “As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy.”

Bush was reportedly much taken with Natan Sharansky’s argument in a recent book that you can’t make peace with nondemocracies. Sharansky was a guest at the White House several weeks ago to expand on that concept.

However, the Bush administration’s focus on democracy is far from universal. The president doesn’t seem to care much that vital allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan are among the least democratic nations on the planet. Nor is he concerned that these countries have responded to the call for more democracy around the world with even more repression.

When the administration says that Saudi Arabia is a necessary element in any peaceful resolution of the region’s woes, it isn’t talking about some mythical democratic Saudi Arabia of the future but the oppressive, authoritarian, extremist-supporting Saudi Arabia of today.

Pakistan is a valued ally in the war against terror and never mind it is ruled by a repressive military dictatorship. It’s leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, came to power the old fashioned way — through a coup d’état.

Over the weekend, there were reports the administration is retreating from even its limited demands for democratization elsewhere in the Middle East. Its selective vision on democracy building undermines the administration’s goals both in the Palestinian territories and around the world.

Empowering those Palestinians who want representative and transparent government should be a goal of U.S. policy, especially in the run-up to the Jan. 9 elections to pick new leadership for the post-Arafat era.

But what, exactly, are the standards the Palestinians must meet to win U.S. approval? Does the election have to be entirely corruption free — a standard Florida would be hard-pressed to meet?

And do the results have to be ones we approve of? If radicals get the nod from voters, will we simply declare the entire enterprise undemocratic and invalid?

The demand for Palestinian democracy will fall flat if it isn’t coupled to energetic new U.S. peace efforts. In the past year, the U.S. demand for an end to Arafat’s rule as a precondition for such efforts made sense, given the late leader’s penchant for terrorism and gross corruption, but it also served as a handy excuse for an administration eager to avoid further entanglement in the region’s woes, especially before the Nov. 2 U.S. elections.

Now, there are abundant hints the push for democracy — laudable in itself — might be serving the same function for an administration that is getting pressed by European and Arab allies to ratchet up its involvement, but which apparently has little stomach for it.

The Mideast double standard also undercuts the broader effort to make democratization the solid foundation of U.S. foreign policy around the world. Why should people in East Asia or Africa believe pious American words about democracy, when it continues to support their oppressive rulers?

Indeed, the U.S. hypocrisy in the pro-democratization thrust cheapens and undermines what should be an important shift in U.S. foreign policy.

Pushing for fair, open Palestinian elections in early January — and pressing Israel to help make that possible — are commendable goals. Setting unreasonable standards of democracy as a way of keeping the U.S. from being forced to engage in high-risk Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in the region is a formula for disaster in a region that badly needs active U.S. involvement.

 

Israel’s Year of Strength


There are many ways to reflect on the year past and the year to come.

This year, Israel is celebrating its 56th year of independence. Today’s Israel — a stronghold of democracy, freedom and Judaism — is the ultimate proof of the triumph of the Jewish people. Israel is the definitive statement that the Jewish people can and will survive. Israel is an everlasting victory over the forces of evil that seek to destroy its people.

These forces of evil are still present, however, and constantly face our people. The last three years have tested our will, challenged our beliefs, tried our determination and attempted to break our spirit.

The nation of Israel has endured scores of terrorist attacks and suffered unimaginable pain. Fathers and mothers. Sons and daughters. Loved ones and friends. Our mourning for them will never end. Never.

During the past year, there was yet one more hero taken from us. Col. Ilan Ramon was Israel’s first astronaut. In his final mission, aboard the space shuttle Columbia, he lifted the spirits of our entire nation. We were moved to tears when Ilan broadcast to our nation: “I want to say that from here, in space, Israel looks like it appears on the map, small, but beautiful.”

As Ilan soared, we soared with him. As he died, a part of each of us died with him. May he and his fellow astronauts now rest in peace. And may Ilan, who protected us for so many years in this world, continue to protect us from above.

During the past year, we shared the tension of the people of Israel as they donned gas masks in preparation for a possible strike from Iraq. Glued to the news, we wondered if this would be a repeat of the first Gulf War when Israel was shelled. And we waited with hope as Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime fell, opening further possibility for change in the Middle East. We consoled each other as our brethren fell victim to terrorism and inspired each other with hope as world leaders gathered in Aqaba to start the implementation of the “road map.”

We must acknowledge, however, a critical achievement registered in the past year. We have contained the Palestinian military strategy. Terrorism did not succeed. It did not cause us to surrender or capitulate. Israel has long held fast to the principle that peace can result only from diplomatic negotiation. Now, this ideal is not recognized by Israelis alone but also by Palestinians, who in the last year have chosen a new leadership that committed itself to ending the conflict. A commitment was made in English and in Arabic, before the international community and within the Palestinian society itself. Examples of Palestinian leaders condoning terror in Arabic and simultaneously condemning it in English on CNN are no longer the norm.

The road ahead of us will be filled with ups and downs. We are determined to emerge from this crisis and we will fulfill our dreams for peace. The time we still have to wait is unknown. But what is certain is the eventual outcome of this long trail. In the end, we will emerge victorious because ours is a just struggle. Not to dominate, but to survive. Not to control, but to coexist. Not to glorify battle, but to preserve life.

Our success will be measured by the degree of unity of the Jewish people. As we make resolutions for the New Year, I encourage you all to consider how you can play a role in bringing the people of Israel closer together.

While the past three years of violence kept our hearts focused on Israel, it prevented many of us and our children from experiencing firsthand the beauty of our homeland. There is no better guarantee of continued Jewish strength than being in the land of Israel. There should not be a single Jew who has not experienced firsthand the wonders of the Western Wall or the power of Masada. There should not be anyone who cannot take pride in having seen the majesty of Jerusalem, the mysticism of Safed, or the beauty of Eilat.

We need to see you with us. We need to know that we are not alone.

When I look back at the past year’s accomplishments, I am inspired with hope. Together we can realize a new hour for Israel — an hour that will justify the suffering and the long road we have traveled. We can create an Israel that can focus on conquering cyberspace and outer space; an Israel that cultivates a Judaism that is as committed to the future as it is attached to the past. A Jewish model that is a source of pride and devotion to our entire people, from the most observant to the most secular.

When you go to synagogue this Yom Kippur, remember where you were on the exact same day 30 years ago, that fateful Oct. 6, 1973. Remember how you felt when you first learned that Arab armies had taken advantage of the holiest Jewish day to launch a bitter offensive against Israel. Remember what was at stake as the State of Israel fought for its survival. And as you recite the sacred prayer “Oseh shalom b’imromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael” (“May the one who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us and for all Israel”), you should reflect on what we as a people must do to prevent the world from not having a safe haven for Jews, from ever becoming a reality again.


Ambassador Yuval Rotem is Israeli consul general for the western United States.

Israel Actions Stir Protests


"Bush, Sharon, you will see, Palestine will be free," chanted some 100 demonstrators, waving placards and walking in a circle in front of a high-rise housing the Israeli consulate last week.

"Shame on you, shame on you," shouted the 50 counterdemonstrators on the other side of Wilshire Boulevard, waving Israeli flags.

By the standards of the civil rights and Vietnam War protests, the event on July 25 wasn’t much of a show, but what was there gave a clear edge to Los Angeles Jews for a Just Peace (LAJJP) over the StandWithUs supporters across the street. LAJJP, formerly known, or unknown, as Not in Our Name: Jewish Voices for Peace, had the obvious advantage in preparation and organization.

Four Israeli and American spokespersons were on hand to pass out press kits, the placards ("End U.S. Military Aid to Israel," "End the Occupation") looked professional and monitors saw to it that the protesters didn’t annoy the considerable number of policemen present. Leaflets also demanded the "right of return for Palestinian refugees" and "self-determination and equal rights for all peoples in the region."

Harking back to the 1960s and ’70s, there was a bit of spontaneously rehearsed street theater, with four young people dressed in makeshift uniforms and a Star of David pasted on their helmets, dashing into the middle of busy Wilshire Boulevard during traffic light changes to set up 10-second "checkpoints."

In another shtick, they "arrested" a heavily pregnant woman with a kaffiyeh draped around her head.

Barry Trachtenberg, a 32-year-old graduate student in Jewish history, said that LAJJP could count on 80-100 activists, but in this event was "honored" by the support of Christians and Muslims.

Among the former were two middle-aged female expatriates, one from Ireland and the other from England, holding up a large PLO flag.

One Arab participant was Michel Shehadeh, spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Orange County, who said he had come "in support of my Jewish friends, who are working for peace."

Shehadeh was asked whether he knew of any demonstrations in the Arab street against the policies and tactics of Palestinian militants, including suicide bombings. "Once we [Palestinians] are free, we will hold our government accountable," he said. Lending a weird touch of déjà vu was a man passing out a slick, multicolored leaflet with a photo of Lyndon LaRouche, warning that "Targetting [sic] One Billion Muslims Will Start a Clash of Civilizations!" The flier also urged support for the ex-convict and perennial candidate in the 2004 presidential race.

On the north side of Wilshire Boulevard, Jack Salem was defiantly holding his "Stand with Israel" placard and observing that the peace chanters were literally and figuratively "on the wrong side of the street."

Allyson Rowen Taylor, vice president of StandWithUs, attributed the modest turnout on her side to having had only two days to organize her counterdemonstration via e-mail.

Meirav Eilon-Shahar, Israeli consul for public affairs, noted in a phone interview that "in a democratic country, like the United States or Israel, it is the prerogative [of LAJJP] to demonstrate, though I believe their thinking represents a very small part of the American Jewish community.

"The day we see Palestinians demonstrating in front of the PLO embassy in Washington, that day we’ll know that the Palestinian Authority is on the way to becoming a democracy," she said.

The Democracy Trap


In diplomacy, it’s important to be careful what you wish for, because you may get it in spades.

That’s the joker in the deck as the Bush administration begins looking for ways to implement President Bush’s latest Mideast vision — a stunning policy turnabout that demands serious democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority as a prerequisite to U.S. support for statehood. The most critical reform is the removal of Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader and terrorist-in-chief.

The new policy demanding "a new and different Palestinian leadership" will also generate pressure on the administration to apply the same principles to its dealings with other Middle Eastern states. These include allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which regard every flicker of democracy as toxic. That represents a giant time bomb in broader U.S. policy in the region.

The most obvious gap in the new Bush approach is its assumption that the Palestinian people really want peace, and that it’s just a corrupt, unaccountable leadership that wants to intensify the fight against Israel, said Daniel Pipes, a longtime peace process critic and president of the Middle East Forum.

"It assumes that the Palestinian people have accepted Israel, and that bringing good governance will bring peace," he said. "There’s no evidence to back that up. The Palestinian public is extremely radical."

Polls show strong popular support for suicide bombings and inconsistent support for peace negotiations with Israel. According to some analysts, the new squeeze on Arafat — who has called for presidential elections in January — has just increased his popularity, at least for now.

That opens up several prospects that could upset the administration’s new plans: Arafat could get resoundingly reelected, or he could be replaced — democratically — by someone even worse, possibly by Islamic radicals.

"What happens if you have elections and the Palestinians choose somebody you don’t happen to like?" asked Edward S. Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "Do you go back then and say, ‘That’s not what we had in mind?’

"The problem is, if you want democracy and are serious about it, you have to accept the results. And the results today would not be something that would please the United States or Israel," he said.

Walker said that Bush’s focus on exporting democracy to the Palestinian Authority ignores critical questions of sequencing. "What’s missing is the how-to-get-there part," he said. "Democratization has to be integrated into changes of attitude on the ground, otherwise, elections are going to wind up with some very unfortunate results."

Walker, like other supporters of an active peace process, also worries that the green light Bush flashed to Ariel Sharon last month could lead to Israeli policies that just fuel the anger among the same Palestinian voters who they are counting on to "reform" Palestinian governance.

In the long term, the new U.S. policy of demanding democratization could produce a climate more favorable to peace.

Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said that "democracy by itself is not the answer, but it could provide a contribution to the answer. A demagogue and a dictator may be more likely to resort to inflammatory appeals to legitimate himself than a democratically elected leader," he said.

The problem is how to get there and what role democratization should play in the effort to tamp down today’s violence. The new Bush approach seems unlikely to help produce a stable cease-fire now, and it could make the effort all the more difficult. Free, open elections in the current climate are unlikely; so is the prospect of more moderate leadership rising to the fore.

The policy also poses serious problems as far as other U.S. allies are concerned. Washington has been more than willing to look the other way as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others, trample human rights and quash any hint of democratic reform. They may be authoritarian regimes, but they’re our authoritarian regimes.

"That hypocrisy has always been a problem in our dealings in that part of the world," said a top pro-Israel activist here. "It will be much harder in the weeks and months ahead to pretend that the Saudis believe in the same values we say we’re fighting for in the region. If we try, we risk our credibility."

There will be huge pressure on the U.S. by its Arab allies for the administration to continue the sham that we are all fighting for the same values, despite the demand for democratization in Gaza and the West Bank. Then, if the president succumbs, the smug Europeans will use that as an excuse to spurn Washington’s appeals for support.

The new focus on democracy will touch off diplomatic currents that will affect U.S. policy in unforeseen ways. And for now, it is unlikely to do much to tamp down terrorism that has produced so much recent Mideast misery, especially in the past 21 months.

The Great Awakening


Israel’s Jews did not vote for Ariel Sharon by a margin nearly unprecedented in any functioning democracy because they believe he has a magic solution to halt the intifada. Fewer still believe that he is capable of bringing a final resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They voted for him not despite his age, but because of it — because of his link to an era when Israel was far more confident of the justice of its cause and optimistic about the future than today. Sharon’s election signals a national awakening to the importance of national identity and national will, a recognition that our security is inextricably linked to national morale. It is telling that Sharon’s most concrete campaign promise was to retain the Education Ministry in Likud hands.

The election marked the death of Oslo, not just as a diplomatic process but also as an ideology. That ideology is fundamentally hostile to national identity.

National identity, in the eyes of Oslo’s most ardent supporters, is the great enemy of peace. If people would just stop thinking of themselves as Jews or Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians, conflict would disappear.

Oslo’s supporters convinced themselves that the world is moving towards a universalistic brotherhood of man, in which people will view themselves simply as human beings, nothing more or less. Propelling history in that direction, argues Thomas Friedman, is globalization. In the global village, people are primarily defined by their common desire to partake of increasing material bounty. Nothing else matters.

Shimon Peres’s “New Middle East,” in which hotels are more important than battalions and the cure-all for Palestinian unrest is greater economic investment in the Palestinian economy, was predicated on precisely such a view of man as driven by purely material concerns. That view rendered Oslo’s true believers incapable of comprehending the Palestinians. They saw the Palestinians as nothing more than reflections of our own desires. Knowing that Bashar Assad shared their love of the Internet was enough to convince them that peace with Syria must be close at hand.

Those for whom love of the Land of Israel came to be seen as a dangerous anachronism could not understand those in whom that love still burns; those for whom national identity is an unwanted holdover from a distant past could not understand those for whom it is everything.

For nearly a decade such views prevailed among Israel’s opinion-making elites and through them filtered down to the population at large. On recent evidence, however, the scorn for national identity no longer holds sway. The recent rejection by the Knesset Education Committee of the ninth-grade world history textbook “A World of Changes,” once hailed for daring to expose the truth behind the myths of Israel’s founding, is but one piece of evidence.

The overwhelming election of an unreconstructed, old-line Zionist like Sharon is another. “Israeli Jews expect Sharon to mend Zionism’s broken tools or totally reconstruct them, so that Zionism can take root once more, not only in the soil of this land, but in the hearts of Israelis,” Nadav Shragai wrote a week before the elections.

Even among the elite opinion-makers, chinks have appeared in the armor of post-Zionism. Nothing better indicates the turning tide than Avirama Golan’s hysterical lament in Ha’aretz about “authors and philosophers, politicians and publicists suddenly … enthusiastic about national and political unity.”

What changed the tide? Primarily the shock of the intifada, joining Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in common cause. Confronted with the fervor of Palestinian nationalism, Israeli Jews began to search once again for a comparable source of strength to sustain them against the onslaught.

The sense that something has gone dramatically wrong was further heightened by the alacrity with which Israel accepted President Clinton’s plan for giving sovereignty over the Temple Mount to Arafat. Suddenly slaying every sacred cow and shattering every taboo no longer seemed such a good idea.

Many shared Yair Sheleg’s wonder at the willingness to concede the most sacrosanct sites in Jewish history, symbolizing 2,000 years of longing to return to the Land of Israel, simply to obtain some temporary peace and quiet from a vastly inferior enemy. They sensed that Arafat made such a sticking point of the Temple Mount in order to further cut off the Jews from their past, to force us to admit that the place is of greater importance to Moslems than Jews, because in Palestinian eyes a lack of connection to the past is a sign of weakness.

Yet, as Sheleg pointed out, Barak would never have dared to such concessions unless Israel’s “academic, cultural and media elites” had been ruled for a generation by those for whom national identity is irrelevant, surely not worth as much as a “little quiet and integration into the global village.”

Israel’s Jews today neither seek a false uniformity nor yearn for a halcyon past that never existed absent all social strife. Yet they do seek a rekindled sense of some bond between us. One can hear that yearning in Amnon Dankner’s mea culpa for himself and his colleagues on the left who for the past two decades nurtured “a large and thriving industry of hate, scorn, and arrogance to anyone who did not share their views: to those of Eastern descent, to those with right-wing ideologies, and especially to the religious nationalists and charedim.”

So filled with empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and understanding of their demands was the left, Dankner confesses, that it had no empathy left for fellow Jews, “only pure, unsullied, sulfuric hate.”

Correcting the trends of a decade and more will require more than dusting off a few tired Zionist slogans. The past will not return. We have raised two generations ignorant of basic Jewish belief and practice to a degree unimaginable to the founding fathers. The influx of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews makes all the more difficult the forging of a national identity. And finally, Zionism’s very success in building a state has deprived it of a great project to fire the soul.

Yet finally acknowledging the problem of national identity is surely an important first step to solving it.

+