July 21, 2019

Sticks and stones and centrifuges

A month ago, we Jews were frantic over Iranian centrifuges. This month, we’re vexed by Palestinian knives.

In no time at all, we went from the 21st century to the second. Space-age threats have been swept aside in a rash of Bronze Age bloodshed.

On Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday morning CNN program, Wall Street Journal foreign-affairs columnist Bret Stephens placed the blame for the latest terror attacks inside Israel solely on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who, Stephens said, pretends to want peace but really foments violence. The Atlantic columnist and contributing editor Peter Beinart blames Israel’s policies in the West Bank.

In fact, I don’t think blame matters much at all. Blame is past tense — who did what to whom and when. There’s a perfect place for people who want to argue endlessly over what really happened in 1948 or 1967 or, for that matter, 1948 B.C.E. It’s called the Internet comments section. But leaders who care about their people have to focus on what will happen, not what already has. You either want to settle past scores or find future solutions. You can’t do both.

The Middle East is an absolute mess right now. Last week’s bombing in Turkey shows just how fragile even the most stable governments are. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many Israelis watch the news — hell, all they have to do is look down from the Golan Heights — and find all the reasons they need to hold fast to the status quo and resist any change in a violently changing region.

But one can look at the same turmoil and make the opposite case. Nothing in the Middle East is stable. The status quo is an illusion. Even as Bibi clings to stability, reality refuses to cooperate. What we are seeing now is a new generation of Palestinians who are unwilling to go along with what was. Can they be suppressed? Yes. For a year? For three years?  Maybe. But then what?

Some Israeli leader is going to have to sit down and make some very difficult decisions. Ideally, he or she will make them across the table from a Palestinian partner. But, as former Ambassador Michael Oren has said, that leader might have to make those choices even without a partner.  Either way, there is no avoiding the demographic, political, diplomatic and, not least of all, ethical challenges that Israeli control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem pose.

I could have written these same words a year ago, five years ago, 20 years ago or more. In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion recognized that Israel’s miraculous, life-saving victory also contained the seeds of a potential demographic disaster. The old man was right.

Israel has advanced beyond his wildest imaginings. But there is something unsustainable about a country that has pioneered in nanotechnology, medicine, artificial intelligence, water conservation, defense and computers — and yet is stuck defending itself against kitchen knives.

In a world driven by images and sound bytes, a news photo of a kid throwing a rock or being thrown to the ground by a soldier is always, always going to make a bigger impression than a picture of two Israelis in lab coats staring at a test tube, or even of Bar Rafaeli in a bikini. Those are about advancing Israel’s image. I’m talking about ensuring Israel’s survival. There is going to be a one-state solution or a two-state solution. The two-state solution can be as creative as you want to make it — confederation with Jordan, a unilateral process, a four-state solution with Gaza, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. But, bottom line, Palestinians are going to be enfranchised — either inside Israel or outside. They won’t remain voteless for much longer, which raises the question: In what country will their vote count?

“If there will not be two states here, and fast, there will be one state here,” Amos Oz said earlier this year. “If there will be one state here, it will be an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan River. If there will be an Arab state here, I don’t envy my children and my grandchildren.”

If you think a binational state means a place where Arabs and Jews will sit down together and wipe hummus and sing Hatikvah, it’s time to give up your medical marijuana card. Think Lebanon. Think Yugoslavia. Now imagine something much worse.

One day, maybe Israel and the Palestinians can have a binational lovefest. But for now, what they need is exactly what Gwyneth Paltrow and her ex-husband said they had — a “conscious uncoupling.”

And have no illusions that a two- or three- or four-state solution will bring total peace and end hatred.  As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in The Atlantic, Arab attacks against Jews in the Holy Land predate Israel.  But separation will, as it does in any divorce, allow the parties to cool off and get on with their lives.  It is the first, necessary step to peace, not the final.

So, can Israel make a bold move here? Given the turmoil surrounding it, given the increasing radicalization and despair of the Palestinians, dare Israel dare?

I believe Israel has more to lose by clinging to the status quo than by shaking it up — and that Netanyahu is the man who should make the move. He can go down in history as the prime minister who steered the ship of state straight into the iceberg that Ben-Gurion saw coming, or the man who brought it safely through.

If you put off big decisions long enough, they either get made for you or your window of opportunity slams completely shut. That’s where Bibi and Israel are when it comes to the Palestinians. This week, it’s knives and screwdrivers. Next month, bombs. Next year — who knows? Medium-range missiles? Israel can survive all of these — it can even find an answer to those Shiite centrifuges.

What it can’t survive is the death of the two-state solution.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.