Saturday, January 05, 2019

Forever is a Long Time, Mr. Tobin

Benny Gantz, the centrist-cipher d'jour of the upcoming Israeli elections, said in a recent speech that a cluster of Israeli settlements -- "the Etzion bloc, Ariel, Ofra and Elkana" --  "will remain forever." Some of these settlements are ones which it is expected would become part of Israeli as part of land swaps in a two state solution. But others -- most notably Ofra -- are so deeply embedded in the heart of the West Bank so as to make it effectively impossible for there to be a Palestinian state at all.

Following Gantz's comments, Jonathan Tobin wrote a profoundly strange column of analysis. The thrust of the column is that Gantz's words demonstrate that it isn't just Bibi who is opposed to making territorial concessions to Palestinians -- even "centrist" candidates like Gantz stake out their opposition as well. As much as such concessions are a mainstay of Bibi's critics (particularly out of Israel), they are exceptionally unpopular in Israel itself.

That's fine, as far as it goes (though Gantz was always viewed as a relatively conservative figure on security issues, so his position here isn't exactly a shocker). But Tobin then proceeds to make some very weird choices of framing what Gantz's declaration that Ofra will remain in Israel "forever" tells us about the Israeli psyche. See if you can spot it:
[T]he importance of Gantz’s statement is that it demonstrates that even those who self-consciously style themselves as centrists don’t think it wise for Israel to make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians, or to plan on evicting even a minority of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live across the Green Line in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
It’s something of a shock for most American Jews hostile to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to realize that those who share their views in Israel represent only a tiny minority of voters. As has been evident since the Palestinian Authority literally blew up the faith of Israelis in the Oslo peace process during the Second Intifada, a consensus exists from the center left to the center right in Israel that at present, no Palestinian partner for peace exists.
That’s why Israeli centrists and even moderate left-wingers have largely given up talking about relinquishing up more territory for the foreseeable future. Though most Israelis would probably still be willing to trade land for real peace as opposed to more terror, the overwhelming majority understand that just isn’t possible right now. 
See it? "Forever" apparently doesn't last as long as you'd think it does. Tobin instead sees it is a rather contingent and temporary observation. To say Israel will stay in Ofra "forever" doesn't mean it will stay there forever. It just means "at present", or "right now", or "for the foreseeable future" -- until such time as a Palestinian partner for peace comes into being and a bilateral (not "unilateral") agreement can be reached.

This is what happens when you try to get too cute and clever for your own good. Using Gantz as a barometer, Tobin wants to demonstrate that global critics of Netanyahu who want him to be more proactive in ending the West Bank occupation are staking out a decidedly minority opinion in Israeli society. But the evidence he proffers does a lot more than that: if we take it seriously, it equally undermines the ever-present refrain, echoed by Tobin, that of course Israelis want peace and would be willing to withdraw, the conditions just aren't right "right now". The problem isn't with Israelis, who would jump at the chance of a deal, but with Palestinians who "are still clinging to their century-old war on Zionism."

But Gantz didn't say that Ofra will remain "at present" or "right now". He said that settlement bloc, which renders a Palestinian state an impossibility, will remain "forever." And so if he is a barometer for the median Israeli's political psyche, then the median Israeli is saying that their objection to a Palestinian state isn't a contingent appraisal of the contemporary political situation, but an objection in principle. If Tobin is correct about Gantz, then right now it is Israeli society that is "clinging" to a hardline, rejectionist position that opposes a final peace agreement outright. His column is, in its way, one of the more searing indictments one could possibly make of contemporary Israeli society: even its so-called moderates envision staying in the West Bank "forever"! It's not a "Bibi" problem, it's an Israeli problem.

Tobin can only turn "forever" into "at present" because he is committed to the notion that it is an inherent and permanent feature of Israel and Palestine that Israelis want a just peace where they live side-by-side with Palestine in harmony, and hence if a just peace hasn't occurred, the only reason must be that Palestinians don't want one. If Gantz's "forever" means settlements that would forever bar the creation of a Palestinian state, then it can't mean "forever" at all.

But the fact of the matter is, there is no permanent and unalterable political position that is "what Israelis want" or "what Palestinians want". These things shift based on a multitude of factors -- ranging from material conditions on the ground to efforts at persuasion. It is wrong to assume that the Palestinian position simply is, immutably, a desire for the destruction of Israel at the expense of all else; and it's wrong to assume  that the Israeli position simply is, inherently, a hope for peace if only the conditions were ripe. Sometimes either or both of these views might be the majority or dominant position in their respective camps. Other times it might be the opposite -- Palestinians hoping to simply bring an end to the conflict and set up their own state, with a majority of Israelis being indifferent and content to maintain the occupation "forever".

That these positions aren't built into the bones of their respective societies is what allows changes to be made. Even if Gantz is a barometer of Israeli society right now, that doesn't mean that position is forever -- that Israelis are hopeless, unpersuadable, locked into territorial maximalism. But changing minds takes work, it doesn't come for free. And it certainly won't come if it is taken as axiomatic that Israelis are -- by virtue of being Israeli -- automatically and inherently ready to deal if only the moment is right.

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