Friday, April 29, 2011

A New Vision for Progressive Jews: Making Peace with People not Tyrants

J.J. Goldberg of the Forward, himself a left-of-center mainstay of the American Jewish community, calls Sever Plocker "Yediot Ahronot’s widely respected and devoutly centrist economics editor and senior political commentator". I bring this up because, frankly, I hadn't heard of Sever Plocker, until today, when Mr. Plocker published a column on Ynet English, entitled, "I was wrong about Syria". You should read it in full, but here are some lengthy excerpts:
I was wrong and I admit it. Three times in the past three years I wrote articles in favor of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria. I wrote, based on numerous conversations with senior security officials, that Israel can achieve peace with Assad’s regime in exchange for willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, whose security significance has become dubious, if not wholly non-existent.

While making this argument, I did not take into account the Damascus regime’s tyrannical character. I fooled myself. [...] I believed in peace so much to the point of being blinded to reality.

Would Israel’s current situation be worse with an Israeli embassy in Damascus and the Golan Heights mostly under Syrian sovereignty? I believe so. In that case, the Syrian rebellion would have taken a radical anti-Israel shape. The oppression and massacre by Assad’s troops against his own citizens would have been perceived as a means to enforce the peace deal. A new regime – and after all, such regime will eventually rise in Damascus – would have annulled such treaty at once.

In this respect, we should be looking at Egypt. Even though Mubarak was not toppled because of his (weak) hold on the peace treaty with Israel, and while peace did not play a key role in the revolutionary discourse, the belligerent attitude to Israel on the part of some of Egypt’s free media has been reinforced ever since democracy won. As result of the incitement, only about half of Egyptians support the peace treaty in public opinion polls.

A peace treaty with Assad would have fully collapsed a day after the Assad regime collapsed.
Mr. Plocker, in an attempt to exonerate himself from perceived complicity in legitimizing Assad, who is now murdering his people in the streets, makes one fundamental error. The notion of Israel making peace with dictators is not flawed because these leaders are brutal, ready and willing to murder their own people to maintain power. Yes, this is a moral concern, but not a rationale for not pursuing such treaties. From Israel's perspective, the problem is not that these dictators are brutal, which they are, but that they do not represent the will of their people.

The viability of a peace treaty concluded with such leaders is only valid so long as they, or the equally unrepresentative political pyramid they preside over will last. Tomorrow, next week, next year or in two decades they or their successors will leave their throne or be forced from it, and the peace treaty they signed with Israel, which was forced on the citizens of that country without their consent, will mean nothing. Indeed, as we are beginning to see in Egypt, opposing such a treaty becomes a populist demagogue's dream, as it allows one to clearly differentiate oneself in the public square from the previous, hated regime.

The main takeaway is this: Israel, and more broadly we, the Jews, need to stop trying to make peace with dictators, with unelected leaders, individuals who are here today and gone tomorrow. The lesson of the “Arab Spring”, for us, is that we must insist on making peace with people. That means negotiating with governments that are representative of their populations and have “buy in” from their constituencies to end the state of war with the Jews of Israel, in all respects - military, economic, diplomatic, cultural, religious and psychological. If the Arab peoples - disregarding entirely their cultured diplomatic elite - are broadly not ready for such a peace, then we should earnestly encourage them, while remaining resolute on securing our basic interests.

To remain credible, progressive Jews must make this transition, from advocating for a political “cold peace” with the Mubaraks, Assads and Qaddafis of the Arab world, to building and broadening the desire for a cultural and psychological rapprochement between the Jews of Israel and their Arab neighbors. Part of doing so means credibly representing Israel’s legitimate rights, interests and historical and cultural narrative. A movement which builds support for peace and mutual respect from the bottom up will endure through political instability in a way that a political “cold peace”, which allows for a suppressed, simmering undercurrent of  discontent, cannot match.

In this brave new world, where pleading, prodding and manipulating Israel’s leadership and electorate to make territorial concessions as the only precondition for peace treaties with tyrants is no longer sufficient, progressive Jews have an opportunity to articulate a new vision, one ground in reality and easily quantifiable metrics. When the Arabs of Syria or Iraq are ready for peace with Israel, their representative leaders will not need to be encouraged, threatened or bought off by Western powers to make peace with Israel; they will campaign for office on such a platform because it is in their political interest, and implement it once elected.

Alternatively, progressive Jews can bury their heads in the sand and pretend that nothing has changed, that relinquishing the territories Israel captured in the '67 war, all of them, no matter the regional context, the aspirations and intentions of Arabs and Islamists or Israel’s legitimate interests, is a moral priority in itself, overriding all other concerns, including attempting to achieve peace with the Arabs. Individuals who take this later approach will naturally weed themselves out of serious policy discussions, at least among those who choose to deal with reality and care about preserving human life and seeking and pursuing peace.

The current situation has created a real opportunity for progressive and left wing Jews to lead the way on an issue of vital concern to Israel, the Jewish people, and the international community, in a way that both exemplifies the finest universal humanist values and demonstrates a commitment to Jewish communal responsibility. Speaking from the right-of-center, politically, yet recognizing the strengths of progressive Jews, I strongly encourage them to take up the challenge.

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