Commentary Magazine


No Need to Say Kaddish for a Jewish State

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive it, the Middle East peace process remains dead in the water with almost no one believing the former presidential candidate has a prayer to succeed where all of his predecessors failed. But whereas such setbacks might have been treated as big news in the past, the secretary’s efforts and the Palestinians’ indifference to his entreaties is being greeted in Israel with more boredom than anguish. And that is something that bothers the American Jewish left.

Sounding a note that has become a familiar refrain among Jewish liberals in recent years, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier became the latest to claim that if the conflict with the Palestinians wasn’t solved pronto, “there will not be a Jewish state for very long.” Speaking to the Associated Press prior to receiving a lucrative award from Tel Aviv University, Wieseltier echoed the title of his 1998 book Kaddish about Jewish mourning rituals by claiming that doom awaits Israel unless it somehow forced the Palestinians to make peace with it. Wieseltier may present a more serious intellectual critique of the Netanyahu government than other liberal American critics like Peter Beinart, yet the disconnect between his attitude and that of most Israelis tells us less about the country’s future than it does about the lack of insight on the part of its critics.

Given the Palestinians’ failure to accept three offers of statehood since 2000 and their boycott of peace talks since 2008, as well as the strength of the Hamas rulers of Gaza, the Israelis can hardly be blamed for giving up on their quest for a two-state solution. As last January’s election proved, the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that a resolution of the conflict is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Despite their desire for peace, they know their only option is to stay strong and to concentrate on making the Jewish state a better place for its citizens rather than to continue to make concessions and beating their heads against a wall of Palestinian intransigence.

But for many American Jews this realistic attitude isn’t acceptable. For some, especially on the left, the obstacles erected by the Palestinians have always been irrelevant to their desire to make Israel conform to their notions of what a Jewish state should be. Thus, rather than accept the fact that peace cannot be forced on the Palestinians they continue to claim that a Jewish state cannot long survive.

The left has always been right to point out that the anomalous nature of the status quo harms Israel’s international image as well as frustrating both sides of the conflict. But if the Israeli right’s desire to hold onto all of the territories has proved to be impossible, the left’s belief that the Palestinians were prepared to make peace and accept a two-state solution is equally discredited. Twenty years of peace processing and Israeli concessions has not brought the region closer to peace. Instead, it has led to the empowerment of terrorists in Gaza and a kleptocracy in the West Bank that is unable to make peace even if it were willing to do so.

Wieseltier acknowledges that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of peace, but claims “one of the most shameful aspects of the Netanyahu government has been to succeed in taking the Palestinian question off the table.” But the current lack of interest in dealing with the Palestinians is the result of the decisions of Yasir Arafat, his successor Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals, not any clever scheme on the part of Netanyahu. Were the Palestinians ever to return to the negotiating table and demonstrated that they would end the conflict and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn they would find most Israelis and their government—no matter who led it—ready to deal.

But the main problem with Wieseltier’s predictions of doom isn’t so much that they are divorced from political reality as the way they underestimate the tenacity and the viability of the Jewish state he is consigning to perdition.

It is true that Israel suffers from international isolation and the abuse thrown at it by its opponents. However, the false apartheid charges won’t be any more factual in the future than they are today. Israelis will never accept incorporation of the Arabs of the West Bank into the Jewish state just as the Palestinians won’t accept a state alongside Israel. That creates a standoff that leaves the Palestinians in limbo. But it is the fruit of their own addiction to a nationalism that defines itself solely by rejection of Zionism rather than a positive vision of Palestinian identity. Perpetuation of this situation into the future may seem impossible, but it should be remembered that few in 1967 (when Israel came into possession of the West Bank and united Jerusalem) would have believed that the status quo would have lasted 46 years. At this point, the assumption that it cannot last any longer underestimates both the ability of Israelis to hang on despite criticism and the willingness of Palestinians to go on shooting themselves in the foot. Peace will have to wait until a sea change occurs that will enable the Palestinians to live with Israel. Until then there is no reason why the current situation in which Israel remains a thriving democracy with a solid Jewish majority will be altered by demands for a binational state that will never happen. 

Wieseltier is also remarkably naïve about what would happen even if another peace accord were signed. As he well knows, the war on Israel has never been about borders or settlements but the Jew-hatred that runs deep in the Arab and Muslim world. If Israel’s future is to depend on being loved by its neighborhood, his warnings of its demise might well be true. But as much as Israelis have always longed for peace, their survival has always been a function of their ability to persist and thrive despite the conflict.

Israelis would be better off if there were peace, but as they have demonstrated in the last two decades, the lack of an agreement hasn’t prevented the growth of their economy. Nor has it, despite similar predictions of doom, caused an estrangement with the United States where bipartisan support for Israel remains solid.

Rather than enhancing the chances of peace, people like Wieseltier, who claim Israel cannot long survive under these circumstances, are actually making it less likely since such talk encourages the Palestinians to remain intransigent and to cling to fantasies of Israel’s destruction. Palestinians need to understand that Israel has a bright future with or without peace and that it is up to them if they wish to share in the prosperity. Unlike Wieseltier’s foolish pronouncements, such a message isn’t just what most Israelis think; it’s the truth. 

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