Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor of The New Republic magazine, had, as he put it, the “wrenching honor” of giving the 2011 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA on February 10, which he titled: “Peace Process or War Process: The Defeat of Reason in the Middle East.” Pearl, said Wieseltier, was a fine, humane person. Not a martyr—Pearl’s Islamist murderers believe in martyrs, but we believe in heroes, and Pearl was a hero.
Wieseltier ruefully observed that the Middle East hasn’t changed in fifty years, and then it changed on the afternoon he was to give this talk. Resisting temptation, he relegated Egypt to the question and answer period, and stuck to his intended topic: Israel and the Palestinians. Here’s what he said:
There are basically two kinds of problems. The first is when the problem is so difficult we beat our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to solve it. The second is when we know what the solution would be, but the principal actors can’t manage to do what needs to be done.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is of the second variety. We’ve known what the solution is since the 1930s—partition, “territorial compromise,” or the “two-state solution.” The reason partition is the only possible solution is that it is a tacit agreement to suspend the argument about “rights.” And any discourse about rights can only result in continued conflict.
Why? Because, despite recent fashionable talk about “the death of the nation-state,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best conceptualized as a conflict between competing nationalisms. The peoplehood, or nationhood, of the Jews goes back virtually to the beginning of history. Modern political Zionism arose out of, and developed on the model of, nineteenth century European nationalism. (This model of ethnic statehood can be difficult for Americans to understand, since the United States developed on quite a different model—we are a nation of nations, based on a political philosophy rather than on shared ethnic identity.) And, since a nation is a group that regards itself as a nation, the Palestinians are a nation, albeit of recent vintage. The Jews have no more right to try to deny nationhood to the Palestinians than the Arabs can denigrate the Jews as a mere religious community, not a people.
Thus, since both Jews and Palestinians have moral claims on the land, the only reasonable answer is to put aside “rights”, compromise and divide the land.
This is terribly difficult for both sides. In Zionist history, there is a long-term struggle between those who focus on the borders of the Jewish state, versus those who believe a Jewish demographic majority is the key to a viable Jewish state. There is a similar struggle within Palestinian nationalism—but there, the main argument is between secular nationalism and religious nationalism. In fact, there was a Palestinian civil war in 2007 along these lines, which divided the Palestinian territories between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank.
But there is good news coming out of the West Bank—“the transformation is extraordinary.” PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is “a truly revolutionary figure in Palestinian politics, because he is a technocrat.” Imitating the Zionists, Fayyad is building the institutions of statehood without worrying about declarations of statehood. As a result, the Israeli claim that “there’s no partner” doesn’t ring true. We know, thanks to Al-Jazeera, that the Palestinians made extraordinary concessions in their negotiations with Israel; they were waiting for American “bridging proposals,” but Israeli politics intervened and the moment was lost. Still, there is hope for a genuine breakthrough with the Palestinians.
This is important because of the increasing delegitimization of the two-state idea. The “one-state solution” would mean the erasure of Israel—not a “Greater Israel,” as some on the Zionist Right hope, but a “Greater Palestine,” for demographic reasons (there are more of them, and they have more babies). This “one-state solution” is immoral, as it denies the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism.
The Israeli settlements represent the single most monumental blunder in Israeli history. It’s not a question of rights, but of brains. The settlements were intended to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state; fortunately, they have not succeeded. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama opened his mouth. Obama believes in his own magical powers, and believes nothing is done properly until he does it. So Obama reopened the question of the settlements, making a deal much harder to achieve.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, is not committed to any ideology, but to the status quo—to quiet. “As far as I can tell, Israeli politics is in complete free fall.”
The only real strategic threat facing Israel is the risk of Iranian nuclear weapons. But thanks to computer sabotage, the timetable on Iranian nukes appears to be pushed back. The only reliable solution is the liberalization of Iran; and, with the Iranian reaction to the stolen June 2009 presidential election, democratization in Iran is not a fantasy.
Unfortunately, democratization has gotten an undeserved bad reputation. Because President George Bush believed in democracy, and liberals believe everything Bush believed was ipso facto wrong, liberals no longer believe in democracy. But democracy is not just an excuse for war.
Peace, Wieseltier concluded, is possible.