Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Motives are much less important than actions

Those who are liberals, particularly those from the religious Left or from the "chattering classes" (as Margaret Thatcher used to refer to them) worry much about pure hearts in politicians.  Real politicians, however, worry much more about the ability to deliver.  Historians of American abolitionists from the 1960s to the present have sung the praises of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers because their political sentiments are politically correct today. But that meant that because of the very great changes in racial attitudes between their time and ours, their sentiments were very politically incorrect then. Garrison and his brand of abolitionists remained unpopular until the start of the Civil War.  Their rivals, the Liberty men of the tiny abolitionist Liberty Party were equally as unpopular and only averaged about two percent of the vote during the eight-year lifetime of the party. But the Liberty men at least had the correct impulse to use the ballot box in their cause. The more pragmatic among them, namely Salmon P. Chase, engineered a merger between the Liberty men and splinter groups from the two main parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. Then the professional politicians took over. The moralists within the Liberty Party revived that party rather than merger with the sinners and accomplish something. They were left on the ash heap of history.

In the Middle East the liberals have often felt disappointed by the politicians they have had to rely upon in the peace process. Although most belonged to Ratz or Mapam in the 1970s and 1980s and Meretz in the 1990s, they had to rely on the Labor Party to work as their vehicle. During the 1980s they had to rely upon Shimon Peres, a former hawk and very ambitious and weak politician, and Yitzhak Rabin, a pragmatic hawk until he died. In 1978 Menahem Begin, then prime minister suggested in the Knesset that Peres had become a dove because Rabin was blocking his way to the party leadership and he needed the doves to get around Rabin. President Mitterand of France started his political career on the Right in the Fourth Republic where he became one of the most talented politicians. In the Fifth Republic he suddenly moved to the Left and joined the Socialists. What happened--was it a miraculous conversion? No, he simply decided that he could not compete with Charles de Gaulle for the presidency from the Right. In 1981 he was elected the third president of the Fifth Republic and served for two full terms. Peres was never quite as lucky.

Peres and Rabin competed for twenty years during a period in which the Likud became and stayed the dominant party. Peres had to settle for the lesser prizes of senior ministries: defense minister (1974-77), foreign minister (1986-88) and finance minister (1988-90). Only from mid-1984 until October 1986 was he prime minister in a rotation scheme in a national unity government. He again served as prime minister in 1995-96 for six months following Rabin's murder.

It wasn't until 1993 that Labor could be persuaded to accept the PLO as their negotiating partner for peace rather than Jordan. This was despite Jordan having renounced its roled in 1988. Then in the 1990s liberal doves had to settle for a peace process between Rabin on the Israeli side and Arafat on the Palestinian side. The man who had as defense minister given the order to break the bones of Palestinian rioters in 1988 and the arch-terrorist responsible for the Munich massacre and other atrocities. It was not until January 2005 that the Palestinians chose a leader that most Israelis could stomach, if not exactly admire. And they had to settle for Arik Sharon, the butcher of Beirut, carrying out the withdrawal from Gaza later that year.

No wonder that many liberals were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Bibi Netanyahu and hope that he had reformed since his first premiership in the late 1990s. In American history anti-slavery liberals faced a similar dilemma. Stephen A. Douglas in December 1857 had split the Democrats by opposing President James Buchanan in calling for new elections in Kansas before statehood was granted. Douglas was the champion of the 1850s version of pro-choice--he believed that local whites should determine whether or not a territory should be free or slave. Anti-slavery Republicans on the East Coast wanted  to give Douglas  a free shot at reelecction because of the trouble he could cause among the Democrats. The leader of their party in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, wanted to run a vigorous campaign for the state legislature and be elected by that body as the U.S. senator from Illinois. Lincoln gave his famous "house divided" speech and argued that a live dog was better than a dead lion. Douglas was the dead lion because any feeling for the slave as a human being was dead in his heart. Lincoln modestly placed himself in the role of the live dog.

David Remnick of the New Yorker magazine has argued that Netanyahu is the equivalent of the dead lion, without actually using that metaphor. Today for liberals in Israel the equivalent of William Seward in the 1850s and Lincoln in the 1860s is Tzipi Livni of Kadima. She may be flawed but she is the best that they are going to get for some time. Now she just has to convince Israelis to trust her and to trust the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

1 comment:

  1. It's sad that any nation's people still must settle for a lesser of evils scenario. Lot's of interesting information here Tom. Where can I find more information on the pro-choice of the 1850's, as you put it, about whites having the right to decide the stance on slavery in their state?