Exit Olmert: The lessons of Rabin for the next Israeli leader.
One morning back in 1975, I sat in the office of Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and listened to him tell stories. I had asked him about Israel's policies on the Palestinian issue. His response was characteristically edged and allusive.
The first story: There was once a Jew who was tutor to the children of a Hungarian nobleman. One day, the nobleman said to him: "Jew, you are such a fine tutor that I give you a great honor. You will teach my horse to read. I am sure you will succeed, but I warn that if you do not, I will have you killed."
The Jew replied calmly: "That is indeed an honor, excellency, but I will need a year."
"Agreed," said the nobleman.
That night, the Jew's wife was distraught. "We are doomed," she cried. "Calm yourself, my dear," said the Jew. "I have a year. And in that year, who knows? The horse may die, the nobleman may die, I may die."
The second story: Two hunters were tracking a deer in thick brush. They shot it, and began to drag it back to their pickup. But its antlers kept catching in the brush. Finally one hunter said: "Why don't we drag it the other way. Then its antlers will part the brush rather than catching in it." So they did. "See," the hunter said after a time, "I told you it would be easier this way."
"Yes," said the other, "but aren't we getting a long way from the pick-up?"
To grasp Israel's response to the challenge of the Palestinians, Rabin said, I needed only to understand those two tales.
News that Israel is shedding yet another government—its eleventh since Rabin's lesson that morning in Jerusalem—brings those stories back to mind. As he departs, Ehud Olmert is yet another Israeli leader who grasped, too late in his career, that a political settlement with the Palestinians is essential to Israel's hopes.
Rabin saw the issue more starkly. A settlement with the Palestinians, he believed, was vital to Israel's survival. Rabin was a great warrior. In 1948 he led the brigade that fought its bloody way up that winding road into Jerusalem. In 1967, he masterminded Israel's epic victory over the Arabs in the Six-Day War—a victory Rabin saw in retrospect as disastrous in its scope. Rabin's credentials as a defender of Israel were unsurpassed. But like Moshe Dayan, that other great warrior of Israel's founding days, Rabin had come to believe that military victories could not secure Israel's future. Only a political settlement with the Palestinians could do that. So in September 1993, Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Rabin loathed and distrusted Arafat. But he saw Oslo, with its blueprint for an eventual two-state solution to the conflict, as the best hope for Israel. For this Rabin was assassinated by a young zealot who, like many Israelis, regarded the accords as a betrayal of the country's right to the West Bank.
Every Israeli government since then has observed the lessons of Rabin's two stories. They've cast about for some expedient to buy time—time to stave off the agonizing re-think inevitable in any agreement with the Palestinians (a wall; the ghettoes of Gaza and a fragmented West Bank). They've repulsed intermittent American pressure with successive promises, always broken, to halt the spread of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. They've fitfully searched for acceptable Palestinian interlocutors—acceptable being, in practice, defined as Palestinians who would accede to most of Israel's demands. (Israel's covert role in the rise of Islamist Palestinian factions like Hamas—initially seen by Israel as useful counter-weights to the "Marxist" PLO—will someday be a fruitful topic for a brave historian.)
Some Israeli governments, ignoring the battle-won insights of Rabin and Dayan, have put their faith in military might. The strategy that the neocons in Washington pressed upon President Bush had its roots in the notion that Israel (or the United States) could use its military superiority to impose unilateral solutions upon the Arabs. The long hemorrhage of Israel's occupation of Lebanon (1982-2000) and the bloodying of the Israeli army at the hands of Hezbollah in 2006 have discredited that strategy for Israel—much as the debacle of Iraq has exploded the neocons' prescription for American foreign policy.
Now yet another Israeli government departs, having failed in the basic task of any government: to bring security. What awaits Israel now?
Northern Ireland, and its thirty-year civil war (1968-1997), invites gloomy forebodings. Northern Ireland and Israel were twins from birth, both invented by the same man, Winston Churchill, at roughly the same time. Both states featured an immigrant settler population given license to rule indigenous people of a different faith. Both proved adept in beating back insurgencies whose base lay beyond their borders. What doomed the Protestant supremacy in Northern Ireland were the demands of the Catholics within Northern Ireland—a rising middle-class—for civil rights within the society. The Protestants saw this, accurately, as a challenge to the survival of Northern Ireland as an enclave for their faith, and elected to beat down the civil-rights movement as subversive. With the province on the brink of a bloodbath, the British Army had to intervene in 1969. Thirty years of bloodshed followed, until a settlement—always inevitable, still precarious—turned Protestant Northern Ireland into a bi-cultural state.
Israel surely faces the same agony. The real "threat" to Israel is not the insurgencies along its borders. It is the quite inevitable demand of the Arabs living within Israel for full equality in civil and political rights. Arabs, broadly defined, comprise 20 percent of Israel's population. Already they are a majority in Galilee to the north, and in much of the Negev to the south. Multiple surveys attest that their allegiance to the state has been fractured by Israel's suppression of the successive intifadas. Demographic projections are notoriously tricky, but Israel faces the prospect of something close to an Arab majority within Israel by its centenary year, 2048. That is the real challenge to a Jewish state. Everyone in Israel knows this. But Israel's fragmented political structure blocks movement to a settlement. Meanwhile, power in the Palestinian community slides inexorably toward the extremes; and the departing Olmert warns Israelis themselves that "an evil wind of extremism, of hatred, of malice, of violence...threatens Israel's democracy."
Northern Ireland's Protestant rulers—the shrewdest of them, at any rate—saw the gathering storm. But, like Israel's leaders since Rabin, they for the most part chose to temporize. One who didn't was Terence O'Neill, who as prime minister of Northern Ireland in the 1960s tried to push through a new political settlement. His efforts, like Rabin's, were met with violence—by die-hard supporters of Protestant rule forever. But O'Neill was luckier than Rabin: he was overthrown, but lived. I recall a conversation with O'Neill in his retirement. "We all knew what had to be done," he said. "But the politics were always too difficult." This was in 1971—the civil war in Northern Ireland was gathering momentum. "A generation ago, we might have resolved our differences without too much violence," O'Neill said. "Now, I think blood will determine the outcome."