June 26, 2008
Thriving on the edge
Is there any hope for peace in Israel? Are things getting better or worse? Does war and conflict dominate Israeli consciousness? After spending a week in the Holy Land with very little sleep and lots of Turkish coffee, talking to bright people from the left to the right, I can report with absolute certainty that I have no idea.
This is true conflict -- not being able to reach clear and coherent conclusions.
It's what happens when you meet very smart people with very different worldviews.
Let's start with Rabbi Michael Melchior, head of the dovish Meimad Party. This is the original man from hope. Over several coffees late one night in the lounge of the David Citadel Hotel, Melchior riffed on the importance of introducing spiritual values and a common God when trying to find common ground with our enemies. He spoke of numerous encounters he's had over the years with religious and political Muslim leaders, and how the picture is not as dark, or black and white, as it often seems.
He senses a growing (if grudging) tolerance of the Jewish presence among some of Israel's bitterest enemies, including Hamas. He is by no means naïve or a pacifist; he repeated to me several times that "even one rocket on Sderot is unacceptable." But he asked a tough question on the day the controversial cease-fire with Hamas was announced: "Why is it so bad that there is now hope that bombs will stop falling? We could have gone in and lost a hundred soldiers and achieved the same armistice we are getting now."
The next morning, before my first coffee, I heard a withering rebuttal from Caroline Glick, the Jerusalem Post columnist with an intense following in right-wing circles who had just published a column, "Israel's Darkest Week."
Glick, who showed up for breakfast with a lingering cold, has a crystal-clear worldview. The enemy's primary and enduring interest is Israel's destruction; hence, it must be defeated. Israel is run by "corrupt and incompetent wimps" who prefer half-baked measures to decisive action, a weakness that has emboldened our enemies. She believes that real peace will only come after military victory.
She considers the Gaza cease-fire a disaster because it legitimizes and strengthens a terrorist entity, which in the end will result in a greater loss of Jewish lives.
Glick's real genius lies in her deep knowledge of geopolitics. In her new book, "Shackled Warrior: Israel and the Global Jihad" (Gefen) she argues that Israel is fighting an existential war with both hands tied behind its back, and she elucidates as well as any political analyst the rationale for her uncompromising views. If Glick were one of those right-wing crazies whose favorite punctuation mark is the exclamation point, she wouldn't be taken so seriously. But she's an articulate and hard-nosed analyst who has little patience for mushy optimism and who believes Israel is on the front line of a global war against radical Islam.
I got yet another worldview when I visited the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and sat down with historian and best-selling author Michael Oren.
Shalem is one of those powerhouses where you walk down the halls and bump into people like Nathan Sharansky (which I did), Yossi Klein Halevy or any number of deep Zionist thinkers. Michael fits right into this world. When I entered his office, he mentioned that he'd been up late the night before finishing an editorial for the Wall Street Journal titled "Israel's Truce With Hamas Is a Victory for Iran."
Oren's conclusion was similar to Glick's on the cease-fire, but the more I spoke with him, the more I noticed the nuance in his views. He recalled a meeting he had recently with American Army generals, who, at the end of the meeting, asked him: "So what's the solution?"
To which he answered: "Solution? Since when are there solutions in the Middle East?"
Oren doesn't believe the Palestinians are ready or able to sustain a sovereign state, and he harbors no illusions as to their acceptance of a Jewish state, but he's highly informed about the military and is anything but cavalier when talking about potential military solutions.
He melds the finesse of Melchior with the no-nonsense quality of Glick. He sees the Palestinian conflict as requiring careful managing, rather than a desperate search for a fix, and he'll take Israel's problems any day of the week over the Palestinians' privileged position as the world's most coddled victims.
Like I said, smart people, different worldviews. The funny thing is, while I personally lean to the Glick view, I found myself nodding enthusiastically to all the views I heard, even to the dovish and soulful optimism of Melchior. Maybe it was the caffeine overdose.
Whatever it was, it took a pre-wedding reception in Tel Aviv, of all places, for me to hear something that brought it all home.
My friend Gidi Grinstein of the Re'ut Institute was asked to say a few words in honor of the bride and groom: Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who was marrying an Australian television personality. In front of a crowd that included many first-time, non-Jewish Australian visitors to Israel, Grinstein spoke of the miracle of the little Jewish state; how Israel has managed to succeed beyond all expectations despite being surrounded by existential threats -- and he concluded with a simple but powerful idea.
Israel thrives on the edge.
Amid the chaos of living a life of never-ending conflict, Grinstein explained, Israel has developed the resourcefulness and unique skills one can only develop when living on the edge. These skills have fueled Israel's ability to thrive under any circumstances.
He could have added that maybe another skill of thriving on the edge is having very smart people with very different worldviews.