Op-Ed Columnist

If Not Now, When?

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Published: October 17, 2013 76 Comments

LONDON — It is possible to imagine a scenario more favorable to Israel than the current one, but it is not easy.

Roger Cohen

Syria is giving up its chemical weapons. In the civil war there, Hezbollah and Iran are bleeding. The Egyptian Army has ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, restored a trusted interlocutor for Israel, and embarked on a squeeze of Hamas in Gaza. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has overstretched; the glow is off his aggressive stand for Palestine.

Saudi Arabia is furious with President Obama over his policies toward Egypt, Syria and Iran. It has scant anger left for Israel. Sunni-Shiite enmity, played out in a Syrian conflict that could make the 30-year religious war in Europe seem short, feels more venomous today than the old story of Arabs and Jews. The power and prosperity of Israel have seldom, if ever, looked more sustainable in its 65-year history.

Of course things can change in the Middle East — of late very fast — but if Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is inclined to take risks from strength, the present looks propitious. As he wrote in an open letter to Israelis in July, “We have built a wonderful country and turned it into one of the world’s most prosperous, advanced and powerful countries.”

This is true. Israel is a miracle of innovation and development. Tel Aviv, at once sensual and vibrant, is a boom town. Go there and smile.

For almost three months now Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating peace in U.S.-brokered talks. They have been doing so in such quiet that the previous sentence may seem startling. Nobody is leaking. Because expectations are low, spoilers are quiescent. There is a feeling nobody opposed to a resolution need lift a finger because the talks will fail all on their own. This is good. Absent discretion, diplomacy dies.

Ample cause exists for skepticism. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, insists that not one Israeli soldier will be allowed in Palestine; Netanyahu wants Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley for decades. There are hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank with no plans to go anywhere. Several members of the Israeli government scoff at the notion of Palestine; Netanyahu has become a liberal Likudnik, of all things. The Palestinian national movement is split, incitement against Israel continues, and the idea of a two-state outcome is losing favor. All this before Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return are even broached.

Still, with scarcely a murmur, the talks continue. They are almost a third of the way into the allotted nine months. Well before that time is up, the two sides’ final positions will have become clear. There will be gaps. That will be the moment for the United States to step forward with its take-it-or-leave-it bridging proposal. That will be the time of the leaders — Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama — and the test of their readiness for risk in the name of a peace that can only come with painful concessions.

Israel is strong today for many reasons. A core one is the resilience and stability of its democratic institutions. There is, however, a risk to this: No democracy can be immune to running an undemocratic system of oppression in territory under its control.

To have citizens on one side of an invisible line and disenfranchised subjects without rights on the other side does not work. It is corrosive. A democracy needs borders. It cannot slither into military rule for Palestinians in occupied West Bank areas where state-subsidized settler Jews have the right to vote as if within Israel. If Israel is to remain a Jewish and democratic state — and it must — something has to give. Netanyahu knows this.

Palestinians must also make painful choices. They are weak, Israel is strong — and getting stronger. The world is never going back to 1948.

In Jerusalem’s Old City I was walking this year down from the Damascus Gate. Crowds of Palestinians were pouring out of a Friday service at the Al Aqsa Mosque. A large group of Orthodox Jews was moving in the opposite direction, toward the Western Wall. Into this Muslim-Jewish melee, out of the Via Dolorosa, a cluster of Christians emerged carrying a large wooden cross they tried to navigate through the crowd. It was a scene of despair for anyone convinced faiths and peoples can be disentangled in the Holy Land. Looked at another way it was a scene of hope, even mirth.

Netanyahu has recently taken to quoting Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Of course it was Hillel who said: “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, the rest is just commentary.”

And Netanyahu’s chosen quote, in this time of strength, ends with four words he has omitted: “If not now, when?”



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