Saturday, November 15, 2008
An Israeli Obama?
The victory of the American Obama may well give a big push to the emergence of an Israeli Obama
by Uri Avnery
It seems at the moment, the incredible will happen: the most important "white" country in the world will elect a black president.
143 years after the assassination of Abe Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves, and 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the dreamer of the Dream, a black family will occupy the White House.
This will have huge implications in many directions. One of them is an electrifying message to a world-wide order to which I belong: the Order of the Optimists.
How does an optimist differ from a realist? My definition is: a realist sees reality as it is. An optimist sees reality as it could be.
Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist thinker, believed in "the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will." I disagree. True, for anyone versed in world history it is easy to be a pessimist, but for each pessimistic lesson there is an optimistic one (and vice versa, unfortunately).
A year before the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler, few believed it to be possible. But it did happen, and a dark chapter began on the pages of world history. On the other hand, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, practically nobody believed that it would happen in their lifetime.
At the beginning of 1947, hardly anyone believed that within a year the State of Israel would come into being. At the same time, also at the beginning of 1947, practically nobody imagined that a Naqba (disaster) would befall the Palestinians. But it happened.
David Ben-Gurion used to say that all experts are experts on what has happened, not what is going to happen. That is not entirely true. Science fiction writers have predicted many things. And in this country, too, there have been some prophets of doom who warned about what would happen to Israel if it proceeded in the direction it was moving. But in principle it is true: experts analyze the existing situation and tend to extrapolate from it into the future. But the future is made by human beings, who are never entirely predictable.
In a world in which a person like Barack Hussein Obama can appear from nowhere and advance within a few years to the highest levels of world politics - nothing is predictable, and therefore everything is possible. As the ancient Jewish maxim goes: "Everything is possible and permission is granted."
For all the optimists of the world, the message of these elections is: Yes, we can! And if we want it, as Herzl said, it is no fairy tale.
That reminds me of the German, the Frenchman, the Englishman and the Jew who decided to write about elephants. The German goes to Africa, returns after ten years and composes a five-volume tome: "A Foreword to a General Introduction to the Origins of the African Elephant". The Frenchman comes back after half a year and writes a slim and elegant volume: "The Love Life of Elephants". The Englishman returns after a week and produces a booklet: "How to Hunt Elephants". The Jew stays at home and writes an essay about "the Elephant and the Jewish Question".
During the last few weeks, the Jews in America and in Israel have been asking: Is He Good For The Jews?
One contribution to the answer was provided by the American citizens in Israel who have already voted. According to press reports, almost all of them are Jews, most of them are Orthodox and most of them voted for John McCain.
Official Israel has been hard put to hide its fear of Obama. A black man. A man whose grandfather was a Muslim. Whose middle name is Hussein. An unknown quantity. Frightening.
Obama, on his part, has gone out of his way to show that he would support the Israeli government exactly as his predecessors have. He groveled in the dust before AIPAC. He surrounded himself with Bill Clinton's Jewish aides and hinted that they would enjoy the same status in his future administration. But go and believe a candidate's election promises. They are worth as much as a garlic's skin, as we say in Hebrew.
Some people do believe in promises. I have received an e-mail message from a British person: "So instead of the Jewish neo-cons who have ruled Washington we shall get the Jewish Zionists who ruled there under Clinton. What's the bloody diff?"
But official Israel is full of angst. The public TV channel has spread pro-McCain propaganda quite openly (while on commercial Channel 10, the commentator Nitzan Horowitz exuberantly supported Obama.) A senior official leaked to Haaretz that Nicholas Sarkozy had privately warned of the frightening inexperience of Obama - a story (whether true or false) designed to provide the McCain campaign with live ammunition in its fight for the Jewish vote in Florida. In a scandalous gesture, the right-wing Israeli ambassador in Washington, Salai Meridor, travelled to a remote town to meet Sarah Palin (of all people!).
So, is he "Good For Israel"? In the old Jewish way, this question must be answered with another question: "For which Israel?" There is more than one Israel, as there is more than one USA.
George W. Bush, our devoted friend, betrayed his "vision" and gave Ariel Sharon an all-encompassing permit to enlarge the settlement blocs, each of which is a deadly landmine on the road to peace. He hindered Israel from making peace with Syria, which he added to the "Axis of Evil". His invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq gave an immense push to the anti-Israel Muslim fundamentalists, to the creeping domination of Lebanon by Hizbullah and to the strengthening of Hamas in Palestine. No wonder Osama Bin-Laden prays for a McCain victory. (Perhaps that's the only hope left to McCain.)
Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, another great friend of Israel, helped Ehud Barak after Camp David to spread the lie that "I have turned every stone, offered them everything they wanted, Arafat has rejected all my generous offers, we have no partner for peace."
This mantra dealt a tremendous blow to the Israeli peace camp, from which it has not recovered to this day. At the same time the settlements were being enlarged at a frantic pace, with the knowledge and tacit approval of the Clinton administration. And no wonder: under Clinton, all matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were in the hands of a group of Jewish Zionists. There was not a single Arab around.
There are those who reassure the Obama-fearers in Jerusalem. Even if he wants to change things, they say, he won't be able to. The supporters of (official) Israel dominate the Democratic Party, which enjoys the support and the generous donations of the Jewish voters even in these elections. The supporters of (official) Israel will dominate the next Congress, as they did the last. As in the past, a politician who supports Israel by only 100%, instead of 110%, will be committing political Harakiri.
This is all true, but still I dare to hope that Obama will be revealed as a friend of the Other Israel, the Israel that seeks peace.
He promises change. I believe that for him this is not an empty phrase, but something more profound that is rooted in his character.
The thing that is going to happen this week is not just another transition from one party to another party, when the difference between the two is minimal. The new arrival is a person who has the ability, and seemingly also the will, to get things out of the rut and look at everything with new eyes.
That happens from time to time in the United States, which in this respect is superior to other democracies, and especially ours. A new person comes to power and, like the turn of a kaleidoscope, everything looks different.
As far as the national interests of the U.S. are concerned, the "larger Middle East" is not a secondary theater. It is one of the most important, and the new administration will have to deal with it right from the beginning. This is also the theater where the catastrophic failures of Bush are the most obvious.
When Obama and his people - and I hope that they will be new people, not the wrecks from the Clinton era - examine this subject, they will be compelled to arrive at a self-evident conclusion: that the hatred for the U.S. that is boiling from Morocco to Pakistan is inextricably bound up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is what has poisoned all the wells. This conclusion was already made clear in the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton report, which Bush has thrown into the wastebasket.
This conclusion leads to another one: that it is in the American interest to turn over a new page in our region and to really work for an Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Syrian, Israeli-all-Arab and perhaps even Israeli-Iranian peace. This conclusion was apparent already on the morrow of 9/11. I wrote at the time that this was going to happen, any minute now, as the inevitable lesson from the disaster. I was wrong. Bush and the Bushites went in the opposite direction, and made the situation ten times worse. I hope that it will happen now.
In other words: I hope with all my heart that Obama will continue to support Israel, but not the Israel of the bullies, the impostors and the hypocrites, who pretend to be negotiating for peace while enlarging the settlements, tightening the oppression in the occupied territories and blabbering about bombing Iran. It is not this Israel that should be supported by the next president, but the Israel that is ready for peace, prepared to pay the price for peace and crying out for an American administration that will give the decisive push to the initiative.
Obama's advisers may answer with a question: OK, but where is the Israeli leadership that will respond to such an initiative?
Where is the Israeli Obama?
We can respond to that only with embarrassed silence. We cannot point to anyone in the Israeli political arena who is ready to take on this task.
But an optimist will give another answer: only yesterday you did not have an Obama either. He appeared, because something happened deep down in the "national psyche" of the United States. There was an expectation and there was a longing for a person who would speak the language of hope, audacity, change. And when he appeared, the indifferent public rose and followed him enthusiastically. All the more so because the situation was bad and it was clear that the old road just leads to worse.
That can happen here, too. Our Obama can appear suddenly when there is a demand for him. When people get finally fed up with all those politicians, devoid of vision and courage, who pack our stage today. When the demand for change is so strong that it passes from the phase of griping at Sabbath-eve parties to the phase of mobilization and deeds. Then it will become clear that we, too, have a young generation and that our indifferent public can change radically.
The victory of the American Obama may well give a big push to the emergence of an Israeli Obama, hopefully as charming as the original. The victory in America should mean for us, paraphrasing a Hebrew poet: If there is an Israeli Obama, let him appear at once!
Uri Avnery, an Israeli writer and peace activist, founded the Gush Shalom movement. He has served three terms as an MP at the Knesset. This article appeared on the Aljazeera magazine on 5 November 2008.