Profiles in ‘courage’ for today’s Israel

A new book argues for bold action

When an analogy doesn't fit, it's like building a house on an unstable foundation.

Using historical analogies to set public policy is especially fraught. The phrases "avoiding another Vietnam" or a "Munich-like appeasement" are invoked to influence current debates with little actual relevance to either phrase. Today, Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear facility and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are both cited to make opposing arguments about bombing Iran's nuclear facilities.

But some historical analogies can provide useful navigation to today's issues. A new book, Be Strong and of Good Courage , by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky-scholars, and participants in Middle East peace negotiations-demonstrates the technique's utility. They offer four historical analogies as precedents to encourage Israel's next prime minister to take decisive action in the West Bank.

Enhanced by recently declassified materials, the book tells the familiar and still fascinating stories of monumental decisions made by four Israeli Prime Ministers: David Ben-Gurion's declaring independence knowing it will spark war; Menachem Begin's relinquishing the Sinai; Yitzhak Rabin's participating in the Oslo Accords; and Ariel Sharon's disengaging from Gaza.

At pivotal moments, when the easier course was to not act, those four prime ministers took extraordinary action-opinion polls and their own previous positions be damned. Ross and Makovsky argue that the dilemmas Israel faces today in the West Bank requires similarly monumental, heart-wrenching decisions. Hence, the book's title is a plea from Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:6 to Israel's next government: "be strong and of good courage."

The authors realize that courage is needed to forthrightly address Israel's control of West Bank territory, in which three million Palestinians live. That status quo challenges two essential Israeli ideals: 1) Israel is a democracy in which people vote, and; 2) Israel has a Jewish majority.  Keeping control of the West Bank and all of its inhabitants belies ideal #1, while annexing the territory and extending the vote to Palestinians threatens ideal #2.

Ariel Sharon (amidst the Gaza disengagement) is approvingly quoted citing Ben-Gurion: "…[if] we conquer all of Eretz Israel …We will be a single state. But the state will want to be democratic… and we will be a minority…. When the choice before us was all of Eretz Israel but no Jewish state, or a Jewish state but not all of Eretz Israel, we chose a Jewish state."

Ross and Makovsky are not cavalier about Israel's security. They have been firsthand witnesses to Palestinian terrorism and diplomatic shenanigans. They argue that waiting for the ideal Palestinian peace partner and geopolitics constitutes dangerous inaction; the ever-ticking clocks of the demographic timebomb (Palestinian birthrates) and international pressure against the occupation are not Israel's allies.

In Zionism's genetic code is bold action, they argue, not settling for the status quo. Being passive, seemingly directionless, is risky, and not representative of Israel's greatest leaders. The authors aren't against Israel taking unilateral action to achieve a peaceful, secure separation from the Palestinians, including annexing those Jewish settlements widely recognized to remain part of Israel in any conceivable peace deal. They do however urge that such steps be taken in consultation with the U.S. The four historical case studies demonstrate the costs to Israel of not being in synch with the White House, and the dividends when they are.  

Historians, policymakers, students of the Middle East, and supporters of Israel of all stripes should ponder the book's thesis. Especially helpful for historians are the book's 783 footnotes dotting its 300 pages. Yet one assertion curiously lacked a citation: "The deaths of Israeli civilians in these [1978 terror] events drew no real sympathy from [President] Carter."

If you defend the status quo on the West Bank, this book presents the arguments you must reckon with. If you worry about the status quo, this is your playbook.

Like Cassandra of Greek mythology, the book's authors alert others to dangers they see clearly. Given the futility of Cassandra's warnings, Ross and Makovsky hope the fraught analogy ends there.

Jay Tcath is JUF's Executive Vice President.

 



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