The Spine

Roger Cohen Vs. Bernard Lewis

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There was an inadvertent debate this morning between two op-ed pieces: one in the New York Times by Roger Cohen (he, of the priestly caste among the Jews); the other in the Wall Street Journal by Bernard Lewis (a scholar of titanic stature but a Jew as ordinary as the rest of us Israelites).  The two essays of roughly a thousand words each appear to be addressed to the outcome of tomorrow's conference at Annapolis.  They are not.  They are different ways of reading history...or, of one of them, not reading history at all. Cohen's article is plainly titled, "Bush's Best Hope." But it is nowhere as prosaic as that.  He gives over most of his words to what Salaam Fayyad, "the can-do face of the Palestinian movement" and its relatively fresh prime minister, says.  This is bad news for Mohammed Abbas, the man in whom we were supposed to invest our hopes.   Abbas's already designated successor is civilized, presumably well-educated at the University of Texas and experienced in high economics from the work he did at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as its representative to the Palestinian Authority.  What does Fayyad want?  Cohen endorses his interlocutor's formula: "Fayyad is right.  A return to the 1967 lines, plus or minus agreed swaps, is the only basis for a two-state accord." "Convince Israel that its long-tern security lies in compromise."  "Bush must tell Israel it's strong enough to bet on Fayyad's vision of co-existence."  This last line is the most preposterous in the entire article.  Israel must bet on Fayyad's vision of co-existence?  And what if that bet turns out bad?  Doesn't Israel's prior dealings with the Palestinians indicate that this bet might actually be folly? Bet?  Is Cohen nuts?  Does he really want Israel to give up the West Bank on the wager that rockets will not be aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as they are -- daily -- from Gaza onto Sderot?  Cohen cites Fayyad In a non-sequitur:  "Last year more than 50,000 Palestinians emigrated.  How is that consistent with ending the occupation?"   I don't whether it is consistent or inconsistent.  But I suspect that most of these Palestinians migrated out because they were sick of living under the brutal delusions of the Palestinian movement.  Yes, "the Palestinians are desperate because they are at a dead end."  But the dead end is down the road their leaders took them and where they went with delirium."Israel's desperation is quieter," Cohen writes. "The economy has blossomed, but not the Israeli soul."  That damned Israeli soul that so many of Israel's friends worry about.  Actually, my observation is that the Israeli soul is in quite good shape, given the surrounding circumstances.  The Israelis have built a society that is democratic, open, scientifically rich, artistically perhaps even richer, a light unto its neighbors if they would only look.  But the Israelis don't especially desire to be a light unto the nations or their neighbors. Now comes the grievance from the Jews whom Israel has not consoled or conciliated.  Judt, Boyarin, Steiner...et al.  "Jewish precariousness persists," whines Cohen, as if this is due to Israel or to Zionism.  Myself, I don't believe that the Jewish situation is so perilous.  And then, Cohen comes with the coup de grace.  "The diaspora Jews did not go to Zion to build the Jew among the nations." This pretense of tragic wisdom borders on the simply stupid.  Does Roger Cohen, a high priest among the Israelites, really not know that fully half of the Jews in the world now live in Zion?  That half of the Jews in the world speak Hebrew as their mother tongue?  Who were those who went other than Jews of the Diaspora?  These achievements -- and perhaps especially the revival and remaking of an ancient tongue into both the lingua franca of a people and the carrier of its poetry and high arts -- are either a miracle or the one truly successful revolution in modern times.  As I wrote  fully a decade ago, "The God that Did Not Fail." "Israel is powerful, but Palestinian humiliation is an Israeli and Jewish nightmare.  I feel it; many American Jews feel it.  This is not what David Ben Gurion had in mind..." There you have the personal agony and the attempt to make it collective.  Cohen links himself to Ben Gurion but he has not even peeked into Ben Gurion's writings.  BG was no Pollyanna.  His Zionism was like that of Herzl who fought for the time when all Jews could be assured of dying in their own beds.  That is what is not yet fulfilled.  And it is not the fault of the Zionists.So we come to the WSJ and its little essay by Bernard Lewis, "On the Jewish Question,"  a not so subtle but ironic allusion to Marx.  "The first question (one might think it is obvious but apparently not) is 'What is the conflict about?'  There are basically two possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its existence."  The syllogism is not all that complicated.  Here it is in two paragraphs:

If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have
a straightforward border problem, like Alsace-Lorraine or Texas. That
is to say, not easy, but possible to solve in the long run, and to live
with in the meantime.

If, on the other hand, the issue is the existence of
Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no
compromise position between existing and not existing, and no
conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that
country should or should not exist....

Without genuine acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish
State, as the more than 20 members of the Arab League exist as Arab
States, or the much larger number of members of the Organization of the
Islamic Conference exist as Islamic states, peace cannot be negotiated.

Don't bet that you can.

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