David Grossman is a perfect example of an artist who has a better political mind than the leaders of his nation. In a column he wrote for Haaretz, he showed that he has a far more deft strategic approach than anyone in Israeli politics today. So many of Israel’s decent politicians (Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Avrum Burg and Yossi Beilin to name a few) have left the field to the true incompetents and worse; that it’s not hard to be head and shoulders above this lot. As Zeev Sternhell wrote so cogently in today’s Haaretz:
Peres the deserter [of Labor], who became president…taught the average Israeli not only that politics is a realm to avoid if you want to save your soul, but that political life is nothing but a web of fraud – without ideology, principles and truth.
But Grossman’s column is truly forthright and clear-thinking. Instead of merely negotiating for Gilad Shalit’s release, he says, let’s think bigger and try to resolve the entire Gaza mess by demanding a total end of terror (including rocket) attacks from Gaza in return for an end to the siege and the release of Shalit. There are of course two reasons this will never happen. First, it is entirely too candid and reasonable an assessment and Israeli politics these days shuns reason and candor like the plague. Second, such a negotiation would involve a tacit recognition of Hamas as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians. One of the fundamental components of Israeli policy is that Hamas may never, ever be viewed as legitimate or acceptable for any purpose. It matters little that this belief flies in the face of Palestinian reality. Much of Israeli policy (cf. Iran) flies in the face of reality.
Grossman notes a particularly telling result of the Mavi Marmara fiasco as representative of similar failures of Israeli policy:
For years Israel has presented an inflexible, tight-fisted and unilateral position. It has increasingly flexed its muscles and declared that it will not concede an inch until suddenly, sometimes within a day, the situation is completely reversed. The ground − or the sea − shifts under its feet, and Israel is forced to concede totally, far more than it would have conceded in negotiations (and of course then it also receives a smaller return for its concessions).And even in the painful and frustrating issue of Gilad Shalit it looks as though things are heading that way. But maybe this time, with both sides trapped in their positions and no solution on the horizon, we will dare to expand our point of view, to release ourselves from the usual conditions and determine the momentum and its scale on our own initiative (ha, a forgotten word!).
Here is where Grossman proves his strategic thinking by jettisoning conventional Israeli attitudes toward Hamas and posing an alternate take on what could happen if Israel pursues his course of action:
Perhaps − as in the siege of Gaza − it will turn out that for years we have been fed clichés that do not conform to all the nuances and possibilities of the situation. And perhaps it will turn out that negotiations with Hamas toward some kind of agreement will actually spur the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to hasten the peace process with Israel. And perhaps there will be a dynamic that will set into motion a process of reconciliation between the two mutually hostile parts of the Palestinian people, a process without which no stable peace agreement will be achieved, not even with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his people.
Of course, the premise of the last sentence presumes that this is what the Netanyahu government wants–a stable peace agreement. That is highly debatable. Though one could say that it is likely this is what most Israelis want even if the leaders they choose do not.
In a Haaretz editorial which expanded on Grossman’s themes, the editorial writer revealed one of those rare instances in which the IDF’s senior leadership actually came up with an excellent strategic challenge which could have broken the Israel-Hamas logjam:
A few days after the [Shalit] abduction and the failure…to locate and rescue the soldier, astute voices from the top ranks of the Israel Defense Forces reached the conclusion that if Shalit was to be brought back, a new policy was necessary. These voices, which apparently reflected the position of GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant and then chief of staff Dan Halutz, sought to recognize the reality that had been created in Gaza following the Hamas victory in the PA elections four months earlier, and the establishment of the Ismail Haniyeh government (Hamas’ violent takeover of the Strip only took place in June 2007 ).
The IDF wanted to pose the following option to Hamas: Preserve your rule of power or continue your violent struggle against Israel. A proposal to seek a broad agreement on Israel-Hamas relations was drafted – which was to include a cease-fire, an end to terrorist attacks and the launching of Qassam rockets, an end to efforts to acquire more weapons for use against Israel and the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. A report on this attitude held by the IDF, published by Haaretz, angered then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, who opposed a prisoner exchange deal. He shelved the idea and subsequently rejected similar ones raised during Operation Cast Lead.
Thank you, Ehud Olmert, who seems never to have missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Returning to Grossman’s column, here is more wisdom from Israel’s literary seer:
…For several years Israel has been trapped in a paralysis that is gradually slowing it down, to the point where anyone with eyes in his head identifies apathy and helplessness and even a dwindling of the healthy life instinct. That is the real danger to Israel, and it is far more destructive than all the dangers of Hamas.
…The traditional tendency of Israeli leaders to find reasons and excuses for inactivity, and their inability to distinguish between real and imagined problems and real and imagined dangers, cause Israel to say an absolute and sweeping “no” to all of reality, and to the very small opportunities that crop up occasionally. This stubborn refusal is already beyond our means. In simple terms of survival we cannot afford it. And what else has to happen to shake us up and lift the siege that we have been imposing on ourselves for so many years?
If only Grossman were prime minister instead of the sorry soul who currently occupies that office. In a way, it’s the story of Zionism writ large. It was always the deep, daring moral thinkers (Ahad Ha-Am, Buber, Magnes, Yeshaia Leibowitz), and not necessarily the political hondlers (Ben Gurion, Peres, etc.), who had the best, most sweeping vision about how to realize the Zionist dream in a way that met the “other” half way. But these ‘luftmenschen‘ were tactically outmaneuvered by the pols, who left the former in the dust to the detriment of Israel.
So it will be again with Grossman’s wise words. They will go forth into the ether and be absorbed by a few of us and then disappear. They will be the still, small voice that no one particularly wants to hear.
A final word in closing. Not everything in this essay is praiseworthy. Like most Israeli liberals, Grossman is held back by a demonizing attitude toward Hamas and by an inability to free himself from certain immovable liberal Zionist obstacles like the Right of Return. But I’ll take it as a bold expression of a major Israeli voice which deserves amplification.
Thanks to Jerry Haber for pointing me to Grossman’s essay.