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Israel at 60 Essay from Michael Walzer

Walzer is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and one of the foremost political thinkers

May, 2008

Over many years, Western Liberals and Leftists have not had great success at foreign policy. Their strength lies at home, and many of them probably believe that the best foreign policy is a democratic and egalitarian domestic policy. I wish that my friends in Israel could be good liberals and leftists in this old fashioned way. I wish that they could focus their energies over the next decades on reducing the inequalities of Israeli society, improving the quality of state education, separating religion and politics, addressing the rift between Israeli Jews and Arabs, facing up to environmental problems. Surely some of them will work on these and other internal issues some of the time, and so they should. But the hard truth is that the major challenge facing Israel at 60 won't be solved even by the best imaginable domestic policy.

The major challenge, as everyone knows, has to do with war and peace-but also, more specifically, given Hezbollah rocketry in the summer of 2006 and the daily rocketing of Sderot, it has to do with physical security. Israel is immensely strong and immensely vulnerable, and that combination is very hard to think about. The strength is military, economic, political, and moral-and it is (as I remember 1948) the totally unexpected achievement of these last sixty years. But the vulnerability is also, in part, an Israeli achievement-the consequence of the misused triumph of 1967, of the occupation and settlement policies that followed, and of the failure to find Palestinian partners for a two state solution.

Are there partners now- Palestinian leaders genuinely interested in permanent coexistence, who are also capable of enforcing whatever agreement they reach? That's not an argument that I can join, sitting here in New Jersey. The risk of a Palestinian state taken over by religious zealots, from which rockets rain down on Israeli cities, is a real risk, given the power of zealotry not only in Palestine but throughout the Muslim world. And dangers like this one always, everywhere, strengthen the hand of rightwing politicians.

And yet there is no way forward that doesn't lead to two states and permanent co-existence. Security hawks on the right offer only blood and tears for decades to come. The real challenge for Israel, which only the left can meet, is to defend the physical safety of Israel's citizens forcefully, since force is unavoidable, while at the same time preparing the ground for peace. I mean that last phrase literally. A lot of the work of Shalom Achshav over the past years has been to persuade Israel's citizens to prepare the ground: that is, to take down the outposts and the "illegal" settlements and then many of the "legal" settlements, so that space is cleared for a future Palestinian state. This isn't work that requires partners on the other side since it doesn't entail military withdrawal; it just signals-but this is very important- a willingness to withdraw. It should be done "as if " there will be partners, in the hope of partners, and to build support among the Palestinians for possible partners.

The use of force is hard. It is hard to get the degree of forcefulness right, and it is hard to get the necessary political and moral restraints right. Over sixty years, Israel has had successes and failures in both these tasks. Only the left, I think, is fully committed to both of them, to forcefulness and restraint- and so at many points to fighting and protesting at the same time. And sometimes leftists get it wrong too: not enough force, not enough restraint. It is a difficult mix, which must always be sensitive to what is going on in the neighboring states and among the Palestinians.

The role of the Israeli peace movement isn't to make peace. It takes a government to do that, and the government that finally does it may or may not be a "peacenik" government. The peace movement builds and sustains the readiness for peace, the openness to opportunities when they arise, the sense of a possible future settlement. The more vulnerable ordinary Israelis feel, the more fragile that sense of possibility will become, and the more crucial the work of those who want to keep it alive. No peace without a trustworthy partner-that maxim is true enough. But it is also true that there won't be peace without an Israeli readiness to trust a trustworthy partner.

And how Israel would blossom in the aftermath of a settlement! Tremendous energy would be released for internal reform, economic growth, cultural creativity, and political/ religious debate. Israel's liberals and social democrats, all its policy wonks, would come into their own. The idea of a Jewish state would be tested in all sorts of ways, and we would learn finally what the "negation of the exile" is going to produce. Real excitement isn't the excitement of war; it lies in what comes after.

Michael Walzer, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is one of America's foremost political thinkers. His writings address a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy, including political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice and the welfare state.