On the very sensitive issue of Israel, there is often little middle ground that isn’t swamped by angry rhetoric on either side of the debate. So, as the critical talks with Iran proceed, I want to clarify a couple of things.
My dismay at Israel’s rightward lurch, its refusal to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its apocalyptic fear-mongering about Iran does not and should not mean that I couldn’t care less about the Jewish state. I can understand how, in the rough and tumble of daily blogging, many reflexive – and some thoughtful – supporters of Israel might infer that I harbor some disdain for the Zionist project, or indifference to the dangers Israel confronts on a daily basis. I don’t. For an Irish-Catholic Englishman, I have long been passionate about Israel’s security and success. It was one of the first foreign countries I ever visited, and for many years (shaped, of course, by my time at The New Republic), I completely sympathized with successive Israeli governments’ frustration at the lack of a decent negotiating partner and the continued, foul incitement to anti-Semitism of much of Palestinian culture.
Things changed for me during my unsentimental education about the world-as-it-is during the Iraq War catastrophe. That war was the defining event for me and my own political understanding of the 21st Century world. For others, it was an error or a failing, but their broader worldview remained intact. Mine didn’t. It didn’t make me an isolationist, but it sure radically tempered my belief in the ability of American power to remake the world in our own image – however well-meant that remaking may have been. It became clear to me that a global conflict between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Christianity could become apocalyptic, especially in the Middle East. What was urgently required was a move to pragmatism, toward defusing the most polarizing rhetoric, toward healing the wounds of Iraq, and a calmer, if clear-eyed, engagement with Muslim humankind.
I noticed during this period that, post-Arafat, the Palestinians were no longer an unreliable partner in negotiations. Abbas and Fayyad were about as good as we were ever going to get, and the Obama presidency was the perfect reagent for a compromise that would defuse some of fundamentalism’s power and return us to the art of the possible. The way in which Israel’s leadership responded – contemptuously – signaled that we were dealing within a very different Israeli government than, say, Rabin’s. Their Gaza war, their hyperbolic rhetoric on Iran, their continued settlement of the West Bank, their constant apartment-grabs in East Jerusalem, and the increasingly extremist tone of Israeli political culture: all this made me see them as the current arrogant problem, and not the Palestinians. The way Netanyahu intervened in American domestic politics to undermine the president also appalled me.
Obviously I am not alone. Someone far more knowledgeable about the country whose views I had long shared – Peter Beinart – also shifted. Many others have among American Jews of the younger generations. And the motive for the shift is not to demonize Israel, but to assert America’s national interest first and foremost, and secondly to save Israel from becoming a pariah state that was hellbent on becoming a permanent occupying power, with all the moral corrosion that occupation implies. It is tempting to say that the moment for a two-state solution is past. But I want to resist that temptation – because without a two-state solution, Greater Israel is not a country the West can support with such largesse indefinitely. And I want to support an Israel that lives up to the best aspirations of its founders.
My support for an agreement with Iran that grants it the right to enrich uranium at low levels and subject to routine, tough inspection regimens is also a function of dealing with the world as-it-is and not as I would like it to be.
The fact is that Iran is a great country with deserved pride, but it’s been run into the ground by fundamentalist fanatics, fascistic in their extreme factions, who spout foul rhetoric and conduct themselves in ways that warrant profound suspicion. The crippling sanctions regime was a proper response to that. But when the Iranian response to years of sanctions is the emergence of a pragmatic faction given legitimacy by support in Iran’s highly constrained elections, and when that faction sends signals it is desperate to end sanctions and eager to rejoin the international community, we have an opportunity, as with Abbas and Fayyad, to defuse the tension.
For me, the emotions of June 2009 affect this too. The Green movement proved that Iran’s younger generation is on the side of freedom, not theocracy. And yet that movement, like the regime, also insists that the country has a right to enrich uranium. On this, all of Iran is united. It is not just foolish but impossible to somehow end that fact by making the end of uranium enrichment our non-negotiable stance. It guarantees failure.
Nor can we erase the fact that Iran has developed the capacity to enrich uranium, even under the most brutal of sanctions, and it is seen as a matter of national pride to retain that capacity. As Roger Cohen notes:
Although Western intelligence agencies believe the Islamic Republic has not taken the decision to make a bomb, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced far enough for the country to have the relevant knowledge. Destroying this know-how is near impossible. Iran knows how to produce weapons-grade fissile material; it may not yet be able to make a deliverable weapon. So, as Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, put it to me, “The key for the international community is to put all that capability in a box where it is verifiable, contained and controlled. That is what the deal is about.”
Indeed it is. Given its past behavior, the regime has to meet more exacting standards for a deal than might otherwise be the case. But without a deal, Iran will increase its nuclear activity, Israel will be tempted to pre-empt it, an arms race with the Saudis might follow, and the cycle of fundamentalist violence would be ratcheted up a notch. It’s the kind of cycle that can lead to catastrophe. Avoiding this – creating a space for hardheaded relations with Iran and a deep commitment to Israel’s security – seems to me easily the most practical move in the global war on fundamentalist terror by defusing it with pragmatism. Winning that war will make Israel more secure, enhance American policy options in the Middle East, bring down the price of oil, and give Iran’s silent pro-Western majority an opportunity to change the country from within.
That’s what I want to see. I know it’s tough, given the history of the Tehran regime. I know that hope is no longer as powerful an emotion as it was five years ago. But I see this moment of opportunity as similar to the one we faced in the late 1980s with the emergence of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union, and for the same reasons of economic desperation, and pent-up popular frustration. Russia too is a great nation whose fundamentalist atheists had also driven into the ground. We found a way to rescue the country from its regime, by engagement after a ramping up of opposition. I hope Obama and Rouhani can become the Reagan and Gorbachev of this moment. Because the alternative is war at some point – sooner or later – and a tragedy for the Iranian people and for Israel’s core security.
Who really wants that? I mean: really? And what other options do we actually have, apart from the last resort of war – which the American people would not, in my view, support? We are in about the sweetest spot history will hand to us. If we squander this opportunity, the world will darken measurably.
(Photos: A Jewish settler boy swims in a pool near the Jewish outpost Settlement of Har Bracha, West Bank on July 22, 2013. By Uriel Sinai/Getty Images. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Green victory sign by Getty Images.)