Argument

Demonstration Effect

Obama shows Netanyahu and Abbas -- and their people -- how it's done.

For all the drama of President Obama's stirring speech Thursday in Jerusalem, the most encouraging thing about it may have been the applause from the audience. "Remarks of President Obama to the People of Israel," the White House called the speech -- and, like President Reagan, Obama went soaring over the heads of officials, elites, and pundits, directly to Israel's citizenry. In that may lie the nub of a second-term approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that could prove more fruitful than the frustrations of the first.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not ripe for resolution -- that Obama should hold back, take the lessons from his failure to spur sustained and constructive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and turn to less painful topics. This is more conventional than wise. Most of the Israeli and Palestinian publics support a two-state solution -- and such a solution is the only viable way out of the conflict ever proposed, going back to the Peel Commission that first recommended partition back in 1937. Benjamin Netanyahu will go down in history as the first Likud prime minister to call for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, thereby irrevocably accelerating Israel's decades-long abandonment of the dream of annexing the biblical heartland of the West Bank. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his technocratic prime minister, Salam Fayyad, represent a pragmatic Palestinian leadership that, for all its flaws, has done vastly more to build up the institutions of a future Palestinian state than Yasir Arafat's terrorism and evasions ever did. The United States and Israel are trying to navigate the region's most urgent challenges: Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Assad regime's assault on its own people, and the aftershocks of the 2011 Arab revolutions. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers cheap opportunities for demagogues, extremists, terrorists, and nihilists to exploit.

Much of the early reaction to Obama's speech sprinted to consider modalities and mechanisms -- calling for U.S.-imposed grand designs or fretting about which structure the administration should set up at the State Department. There's time aplenty to get into the weeds. But the president's speech was aimed higher. Obama's approach was not tactical but tectonic, aimed at building sociopolitical momentum behind the forces of a negotiated partition. So long as Netanyahu and Abbas spend their political lives looking over their right shoulders rather than their left, the temptations of stasis will always prove more seductive than the uncertainties of movement. So long as Israeli and Palestinian leaders talk only to their own bases rather than to the other side's public, the comforts of things as they are will always nose ahead of the challenges of things as they could be.

Obama showed them how it's done, with eloquence, empathy, and persuasion. In a spirit of enduring friendship, he did some truth-telling of a sort that the Israeli public does not always get from its leadership -- and his youthful audience roared its approval at a volume that could be heard loud and clear in Ramallah, Nablus, and Gaza City. Obama was both warm and strong, wise and supportive, reiterating yet again that the United States will take no options off the table on Iran even while he reminded Israelis that they and the Palestinians have no options on the table besides a two-state solution or unending occupation, terrorism, and muted and mounting rage.

The president is right: The status quo is not static. The lingering conflict carries ongoing risks to Israeli security. Iran is straining against unprecedented international pressure. Hamas oppresses and impoverishes the suffering people of Gaza. Hezbollah stocks its bristling rocket arsenal to bombard Tel Aviv and Haifa. Settlement expansion is convincing more and more Palestinians that Israel prefers indefinite occupation to preserving its identity as a Jewish democracy. Islamists and jihadists around the region use the enduring conflict as a cudgel to cow voices of moderation and liberalism. And Israel is having its political legitimacy clawed away in international forums, despite the gallant efforts of the Obama administration.

So why delay? After the eruption of another uprising or a nasty mini-war, many Israelis and Palestinians will wish they could take the terms on offer today. Anyone who believes they can confidently predict the regional consequences of another intifada in the era of the Arab Spring has a grave case of intellectual hubris. But there's no need to wait for more blood and tears. What is lacking are not blueprints, maps, or imagination; it is trust and political will. And those can be built and banked by leaders and publics alike.

President Obama has made a fine new start. Now others should follow his example -- finding constructive steps to take in the absence of renewed peace talks that can help foster the presence of renewed peace talks. And there are obvious things all sides can do that do not recapitulate the tactical mistakes of the first term -- by building up public pressure for peace efforts, instilling trust, ripening the spirit of compromise, stripping alibis away from politicians prone to immobilism, and assuaging the legitimate anxieties on both sides that can stop peace talks cold.

Israel could admit the obvious and offer to halt settlement construction outside of the settlement blocs it thinks it may be able to ultimately claim through mutually agreed land swaps with the Palestinians. Israel should crack down -- strongly and demonstratively -- on settlers who indulge in vigilante justice and erode Israel's rule of law. Netanyahu should spell out his vision of the type of Palestinian state he would like to see and remind his base that the old dream of annexing the West Bank has been left behind by the cunning of history. Israel should look for opportunities to dismantle or minimize some intrusions of the occupation into daily Palestinian life, from checkpoint abuses to unnecessary raids into Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank. And Israelis of all stripes -- private citizens and public officials alike -- should make clear that they recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism and rootedness in the land they share, just as they expect the Palestinians to do the same.

The Palestinians should set up a credible process to review their textbooks, insist that Israel is on all their maps, and ensure that both sides of the conflict have their narratives explained in Palestinian classrooms. Abbas should routinely underscore Israel's legitimacy and speak out loudly and clearly against incitement and bigotry against Jews, including the anti-Semitic bilge so regularly spewed forth from Hamas's leaders and enshrined in its charter. Fayyad should continue to find opportunities to show Israelis that Palestinian statehood is about building up responsible, durable institutions to become a peaceful, prospering partner whose very existence enhances Israeli security. Palestinians should prefer the tactics of nonviolent resistance to violent defiance, both because of its efficacy and to convey to ordinary Israelis that their demands are about ending the occupation, not destroying the Jewish state. And the Palestinian leadership should knock off the self-defeating sideshow of marginalizing Israel in U.N. bodies, which only encourages ordinary Palestinians to think that some international cavalry is coming to produce the results that can come only from direct negotiations.

Outsiders can pitch in too -- notably the Gulf states, who often prefer talking a good game about Palestinian statehood to taking uncomfortable steps that might hasten it. Arab leaders should find a way to loudly reiterate and flesh out the bargain implicit in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative pushed by Saudi King Abdullah -- an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and "normal relations" with Israel in return for Palestinian statehood and a return to the 1967 lines. Arab states should spell out what those "normal relations" with Israel might look like and paint a vivid and enticing picture for ordinary Israelis of their nation's place in the region on the day after Palestine's negotiated independence. The democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy of Egypt could calm Israeli jitters by getting a better handle on the rising chaos in the Sinai and speaking regularly about Egypt's determination to live up to its treaty obligations. Leaders in Europe, Japan, Canada, and other prosperous countries can publicly vow to underwrite the cost of providing reparations and resettlement for the descendants of the Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during what Israelis call their War of Independence and what Palestinians call the Naqba (or "catastrophe"). And ordinary citizens in Israeli and Palestinian cities alike can embark on dialogue programs like the magnificent Seeds of Peace, which work over time to chip away at old hatreds by reminding people that their identities are about more than the conflict.

Of course, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are out in the streets demanding renewed peace talks right now. But great leaders shape their politics, rather than the other way around. There is plenty that Israelis, Palestinians, and others can do right now to bring peace just a bit closer. Just because things are quiet does not mean that they need to be fallow. And if things become fallow, they will not stay quiet for long.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Cowboys vs. Kippot

The awesome sci-fi novel about U.S. relations with Israel -- in an alternate acid-trip universe.

Texas has seceded from the United States. Israeli tanks thunder across the Southwest plains -- mercenaries hired by the nuclear-devastated federal government to drag the recalcitrant republic back into the Union.

This is the cowboys vs. kippot world of The Texas-Israeli War: 1999, a 1974 science-fiction novel by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop, and one of the most bizarre SF books ever written. With this month marking Texan independence from Mexico in 1836, a petition to the White House for Texas secession already garnering 125,000 signatures, and the president of the United States in Jerusalem, it seems an appropriate moment to examine what will likely be the first and last war fought between Israel and Texas, as well as take a look back at how 1970s sci-fi foresaw the future. Besides, who can resist a book with a cover that shows an Israeli tank being charged by a horde of Native Americans on horseback?

The novel's premise is that the United States was devastated by a nuclear and biological war in 1992, after it supported a Russo-British alliance against a Chinese-Irish-Afrikaan South African triad. (Actually, the war is triggered when the IRA conquers Ulster and pours LSD into Britain's water supply, inducing British leaders to launch their nukes, presumably to enjoy the pretty colors.) The ensuing conflagration wipes out 90 percent of humanity and leaves the survivors sickly and starving -- except for Israel, which somehow emerges unscathed and prosperous.

To add another drop of lysergic acid to this alternate history trip, billionaire oil barons convince a neo-fascist Texas to secede from the Union and restore the Republic of Texas (ReTex) after 150 years. Desperate for Texan oil reserves but with the bulk of the shattered U.S. military fighting off a Chinese invasion of Alaska, the federal government hires a tank unit of Israeli mercenaries (other Israelis are hired by the Texans, including Ariel Sharon) to beef up its army and bring the renegade republic back into the Union. The story's protagonist, Sol Inglestein, is a veteran Israeli colonel leading a force of Israelis, Americans, and loyalist Texans on an armored commando mission to rescue the U.S. president, who was kidnapped by Texas Rangers during a peace conference. Their effort will be supported by an amphibious invasion of Cuban marines storming Galveston. Yes, it sounds like more like a game of Risk than real international politics. But then again, someone writing in 1974 that U.S. troops would fight in Afghanistan for 10 years would have been dismissed as a fantasist or a nut.

The Texas-Israeli War is solid Grade B sci-fi: punchy, page-turning prose with lots of action and a fair bit of sex (Sol gets it on with Myra, a dark-haired beauty who commands an all-female Israeli tank crew). This is one of those books that is funny even when you are not sure the authors mean to be humorous. Inglestein's Israeli mercenary unit has the radio call sign "Charlie Bagel," and dances the "Hora" and sings the "Hatikvah" after battles. The U.S. vice president, now president in the new capital of Pittsburgh, plots to dump his wife in a Minnesota lake and appoint a presidential consort. As for the Texans, their currency has John Wayne's portrait, and their secret police are "The Sons of the Alamo" (not-so-subtly abbreviated "SA" like the Nazi paramilitary organization), who wear SS-like lightning bolts on their collars. A final ingredient in this stew of clichés is the Confederate theme embodied by a ReTex general, portrayed as a reluctant, honorable warrior who talks like Robert E. Lee and acts like he could have stepped out of a painting of Appomattox (and lest this be judged as Yankee propaganda, the authors are Texans themselves).

Growing up as a teenage science-fiction fan in New Jersey, I loved this novel. Action, intrigue, and, as a bonus, the crushing of Texas. ("Drive 70 and Freeze a Yankee," will you? Think again, cowboy.) It is very much a product of the 1970s, an ugly decade squatting unloved between the turbulent idealism of the 1960s and Reagan's "Morning in America." The theme of doomsday spread like plague bacilli through that era -- from Charlton Heston as the last human in a mutant-ridden world in 1971's The Omega Man, to Heston's culinary discovery in 1975's Soylent Green, to the cruel "In space, no one can hear you scream" universe of 1979's Alien.

The true fascination of the book is to read it 40 years later for its vision of a future America. It predicted a grim time of war, disease, and poverty -- a world in which the descent of man leaves the living envying the dead. The Texas-Israeli War is Cold War apocalypse, where whatever survived the nuclear bombs was destroyed by weaponized diseases and blights that decimated the human and plant worlds and left the survivors sickly and struggling. As Inglestein reflects while looking out over the Texas farmland, "Early in the War of '92, the plagues -- many more than seven -- began to strike. Moses had been dead a long time. Now there would be no deliverance."

But some things in the book's future are actually less frightening than our present and recent past. Our 1999 saw the advent of drones and cyberweapons, leading to an era where autonomous machines make war (and one day will turn on us, in the world of the Terminator). Tanks have begun to seem like Industrial Age relics, ponderous and useless compared to agile robots and special operations forces. However, in the alternate 1999, armor is the king of battle in a future that is more like World War II than Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Texas-Israeli War is post-apocalyptic Panzer porn, with tanks appearing on every page, as if the Omega Man found himself an M-1 Abrams to pump high-explosive shells at those weird-eyed mutants that torment him. Yet it is also the twilight of the tank, as warfare plummets toward the pre-industrial. The United States and ReTex forces make do with junkyard leftovers and museum pieces, such as World War II Sherman, Grant, and Stuart tanks. Only the Israelis have high-tech equipment, a handful of Centurion tanks armed with plutonium-powered engines and Gatling lasers:

Sol's unit was among the last possessing modern tanks. When the remaining stuff wore out, the battlefield would be totally given over to infantry. Already, the airplane approached the dodo's fate. Eventually the two great power conglomerates would resemble men who, having wounded each other fatally, crawl together and thumbwrestle even as they bleed to death.

The portrayal of Israel will be especially jarring to 21st century readers. The novel, and the original short story that spawned it, were written just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and a few years after the Six-Day War, when Israeli military prowess was legendary (an image dented by the 2006 Lebanon War). The Israelis are depicted as spirited but weary warriors resigned to a lifetime of struggle and to losing friends and family to war and terrorism. Soldier-farmers are fighting for the promise of money and a few of acres of American land to farm, which won't seem much like the upwardly mobile Israeli computer programmers now earning shekels in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the eeriest, almost creepy, part is the portrayal of Ariel Sharon, who is mentioned in passing, but in reverential tones as a skilled and honorable warrior who refuses to obey orders by the Sons of Alamo to execute civilians. The book was written just after Sharon earned fame by leading a counteroffensive across the Suez Canal that turned the tide of the Yom Kippur War, and before the Israeli government found him responsible for not preventing a Christian massacre of Palestinians during the 1982 intervention in Lebanon's civil war.

Our time as foreseen in 1974 may be similar in some ways, but it is very different. As Sol Inglestein would say, baruch Hashem, it is a blessing that the world did not turn out so.

Ballantine Books