NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2008

foreign affairs

Happy Birthday?

As Israel turns 60, NYU examines the thriving yet divisive nation's past, present, and future

It’s safe to bet that NYU did not make an occasion of the 60th anniversary of Greece’s statehood in 1892 and Yugoslavia’s in 1978. The milestones were significant for those two countries, but they failed to grab the world’s attention. Not so with “Israel at 60,” noted journalist Ray Suarez during a dialogue by the same name last December. Since 1948, when a United Nations General Assembly resolution wrote it into existence, the Jewish state of seven million people, occupying a slice of desert the size of New Jersey, has continued to invite debate, desire, and derision—but never disinterest.

"The birth of Israel is one of those epoch-making events in history, something that has an effect on the rest of the world disproportionate to the size of the land, the size of the people, and the consequences of which we've been living with ever since," said Suarez (WSUC '85), a senior correspondent at The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer and author of The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America (Rayo).

To elucidate some of those consequences and the tangled history that preceded them, NYU Alumni Magazine, along with the university's Taub Center for Israel Studies and Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, invited two experts to take up the discussion: historian Ronald Zweig, director of the Taub Center and author of several works, including Britain and Palestine During the Second World War (Royal Historical Society); and Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, whose recent book Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf) was hailed as one of the year's best by both The New York Times and Washington Post. During the two-hour conversation, which was moderated by Suarez, Zweig and Goldberg offered clarity, but no easy solutions, for Israel's enduring quest to secure a peaceful future. The following is an excerpt of the discussion:

Ray Suarez: If you look back over the past couple of millennia, there are countless people who have fought over pieces of land. What makes Israel's story different?

Jeffrey Goldberg: If Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem had been located in Burkina Faso, and if Jesus had been born [there], we'd be talking about Burkina Faso. It's a sliver of land, but incredible events have taken place, or are believed to have taken place there. Just as pure story, it's compelling in a way that very few other stories are.

The Israeli narrative, or the Zionist narrative, is: "Why is [the conflict] going on today? It's because the Arabs chose cynically not to resettle their fellow brothers from Palestine into their own lands." Most of the time when people lose a war, the refugees melt away into whatever population they happen to be living in. And the Israelis argue that this holds because 800,000 or 900,000 Jews were expelled or departed from Arab countries at that same period, and have been absorbed, more or less, into Israel.

The Palestinian narrative is that an injustice so cosmic was committed against us that we can't help but fight for what is ours, and furthermore we're Palestinian. It's an act of hubris or callousness on the part of Israelis, Palestinians believe, to say, "Well, just go live in Egypt, or Syria, or Saudi Arabia."

So what we're living in now is the '48 War. I mean it hasn't ended. It just never ended.

Suarez: What are some of the ways it could have been otherwise?

Ronald Zweig: Israel did not prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, as the United Nations partition resolution originally called for. Had, in 1948, the Arab world decided to create a Palestinian state next to Israel, we would have had a two-state solution 60 years ago. And had the Palestinians accepted the partition as the UN proposed it in November 1947, they would have had more territory at their disposal [than they do now]. So their state would have been even more viable.

Goldberg: Remember that much of the Zionist movement did not want statehood necessarily until pretty late in the game. They just wanted a Jewish homeland, a place for Jewish refugees. And if the Palestinian Arab community had been led by more moderate types, maybe you wouldn't have had the problems that you have today.

Journalist Ray Suarez questioned historian Ronald Zweig and author Jeffrey Goldberg on the state of Israel at 60 and the quest for Middle East peace.

Suarez: Does the Road Map or the Quartet [the process of mediation started by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the UN in 2002] hold any hope?

Goldberg: No. You have a situation where the Israeli Prime Minister is at 5 or 6 percent popularity. And then you have a president of Palestine who doesn't control Gaza, doesn't control [the West Bank city of] Nablus. So you have an incredibly unpopular leader negotiating with a powerless leader.

I think what we have to be focused on is the Palestinians and how they decide what they are. Are they represented by a secular, nationalist movement or by a pan-Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood-influenced movement? And until that's settled, it's pretty hard to figure out a permanent status agreement.

Suarez: But it looked like it was on its way to being settled when Hamas thumped Fatah in the elections in 2006. It looked like this is who you're going to have to deal with, and yet nobody wanted to talk to [Hamas].

Goldberg: Well, how can you talk to somebody who doesn't see you? I mean, there's a metaphysical problem: How do you negotiate with somebody who doesn't acknowledge that you exist?

Zweig: [Hamas was] not prepared to enter into final-status negotiations, which is what we're talking about. That's what the Quartet, the Road Map, is supposed to lead us to. So it's not just that Israel refused to talk to Hamas; Hamas refused to talk about the thing they're supposed to talk about.

Goldberg: There's a deeper problem, which is that if you read Hamas's covenant, much of it is based on the [forged book] Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and I think you're asking a bit much of the Jewish people to negotiate with someone who believes…that the Jews are a cosmologically malevolent force.

Suarez: Is there a growing sense that holding on to the territories also has a cost that becomes over time so corrosive, so large, that you may lose more than you gain?

Zweig: Being an occupying force now for 40 years, confronting the Palestinian masses in a violent confrontation for 20 years, this has a cumulative corrosive effect. [Israelis] should by now be much farther down the road on friendly relations with the Arab states; they'll never get there as long as they are fighting the Palestinians.

Goldberg: Most Israelis want to get out but don't know how to get out. That's the essential dilemma. Most Israelis know in their hearts what we're talking about here. But if you were looking at the situation as a Palestinian, you're saying, "Okay, they want to negotiate, they want to get out of the West Bank, but the settlement movement gets more and more ingrained each and every day."

Zweig: We have to look at when the settlement movement really became large and significant, and that was parallel to the time that Palestinian terror became large and significant inside of Israel. As long as there were Palestinian suicide bombers inside Israel proper, nobody really cared about Palestinian rights on the West Bank, which allowed the settlement movement to reach a certain critical threshold. And the leaders of the settlement movement that grew out of the moderate religious Zionist movement are now becoming irrelevant and are being taken over by a younger generation that is far more confrontational.

Suarez: Can a prime minister with a 5 percent approval rating tell them to cut it out?

Goldberg: It's very, very hard to do. There's no denying that the spine of the West Bank going up Road 60 is the heartland of Jewish history. We're talking about settlements from Hebron to Nablus; that's where it all happened. So I don't see how Ehud Olmert is going to reverse the growth.

Suarez: Both of you gave less than glowing reviews to [the November 2007 Middle East summit in] Annapolis, but it did gather a lot of the people who are going to have something to say about whatever happens, which hadn't been done in a long time. Who on the Arab side can be worked with?

Zweig: Israel can work with any country that sees Iran as a threat. Traveling recently in the Gulf area, and reading the Arab press in Jordan, in the Emirates, I read the same sort of Op-Eds openly calling for an alliance between Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel against the Iranian threat.

Goldberg: There's nothing like a Persian to make an Arab like a Jew.


Goldberg: But it's true. As long as the Iranian threat is there, you'll see a Sunni-Jewish alliance, which is essentially what you had at Annapolis. But this is going to have to flow through the Palestinians. Much is depending on what the Palestinians signal to the rest of the Arab world.

Suarez: Something apparently happened between the early 1990s and now. [Palestinian Authority leaders] had been ready to scratch out those parts of their charter that were forever opposed to the existence of Israel. But now you're talking about rejectionists, eliminationists, ready to hang in for the long haul. What happened?

Goldberg: The pathological rejection of Jewish civil equality by an ascendant Islamist movement, combined with a series of mistakes by the Israeli government, led to the empowerment of Hamas. And the more that al- Qaeda can create a civilizational struggle that really didn't exist before 9/11, the better off the rejectionists are.

A key moment for me was late 2000. I was in Ramallah at a Fatah funeral. There were 10,000 people and they started chanting, "Oh, Jews of Haibar, the army of Muhammad is returning." This was a secular, nationalist Fatah crowd and they were referring to the defeat by the prophet Muhammad and his armies of the Jews of the oasis of Haibar 1,400 years ago. I thought to myself, "Wow, we're really not talking about the '67 borders; we're talking about the whole idea."

Suarez: Let's talk about Israel in the next 10 to 20 years.

Zweig: Even if the problems with the Palestinians were to go away tomorrow, Israel will definitely have to facilitate the integration of the Israeli Arab minority, who prefer now to see themselves as an Israeli Palestinian minority. Fifteen years from now, 50 percent of Israeli society will belong to sectors that see themselves consciously as non-Zionist: the Arab and the Ultra-Orthodox [Jew]. They see themselves as separate. This is a challenge to Israeli society that will have to be addressed.

If we held this discussion, and this gloomy prognosis of the attitudes of the Arab world, say 10 years after Israel was created, I would be worried. But Israel has gone from strength to strength, and continues to do so. And for all of the domestic problems, we must remember that Israel is an extremely dynamic society; it's constantly changing, and does address issues.

Goldberg: Yes, there are contradictions inside contradictions here. You have a state that's under pressure, that has these social problems. But it also attracts more high-tech venture capital than any other country in the world, except for China. You have an economy that's growing like gangbusters; you have a vibrant place where Judaism is flourishing in a way that it's never flourished before.

I can be pessimistic and optimistic in the same minute. Because of Israel, the Jews as a people worldwide are in better shape than they've been since the Roman destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago. But you're left at the end of the day with imperfection. Israel is a place that's safe for Judaism, but it's not safe for Jews—yet. America is safe for Jews, but it's not really safe for Judaism. And so you have two, right now, imperfect promised lands.

For more information on the Taub Center conference on Israel's 60th, visit www.taub.as.nyu.edu.

Illustration © opto design; Photos © Dan Creighton

“What we’re living in now is the '48 War. It just never ended.”

—Jeffrey Goldberg

“Israel can work with any country that sees Iran as a threat.”

—Ronald Zweig