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July 25, 2014

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The full Israeli experience

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Tel Aviv, Israel

These were the main regional news headlines in The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday: “Home Front Command simulates missile strike during drill.” Egypt’s President “Morsi opts for safety as police battle protestors.” In Syria, “Fight spills over into Lebanon.” “Darkness at noon for fearful Damascus residents.” “Tunisian Islamists, leftists clash after jobs protests.” “NATO warns Syria not to use chemical weapons.” And my personal favorite: “‘Come back and bring a lot of people with you’ — Tourism Ministry offers tour operators the full Israeli experience.”

Ah, yes, “the full Israeli experience.”

The full Israeli experience today is a living political science experiment. How does a country deal with failed or failing state authority on four of its borders — Gaza, South Lebanon, Syria and the Sinai Desert of Egypt — each of which is now crawling with nonstate actors nested among civilians and armed with rockets. How should Israel and its friends think about this “Israeli experience” and connect it with the ever-present question of Israeli-Palestinian peace?

For starters, if you want to run for office in Israel, or be taken seriously here as either a journalist or a diplomat, there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: “Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?” If Israelis smell that you don’t, their ears will close to you. It is one reason the Europeans in general, and the European left in particular, have so little influence here.

The central political divide in Israel today is over the follow-up to this core question: If you appreciate that Israel lives in a neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak, how should we expect Israel to act?

There are two major schools of thought here. One, led by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, comprises the “Ideological Hawks,” who, to the question, “Do you know what neighborhood I am living in?” tell Israelis and the world, “It is so much worse than you think!” Bibi goes out of his way to highlight every possible threat to Israel and essentially makes the case that nothing Israel does has ever or can ever alter the immutable Arab hatred of the Jewish state or the Hobbesian character of the neighborhood. Netanyahu is not without supporting evidence. Israel withdraws from South Lebanon and Gaza and still gets hit with rockets.

But this group is called the “ideological” hawks because most of them also advocate Israel’s retaining permanent control of the West Bank and Jerusalem for religious-nationalist reasons. So it’s impossible to know where their strategic logic for holding territory stops and their religious-nationalist dreams start — and that muddies their case with the world.

The other major school of thought here, call it the “Yitzhak Rabin school,” was best described by the writer Leon Wieseltier as the “bastards for peace.”

Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister and war hero, started exactly where Bibi did: This is a dangerous neighborhood, and a Jewish state is not welcome here. But Rabin didn’t stop there. He also believed that Israel was very powerful and, therefore, should judiciously use its strength to try to avoid becoming a garrison state, fated to rule over several million Palestinians forever.

Israel’s “bastards for peace” believe it’s incumbent on every Israeli leader to test, test and test again — using every ounce of Israeli creativity — to see whether Israel can find a Palestinian partner for a secure peace so that it is not forever fighting an inside war and an outside war. At best, the Palestinians might surprise them. At worst, Israel would have the moral high ground in a permanent struggle.

Today, alas, not only is the Israeli peace camp dead, but the most effective Israeli “bastard for peace,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is retiring. As I sat with Barak in his office the other day, he shared with me his parting advice to Israel’s next and sure-to-be-far-right government.

Huge political forces, with deep roots, are now playing out around Israel, particularly the rise of political Islam, Barak said. “We have to learn to accept it and see both sides of it and try to make it better. I am worried about our tendency to adopt a fatalistic, pessimistic perception of history because once you adopt it, you are relieved from the responsibility to see the better aspects and seize the opportunities” when they arise.

If Israel just assumes that it’s only a matter of time before the moderate Palestinian leaders in the West Bank fall and Hamas takes over, “why try anything?” Barak said. “And, therefore, you lose sight of the opportunities and the will to seize opportunities. ... I know that you can’t say when leaders raise this kind of pessimism that it is all just invented. It is not all invented, and you would be stupid if you did not look (at it) with open eyes. But it is a major risk that you will not notice that you become enslaved by this pessimism in a way that will paralyze you from understanding that you can shape it. The world is full of risks, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to do something about it — within your limits and the limits of realism — and avoid self-fulfilling prophecies that are extremely dangerous here.”

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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