Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hanging Tough on Statecraft

The first time I saw Tzipi Livni on television, sitting with the other member of Ehud Olmert's Cabinet, I had her pegged for a tough cookie. I was therefore not surprised that she would come out on top of Kadima Party leadership in the wake of Olmert's announcement of resignation. What did surprise me was that her toughness would be exerted less on behalf of Israel's business-as-usual "territorial aggression" (as in continuing to build settlements in occupied territories) and more towards those fundamental principles of statecraft about which Dennis Ross had written so admirably in his book (a book which had been highly informed by his own experiences in trying to negotiate peace in the Middle East). It is, of course, all too easy to dismiss Ross' book as the wishful thinking of a retired diplomat; but, when we see the principles of that book put into practice by the likes of Vladimir Putin, we have to acknowledge that there may be at least a glimmer of hope that a viable alternative to nationalist extremism is on the rise. Livni may now be adding to that glimmer.

I have come to this conclusion having just read the latest Al Jazeera English report on the current state of play in Israeli politics:

Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel's ruling Kadima party, has called for early parliamentary elections to be held after she failed to form a coalition government.

The crux of this story is the reason why an effective coalition could not be formed:

The Kadima party had the backing of the centre-left Labour party and was expected to keep the small Pensioners party in the government, but it needed to get the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on board to secure a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Shas said on Friday it would not join Livni as she had refused to pledge that the future status of Jerusalem would not be on the agenda in negotiations with the Palestinians.

It is that last sentence that got me to thinking about Ross again. At the risk of being too reductive, I came away from watching Ross' lecture on his book on Book TV with the idea that statecraft had a lot to do with using what you have to get what you want; and that presumes that you have a clear idea of what you want in the first place. We can thus understand much of our own diplomatic bungling in terms of its foundation of vague and ill-conceived faith-based goals, goals which, like those of the Shas party, have more to do with highly traditional readings of Scripture than with more contemporary documents (such as, for example, those produced and approved by the United Nations). However, it was not just Livni's rejection of a fundamental (play on words intended with all due deliberation) plank in the Shas platform but also the language she used in talking about the rejection. According to the Al Jazeera English account, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted her as saying:

When I had to decide between continued extortion and bringing forward elections, I prefered elections.

Now I have no idea how often the noun "extortion" is used in the course of Israeli political horse-trading; but it struck me as a highly appropriate bon mot for describing the lack of progress towards peace in the Middle East. The United States is all too eager to talk about the repressive nature of Muslim fundamentalism in a country like Iran; but, from a diplomatic point of view, Americans (with the primary exception of Jimmy Carter) have turned a blind eye to fundamentalist practices of Judaism that can be just as repressive. When those practices apply to life in the home or in a highly limited religious community, it is easy enough to apply the live-and-let-live rule of thumb; but, when they apply to national policy, they illustrate in the most vivid of terms just why the very principle of a "Jewish State" should make Israel's neighbors so nervous.

So Livni has opted for a new round of elections, letting vox populi decide who will speak for Israeli foreign policy. She may not have the strength of reputation that Yitzhak Rabin had, but she has displayed a toughness of commitment to getting the peace process rolling again. One of the Hebrew expressions I learned while I was teaching in Israel was "Kol HaKovod." This translates literally as "all the honor;" but I noticed that it tended to be used with the connotation of "More power to you!" If Livni is to prevail in the election she will now face, she will need all the power she can summon; let us hope that she is tough enough to do justice to all the honor that will be at stake.

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