Barak and Netanyahu Tess Scheflan / Jini 2009
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Tess Scheflan / Jini
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Future historians will debate how Israel’s leadership could have been so blind. They will wonder how it was possible that Israel - for 43 years - didn’t realize what David Ben-Gurion saw a few weeks after the Six-Day War: that the occupation of the West Bank was a catastrophe for Israel.

They will wonder even more what the government of Benjamin Netanyahu had in mind when he allowed the destruction of the Shepherd Hotel, the eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan; they will wonder what was happening to the 18th Knesset, in which parliamentarians were competing with each other with their anti-democratic legislation.

They will be struck by the total blindness of these parliamentarians and ministers to Israel’s place in the world, and their total lack of vision for what kind of state Israel would be in the future. All they seem to care about is to establish their patriotism through ‘Judaizing’ Jerusalem and other areas; to grab another building from Palestinians; to show how “Jewish” they are by proposing anti-Arab legislation and by attacking NGOs that try to protect Israel the liberal democracy.

The frenzy of the ‘Judaization’ of Jerusalem has now crossed the tipping point where the international community is no longer willing to just stand by. A while ago 26 former EU leaders, many of whom during their careers had been staunch friends of Israel, asked for sanctions against Israel. This has now been followed by a call of EU consuls to recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital; to place observers at each venue where Israel wants to destroy Palestinian buildings.

The ominous signs that Israel will soon be under great international pressure are mounting, and proposals for specific steps of boycott and sanctions are taking shape. One is to deny Israelis who live in the West Bank entry to the EU, and to forbid the sale of any Israeli products from the West Bank.

The present government will react to these steps with Netanyahu’s usual lament that Israel’s existence is delegitimized; that there is no connection between Israel’s actions and criticism from abroad. Avigdor Lieberman will say that Israel needs to show the international community that it has backbone, and that it doesn’t cave in under pressure.

Nothing; absolutely nothing seems to penetrate the minds of Israel’s right-wing politicians. Talking to them, I mostly hear genuine surprise at Israel’s isolation. They live in a deep bunker where the simplest of truths doesn’t penetrate their minds: for the world, a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital is a non-negotiable demand.

Mind-boggling as it may be, they really don’t understand that Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem and the continued building in the settlements has categorized Israel as the peace-refusenik. Even our most highly educated prime minister and defense minister, the seemingly worldly Netanyahu and Barak, have lost complete touch with the universe outside the Knesset. Netanyahu’s lamentations that it’s the Palestinians’ fault, and Barak’s assertion that during his tenure as prime minister Israel built more than now just show that their horizons are now exclusively defined by their desire to hold on to this coalition of shame for a few months longer.

I wish I knew of a way to stop the madness, but prospects for the immediate future are bleak. Human nature is deeply averse to accepting guilt and responsibility. Right-wing politicians in power refuse to look in the mirror and understand that their actions are bringing this disaster on Israel. They will need an internal scapegoat for whom they blame for Israel being under such heavy attack now.

We are therefore likely to witness an increase in attacks on NGOs, academics, men and women of letters, and citizens who have for years tried to avert disaster, and to divert Israel from the course of becoming an illiberal ethnocracy. The Knesset will step up its attempts to shut up criticism, and to claim that the critics of Israel are responsible for the sanctions, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They will do everything to avoid facing the simple truth: their actions, and not Israel’s liberal critics, are putting Israel into its unprecedented international isolation.

While I cannot predict how and when exactly it will be, the day will come when Israel will awake from the nationalist and racist nightmare into which it has fallen. Until Israel’s electorate wakes up and understands that a sane government needs to be elected, it is up to Israel’s civil society to keep alive the vision of what Israel can become.

Legal scholars like Ruti Gavison, writers like David Grossman, philosophers like Avishai Margalit and political historians like Zeev Sternhell, along with institutions like the Israel Democracy Institute, its academia, its theaters, its musicians and its filmmakers are keeping the moral and political vision alive, on which the Israel of tomorrow can build its foundations. The day will come in which the moral clarity and political wisdom of those who kept their minds and hearts intact will determine Israel’s future.

A final word to the majority of Jews around the world, whose worldviews are overwhelmingly liberal, and to the many non-Jewish friends of Israel who are disappointed by its actions: This is a difficult time to be a friend of Israel, and we have never been as much in need of friends as now, to help us through this time until Israel regains a viable moral and political vision for the future.

We need to remember that countries make mistakes. The McCarthyist wave that swept the U.S. darkened the horizon for a few years, but in the end, the American love for freedom overcame this terrible episode. At heart, Israel is a society that believes in life, freedom and creativity. Seeing Israel’s potential beyond the mistakes of its politicians keeps alive the knowledge that Israel will become the flourishing, creative, just and liberal democracy we want it to be.