Obama Visit Marks a Choice for Israel: Grow Up or Grow Old

With Israel heading for its 65th anniversary, the U.S. president's March trip sends an important message: This is the time. This is the window. Later doesn’t exist.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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President Barack Obama's visit to Israel comes less than a month before Israel reaches retirement age. As Israel faces the 65th anniversary of its founding next month, the arrival of the American president marks something of a crossroads in the history and the direction of the country.

There's a distinctly uncomfortable choice to be made, should Israel choose to accept it: Grow up or grow old.

Israelis – in particular middle-aged ones, like Benjamin Netanyahu - tend to think of this as a young country, a place eternally of the young, by the young, for the young.

And who wouldn't want to feel that way for good - that exhilarating, late-teens brand of immortality; to feel always and forever attractive and fearless and limitless and pleased with oneself; always and forever to feel adorable and adored and therefore excused by family and friend; always and forever to have an out in self-pity and the sense of being unfairly criticized and victimized; always and forever to be able to run away from or blame away - and therefore deny - the consequences of your missteps and wrongs and failings and faults.

But there's a downside to that kind of denial, and President Obama has had to suffer it again and again in his dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Jewish hard right:

If you are too in love with yourself to acknowledge where and when you need to change, you will age badly.

You may even one day wake to find yourself that very same cranky, preachy, spoiled, mortifying, outmoded, insufferable relative that you yourself, as a true youth, found impossible to take.

What choices does Israel face?

The silent killer, the serious, potentially fatal threat to the health and longevity of this aging Israel, is the idea that we can pay feeble lip service to the concept of two states, while fostering risk factors potentially lethal to a peaceful solution. We can tell ourselves that forgoing the idea of two states is the mature, the realistic, the truly Jewish thing to do.

Or we can grow up.

This is the choice we face now:

Grow Up – For the sake of democracy and the possibility of a lasting peace, confront the ramifications of a Two State solution, and, with the support and the cooperation of the Obama administration and the international community, take the initiative, lead, and begin the tough compromises and sacrifices such a move would entail.

Or, Grow Old – Surrender to the settlement movement, pretend that apartheid in the West Bank is sustainable, pretend that democracy in Israel is not withering because of it, pretend that democracy in Israeli law is not already being actively distorted to help protect occupation.

Pretend that fealty to settlements is more important to Israel's future than its relationship to the United States and to the world at large.

Pretend that the only possible outcome of peace is terrorism.

Pretend that an Israel which rules over millions of stateless Palestinians and – for the sake of settlement - denies them their own country in the territories, is not eventually going to go out of existence precisely for that reason. Pretend that the settlements will not kill their creator. Pretend that we don't know, deep down, that the occupation, unless we bring it to an end, will be the death of Israel.

There's likely no one secret to aging with grace, but there is at least one pre-condition: the ability to recognize when things are changing around you and within you, and adapt.

This society is meant to prize innovation. This society prides itself on recognizing illusions for what they are. This society has shown itself to be in favor of a future of two states. This society has shown itself willing to follow leaders who with levelheadedness, level humor, and a whole heart, side with the future, with providing hope for those who don't merely think they're still young, but actually are.

Call it what you like, puer aeternus, Peter Pan Syndrome, or comb over blindness, but one of the more compelling – and dangerous - elements of the forever-young fallacy is the sense that there's plenty of time down the road to fix whatever may be wrong now.

Obama's visit sends a very different message, if we choose to heed it. It is the message that aging is meant to teach, and that mortality is meant to prove: This is the time. This is the window. Later doesn’t exist.

U.S. President Barack Obama boarding Air Force 1. Credit: AP