A civilized, serious debate about Israel held on New York's Upper West Side this week understandably aroused correspondent Chemi Shalev's wistful jealousy. Pro-peace activist Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J-Street, and rightist intellectual William Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, crossed oratorical swords over the painful issues of peace and occupation, and, while most of the audience seemed to side with Ben-Ami, both men were heard and treated with dignity, and treated each other with dignity, too.
"As an Israeli observer," Shalev wrote, "I must admit I found myself envious of the ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct such a potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may no longer be possible."
Shalev attributed the respectful atmosphere, in part at least, to the relatively moderate tone and tenor of Kristol's remarks. He was not vulgar or offensive in reference to President Obama. And he proclaimed his support, in principle, for the two-state solution. Indeed, both debaters strove to eschew emotive extremism in their presentations.
But I believe that Kristol also earned the respect – perhaps subconsciously – of his audience in New York, and certainly deserves the gratitude of the wider pro-Israel community around the world, because of his honesty and intellectual rigor.
One statement of Kristol's, reported by Shalev, leaves us all in his debt. He had the integrity to say that which his 'camp' – the ruling coalition in Israel and its supporters abroad – assiduously conceal behind a smokescreen of insincerity.
Israel has ruled the occupied territories for over 45 years, Kristol observed, and the indefinite maintenance of the current status quo “is also an option."
In this brief aside, almost an obiter dictum, Kristol helped answer – with gob-smacking honesty – the question that leaders and spokesmen for the Israeli right have spent decades dodging and ducking.
The question is simply: What do you intend to happen if you do not end the occupation?
For the left – for Jeremy Ben-Ami in the debate in New York – the answer is starkly clear. The Palestinians will demand one-man-one-vote. Israel will be unable to withstand that demand. Israel will lose its character as the Jewish sovereign state and will become, in effect, a bi-national state. The 'one-state solution.'
For the right, the question is invariably an occasion for obfuscating blather. For the religious right, that blather includes vague but menacing invocations of Divine providence and/or intervention.
But Kristol is not one to dissemble or blather. His answer is chillingly straightforward: We can withstand a Palestinian demand for one-man-one-vote. The indefinite maintenance of the current status quo “is also an option."
At once, with breathtaking simplicity, our national debate is framed in truthful terms. At its core it is about one's assessment of the feasibility of this 'indefinite maintenance' option. The left assesses it unfeasible – and says so. The right assesses it is feasible – and obfuscates.
What Kristol said is what Bibi believes. But Bibi would never say it, would never admit to believing it, because it is so politically incorrect. Kristol is under no such deceitful inhibitions.