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A Failure of Leadership & Imagination

by Editor on February 2nd, 2011

“Mr. Netanyahu called on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to resume peace negotiations without preconditions. But the prime minister also said it was possible that the gaps between the two sides were too wide to be bridged.” The New York Times, February 2, 2011


Between 1933-1945, the German government murdered around 6 million Jews, as part of an official policy of state-sanctioned genocide. Two years after the creation of the state of Israel, the two nations were talking. Twenty years after the end of the war, in 1965, Germany and Israel established formal diplomatic relations. By 2008, Germany and Israel had $6 billion in annual bilateral trade, and Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner after the United States.

There is probably some crude math one could do there—6 million dead Jews to $6 billion in annual trade—but let’s skip to the point: over a 78 year period, the situation between Germans and Jews went from desperately murderous to fairly lucrative.


Between the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and now, 2011, fewer than 100,000 Israelis have been killed, despite several wars, numerous terrorist attacks, and a long-standing and simmering conflict with the Palestinians and some Arab nations. While there has been a peace treaty in place with Egypt since 1979, Israel has not been able to negotiate a formal peace with its Palestinian neighbors over the last 63 years.

Recently released papers suggest that the failure to make a peace deal over the last decade rests more with the Israelis than the Palestinians—despite common perceptions to the contrary—but the question of who precisely is to blame for this irrelevant right now. What matters is the mindset embodied by the expression of distance by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: that we cannot make peace, the gap between our views is too big.

I am having a tough time with the irony here. That would be the irony of Israel’s largely happy and mutually beneficial trading relationship with the nation that once murdered millions of Israel’s progenitor Jews—while steadfastly insisting that peace is not possible with a neighbor whose inflicted casualties have been but a fraction of the damage previously done.

In 2011, of course, most of the Germans who participated in World War II are dead, and most of the Jews who managed to survive the holocaust are also dead. By contrast, many more of the Israelis and Palestinians involved in conflicts since 1948 remain alive. But this suggests that some generational turnover is necessary for peace, and that was clearly not true with Germany.  Nor can one simply point to German reparations or an internal sense of guilt and shame, and suggest that these kinds of feelings are missing on the Palestinian side: post-war Germany had plenty of ex-Nazis in government, presumably no less anti-Semitic than they had been before, and it took decades for the view of German history to catch-up to the reality of the war and the holocaust. There are also demographic and different kinds of existential threats from the Palestinians, sure. Yet what is more of an existential threat than concentration camps, gas chambers, and ovens—things that the Palestinians (for all their issues with Jews and Israelis) have never attempted to construct.


I can understand the fear and trepidation that must result from watching the revolution in Egypt play out, with uncertain outcomes on a range of fronts. Still, the perspective captured by that New York Times article and others is depressing. This is a tumultuous time. But tumultuous times demand bold and visionary leadership. An Israel that found ways to support democracy in Egypt might find an Egypt that supports Israel. And an Israel that took this moment of tumult to re-engage with the Palestinians, to finally seek a conclusion to this conflict and the senseless Occupation, might find the long-desired peace it seeks with the Palestinians as well as with its other Arab neighbors.


1. There is an excellent piece in The Economist about supporting democracy in Egypt, rather than fearing it.
2. The New York Times is running a story about fears in Israel, again reinforcing the Israeli view that repression in Egypt is better than democracy. Also sad is the degree of support that this view receives from the likes of Malcolm Hoenlein and others, who still pretend to represent the broad views of American Jews. And on that note, if you (still) have not read Peter Beinart’s incredible piece on this broad subject, please do.
3. Read Yasmine El Rashidi’s posts on the New York Review of Books blog. Click here, then click the tab for the “NYRBLOG” right under her bio.

From → Foreign Affairs

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