One of US President Barack Obama’s few admitted regrets is his inability to conjure up an instant resolution to our vexing dispute. This seems a tad odd considering that during her recent whirlwind visit to our troublesome midst, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had waxed ecstatic about this being a time of “great change and transformation in the region.”
If things are so upbeat, why are they so intractable?
Both Obama and Clinton would be a lot less frustrated and much wiser had they turned to the late Yitzhak Shamir for clues.
He was endlessly mocked by members of our chattering classes when he stated outright that “the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs.” He plainly harbored no illusions in a wishy-washy world of wishful-thinking, where reality often becomes a most unwelcome intruder.
Political vogue decrees that disagreeable facts shouldn’t inconsiderately interfere with uplifting fantasy, but Shamir didn’t mind being denigrated as insular, intransigent and above all terminally uncool.
With both his feet solidly on the ground, he had no patience for pipe-dreams about a phenomenal sea change in the Arab mind-set. Continuity appeared more plausible, especially given the depth and duration of virulent Arab enmity toward the Jewish state. Hardhearted hate is unlikely to wondrously dissipate overnight.
Shamir sounded this observation on more than one occasion and in a variety of contexts, most notably on the eve of the 1991 Madrid Conference to which he went unwillingly and in which he had no trace of trust.
Yet his reluctant participation in what he termed as the Madrid charade suffices for many today to misrepresent him as the trailblazer to what eventually culminated in the Oslo folly.
When Shamir took over from Menachem Begin as Israel’s seventh prime minister in 1983, our ever-presumptuous trendsetters and omniscient opinion-molders disdained him and scorned what they determined were his unimaginative orientations and do-nothing proclivities. They couldn’t stand him. He was anathema to them no matter how much they now, after his death, expediently reinvent him, much as they have been dishonestly skewing Begin’s legacy for decades.
But the truth is that Shamir was never cool and never aspired to be popular. He aspired to do the right thing, a fact which in and of itself made him different, an odd bird in a setting obsessed with the façade but leery of the substance. And if the right thing meant keeping mum, Shamir didn’t answer his voluble detractors and didn’t get dragged into verbal bouts.
In an interview years ago, I asked him whether he didn’t think he was thereby losing the battle for public opinion by default. He insisted that “most of the time the least said is best.” It was his “responsibility not to babble needlessly,” even if that cost him support.
And it doubtlessly did. By no means a spellbinding orator, he was consciously devoid of charisma and never sought to correct what was perhaps a fatal flaw for someone who found himself in the political vortex. Unperturbed by PR, Shamir said things as he saw them, in those few times when he did tersely comment on anything (always, as befits a former underground fighter and top Mossad operative, without divulging much of anything).
Referring to political deals, he quipped, “Did I ever recommend not implementing them? What’s good should be implemented and what’s bad shouldn’t.” Plain and simple, without embellishments. He was candid enough to opine that “for the sake of Eretz Yisrael it’s permissible to lie.”
With equal forthrightness, he told me on his return from Madrid that “a vast sea divides Jews from Arabs. For starters, Jews genuinely long for peace. The Arabs do not want peace. They crave our defeat, which they call peace.”
Have all the tumultuous events of the more than two decades that had elapsed since our conversation proven Shamir wrong? Hardly. They reveal his insight as acute and unerring.
The sea remains the same sea and the Arabs hadn’t transformed from what they were long before Oslo, disengagement, a couple of peace contracts, numerous negotiation rounds, recurring wars or even Israel’s independence. Unheedful of Shamir’s cautionary admonitions, we Israelis may have honed our self-delusionary predilections, but – like it or not – we’re still surrounded by implacable enemies.
Egypt is a compelling case in point. Shamir opposed Israel’s pullout from Sinai. Despite his then-role as Knesset speaker, he significantly abstained in the vote on the Camp David accords and even more thunderingly on the subsequent vote to ratify the finalized peace treaty in March 1979.
In the short haul, it may then have appeared that he was too stiff-necked. Perhaps Israel couldn’t be seen, even for its own internal reasons, as shunning what looked like a miraculous peace. Perhaps there was no choice.
Nevertheless, as Shamir suspected, that epic concession opened the floodgates to follow-up concessions. He did his darndest to stem the tide. When he headed the second national unity coalition, Shamir unhesitatingly fired his coalition partner and foreign minister Shimon Peres. It was three years pre-Oslo, in 1990.
Peres behaved like a law unto himself and pursued (not for the first time) covert assignations with Jordan behind Shamir’s back, in violation of every conceivable democratic principle. Shamir wouldn’t countenance Peres’s insubordinate freelance negotiations. He courageously risked an attempt to topple him, which indeed came, but refused to give into Peres’s ultimatum (hatched with the notorious James Baker).
However, in the long haul Peres had his way.
Shamir’s weak successor, Yitzhak Rabin, later fell for Peres’s unauthorized fait accompli, the Osloite chimera. What began in Camp David bore bitter fruit.
What have we to show today for all our sacrifices for an elusive, apparently unattainable peace? If the shaky peace with Egypt isn’t abrogated soon by its Muslim Brotherhood overlords, it will only be because the new regime might be too busy confronting the old-guard military establishment, reconvening the dissolved parliament, solidifying its hold on power, settling outstanding scores, feeding the teeming masses and paving the path to Shari’a law.
If and when it suits the religious radicals who now hold sway in Cairo, they will redirect domestic tensions toward the universally abhorred Israel. The paper on which the treaty with Egypt was signed is as durable as the tactics/ whims of the new bosses.
Much as Obama, Clinton et al may kid themselves (and us), post-Arab Spring Egypt is anti-Western and rabidly Judeophobic. As Shamir always counseled us to note, nothing changes overwhelmingly overnight. Deeply ingrained extremist dogmas don’t evaporate into scintillating stardust.
Contrary to Obama’s and Clinton’s rhetoric, the Muslim Brotherhood hadn’t serendipitously morphed into a secular democratic force for pragmatism, progress and pluralism.
We have already had an unappetizing foretaste.
The assault on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last September hardly grated against the grain of Egypt’s mainstream discourse. The taunting yells of Khaybar left no doubt about what motivated the mobs. As Muslims remember (and Jews forget) Khaybar was one of the Jewish enclaves which Islam’s progenitor Muhammad attacked in violation of treaty pledges. Jewish men were beheaded, women abducted and children enslaved. That’s the ideal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank and file.
Add to this such instances of ill-will as the sexual molestation of an American newswoman accused – falsely as it happens – of the unforgivable crime of being Jewish. Neither does it bode well that newly elected president Mohamed Mursi agitated in his victory speech for the release of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman – now imprisoned in the US for masterminding the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993. Clearly in Mursi’s eyes that was no crime but a laudable act.
All the above contribute to making our neighborhood more unpredictable and downright scarier than ever before – not that it ever was a paradigm of prudence. In the best of circumstances Egypt was never as good as its word, its sincerity or lack thereof notwithstanding.
For now, international opinion, stage-managed by Obama and Co., manages to somehow sashay past all aforementioned unpleasantness.
The syrupy story about the Arab multitudes yearning to be free is too sweet to pass up even if it isn’t quite true. But at least we here should be clued in enough to pass up on the saccharine, admit the truth and own up to the fact that Shamir was prescient and terrifyingly right.
We now face undeniably escalated danger from the largest Arab state, Egypt. Muslim diehards may soon overrun Syria, with wobbly Lebanon sure to be the next domino to fall. There’s no telling what the future holds for the artificial concoction that is Jordan (established on nearly 80 percent of the original Palestine). But that’s nothing new. Jordan always teetered unsteadily, a fact which further supports Shamir’s thesis that fundamentals stay the same.
If anything, whatever was in Shamir’s day is all the more so now – looming ever-more menacingly. Malice wasn’t banished. Indeed it was reinforced – just as our last pre-Oslo premier prophetically warned ahead of the Madrid pageant.
Paradoxically, his pro forma participation in that event triggered his political defeat. Incredibly, Shamir’s patriotic credentials couldn’t mitigate the fury of the Tehiya and fellow right-of-the- Likud factions. They brought Shamir down.
Then came a tragic chain of bad luck.
Rabbi Moshe Levinger of Hebron fielded his own ticket, ironically to protest against National Camp divisiveness. The 3,000 votes he attracted were too few to get him elected. Aguda’s disgruntled Eliezer Mizrahi also ran on his own and garnered several hundred votes.
Tehiya lacked fewer than 400 additional votes to surmount the then-1.5% Knesset entry hurdle.
All the votes Levinger and almost-as-hawkish Mizrahi flushed down the drain could have comfortably put Tehiya over the Knesset threshold with two seats and a surplus to spare.
That would have denied Rabin his initial blocking majority. His Labor-Meretz coalition would have never been formed. Oslo wouldn’t have been born. Nearly all the woes that torment us today can be traced to the proverbial loose horseshoe nail that cost Shamir the 1992 election.
He was followed by a crew that made it its objective to persuade us that however unchanging the sea may be, the Arabs are not the same Arabs. We know how that turned out.