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M. Cohen’s Case for Incrementalism

By Ameinu Office

Mitchell Cohen is a Baruch College/CUNY professor of political science, a former co-editor of Dissent Magazine and the author of “Zion and State: Nation, Class, and the Shaping of Modern Israel.”  During last year’s Israeli election, he published a series of pieces in The Huffington Post that featured an imaginary discourse with a fictional Israeli strategic analyst (“DD”).  He used this device to outline a course of mutual interim steps that could move the sides incrementally toward a two-state peace.  He realizes that Israel’s current government makes progress toward peace infinitely more difficult, but he praises the new Herzog/Labor Party set of proposals “as a useful and positive step.”

An alternative view is argued by dovish Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg in the American Prospect: Isaac Herzog: The Man With Small Answers.  Prof. Cohen responds to Gorenberg’s scathing critique of Herzog’s approach as follows:

Re-engagement has to be with a prospect of success or else it helps the wrong politics. It is not a matter of “small answers” versus big ones if the big ones will fail and lead to worse circumstances. I’ve much respect for Gorenberg but I don’t see how dovish Israeli intellectuals — I consider myself their comrade — have been more effective in recent memory than Herzog. There are many reasons why Netanyahu won reelection. These included his absurd (dangerous and opportunistic) appearance before Congress and and his sleazy innuendos about Israeli Arabs. But there is another bigger problem and doves need to face up to it: given what is going on in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Sinai, not to mention Iran’s general role in the region and the wobbly nature of Turkish foreign policy, do you really think it was feasible politically to go to Israeli citizens and say: make major strategic concessions because a two state-solution will be the region’s magic wand? Or would this send them to the Likud? And will it, in the future, keep sending them to the Likud, or Bennett or Lieberman, as doves who have failed to make their case to the Israeli public scamper to have it imposed by the outside world?

We doves have said the same things over and over, allowing us to be very righteous. But we keep losing while settlements keep growing. The hour gets later and later and we get more and more repetitious. One of the great problems of the left, historically, is a tendency to make up options and then choose between them on the basis of what seems most persuasive to us. Now pretend that the options are the two state-solution or a “one state solution” (which, as DD said in the dialogue in the Huffpost, should be given its right name: a “Civil War Solution).” The options we would prefer are not there right now — that too was DD’s point. So new options need to be sought even if we are uncomfortable with them. Like many people who follow Israeli politics, I’d prefer that Herzog and Labor be more effective, but their failure cannot be explained by reducing everything to a complaint that they don’t do exactly what doves imagine will be immediately achievable.

Part 1 of Prof. Cohen’s fictional dialogue with DD begins thusly:

Thanks to the communications revolution of recent decades, I have ongoing virtual exchanges with an imaginary Israeli strategic analyst. She works at the Kirya (the “Campus”), the defense ministry in Tel Aviv. Her grasp of the Mideast is keen; she distinguishes quickly between sensible political possibilities and postures.

I will call her DD. Yes, it rhymes with “Bibi,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname. He also calls himself “Mr. Security.” DD stands for “Defense Dove.” Although I’ve invented her, I am sure that her real life counterparts exist.  …

I contacted DD because I am an American friend of Israel who is very worried. Israel’s policies — foreign and domestic — have been hostage to Bibi’s right-wing agendas. And his ambition. “The person who has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue is the prime minister,” says Meir Dagan, ex-head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.  …

Cohen gives us a further inkling into how innovative interim steps may be pursued.  For example, here’s some of his thinking on resolving the situation of Palestinian refugees:

Israel, the PA, the Arab League, the U.S., the E.U. and the U.N. announce that they endorse a special “Right of Temporary Refuge” for Gaza Palestinians. About 2/3 of Gaza’s population of 1.5 million are refugees or children of refugees. Suffering and unemployment are widespread. They face repeated blow ups. Such a situation may please Hamas or Islamic Jihad recruiters but it means that Gazans have few choices in life.

So why not create an experimental “Right of Temporary Refuge?” Gaza’s refugees should have options to move elsewhere — temporarily. Or permanently.

They could have a special status in their new places of residence. They could opt for immigrant rights although reserving the right to become citizens of a future independent Palestinian state (including Gaza) or in a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation under a ‘law of return’ to either of these.  …

And his thoughts on Jerusalem:

… why not separate the idea of Jerusalem as a political capital city from Jerusalem as a spiritual capital? . . .

Israelis, Palestinians (Jordanians too, if they are involved) can all declare that Jerusalem is their cultural and spiritual capital. Tel Aviv can be Israel’s political capital (I’m talking to you from the Defense Ministry, which is already there). Ramallah can be the Palestinian political capital (or Amman of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation). 

Israel could move, say, its Transportation and Interior Ministries to Tel Aviv. Ramallah would be declared officially to be the Palestinian seat of government, while Palestinian ministries of, say, religion and education could be moved to east Jerusalem.

These link to the rest of Cohen’s Huffington Post dialogue with DD:

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