David Grossman is one of Israel's most celebrated intellectuals, with an impressive list of prizes for thoughtful and provocative fiction. He also authored descriptions of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians that capture conditions that derive from their own cultures and from living under the shadow created by Israel. Long an opponent of force to solve the country's problems, Grossman increased activity when his son became one of the soldiers killed during the Lebanon war of 2006.
Ha'aretz put a lengthy essay "Lift the Siege from Ourselves" above the major headline of page one. http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1178153.html Curiously, the same essay appears nowhere in the Ha'aretz edition translated into English for the internet. http://www.haaretz.com It may come later, its absence may reflect an argument at the summit of the Ha'aretz organization, or Grossman's Hebrew wandering through possibilities and constraints may defy simple rendering into English.
The essay reflects the efforts of an intellectual to use his mind to escape the trap of political reality. Grossman writes
"Israel cannot achieve full and genuine peace with Hamas in the foreseeable future, perhaps not in the distant future. Hamas does not recognize Israel and peace with it would demand the 'right of return,' and full withdrawal to the '67 lines, conditions there is no chance that Israel will agree to. But why does not Israel try to achieve, at least, what can be achieved at this stage. . . "
Grossman is too generous in describing Hamas' position. He indicates what Hamas says are its conditions for a cease fire, but Hamas also indicates explicitly that it would not agree to stop a struggle that it intends eventually to do away with the Jewish state.
But letting Grossman slip more than a bit for the sake of assessing what he writes, his essay reveals the impossibility of bending to Hamas' will ("there is no chance that Israel will agree"), but demands that Israel keep trying. If only we continue thinking and proposing we will eventually come up with something that will produce at least a cease fire and an exchange of prisoners.
Thought and talk are the tools of the intellectual, and Grossman expresses the certainty of his type that they must succeed eventually.
But what about other intellectuals who see political reality as imposing constraints on thought and talk? The intellectual process not only permits, but thrives on argument. Some of us may be wrong. All of us are likely to be wrong at one point of time or another. That is why research and writing--in both natural and social science--cannot stop with one study, survey, laboratory experiment or analysis.
The constraints apparent here are both on Hamas and on Israel. Hamas is mired in 1500 years of Islamic rhetoric. That rhetoric justifies a Muslim monopoly of control where Muslims say they should control. Some say that is everywhere. Others are more modest, but few are willing to concede Israel to the Jews.
Israel also has constraints. Its own people have learned from experience to be wary of the neighbors, especially those who proclaim Islamic rhetoric as the guide to action. Moreover, Israel's strength relies at least partly on an international community. "Anti-terror" is a uniting slogan that may survive even the artful efforts of the Obama administration to avoid linking terror with Islam. Were Israel to bend too close to the imagined possibilities of dealing with Hamas, what would it do to the international support held loosely together by the agreement that Hamas along with Hizbollah are archetypes of organizations that practice terror?
Grossman makes the point that Israel's stubbornness has not served it well. After years of refusing to deal with the PLO, Israel now recognizes the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations, and accepts the "two state" solution. True, but Israeli thought and talk by themselves did not change things. Other processes also happened, including Israel's use of force to persuade the Palestinians that their own persistence with violence would not work, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Cold War support of Palestinians along with other anti-Western insurgents.
No one should foreclose thought and talk. Force by itself will not produce acceptable and lasting results. But the intellectual who is genuinely open, rather than mired in the mantras of political allies, ought to recognize that even this small corner of the world is complex. Things may change to allow the victory of those who think and talk. But they might not.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem