Can Israel Unite?

In Iran’s nuclear program, Israel faces a threat like never before. Can a divided nation pull together in time to confront it?

Images of Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog rotate on a campaign billboard in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

Images of Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog rotate on a campaign billboard in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

June 8 2015
About the author

Edward Grossman’s journalism and fiction have been published in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.

Here in Jerusalem there are pensioners old enough to remember how, almost a half-century ago, Israel’s first national-unity government was born. You might say its father was Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt. He’d blockaded the Straits of Tiran via which Israel got oil from Iran, booted the UN peacekeepers from Sinai, massed his army there, and declared that his objective in any resulting war would be the end of the Zionist entity. “Death to Israel!” chanted the multitudes in Tahrir Square. Meanwhile the U.S., which ten years before had promised to keep the straits open, was too busy in Vietnam to keep its word.

Things in 1967 were clear. We faced an emergency, faced it by ourselves, and faced it with a government most of us didn’t trust anymore. “The government in its present composition,” said the editors of Haaretz, referring to the coalition headed by the Mapai party (the precursor of today’s Labor) under Levi Eshkol, “cannot lead the nation in its time of danger.” A few days after this call for a change, Eshkol and the Mapai barons who’d founded, built, defended, and run the country practically by themselves for its first nineteen years did what had to be done. They brought into the cabinet not just the one-eyed Moshe Dayan of the breakaway Rafi party but the radioactive Menachem Begin, founder and chief of Herut, the successor of the pre-state Irgun and precursor of Likud.

Back in ’67 we lacked television. David Ben-Gurion, the exhausting George Washington of his country, and prime minister until 1963, had used his standing to block it, declaring it distracting, destructive, vulgarizing. He was right—but anyhow, no TV, just AM/FM radio and Israeli newspapers in a dozen languages, plus, on shortwave, the Voice of America, the BBC, and, from Cairo, the blood-curdling Voice of the Arabs. People would cluster around transistor radios to listen for the army’s mobilization codewords and the latest foggy prewar bulletins, and strip newsstands as soon as the morning and evening papers arrived. The old International Herald-Tribune from Paris? Available only at Steimatzky’s bookshops, usually a day late. It was hard to be informed, especially about what was happening with respect to us in the capital of the free world, that is, Washington, D.C. The world was big.

Nowadays, it’s shrunk. Young Israelis clutching their iPhones may have only the vaguest idea of whom the country’s main airport, the one they use to fly to London, New York, and Kathmandu, is named for: some Zionist, right? There are fewer papers, like everywhere in the world, but offsetting this you have news 24/7, Turkish soccer on cable, celebrity chefs, Lena Dunham, Sky News and Fox, and above all the Internet. A post-postmodern cornucopia. This spring it felt as if the Jewish state was facing not one but two emergencies in a little hut in a global village where almost everything is or seems knowable in near-real time.

Our emergencies now are similar to yet different from those in 1967. The weeks till June 30 will tell if a formal deal with Iran, assuming one is signed, improves or worsens the so-called framework crafted at Lausanne’s magnificent Beau Rivage hotel by John Kerry, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and the foreign ministers of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Meanwhile, the narrowest of narrow Israeli governments has been drawing its first unquiet breaths. Benjamin Netanyahu, who mesmerizes the U.S. Congress with his speeches but at home—despite being the nation’s choice for prime minister—is just another pol, called early elections hoping for a government with fewer ministers exiting cabinet meetings to badmouth him to the press. Instead, he’s gotten a Knesset in which any member who takes it into his or her head can bring down the government. In order to create this freakish government, “Bibi” had to pay off and appease the rabbinical parties and consent to set aside a law drafting ḥaredi yeshiva boys; had to hand the economics ministry to an ex-felon; and had to give virtual carte blanche to the settler party when it comes to the West Bank or, if you like, Judea and Samaria.

What a saga of the tails wagging the dog! Yet, rather than opprobrium, Netanyahu deserves sympathy. He let himself be wagged, he did whatever necessary to remain in office, because of his conviction that he’s better suited than anybody else to head off the worst of all possible deals with Iran and prevent the West Bank/Judea and Samaria from becoming a launching pad for rockets aimed at Ben-Gurion airport, downtown Tel Aviv, the Knesset, and Yad Vashem. This conviction happens to be shared by most voters, including those of us in love with neither him nor his wife. But any politician in our hyper-democracy would’ve been in the same coalition-forming bind—including Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, leader of the defeated Zionist Union (ZU), a joint venture of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s probably-soon-to-be-defunct Hatnua party.

As the miraculous infant of a resurrected Jewish state has grown up, too many of its citizens have Balkanized themselves into special interests.

Might the trouble be nothing more than a reformable system? The threshold for a party to get into the Knesset was always 2 percent of the total vote until last year when, with Netanyahu’s support and the ZU abstaining, it was increased to 3.25 per cent. Yet the upshot was only a negligible cut in the number of qualifying parties (from twelve to ten), and more rather than less wild horse-trading. No, the fault isn’t in our system but in ourselves. Even if the threshold were raised to 5 percent, as in Germany or the Czech Republic, it probably wouldn’t help. As the miraculous infant of a resurrected Jewish state has grown up, too many of its citizens have Balkanized themselves into special interests: settlers and their friends, Ashkenazi black hats, Sephardi black hats, bareheaded Ashkenazi post-Zionists, Arabs, and so forth. “Give them peace, brothers,” the same Nasser who forced the Six-Day War said, maybe apocryphally, “and they’ll devour themselves.” We’re not doing that, not yet, but too many of us enjoy being pains in the neck to one another until the wolf is halfway through the door.

Scarcely a day goes by without news on TV and in the papers reflecting this and worse. You have stories of abusive rabbis, corrupt judges, gangster rub-outs, cops beating up an Ethiopian soldier, a gang rape in the once-venerated Israel Defense Forces. It’s no comfort that in the finest of other democracies, including the U.S., this and much worse happens, just as it’s no comfort that the rest of the post-Arab-Spring Middle East is drowning in gore. We live in a villa in the jungle, as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak says. A success story? Yes, on balance a miraculous one. A light unto the nations? There isn’t a former national light without its problems—England, France, the U.S., Israel.

Meanwhile, the wolf, in the shape of an Iranian bomb, is coming nearer. Within hours of its presentation on April 2, the Lausanne framework was being described one way by the U.S., another by the Iranians. The Americans said sanctions were to go away bit by bit once there was a final deal and the Iranians started making good on it, the Iranians said all of them were to go away immediately. Would there be a provision for clamping them back on? Kerry said yes, the urbane Zarif no. Would military bases be inspected? Barack Obama, the central actor in the drama, said yes, kind of, while the not-always-so-urbane Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says categorically not.

So in reality there was no framework, no agreement, not so much as a signed piece of paper, just a last-minute improvisation to stave off Congress’s passing the Kirk-Menendez bill that would have piled on even heavier sanctions.

Nevertheless, from here at least, it’s hard to see this non-framework collapsing or being revolutionized. Even in the Kerry-Obama version, the Iranians come out way ahead in retention of enriched uranium, retention of whirring centrifuges, the non-shuttering of Arak and Fordow, the non-disclosure of the details of a supposedly innocent nuclear program going back years. The side that held the weaker hand but learned to negotiate with its mother’s milk has so far outplayed the stronger side. And unsurprisingly so, for to send John Kerry and Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman against men weaned in the bazaar was to send a Little League team to play the Yankees when the Yankees were the Yankees. It was showing your joker but signaling that you were never going to play it—the joker meaning B-1s, F-22s, and the newest bunker-busters.

Zarif & Co. sensed this and will continue to sense and rely on it. Unless June 30 comes and goes inconclusively, the signed paper in English and Farsi with agreed-on translation presented to the world that day at Vienna’s historic Palais Coburg hotel is likely to grant the Islamic Republic two paths to a deliverable bomb—one by cheating, the other by waiting ten or fifteen years till expiration, at which time Obama himself says Iran can have it overnight. Ten or fifteen years: a blink in the lifetimes of nations Chinese, Jewish, or Persian.


Most of us here try not to romanticize the past. By the same token, we’ll admit that while we can and do airlift doctors, field hospitals, and sniffer dogs to Armenia, Turkey, Haiti, the Philippines, and Nepal after earthquakes and typhoons, we’re not quite the Israelis our grandparents were. On the whole they were harder, tougher, less corruptible, less superstitious, less merciful to the enemy, more given to everyday solidarity. The only tattoos you saw were numbers on forearms.

Likewise, the emergency we face now differs from theirs in ’67. Instead of thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops on ceasefire lines a few kilometers from Tel Aviv, there’s an Islamic Republic a screwdriver turn from atomic bombs—a regime whose quasi-divine leader, the world’s oldest Tweeter, hankers for the “annihilation” of the “barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel,” and who in the wake of Lausanne led chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”

The Iranian danger dwarfs the one in ’67, and almost all of us grasp it. Even our super-dovish famous novelist David Grossman said that Netanyahu wasn’t crying wolf on Capitol Hill.

Around the corner from President Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin’s official residence in Jerusalem is the Leo Aryeh Mayer museum of Islamic art, named for a Hebrew University orientalist. Visiting it, you’re reminded of the triumphs of Persian civilization. It has given the world exquisite miniatures, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, the desperate narratives of Scheherazade, and Cyrus who enabled the exiled Jews to return from Babylonia to Jerusalem, and it refined the Hindu version of chess into the game Bobby Fischer, the Polgar sisters, and Garry Kasparov would do so well at. Yes, a great nation—whose former president, the moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani, said three months after 9/11 that the “pseudo-state” of Israel, a “tumor in the body of the Islamic world,” could be vaporized with “one nuclear bomb.” If he was thinking of ground zero as Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, where Haaretz is read over croissants, Rafsanjani wasn’t far wrong.

Which means that the danger in the not-so-long run dwarfs the one when Nasser was whipping up the crowds in Tahrir, and almost all of us grasp it. Our super-dovish famous novelist David Grossman, for instance, recently told an Italian newspaper that Netanyahu wasn’t crying wolf on Capitol Hill. Though he didn’t, Grossman could have added that it was vital Netanyahu speak there, and not just because history and his father’s and brother’s ghosts would never have forgiven him if he hadn’t. Vital to give the speech, vital for Obama to assure it maximum publicity by letting it be known beforehand he wouldn’t be watching on TV, vital for Obama to send operatives here to defeat Netanyahu in the Knesset elections, and vital for Netanyahu to be reelected. Otherwise, it would have been said the Israelis don’t care, so why should anybody?

But once Netanyahu spoke and was reelected, what would’ve been helpful was a national-unity government. It could have put Obama, Khamenei, and the world on notice that we were at one and in earnest, making it harder for Obama to pit “good” American Jews against “bad” as he did at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue in late May, and its mind-concentrating presence offstage could also have helped him plug the holes in the Swiss cheese of Lausanne—if, that is, he wanted to. Most important, it would have reassured us that if June 30 isn’t hugely better than the non-framework, or if there’s no deal, and if, either way, Israel’s cabinet finds itself having to vote to strike before the S-300 ground-to-air batteries are in place around Fordow and elsewhere, the decision won’t be only that of the right and the center-right but also of the center-left—important because when and if there is a strike, everybody on the home front, right-wing, left-wing, or no-wing, God-fearing, atheist, or agnostic, may suffer as never before.

Once Netanyahu was reelected, what would’ve been helpful was a national-unity government. It could have put Obama, Khamenei, and the world on notice that we were at one and in earnest.

True, in 1981, when Begin ordered the air force to destroy Saddam’s reactor, he did so as prime minister of a narrow coalition, having first briefed Shimon Peres, the head of the opposition—and Peres told him not to do it. But the risks then as compared with those now, and not just to the home front, seem minor.

And the home front wants a unity government. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University early in April found that whereas before the election most respondents didn’t want one, now 49 per cent did, with the others splitting their choices among a narrow government, don’t know, don’t care, or don’t feel like answering. If there’d been an effort, the percentage of pro’s could have been upped to 59 or 69 or more.

Then, soon after the poll, the Zionist Union put out a paper spelling out how Lausanne could be fixed. The Iranians would have to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with a complete history of work in enrichment, weaponization, and delivery, and there’d have to be an open-ended, anytime, anywhere, no-excuses, no-delay, on-the-spot verification drill together with a “permanent” and “absolute” ban on nuclear weapons research and development. For good measure, the ZU wanted “a-priori legitimization for any action Israel will need to undertake to maintain its security.”

If this list goes farther in ways than Netanyahu went in his speech to Congress, it shouldn’t be astonishing. Everybody knew that the man slated to be ZU’s minister of defense was Amos Yadlin, one of the fighter-bomber pilots who gutted Saddam Hussein’s reactor in 1981, and chief of military intelligence when Bashar Assad’s met the same fate in 2007. Yadlin believes that crippling Nantanz, Fordow, Arak, and Isfahan is a mission we can accomplish ourselves without B-1s, F-22s, or the newest bunker-busters.

Yet odds are that neither Yadlin nor Herzog expects Lausanne to be put to rights. They must know as well as Netanyahu knows that the American president, in his effort to reconfigure the Middle East, holds two aces allowing him to proceed no matter what—and no matter that all three of America’s living heavyweight ex-secretaries of state are unhappy with him. Writing for the online Wall Street Journal, available here instantaneously, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz said that Lausanne even in its Obama-Kerry version had morphed the purpose of the exercise from stopping Iran getting a nuclear weapon to conceding it, thereby also touching off a proliferation derby in the very last area of the world needing one. Unless the holes in the deal were filled, they wrote, the U.S. should walk away. In the same newspaper, the icy James Baker, never our warmest well-wisher, went farther. Obama, he said, should’ve told Kerry to persuade his counterparts in the P5+1 not even to meet Zarif in Vienna unless and until Lausanne was revised. Doable? Working for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the elder George Bush back in the 20th century, Kissinger, Shultz, and Baker could’ve done it and probably wouldn’t have landed everybody in this mess in the first place. But this is Kerry in a different America in a different world working for a different president.


Speaking at Adas Israel, the current president described himself as an “honorary member of the tribe.” And in fact the “tradition” of a Passover seder at the White House is one he inaugurated—a tradition all future White House residents may have to honor whether they feel like it or not. Watching his speech on YouTube, an Israeli had to admire his touch. Every requisite note hailing Jewish contributions to American greatness was struck—Einstein, Brandeis, Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement, the unionized-labor movement. Contributions to great American moral values, that is: the values Obama declared that the U.S. and Israel share or at least used to share. “I came to know Israel,” he remembered, “as a young man through those incredible images of kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir [whose] values in many ways came to be my own.”

This must have struck any Israeli who believes there’s indeed been a generational falling-off. If there’s one Zionist who embodied the Israel that Obama says inspired him as a boy in Jakarta, it was Ben-Gurion. Yet beware the pitfalls of nostalgia! So long as he was prime minister, B-G not only blocked TV but saw to it that the Arabs of Israel—citizens inside the Green Line—remained under military rule. The rosy-tinted Israel of our grandparents, of Exodus with Paul Newman, of Dayan, Golda, and the bronzed kibbutzniks, was simultaneously revolutionary and fairly harshly illiberal.

No way for an Israeli viewing YouTube to guess how many in the D.C. sanctuary knew this. Obama himself may not know. But having evoked Golda & Co., he went on to argue that since present-day American values and Israel’s founding values are indistinguishable, and since Israel’s well-being is close to his heart, he’s obligated to hold us to the highest moral standard and demand we get reacquainted with the better angels of our nature, especially apropos of the Palestinians. Call it tough love. Only if we find a way to give the kids of Ramallah the “right to be a free people in their land” will we clinch for ourselves “a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.”

He has a point. If things between the Jordan and the Mediterranean go on as they’re going, it will put paid to most of what Herzl, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion dreamed of and realized. No argument there, but two problems. First, values or no values, we’ve offered the Palestinians a state multiple times and every time they’ve violently rejected it. Second, nations like individuals have priorities, and you can’t re-embrace the old values if along with the Palestinians you’ve been vaporized in a Shiite Götterdämmerung. And that’s probably why Obama gave this Jewish American Heritage Month address in that place at this juncture—to secure his Jewish base ahead of the coming deal with Iran, the Senate’s disapproval of the deal, his veto of that disapproval, and the ensuing battle over that veto.

“Iran must not, under any circumstances,” he said from the pulpit as he has said many times in many other places, “be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.” He’d offered the same reassurance a few days earlier in an Oval Office warm-up interview with the columnist and Adas Israel congregant Jeffrey Goldberg, prefacing it with the need to distinguish between “people of good will” who may be critical of Israel and “somebody who is hostile toward Israel”:

And you know, I actually believe that most American Jews, most Jews around the world, and most Jews in Israel recognize [that distinction]. And that’s part of the reason why I do still have broad-based support among American Jews. It’s not because they . . . aren’t worried about Iran having a nuclear weapon or what Hizballah is doing in Lebanon. It’s because I think they recognize, having looked at my history and having seen the actions of my administration, that I’ve got Israel’s back.

His motives needn’t be impugned, but while he could well be right about most American Jews, he’s wrong about Israelis left, right, and center. The polling substantiates random impressions: just one in five of us think he can be depended on to keep Iran from the bomb or to stand with us. Paranoid? Unfair? After all, this is the president who recently had his UN ambassador kill a move to stick the UN’s nose into Dimona, and who okayed another $1.9-billion’s worth of state-of-the-art missiles, bombs, and F-35s to sweeten the bitter pill coming on June 30. Yet he’s not trusted. Maybe it’s because giving people the benefit of the doubt is among our lost virtues, or maybe it’s because in 2009 the president announced he was going to put some daylight between the U.S. and Israel and because he, his vice-president, and his secretary of state raise the roof whenever somebody encloses her balcony in a neighborhood of Jerusalem across the Green Line.

Obama’s motives needn’t be impugned, but the fact remains that Israelis left, right, and center do not believe he has their back.

There’s no reason to charge Obama with having it in for us or wanting Iran to have the bomb. More likely he’s aiming to reset the godforsaken Middle East to everybody’s benefit, above all the benefit and interest of the U.S. He may be hoping that as this reset opens Iran up, and as the irresistible soft power exerted by Hollywood and Apple over the pro-American young does its thing, in ten or fifteen years the Islamic Republic will have vanished from the pages of history and been replaced by something less barbaric. Never mind that, 43 years after Mao greeted Nixon in Beijing, the streets and campuses of the Peoples Republic of China are filled with young people gabbing on their iPhones but unable to access Google, Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, or YouTube, and the Communist party remains in the saddle. Obama may be hoping for and intending a better Iranian outcome, and who’s to say his intentions will turn out to be of the kind hell is paved with.

In any case, that’s where his pair of aces comes in. The first is the bill named for Senators Bob Corker (R) and Benjamin Cardin (D), which sailed through Congress and which the president is going to sign. It entitles senators to give speeches about the June 30 deal when it’s unveiled and vote to approve or disapprove. But since, unlike almost all past U.S. nuclear-weapons agreements, this one isn’t being labeled a treaty, it won’t have to get 67 consenting votes. If the Senate disapproves it, all the White House need do is rely on, persuade, or blackmail 34 Democrats to sustain a veto. Charles Schumer and a dozen other Democrats could vote to disapprove and then, following a veto, abstain, without killing a Democratic president’s foreign-policy brainchild. If a president, any president, really, really wants to do something overseas, he can probably do it, even if a foreigner’s eloquence mesmerizes a joint session of Congress.

There’s a second ace that Yadlin, a Harvard graduate, and Herzog, a Cornell graduate, know Obama holds. While most Americans outside of the Ivy League give him an overall failing grade, and remain sympathetic to us, they also say that they’ve had it with the Middle East and accept that the choice is as he paints it: either a deal, nearly any deal, or another wretched war in another Muslim country. Or so they tell the pollsters. In a survey by the Associated Press, 59 percent of Americans think well of Lausanne—though 70 percent are also sure that the Iranians will honor nothing they sign. Call it a cognitive disconnect, and notice also that only 16 percent say they’re paying close attention to the negotiations. Still, it’s a fair guess that the numbers on any June 30 deal will follow the same line.

Meanwhile any Israeli with access to the Huffington Post and the talkbacks of the Washington Post will also know that some Americans have no sympathy for us anymore. They’re seething at our ingratitude, arrogance, ḥutzpah. After all, the president is the elected and reelected president of the United States and not obliged to act as if what’s good for Israel is necessarily good for the U.S. or for what’s left of Western civilization. Talk about dogs and tails! We Israelis take billions in military goodies, they say, and yet, instead of exhibiting gratitude and consideration, we demand America jump into more and more quagmires for us. Why should Americans fight the wars Bibi is too cowardly or clever to fight himself? And now, in compensation for peace with Iran, those Jews—correction, those Israelis—are reported to want their annual $3 billion from U.S. taxpayers increased to $4.5 billion. All in the name of shared values and democracy, of course.

Herzog and Yadlin know that no American draftee or volunteer has ever been sent into harm’s way for Israel. They also know that the late Ariel Sharon, who badly burned his fingers in Beirut, warned George W. Bush against going to Baghdad, and that almost all those of American billions are required to be spent on the big-ticket purchase of F-15s, F-16s, and soon F-35s from Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and General Dynamics in California, Georgia, New York—in other words on employment for Americans. Herzog maybe and Yadlin definitely remember how in the mid-1980s, when none other than Reagan was president, the U.S. made Israel kill the Lavi project: a homegrown fighter-bomber that equaled or bettered the F-16 at two-thirds the unit cost, that would have enabled us to make do with tremendously less aid, but that would have competed with U.S. products in many countries and reduced U.S. leverage over its best friend in the Middle East.

Countries have interests. Geopolitics is an unsentimental business. The more life-or-death goodies provided, the more dependent the recipient. And what exactly was it that an unnamed somebody in the White House was gloating about when he or she sneered to Jeffrey Goldberg last year that Netanyahu was a chickenshit? Why, about Netanyahu’s yielding to American pressure and warnings and failing to bomb Iran himself. The truth is more interesting than the outrage of those who dislike us—yet Herzog, Yadlin, and others among us are aware that both those who like us and those who don’t like us have little stomach for another Middle East war.


Which brings us back to the desirability of a national-unity government in Jerusalem. Could it have been formed? Could it still be? In late March, although most of us may have wanted one, it didn’t even begin to take shape, let alone see the light of day. The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t enough time, or that the Netanyahu-loathing editors of Haaretz would have screamed bloody murder; in fact, although there was no 1967-style statement by the editorial board as a whole, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Aluf Benn, came out under his own name for a Netanyahu-Herzog linkup to quiet things down with the U.S. and maximize the chances of a tolerable June 30 deal. It didn’t help, and not only because Haaretz lacks the gravitas, prestige, clout, and mastery of Hebrew it used to have.

The task would have required a movement, call it Aḥdut Akhshav, Unity Now. Full-page ads would’ve had to be placed in Haaretz, Israel Hayom, Yediot, Maariv, the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post and the Russian and French papers; there would have to have been decals, billboards, Honk-for-Unity opportunities at highway junctions, TV spots featuring ex-Liverpool offensive midfielder Yossi Benayoun, the Iranian-born pop chanteuse Rita, and David Grossman, an online petition gaining a few hundred-thousand signatures in record time—all impossible without know-how, passion, and money. It would also have taken demonstrations at the official residences or private homes of Netanyahu, Herzog, Livni, Moshe Kahlon, Yair Lapid, and Avigdor Lieberman, tent encampments not to be folded until all of them went hand in hand to Rubi Rivlin.

Or maybe it would have been enough for Netanyahu and Herzog to have joined with Kahlon’s party, Kulanu (a spinoff of Likud). These three, together with the easily bought-off black hats, could have made an unassailable coalition of 77 seats, four more than Eshkol had in 1967 when he let in Dayan and Begin. This assumes, of course, that Netanyahu and Herzog could keep their respective parties, each of them a factionalized tinderbox, from exploding. It’s neither man’s fault that it’s not easy leading Jews these days. Think of Sharon, who after his 2005 pullout from Gaza had to depart Likud, the party he’d made for Begin, and create Kadima, a party that couldn’t survive his death and Ehud Olmert’s criminality. And Arik was one brave Jew.

A unity government now would be a blessing for a number of reasons, among them the ability to make it easier for us to decide to strike.

Might we nevertheless have another chance at a unity government now, and be spared the delights of another election? It’s never too late, and Netanyahu obviously wants it since he’s keeping the foreign-minister job for Herzog or for the movie-star handsome Lapid. A bigger tent immediately would be a blessing for any number of reasons. Not only could it pressure Obama to tell (the now-injured) Kerry and the about-to-retire Sherman to do their best in Vienna, and, if the best weren’t good enough, not only would it make it easier to decide to strike, but there could be other benefits as well. No doubt, as a condition for entering the government, Herzog or Lapid would demand a resumption of talks with the Palestinians, and when these inevitably lead nowhere, the Obama- and Hillary Clinton-voting Jews of the U.S. might understand that it’s not because of the wicked Netanyahu that our half-brothers the Palestinians won’t make peace, just as it wasn’t due to him that they rejected two-state solutions in 1937, 1947, 2000, 2001, and 2008 and instead went to war. You have to credit the Palestinians with keeping the faith, with endurance and playing the long game, but you might think that by now this pattern, and the reason for it, would have sunk in with more of our American kin, as it has for most of us here. Still, again, it’s never too late.

A wider government: desirable, imaginable, but not a good bet. Herzog isn’t the strong man and politician that Begin was. If in 1967 Begin was unchallengeable in his own party, and stood to be more widely legitimized by sitting in a government for the first time even as a minister without portfolio, Herzog is vulnerable. He’s chosen to lead the kind of fighting opposition that all democracies need in ordinary times by hounding Netanyahu, trying to crash the government, and putting us through new elections—at a moment in history when that’s exactly not what we need. A moment when the sounds audible here are the BDS movement and the Palestinian Authority rubbing their hands, when the PA is getting ready to haul us in front of the International Criminal Court, and when investors are lining up to reserve hotel rooms in Tehran.

Herzog has chosen to lead the kind of fighting opposition that all democracies need in ordinary times. But at this moment in history, that’s exactly not what we need.

Theoretically, anything is possible before and on June 30. Instead of a deal, the day could bring an extension of the never-ending talks, or a climactic flop as dangerous in its way as a success. On the face of it, the possibility of no deal has grown since John Kerry, channeling Lance Armstrong, broke a femur: a bad business in a seventy-one-year-old. Although until then he’d been indefatigable, this could slow him and complicate both the talks and the selling of a deal to at least a minimum of Democratic senators. But that’s only on the face of it. More likely, we’ll be seeing Kerry flying back across the ocean in a cast and after the July 4th weekend testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a wheelchair.

Obama understands that another extension would put his Middle East reset in question. Therefore he’s determined to get a deal done now, and therefore, having spoken with Goldberg in the White House and to the Jews at Adas Israel, after Kerry’s mishap he sat down for Israel’s version of 60 Minutes to speak to us directly. It wasn’t the first time. Back in 2013 when he visited here and went over Netanyahu’s head to a crowd of bareheaded twenty-somethings in Jerusalem’s largest convention hall, he hit the same notes as with Goldberg, the Adas crowd, and now on TV. “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland,” he said to thousands of our dovish military-age young, “the Palestinians [too] have a right to be a free people in their own land.” (Applause). “You are not alone. . . . Challenge your leaders. . . . Put yourselves into the shoes of a Palestinian child.” (Applause). Repeated interruptions for applause, and indeed opinion polls verified that his words earned him a boost with Israelis young, middle-aged, and old.

But two years later the thrill is gone—his approval rating even with the bareheaded Israeli young is no higher than with their young counterparts in Ramallah or Cairo. With us, the probable reason isn’t mysterious. If back then he  swore that “all options” to keep Iran from getting the bomb were “on the table,” lately he’s not used this phrase, and in his TV interview he went and took the option of options off the table. “A military solution will not fix it.” This was new. In effect, by publicly ripping up the joker and throwing it away he vindicated those here and elsewhere who never credited his options talk, not even in 2012 when in another Goldberg interview he said, “I don’t bluff.” By coming clean, he was confessing that he’s set on making a deal. So the smart money is laying that leg or no leg, Kerry, Sherman, and Zarif will be wreathed in smiles on June 30 as they meet a mob of international media in the Palais Coburg or maybe in Geneva.

Having listened to the interview, Zarif must be under instructions from the Supreme Leader to get out from under sanctions without terminating the Iranian bomb program, while Kerry and Sherman will have been told again by Obama not to come back empty-handed. The deal they return with will be advertised as great, and if not great then good, and if not good then the best possible and certainly preferable to war. It looks as if by Labor Day, even if Congress doesn’t lift its own sanctions, Obama will be in a position to waive presidential sanctions, including on banks, while the UN, the EU, and the rest of the P5+1 collapse the sanctions regime, triggering a gold rush to Tehran of Chinese, Russians, Halliburton, not to mention Apple and hordes of freelancers. How many of the hundreds of billions of dollars in unfrozen assets, newly-koshered oil revenues, and so forth will go to Hizballah’s graying Hassan Nasrallah, the beleaguered Assad in Syria, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank, and how many into better centrifuges and nuclear-capable long-distance missiles?


And yet we’re happy. An emergency—but there are no unity demonstrations, and life goes on. The Jews and for that matter the Arabs within the Green Line continue manufacturing Intel chips, going to the beach, shopping, joking, griping, studying, inventing, having children, healing the Jewish and Arab sick, violating one or two or more of the Ten Commandments, and paying no attention to Judith Butler, academic doyenne of the global anti-Israel left. We’re not yet devouring ourselves and, no matter the government, society remains incorrigibly progressive. We temporarily lock up angel-faced mass murderers and then exchange them, healthy and laughing and flashing the V sign, for IDF prisoners at a ratio of a thousand to one—unlike juries in Boston. And our digitally-altered young? Well, they may not know much Zionist history but the best of them do what Ben-Gurion insisted a Zionist must, namely, stay in the homeland or, if they leave for a while, come back. Even most of our so-called post-Zionists don’t remain in Berlin. Flying in, too, are a good number of immigrants from Paris and Kiev, even some from New York, even one or two from San Francisco.

Israel is in a state of emergency, but there are no unity demonstrations, and we’re actually pretty happy. Does this make us masochistic? Oblivious? Maybe, maybe not—we ourselves don’t know.

Why not? Politics isn’t everything, and there’s more to life than the news, even news about the shenanigans of Israelis in high places. Light unto the nations or no light unto the nations, the UN’s latest World Happiness Report puts us at number 11 out of 158 nation-states. We’re behind the Swiss and Icelanders but ahead of the Americans, Brits, and French, and light years ahead of the Iraqis, Syrians, and Iranians who bring up the rear and, at 108th place, the Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line who according to the UN’s social scientists already constitute a nation-state. There’s also the World Gay Happiness Index where we rank seventh of 127 nations, behind only Scandinavia and Canada and ahead of the rest of Europe and the U.S., while the Muslim nations come in last.

Yes, we’re pretty happy. Does this make us masochistic? Oblivious? Maybe, maybe not—we ourselves don’t know. Though we’re not our grandparents, and though we’re alive to the danger, we carry on while the IDF rehearses and rehearses and rehearses again an operation shorter in range but far more complex than the one in which the prime minister’s brother Jonathan died in 1976.

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran nuclear program, Isaac Herzog, Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs