Habonim Camp Moshava, which I attended as a camper many years ago, was then located on Maryland’s Severn River. The landmark (or watermark, I suppose) was significant, since the Severn was frequently infested with antisemitic jellyfish. (“Jellyfish” are actually not fish at all, since they are not vertebrates. They have no brain, either, but oh do they have tentacles, which they use to sting and even kill.)
The fact of the jellyfish was painfully obvious; their antisemitism was a reasonable assumption, since the river was commonly referred to in tourist literature and by riparians as “picturesque,” which couldn’t have been farther from the truth in our modest cove. Most of the time, swimming was cancelled there; to us, the Severn was a menace.
Downstream, however, on the banks of the selfsame river, was (and is) the fabled United States Naval Academy. And there, in just a few days, one of the oddest international conferences of all time is scheduled to take place.
The Annapolis conference, or meeting, featuring Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States, may or may not include as well Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, perhaps also Japan, Canada, Italy, Norway and diverse others. Many commentators have focused on what might be called a new version of “The Severn Menace” — to wit, the sting of a failed conference.
That is, indeed, a frightening thought, since failure would likely lead to a resumption of large-scale violence. More frightening still is the prospect of a terminal collapse of “the two-state solution,” the only way out of the conflict that is compatible with the survival of Israel as a Jewish state — itself an increasingly disputed concept these days.
It will be interesting, no doubt, to attend the aftermath of the conference. Because preliminary expectations are so modest, anything other than a collapse may be perceived as a success. At the same time, observers who predict failure may be so wedded to their dour predictions that even a limited success will be called a failure.
Myself, I lean toward optimism. I do that because I have in mind a poem about marriage by John Ciardi that begins with the lines, “Most like an arch: Two weaknesses leaning into a strength.”
At Annapolis, there will be three weaknesses, an unfamiliar coincidence. President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad preside over a deeply divided Palestinian community as heads of a government that rules by emergency decree; their failure to sustain the fragile hope of their people in a future beyond conflict will mark the loss of such tenuous control as they now enjoy. A defeat at Annapolis would presage a victory by Hamas.
As to President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose tenure at America’s helm seems doomed to end in disgrace and to be remembered as a national calamity, they have this one chance at redemption. In order to save themselves from ignominy, they need more at Annapolis than merely the absence of failure; so limited an achievement would not sufficiently respond to the debacle of Iraq. They need a conference that visibly kicks off a peace process that goes somewhere.
And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert? He, too, has nowhere to go but up. He is the target of several criminal investigations, and any day now the Winograd Commission is likely to report that he is responsible for the deaths, in the closing days of last year’s war in Lebanon, of 33 Israeli soldiers. A non-success at Annapolis would ensure that his period as prime minister will be regarded as a catastrophe.
Beyond such political motives as all the key parties bring to the table, Olmert at least brings one more thing: the absolute conviction that time is not on Israel’s side. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, has said as much and perhaps said it even more emphatically in recent days. What they say they say not in some general way, or in order to panic their fellow Israelis into compromise. They say it and intend it quite specifically: Time does not favor the concept of a Jewish state. Not the concept, not the reality.
Extremists of the Jewish right and of the Jewish left share a belief in a single state. For the Jews of the extreme right, a single state means a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River — that is, a state that will include the entirety of the West Bank. For the Jews of the extreme left, a single state means a secular democratic state, what once upon a time was called a “binational” state.
The right-wing position is nothing less than a form of suicidal insanity. It would require either inducing or forcing the Palestinians — whose population today (if Gaza is included) is just above 5 million, roughly the same as the number of Jews in Israel — either to leave for destinations unknown (ethnic cleansing) or to stay put, albeit without the right of citizenship (apartheid). Either way, the resulting situation would be intolerable, could not last,would induce endless violence and Israel’s utter isolation in the family of nations.
The extremists of the left are equally suicidal, if not quite as insane. They specifically endorse the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Just last week, they held a conference — Jews and Palestinians — in London, and there demonstrated that there is no room between their position and the position of the P.A. or between their position and a batch of ongoing statements by leaders of the Arab community in Israel. Yes, a secular democratic state would soon have a decisive Arab majority. Their response? “So what!”
A non-success at Annapolis would mean, therefore, more than a victory for Hamas. It would mean a lethal defeat of Zionism itself.