Paul Rahe: Jerusalem revisited

Our occasional contributor Paul Rahe is now posting regularly at Big Government, but he has filed this report concerning his visit to Jerusalem with us:

Academics do not get paid all that well, but there can be perks, and for senior scholars this tends to include travel.
I have been to Jerusalem three times since the beginning of the new millennium — once, during the second intifada, to give the keynote address at a conference held on the occasion of the publication of The Federalist in Hebrew; again four years ago to give a series of lectures at Palestinian universities on the West Bank; and just over two weeks again to speak at a conference on human nature from Hobbes to the Scottish Enlightenment.
I welcome such trips. Jerusalem may be the most beautiful city in the world — it is certainly the most moving — and travel of this sort gives one an opportunity to get a sense of what is going on.
Just before returning home, I slipped over from West Jerusalem to the West Bank to give a talk at a Palestinian university on political philosophy and the problem of security. I was not there long, and my conversations were not extensive. But I did sense of exhaustion on the part of my interlocutors.
The first intifada, which was for the most part nonviolent, had a profound effect on the Israelis and opened up a genuine opportunity for the Palestinians and the Israelis to reach an accommodation favorable to both.
Yassir Arafat’s refusal of the deal offered him at Camp David by Ehud Barak and, far more important, his decision to launch a second intifada characterized by suicide bombings had a no less profound effect on the Israelis and left them understandably wary, distrustful, and unwilling to mix easily with the Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.
Arafat’s death might have provided an opening, but his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was and is profoundly weak. The first time I visited the West Bank the Palestinians I met intimated as much, and events have proved them right. Abbas lost control of Gaza, and my Israeli friends tell me that he would have lost the West Bank soon thereafter had the Israelis not gone to some trouble to hamstring Hamas there.
Mahmoud Abbas is not in a position to be a negotiating partner. He is lucky to be alive and nominally in power.
So nothing is happening, and for the foreseeable future nothing is going to happen. There has been a measure of relaxation. Travel to the West Bank is now easier, but no one from Gaza or the West Bank is now able to find employment in Israel. Thus, the sense of exhaustion.
For the Israelis, this is a better time than many. There is not anything that one could call peace, but there is not open war either, and they go about their lives, knowing that this is but a respite. They are, needless to say, worried about Iran, and they sense that in other respects the clock is ticking as well.
Arab nationalism has run its course. The hopes inspired by Gamaliel Abdel Nasser in and after the 1950s, those inspired by the Baathists in Iraq and Syria and by the Palestinian Liberation Organization have come to naught. Opportunistic young men on the make may attempt to sidle up to those in power in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and the West Bank, but these regimes attract no young idealists. Even in Turkey, secular nationalism seems to be on its last legs, and the only politicians who inspire enthusiasm are those who say, “Islam is the answer.”
What this will mean down the road is a subject that inspires a great deal of rumination in Israel these days. It can easily be foreseen that Islam will not provide a suitable answer to the political, social, and economic crises that grip the Arab world, but it will take another cycle of history for that to become adequately evident to a people now disillusioned with secular nationalism.
If there is an alternative to Islamic revivalism on the horizon, it is to be found in Iraq. The simple fact that there are free elections in that country, that there is open debate, and that it is drifting in the direction of genuine prosperity — this stirs dissatisfaction of an entirely different sort in the Arab world — and, as is abundantly evident in Iran, it does so in the larger Muslim world as well.
As time passes and the dust settles, George W. Bush may come to look more and more like a hero — both in the Arab world and here in the United States. For, if the Iraqis remain steadfast and succeed, it is to their example that those fed up with Islamic revivalism will look, and it will be remembered just how adamant the second Bush was in his support for the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of the companion studies: Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty, and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.

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