Leon Wieseltier spoke for the New Israel Fund in Manhattan, Dec. 6. He referred in his title, “Pessoptimism,” to a book by Emile Habibi, an Israeli-Arab novelist who also served 20 years in the Knesset as an MK for the Israeli Communist Party.
Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic since 1983, is one of the best off-the-cuff speakers and thinkers around. He is entertaining as well as informative and you don’t have to agree with everything he says to appreciate him.
In fact, I don’t agree with him on a number of points. He calls himself the “most hawkish of doves” (I once thought that I was that, but I see I’m not). An illustrative way in which Wieseltier differs iconoclastically from PC-liberals on the one hand and stereotypic conservatives on the other is how he distinguishes between dealing with “terrorists” and “terrorism.” He knows that terrorism has “root causes” that need to be addressed; terrorists, however, need to be dealt with as a security matter. (On this, I agree.)
He didn’t mention — and apparently doesn’t believe in — the prospect for real negotiations with Abbas or in an international forum with the Arab Legaue (around the Saudi inititaive). Yet he contradicts himself in acknowledging that Sharon was wrong to have done all he could to isolate and ignore Abbas. Still, he admires Sharon for getting out of Gaza and regards the settlements as the single worst strategic blunder that Israel has ever made.
He remains surprisingly positive about Olmert and a degree of unilateralism. He would consider it momentous if Olmert follows through on evacuating 70,000 settlers (“or even half” that number) from the West Bank. He praises Sharon for having defeated the militant settlers’ movement, even while criticizing him for having placed the settlers there in the first place. He recalled a trip with Sharon years ago as Sharon proudly unveiled a map of proposed settlements explicitly designed to prevent a Palestinian state; Wieseltier wondered then at why Sharon thought this a good thing.
Wieseltier sees it probable that Israel will need to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Assessing the damage such an attack would do to Iran’s nuclear program, he admits, would be problematic, but he says that an acceptable outcome would be to delay the development of a bomb for five or ten years. His argument is that Israel cannot afford the risk (raising the spector of what’s left of Israel after Tel Aviv is destroyed) and nobody else is likely to do it; he also does not believe that the Iranians will accept any incentive to voluntarily give up the nuclear option, but he’s not against trying diplomacy. He considers the Bush-neocon view of diplomacy– talking to people as a reward for doing what they want anyway — as silly in the extreme.
I don’t know if I’m more horrified by the danger of an Iranian bomb or of the venemous reaction to an Israeli attack. Wieseltier takes the risk of violence and political fallout (no pun intended) too lightly, saying that a few people will die in riots — because, unfortunately, “that’s how Arabs react.” Wieseltier mentioned that Israelis are leaving Israel, or preparing to send their children away, for fear of Iran. Whether or not Israel is genuinely in peril — and this we can’t know without reading the minds of the Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Kameini, or of President Ahmadinejad — the uncertainty posed by a nuclear-armed, fanatical regime, which is ten times Israel’s size, is truly frightening.