TEL AVIV — We know the importance of Messianism in Judaism. The figure of the Messiah is none other than the universally shared incarnation of hope.
But while it might have been moving and comforting to imagine, by the rivers of Babylon or at the ruins of the Temple, a messenger of God bringing redemption to the oppressed and the exiled at the end of time; we should be suspicious and skeptical today when leaders present such a contrivance in the shape of policy.
The political, secularized equivalent of messianic hope is a utopian ideal, in the name of which promises are often dispensed but rarely kept. This thought came to me amid the agitation inside Israel's political establishment ahead of Donald Trump's visit to the country.
Eager to do away with Obama's legacy, Trump would tolerate — if not encourage — the construction of new settlements, which in his eyes are like the American Frontier, rather than France's Algeria.
Messianic temptation seems to have wreaked havoc within the Israeli nationalist and clerical right. Donald Trump's unexpected victory was viewed as a "divine surprise" in these circles that blend politics and religion so naturally. During his campaign, Trump had pledged to transfer the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Freshly elected, he named a fervent defender of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as new ambassador, and he declared that he was not bound by the two-state solution and could even support a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
That was more than enough for the Israeli right to refer to him as the man they'd been waiting for, the one breaking with the leitmotiv of occupation, colonization and international law. The right is exalted, the right exults. Eager to do away with Obama's legacy, Trump would tolerate — if not encourage — the construction of new settlements, which in his eyes are like the American Frontier, rather than France's Algeria.
But since Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, visited the White House last month, the wheel has turned. Jerusalem expected the meeting to be a fiasco, but the two leaders got on well. The Palestinians were happy to see their leader among Trump's guests in his first 100 days in office. Abbas reportedly presented Trump with the beginning of a plan for a future agreement.
Glancing through to the Western Wall in Jerusalem — Photo: Nico Caramella
Since then, rumors abound with no end in sight for the ongoing flutter of press releases and denials. Will the U.S. embassy really be transferred to Jerusalem? Has Trump drawn a peace agreement according to framework set by the United Nations? Will he join his predecessors in demanding that Israel slow down construction in the West Bank?
Having tooted the messianic trumpets, the Israeli right is now starting to worry. Could it be that the long-awaited redeemer, the one who was supposed to bring about major change, is actually an imposter? A fake Messiah? His intentions remain obscure, the mystery unsolved, confusion prevails.
Having failed to convince voters with its peace plan for nearly two decades, the Israeli left has nowhere to turn. At first it turned to Obama after his speech in Cairo, and then to Secretary of State John Kerry until those two threw in the towel. Over the past few weeks, it seems the messianic temptation has moved to the left. Could Trump be a white dove disguised as a hawk? Is he going to lift his mask and reveal his true nature, that of a deft businessman able to pull the deal of the century: peace in exchange for territories? Just like Lincoln proclaimed the end of slavery, a Republican would have the honor of proclaiming the end of the occupation. To put it simply: Redemption is at the doorstep.
The late French philosopher Raymond Aron, a great opponent of Messianism in politics, would be stunned to see how the opium long ago abused by intellectuals was now so popular among Israel's political elite, right and left. Gestures that play on emotions can quickly intoxicate, but politics need time. And even if the conflict is no longer central to the region, it is still an open wound. Negotiations will only resume and eventually succeed if the international environment is favorable or if there is internal pressure from both sides — neither of which is currently the case.
As long as it remains a low-intensity asymmetrical conflict, as long as the Palestinian Authority manages to maintain public order, as long as the losses inflicted by terrorism and counter-terrorism stay within acceptable proportions; Israelis and Americans, and to a lesser extent Palestinians and Europeans, can find their own interests in the current status quo.
There are no leaders today like Anwar Sadat or Menachem Begin
Redemption won't come from the political establishment. To make up for their posturing, the Israeli and the Palestinian civil societies still offer initiatives. Doctors, legal experts, psychologists, company directors, academics, principals and teachers are all taking part in them. Their goal is to fight mutual ignorance and fear through dialog. These are righteous people armed with patience, who work in silence, away from the limelight. Hope is not being put off; These people are building it in real time.
There are no leaders today like Anwar Sadat or Menachem Begin, neither in Palestine nor in Israel. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much more complex than the Israeli-Egyptian conflict at the time. The land at stake is cramped and the historical memories are painful. To achieve peace, we should turn not to the American president, the UN or the EU, but rather to the Israelis and Palestinians who are willing to overcome their respective messianism, the one whispering to them that time is on their side, that the end is nigh and the Messiah is just around the corner.
In these dark times, we must counter the violent winds of radicalism and the low tides of the status quo with hope, keeping a watchful eye on diplomatic initiatives while persistently laying the groundwork for the future we owe our children, one of reconciliation, justice and mutual recognition.
The deus ex machina needed to end this tragedy isn't Donald Trump. Men and women in Israel and Palestine do not sum up their human condition in anyone's unconditional support for their side but rather in their own ethic of responsibility while they wait for politicians to finally assert their own. Seriously.
*Denis Charbit is a political science professor at the Open University of Tel Aviv.