The Breakfast Table

What the Brits Can Teach Israel

Dear Tim,

Don’t be so hard on the Brits. They stood up to the Nazis. (Have you ever heard of “Vichy England”?) They’ve sent us some jolly good pop musicians over the years (Even if we did shoot a few. The Brits, whose gun laws are far more civilized, prefer to stab their pop stars.) They just handed Pete Sampras and Tiger Woods a pair of very nice trophies. As for the twit problem, I don’t follow you. You’re against dangerously inbred aristocrats, but you’re for George W. Bush?

If we’re going to pick on a country that’s falling apart, let’s look at Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to Camp David to negotiate a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What did Barak’s brave coalition partners do? Before he left for the summit, two parties pulled out of his government, subjecting him to a no-confidence vote, which he narrowly survived. Next week he faces another vote in the Knesset on calling early elections. Arriving back in Israel today, he was greeted by demonstrators who accused him of selling out the country for which he once risked death at the hands of its enemies and now risks death at the hands of its putative defenders.

My favorite villain in this story is the Shas party, which in the name of God has used Barak’s precarious political position to blackmail him into propping up the party’s failing schools with government money. It’s strangely comforting to be reminded that greed and patronage in spiritual guise, which we tend to associate with Christian fundamentalists in this country, are nonsectarian. And while we’re spreading blame around, I don’t want to imply that the Palestinians who applauded Yasser Arafat for holding out at Camp David are any better than the Israelis who condemned Barak for offering concessions. The head of Hamas said today, “We appreciate the strong position taken by the Palestinian leadership and we call on them to continue with this position of not compromising the rights of the Palestinian people.” I know it’s a cliché, but it’s worth repeating: Both sides must learn that strength and compromise are related concepts, not opposites. Perhaps those civilizing imperialists, the Brits, could teach them.