Howard Jacobson: Peace becomes possible now that Israel is being treated like a grown-up

Anti-Zionism of the sort that peppers letters pages has much to answer for
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Taking the long view, it's been a good few weeks for Israel. It won't look that way, of course, to those who view the country from an extreme position – whether zealots unwilling to believe Israel can ever do a thing wrong, or zealots unwilling to believe it can ever do a thing right.

Nothing will assuage the passions of these fevered men, or deflect them from their mutual fascination; they are locked in a lewd embrace, each needing the heat of the other's body to keep his own alive. But to the rational and the fair, it's been a few weeks full of promise.

Call nothing certain, but Obama's strict line with Netanyahu over the resumption of building in Ramat Shlomo appears to have woken the latter to an awareness, if not yet the practice, of realpolitik – realpolitik, paradoxically, being an acceptance that a concessionary spirit as often as not trumps principle.

The argument has been advanced that the houses in Ramat Shlomo are not to be confused with settlements on disputed land, that they are the completion of a project that has been going on for years without complaint, and in a part of Jerusalem not covered by the settlement freeze – a municipal not an international matter, in other words, a bit like the holes in the roads of Boris Johnson's rubbish-dump London. To which the answer, since this is a family newspaper in which we ought not to resort to swearing, is "Tough!"

Where peace is the prize – and it can't be a good few weeks for any party in which peace is not brought a little closer – such topographical niceties are not only brutally irrelevant, they are counterproductive. Never mind the rights and wrongs of it, in politics you must sometimes swallow your conviction of rectitude, just as in human relations you must sometimes accept that what looks right to you looks wrong to someone else.

Fanatical and uninformed anti-Zionism of the sort that peppers the letters pages of serious newspapers has much to answer for morally and intellectually, but the most serious charge against it is that while it satisfies the self-righteousness of its propounders, it does little to help those it calls victims, and still less to persuade those it calls oppressors.

Weary of the one-sidedness of international condemnation, successive Israeli administrations have turned away and pursued their own course, confident at least that America will go on winking at the obduracy into which it has been backed. With every misattribution of motive, with every lazy libel, that obduracy has grown stronger. As an observer one can feel it hardening one's own heart. Malign misrepresentation leaves no room for subtle dialogue. Thus, many who would have been critical of the occupation in their own terms – which does not mean seeing it as Hamas or Ahmadinejad see it – are deflected from the real conversation and must expend their energies confuting the prejudices of scoundrels.

The recent Biden/Netanyahu spat has broken the enchantment. Never mind that the poorly taught and easily led will go on twittering about apartheid and genocide even if Israel pulls down every house it has ever built and moves its population on to Dizengoff Beach tomorrow – the argument now is between grown-ups. This is how you talk to friends. This is how you treat enemies. To gain A you must forfeit B, no matter that you think you have the paperwork to prove it's yours. He who would win a bit in the long run must lose a bit in the long run too.

It's far better for Israel to be in an argument with a specific country over a specific issue than to have its actual, never mind its spiritual existence, forever undermined by ideologues hunting in packs with misquotations in their pockets. So I see the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat by our Foreign Secretary as more good news.

This, too, has been couched in the language of sanctimony, the inviolability of British passports blah blah, the crime of targeted assassinations, but that's an allowable hypocrisy. A state must say one thing while its citizens believe another. We all love targeted assassinations in our hearts, so long as it's the right target and it isn't our passport that's been purloined to do it – a sophisticated parley with our consciences which we don't require our government to reflect. From a newspaper, though, we expect a tone which at least acknowledges that we face both ways in matters such as these. So I was surprised to see a Guardian editorial reading like a 19th-century Foreign Office reprimand to a recalcitrant colony that had forgotten it was of the wrong caste and colour to be getting uppity.

"Both events in London and Washington," the editorial said, "are the marks of an arrogant nation that has overreached itself."

Let's leave aside what's arrogant and what's not. What we call arrogance is almost always a cover for fear. And Netanyahu struts like a man whose fears run deep. But how can the rift with the American and British administrations reflect in any way on Israel as a "nation"? Did Mrs Thatcher's taking back the Falklands make us an arrogant "nation"? Does our being in Afghanistan say anything about us as a "nation" at all? Some of us are pleased we're there, some aren't, and some don't give a damn either way. We are not, as a nation, of one mind or heart in very much, if anything, we do. To imply otherwise would be to charge us with a collective flaw, and we all know what the word is for doing that.

It's precisely because they are free of slurs of this sort, without unsavoury ethnic or socio-religious overtones, that Washington and London's arguments with Israel are to be welcomed. They address political differences. Obama and Miliband have squared up to a country not a "nation", they have taken issue with decisions made by the government of Israel, and not that unvariegated figment of disordered imaginations, "the Israeli people", and thus they have liberated the entire debate from the question of what Balfour intended, whether the Holocaust has been exploited, who is and who is not a Zionist, etc, etc. And give or take the odd misguided editorial, letters from the usual suspects, and the on-line vituperation that clings like a spider web to the coat-tails of other people's articles, such has been the liberated spirit of public commentary ever since Biden kept Netanyahu waiting for dinner.

Allowing that tomorrow is a terrifying place, we can take some hope from this. An Israel treated like other countries, held accountable for its political, not its supposed aetiological or genetic failings, is a country from which much might be expected, including peace.