TEL AVIV, Israel – Leon Wieseltier has long maintained a close relationship with the state of Israel. But the Jewish-American author now fears the country's survival may be in jeopardy — and says much of the blame lies with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Wieseltier, in Israel this week to collect a prestigious award, joins a list of prominent American Jews to criticize Israel in recent years. While Israel has many critics, it has become troubling for Israelis to hear the tough words coming from people, particularly intellectuals, who were once considered a bedrock of support.
Wieseltier, 60, the child of Holocaust survivors and a fluent Hebrew speaker, is a widely respected, if contentious, intellectual and philosopher. He has been the literary editor of The New Republic for three decades, where his essays contribute to national conversations on current affairs. He is also the winner of the 1998 National Jewish Book Award for "Kaddish," his meditation on the ancient Jewish prayer of mourning.
"Unless there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will not be a Jewish state for very long," Wieseltier said in an interview at Tel Aviv University after accepting the $1 million dollar Dan David Prize late Sunday for his contributions to ideas and contemporary philosophy. The international prize is awarded every year for contributions to humanity through science, art, public service, humanities and entrepreneurship.
Wieseltier's argument echoes that of Israel's political left and center, that time is working against Israel, and if it doesn't withdraw from the Palestinian territories, it will either become an undemocratic Jewish state, or a non-Jewish democratic state.
In the next few decades, the number of Palestinians is expected to exceed the number of Jews living in areas now under Israeli control. Those who agree with Wieseltier insist that if Israel maintains the status quo, where Palestinians in the West Bank can't vote, but Israeli Jews can, it will end the country's democracy but maintain its Jewish character. Or it could grant Palestinians equal rights, including voting rights, threatening the country's Jewish majority.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, territories claimed by the Palestinians for their state, in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Proponents of Palestinian independence say a Palestinian state is the only way to prevent a demographic catastrophe for Israel. But negotiations to carve out a Palestinian state have repeatedly faltered, with Israel and the Palestinians blaming each other for failure. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to revive talks in recent weeks.
Netanyahu says he favors the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Wieseltier said the Israeli leader has done little to advance this goal. Netanyahu has resisted Palestinian calls to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and refused to commit to the broad territorial concessions demanded by the Palestinians and backed by the international community. Netanyahu says negotiations should resume with no preconditions.
"One of the most shameful aspects of the Netanyahu government has been to succeed in taking the Palestinian question off the table," said Wieseltier, identifiable by his tall frame and white, unruly mane of hair.
Wieseltier spelled out his views in an essay in The New Republic in December, saying that he no longer believed that Mideast peace would occur in his lifetime. A number of prominent Jewish Americans have begun to express similar concerns about Israel's future, most prominently Wieseltier's former colleague at The New Republic, author Peter Beinart.
In contrast, many mainstream American Jewish groups and leaders back Israeli government policy or defer to Israel to handle its own affairs. Some openly and vocally support Israel's hard-liners.
Wieseltier said he also blamed Palestinian leaders for the stalemate, particularly for allowing the resignation of the respected Palestinian economist Salam Fayyad from his position as prime minister.
Fayyad helped build government institutions and clean up finances in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. He resigned in April after a six-year term after repeatedly clashing with the President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Nobody lifted a finger to help Salam Fayyad, who was the Palestinian leader we were all waiting for. No Palestinians and no Israelis. He came and went. It's a historical scandal of the first magnitude," Wieseltier said.
He said he would try visit the Palestinian territories. In the meantime, Wieseltier said he was enjoying Israel, despite its many flaws.
"I feel perfectly at home here," he said.