This story is not just an antiquarian tale. It is an archetypal vision of what happens, again and again, when top-down tyranny becomes addicted to its own power, at first unwilling and then unable to change.
We saw again these past weeks how profound the story is -- first in Tunisia and then in Egypt.
During the past week, we have seen hundreds of thousands of Egyptians face down their own modern Pharaoh-- dictatorial, repressive, and corrupt. We have seen crowds kiss the police and soldiers sent to control them, we have seen minimal violence and maximum resistance from the revolutionaries even when they are beaten, jailed, tortured, killed.
In Israel and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, even in America, other governments are worrying or even quaking in their military boots.
Why? Because these other governments gambled that repression would work forever. Now they are frightened by the near-collapse of tyranny. An Israeli government that got addicted to military control of the Palestinian people made allies with an Egyptian government that did the same to its own people. And the US government did the same with them both, funneling huge amounts of military aid to both governments and then even huger amounts of its own blood and treasure into military control of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The result: 18 wasted years. Since 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was signed on the White House lawn, Israeli governments have refused to face up to what would have made peace while the making was possible, refused to affirm and negotiate the emergence of an independent Palestine alongside Israel, refused even to discuss the proposal from the Arab League for a regional peace treaty on condition that a free Palestine join other Arab states in making peace with Israel and being made peace with by Israel.
Of course the Israeli government had Palestinian allies in their rejection. The best allies of hawks on one side of any barricade are hawks on the other side. Terrorist murders of Israeli civilians certainly plucked on the hypersensitive nerve of Jewish fear. Most Israeli governments during these years rejected the notion that the way to end terrorism was to negotiate a peace with Palestinian and Arab leaders. Instead, they boasted that "separation" -- the Fence/Wall that tracked not the 1967 borders but swallowed huge chunks of Palestinian land; the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza; the blockade against Gaza -- all this, they said, would end terrorism. But "separation" led not to peace but to the self-destructive wars against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
"Separation" and military force were not the only conceivable response to terrorism. The bravest and wisest Israelis and Palestinians were those who joined in the "Circle of Bereaved Families" to insist that the killing of their own children by "the other side" made peace crucial, not impossible.
Nor was fear the only possible response. Yitzhak Rabin again and again insisted in every city, town, and kibbutz, that Israelis were no longer victims, no longer helpless, and could afford the practicality of making peace through the Oslo Agreement. But the Jewish terrorist who murdered Rabin left behind Israeli politicians too stupid or too cowardly to carry forward Rabin's late-blooming message or his policy.
Indeed, the "Palestine Papers" published by Al Jazeera show that for the last 10 years, the Palestinian Authority was in fact ready to make deep concessions to win peace, and it was the Israeli government -- supported by the US government -"that rejected them.
It is true that the Oslo agreement and the Arab League peace plan would have made a deal with top-down governments throughout the region. But by freeing Palestine, it would have taken that issue off the table. When uprisings came -" as they now have -" Israelis and their supporters would not have had to fear that the uprisings would create new governments much more hostile to Israelis who are still occupying the West Bank, blockading and bombing Gaza, and destroying Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.
And the new Uprising societies would not have seen America as the arsenal of their tyrants if America had actually used its clout to insist on a regional peace settlement that included peace for both Israel and Palestine, had stayed out of Iraq, had decided against Predator bombings in Pakistan, had pressed Mubarak to end corruption and coercion. (Not just in words: with reductions in military aid, for example.)
We who enjoy many aspects of Israeli society and culture (try reading David Grossman, for example) and admired what used to be the vibrancy of Israeli democracy and is still a democracy-for-Jews, though a democracy wounded, coughing blood with every shout of protest -- we live in agony over the 18 wasted years.
There might still be time to redress the short-sightedness of those years. Maybe the Israeli and US governments are not utterly addicted to the coercive use of military power. Maybe the Obama Administration can rescue the courageous words of its early days and turn them into courageous deeds for an over-all Middle East regional peace.
But they are not likely to do so unless sizeable numbers of American Jews, Christians, and Muslims can band together in strong support of the people of Egypt, strong support for an emergency regional peace conference insisting on peace among Israel, Palestine, all Arab governments, and Iran as well.