An Open Letter to Michael Oren

An Open Letter to Michael Oren

Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the Unites States and its mouthpiece to American Jewry, has been parading around Jewish-American institutions recently in an attempt to galvanize support for Israel, and defend it from the likes of Peter Beinart and other Zionist objectors to the occupation of the West Bank.  This public relations campaign has now culminated in a May 14, 2012 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled:  “What Happened to Israel’s Reputation?”  Comparing Israel’s relatively positive image in 1973 versus its image now, Oren concludes that it is Israel’s enemies’ 1974 decision to wage  a “delegitimization” war against Israel – on campuses, at the UN, and in the media – that has eroded Israel’s perception on the world stage.  Unfortunately for Oren’s argument, the facts reveal a starkly different picture.

Oren’s piece does not explain how this so-called “delegitimization tactic” is swaying opinions on such a massive and global scale, except to vaguely state that journalists have played a role by publishing “doctored photos” and “false Palestinian accounts of Israeli massacres.”  In other words, he believes that Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians in the West Bank is not the root cause of this transformational shift in public opinion, nor is it even an issue worthy of analysis.  Instead, we are left to believe that Israel is the target – nay, the victim – of a strategy of lies and deceit conducted by a syndicate of Israel’s foes.  Oren’s latest attempts to deflect and obfuscate the crux of Israel’s “image” problem, both in the Wall Street Journal and in his intra-communal pleas for a renewed Jewish unity, need to be confronted with the facts and statistics that have given pause to even the most unwavering supporters of Israel.

If Oren and the Likud-led government in Israel really want to win back the hearts of Diaspora Jews, it would behoove them to recognize that there are perhaps legitimate reasons for Israel’s progressively poorer reputation, including the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank – particularly in Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank and in which Israel retains full military and civil control over 150,000 Palestinians (as opposed to Areas A and B where Palestinians have a modicum of civil and security control).

The occupation has continued for over 40 years (not 5 years, as was the case in 1973), and is seen now as more of a permanent land grab than a temporary solution to the 1967 War.  To deny the painfully obvious policy of Judaization taking place in Area C and East Jerusalem is to deny the oppression and displacement of thousands of innocent people.  Jewish law (not to mention international law) and morality require more of us.  And, in turn, we require more of our leaders in Israel.  Some statistics Israel and Oren need to explain:

(1) Why is it that Israeli zoning policy only allows for 1% of Area C to be built on by Palestinians (and in an already heavily built up area)?  Why are over 94% of Palestinian building permit applications rejected?  What is Israel prepared to do regarding this unsustainable policy that results in eviction, the demolition of “illegally” built homes (built “illegally” due to lack of any viable alternatives), and the subsequent evacuation (read: de facto deportation) of Palestinian families from Area C to Areas A and B?

(2)  Why, if the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends an average consumption of 100 lpcd (liters per capita daily), is the average daily consumption for Palestinians only 70 lpcd?  What is Israel going to do about the many Palestinian communities in the West Bank that survive on as little as 20 lpcd – the minimum amount recommended by the WHO for “short-term survival” in emergency and disaster situations?  As of September 2011, 313,000 Palestinians across 113 communities are not connected to a water network and are considered at high risk of water scarcity.  How can Israel account for the Israeli settlers in the West Bank, with a population just over 500,000, consuming approximately six times the amount of water used by a Palestinian population of some 2.5 million (with some settlements consuming between 400-700 lpcd)?

The preceding facts and questions only begin the discussion of Palestinian suffering in the West Bank.  This article delves into only the most basic human needs of housing and access to water to prove a point, but there is still more to ask with respect to the restrictions on Palestinian movement, the poverty and lack of economic opportunity for Palestinians, the administrative detention policy enforced by Israel (which often includes warrantless arrests, sometimes of minors), and the lack of political representation for Palestinians living under Israeli rule.

Israel’s image is perhaps the worst it’s ever been.  Within Jewish circles, this has always been deemed to be due toIsrael’s notoriously bad public relations apparatus or anti-Semitism, but these claims are utter nonsense.  It is Israel’s policies that determine its image on the world stage.  With boycott and divestment movements abounding, regional allies disappearing, a non-violent resistance movement gaining traction in the West Bank and terrorism from that area at an all-time low (with the help of a cooperative Palestinian Authority), Israel is finding itself increasingly isolated.  And rightly so.

I call on Michael Oren to change the conversation from one among Jews and about Jews to one with the world about the responsibility Israel has to the Palestinians over whom it currently rules.  It is no longer sufficient to say past Israeli governments offered “good” (highly debatable) peace deals that were rejected numerous times by the Palestinian leadership.  It is no longer sufficient to say security comes at a heavy price or to make the concessionary statement that Israel is a “flawed” democracy yet still the best there is in the region, especially given the daily threats it faces.  It is also no longer sufficient to rely on the canard that Israel “bashing” (read: criticizing) is merely veiled Antisemitism and that the UN, NGOs worldwide, the media, etc., are all somehow inherently biased against Israel.  The old, stale rhetoric just isn’t cutting it anymore – not when statistics and facts bear out the callously inhumane treatment of people and families who have committed no crime and present no threat to the state except with respect to its effort to colonize and Judaize the region in which they were born.

Leviticus 19:34 states:  “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”  Israel is hardly living up to this divine decree, and Diaspora Jews, Zionists who support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, are finally starting to hold Israel’s feet to the fire. What can Israel do to restore its image and reunify global Jewry as Oren would like?  It is time Israel took a bold step, one of a magnitude as of yet unseen:

My recommendation:  Israel should, in a responsible and judicious manner, begin to cede zoning and planning authority in Area C to the Palestinian Authority.

About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania