Honest conversation on Israel and Palestinians desperately requires leadership

In a February 25 Vox article titled “Bernie Sanders is poised to open up a painful intraparty debate about Israel,” writer Matt Yglesias reveals the shallowness behind his and others’ hoped-for shift in Democratic Party policy on Israel. Ironically, instead of pain for the Democratic Party’s Israel’s defenders, this debate will prove to be painful for the Party’s Israel opponents.

Yglesias suggests that Sanders is the leader best suited to facilitate this looming shift. Sanders is Jewish and briefly lived on an Israeli kibbutz in the 60s. Therefore, he has a “credibility to go further in criticisms of the Jewish state than many gentiles would typically be comfortable doing.” This thin credibility aside, what are the specific criticisms of Israel that need to be made? What specific American policies toward Israel need changing, and why?

As with other Israel critics, Yglesias’ approach to these questions is to choose form over substance, and platitudes over facts. For example, he refers to Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s description of her proposed Congressional trip to Israel “to see that segregation”. This reference to segregation in Israel or in the West Bank has no substance behind it, but is a dishonest attempt to link to the civil-rights era in order to convince well-meaning Americans to cease or temper their support for Israel.

Yglesias refers to a changing Democratic party that “includes more Muslims now, as well as a larger share of nonwhite Americans, for whom the Palestinians’ view of the conflict as an extension of European imperialism may seem more compelling.” Indeed it may, but while the Palestinians are entitled to their views, this is a false depiction of Israel. This is another bogus reason the Palestinians refuse to negotiate, and is a rallying cry to generate support among otherwise indifferent demographics.

Yglesias inadvertently directed readers to the real problem: Palestinian refusal to see Israel as legitimate. In the same vein, he later writes that “the larger shift has been in Israel itself, where the domestic peace camp suffered political collapse after a wave of violence known as the second intifada and the Netanyahu administration — more worried about its right flank than its left — has positioned Israel in a very different way than its predecessors.”

This point was an attempt to direct the reader’s focus to Netanyahu supposedly “positioning” Israel away from peace with the Palestinians. To get to this trendy yet ahistorical point, Yglesias glosses over the second intifada, which wasn’t a random “wave of violence” against Israelis, but was directed by the Palestinian Authority (Israel’s supposed negotiating partner) to deflect global pressure after rejecting Israel’s peace offers in 2000 and 2001. This followed an earlier wave of Palestinian violence in the 1990’s directed at Israelis following Israel’s withdrawals from Palestinian towns in the West Bank, as per the Oslo Accords. The collapse of Israel’s peace camp was made complete after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which resulted in incessant rocket attacks against Israelis that continue to this very day.

For good measure, Israel made another peace offer in 2008, only to be rejected by Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Nevertheless, to further demonstrate its peace-minded intentions to the world, Israel in 2011, under Netanyahu, reluctantly agreed to President Obama’s demand for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction for an unprecedented 10 months to jumpstart negotiations. The PA entered negotiations only in the 9th month before admitting its real plan to abandon talks once Israel released from prison a final batch of Palestinian terrorists. This was another painful Israeli concession to the Palestinians that not only went unreciprocated, but unrecognized.

In fact, Israel’s many concessions remain unrecognized in countless articles on the subject. Listing this history of concessions would provide readers desperately needed context to understand why Israel’s occupation of the West Bank continues, and why the US government doesn’t blame Israel for this. It would also render inane Yglesias’ comment that Sanders has “signaled a willingness to impose real consequences if Israel doesn’t change course on the occupation.” Without knowing the history of the past 25 years, let alone 70 years, Vox readers could be forgiven for thinking Israel could do more to “change course on the occupation”.

Yglesias does mention “relentless settlement expansions” as another way to explain the growing liberal divide on Israel. The “relentless expansion of settlements” has been parroted so often by partisan journalists that it’s become a universally accepted myth. In reality, not only has Israel’s settlement building been stalled, there have been no new settlements established since 1990, as long-time settlement critic PeaceNow concedes. The pace of settlements has actually slowed under Netanyahu during his 10 years in office. While there have been new housing units built within existing settlement boundaries of the major settlement blocs, these take up no more than 2% of the West Bank. Even the rejectionist PA has conceded this land can be exchanged for land within Israel proper during negotiations, negotiations that the PA boycotts anyway.

The sad reality is that Palestine advocates need the “relentless settlements” lie to proclaim the death of the two state solution since that solution would leave Israel intact, in peace next to a Palestinian state. This deflects responsibility from Palestinian extremism. More importantly, this fake lament of the death of the two state solution is intended to shift the conversation toward advocacy for “Palestinian rights”, which has become coded to mean the dismantling of Israel.

Yglesias makes general references to Israel’s “treatment of Palestinians” and the issue of “Palestinian rights”. He quotes Sanders as saying “we’re going to have to treat the Palestinians with respect and dignity,” and that “Netanyahu is not always right”. These points are all straw men, meant to position defenders of Israel as somehow in opposition to universal and moral positions like Palestinian rights or questioning a foreign leader.

Shockingly, Yglesias makes only passing reference to the BDS movement – to point out that Sanders rejects it, while Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib advocate for it. While he accurately describes BDS as “targeting Israel with the kind of tactics that were used against apartheid in South Africa,” he neglects to mention that BDS advocates for Israel’s destruction – as expressed through its founders, leaders and published demands. Mentioning this, and that a growing number of the Democratic Party’s progressive Bernie-supporting base support BDS, would undercut Yglesias’ argument that the looming debate is one merely over Israel’s policies, and not over its legitimacy.

No doubt there are many self-proclaimed BDS supporters in the Party who wouldn’t be able to recite BDS’s three main demands against Israel, nor understand how these demands are meant to undermine the existence of Israel. They are simply unqualified to lead an actual conversation on this issue. Back to my initial point: their leader Bernie Sanders is completely unqualified to lead a conversation on this issue.

In a 2016 interview with the New York Daily News, Sanders spoke about the 2014 war in Gaza, notably pointing to the “over 10,000 innocent Palestinians killed”. In actuality, over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, half of whom were combatants. While any number of civilians killed in war is tragic, Sanders’ misstatement speaks to his ignorance of the issue. Ignorance hasn’t stopped him from opining that Israel “overreacted” to what he termed “peaceful protests” on the Gaza border last spring. In actuality, this was a Hamas sponsored military operation to infiltrate Israel, under cover of nearby civilian protests.

When Sanders launched his 2020 Presidential run in Brooklyn this past Saturday, he was introduced to the stage by writer and activist Shaun King. King spoke eloquently about Sanders’ record fighting for the rights of workers, minorities and those left behind by the system. He spoke of Sanders coming from a family of Holocaust survivors. He also mentioned that Sanders “spoke out against apartheid in South Africa when that was an unpopular thing to do, and even today he speaks out against apartheid-like conditions in Palestine, even though it’s not popular.” Huge applause followed.

Two points of accuracy: first, there are no “apartheid-like conditions” in either Israel proper or in the West Bank. Second, though Sanders has obviously condemned Israel’s actions, he has never (at least not publicly) referred to “apartheid like conditions” in Israel or in the West Bank. No matter. The anti-Israel zeitgeist doesn’t get bogged down in such details.

With bravado and self-righteousness, the “Palestinian rights” movement is hitching the Democratic Party’s wagon to this anti-Israel conversion therapy. However, they don’t want a conversation, or a debate, in the conventional sense. They are mired in sloganeering and a shunning of actual debate. They tar Zionists (supporters of Israel) as not only misguided, but racist and wicked. The goal is to force an overhaul of America’s support for Israel, until it ceases to exist. This is why pro-Israel Democrats must be the ones to open up an honest conversation.

The anti-Israel crowd is not a new thing. For decades they’ve had their say at the UN, in academia and the media posing as valiant dissenters. Now that they’ve made it into mainstream politics and are now part of the “establishment,” it’s long past time to hold them accountable. The party is over. They’ll be forced to explain their positions, not their feelings; their understanding of the region’s history and current realities, not chants and slogans. They don’t see this coming. They’re not used to answering questions. It will be a shock to their system, and it will certainly be very painful.

The question is: will pro-Israel Democrats rise to this challenge and assume leadership?

About the Author
Daniel Brooks is founder and current Vice President of 3GNY, an educational non-profit organization founded by grandchildren of Holocaust survivors whose mission is to educate diverse communities about our family history and lessons of the Holocaust. He has extensive experience as an Israel advocate, having organized pro-Israel demonstrations, spoken on panels, written for the organization Artists4Israel and currently serving as a facilitator with Fuel For Truth's Boot Camp.
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