J Street’s problems require more than one word

“Israel’s diplomatic problem in one word: settlements.” So claims J Street’s VP of Communications Alan Elsner.

It’s always tempting to believe that there’s a silver bullet, a single change that will make everybody start liking us. But it’s a dubious claim.

The effect precedes the alleged cause

Israel was always diplomatically isolated.

Before the evil Likud took power, Europe’s leaders had no response to Golda Meir’s question “what possible meaning socialism can have when not a single socialist country in all of Europe is prepared to come to the aid of the only democratic nation in the Middle East? Is it possible that democracy and fraternity do not apply in our case?” Nobody even thought to blame the nascent settlement movement.

Israel was diplomatically isolated before the original sin of the Six Day War.

Jews were diplomatically isolated before the original sin of establishing a state in Israel.

We were isolated because we were too strong. We were isolated because we were too weak. We were isolated because we insisted on remaining different. We were isolated because we attempted to integrate into society.

The assertion that Israel’s isolation can be explained in one word is, in a word, vacuous. Or demagogic.

Settlement freezes and withdrawals brought war and increased isolation

I understand that Alan Elsner, like most Jews, genuinely wants peace, genuinely wants to find solutions, and genuinely wishes to believe the best about other people and countries.

I can understand an overwhelming desire to believe that the reasons we were isolated in the past no longer apply. Perhaps we should bet our existence on the premise that Jew-hatred is ancient history and for the past forty years our problem has been settlements.

We tried expensive and painful experiments with limited freezes and withdrawals. The results were not promising.

We had a ten month settlement freeze. It did not advance the peace. We uprooted the settlements in Gaza, and withdrew our forces. We left Lebanon. We signed the Oslo Accords and left parts of “the West Bank.” These peace initiatives not only failed to bring peace, they brought war and death. And our greatest diplomatic isolation was in the months following our withdrawals, when Kadima and Labor governments led by Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres tried military initiatives to mitigate the death and destruction caused by their peace initiatives.

Elsner’s inaccuracies and fallacies

Elsner then deploys a series of fallacies and inaccuracies to justify his initial premise conclusion that Israel’s true friends must loudly denounce her elected government’s shameful, dishonest and destructive positions.

  • “It’s hard to make a case that Israel is settling land only to evacuate it later. It makes no sense.” Nice strawman. Of course the argument makes no sense. Israel and her supporters don’t make that argument. Israel has made clear that it has no intention of evacuating the land on which it intends to build. There is some private building on land that might be evacuated in a peace deal. But nobody (except Elsner, apparently, which may help explains the shame he’s been feeling) is arguing that Israel is settling land to evacuate it.
  • “The main problem is not settlements but that the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state … but the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized Israel in 1993.” Nice deflection. Yes, in exchange for land, the PLO recognized Israel’s de facto existence. But not as a Jewish state. Abbas refuses to call for two states for two people. Instead he continues to speak of the Jews as foreigners to the region, as colonialist, racist ethnic cleansers stealing Muslim land. His call for a two state solution envisions a Right of Return that will help them  control both states. Even worse, the majority of Palestinians seem to support Hamas, which still repeatedly calls for our complete destruction. Even if we’re foolish enough to trust the PLO “moderates,” are we foolish enough to believe that Abbas will compromise with Israel and remain in power? That the Islamic Brotherhood takeovers will stop on our Syrian and Egyptian borders, while the Palestinians reject Hamas for the peaceful Fatah?
  • “Most of the settlement building in recent years has been on land that would be retained by Israel in any peace agreement … it is certainly not true of the recent Israeli government decision to build a new, massive settlement on a tract of land east of Jerusalem known as E1, which would effectively cut the West Bank in two.” Where do we start? E1 is barren mountain “E1” that connects Maale Adumim to Jerusalem. Yitzchak Rabin initiated the plans to build there. The current building plans are far from massive. In deals far to the left of what most Israelis would accept, Rabin and Olmert insisted that Israel keep E1. E1 does not divide the West Bank in half. J Street’s obsession with E1 says more about J Street than it does about E1.
  • “Settlements are an important issue in peace talks – but only one of many … but of these issues only settlements change the status quo and shift the goal posts every day, reshaping the situation on the ground in the West Bank.” Out of the issues Elsner listed, yes. But there are other big issues that change the status quo and shift the goal posts every day. There is Arab building on the disputed lands, which is far greater than Jewish building. More importantly, there’s the Palestinian Authority, in blatant violation of the Oslo Accords, continuing to educate their children to hate Jews and to celebrate those that murder them. J Street’s website can only muster that Abbas’ UN speech  demonizing Israel was “counterproductive” while using far stronger language regarding Israel’s leaders building settlements. Palestinian demonization of Jews is a far bigger threat to peace than the other details of how we live together.

The disingenuous setup

The inaccuracies and fallacies above pale compared to the disingenuous setup.

Elsner claims his post was the result of an epiphany he experienced while “leading a workshop  … on how to respond to Israel’s critics on the settlement issue.” He realized that his attempts to defend Israel from these critics was futile and shameful.

Even though Elsner insists that Israel’s position has “no intellectual honesty,” I hesitate from accusing Elsner of the same. But his claim certainly strains credulity.

J Street’s website has no talking points about how to respond to critics on the settlement issue. Quite the contrary. Their site has more posts condemning Israel’s defenders than defending Israel from her attackers. They do occasionally condemn Hamas and Iran. Even those posts circle back to the same conclusion, that Israel shouldn’t attack and that the US should force a settlement. The best they can muster against Abbas is that his demonization of Israel is “counterproductive.” Counterproductive is probably nicer than anything they’ve said about Israel’s Prime Minister. Most of J Street’s posts are about how foolish Israel’s government and right-wing supporters are.

The above the fold area on their website is fully devoted to calling on people to “Take action to oppose E1 construction.”

The idea that the J Street communication director was leading a seminar on how to respond to Israel’s critics on the settlement issue when he suddenly had his epiphany is, in a word, dubious.

Final thoughts

People of intelligence and integrity can disagree about Israel’s settlement policy.

But Elsner’s assertion that Israel’s diplomatic problem in one word is settlements ignores the isolation that preceded the settlements. It ignores the increased isolation that followed attempted freezes and withdrawals. And it ignores the many other reasons people condemn Israel.

Elsner’s implication that people who defend Israel’s policies are shameful and that Israel’s position lacks intellectual honesty? In a word: projection.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at Answers.com. He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.