Uncomfortable times for American Zionists

As one of the 75 percent of Israelis who does not support unilateral annexation,  I share the concern expressed by many American supporters who oppose annexation.  But where Israelis and many American Jewish Zionists seem to part ways is basing their perception of and connection with Israel based solely on annexation and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

There is no question that annexation, or the extension of sovereignty, is a very serious step to be taken unilaterally, with potential consequences for Israel’s security, demographics, diplomatic relations, democracy, and future as a Jewish state. However, there are credible voices that argue that, given the Palestinians’ long-time rejection of various proposals, and their inability to unify into one government, it is time to upset the apple cart and create our own future, whatever that may be.

Einat Wilf, a former member of the Knesset from the Labor Party, argues that Israel is in the final stages of the long process of establishing its borders and, while the road may get a bit bumpy, the sky is not falling.

One of the challenges is that, for as crucial an issue as annexation is, all but Prime Minister Netanyahu and perhaps a few other people know what it will amount to.  Are we debating annexing the Jordan Valley and every community and settlement in Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank) as imagined in the Trump proposal as the starting point for negotiations that would also include a Palestinian state?

Or are we debating a couple of suburban neighborhoods contiguous or nearly contiguous to Jerusalem? Or are we talking about establishing the Jordan Valley as our security border?

It is a serious subject with much different ramifications depending upon what is actually done.  And, yet, we will apparently not know exactly what it is until just before and after it has gone through a tortured negotiation process with the Trump Administration and Netanyahu’s coalition partners and, of course, through Netanyahu’s political calculations.

For a facts and figures on what likely scenarios would entail, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East policy provides a some very good outlines of how territory and people would be impacted.

American supporters of Israel are rightly confused and concerned.  So are many Israelis.  But where Israelis and many American supporters of Israel part company is seeing this issue as the end-all and be-all of Israel.

American Zionists are often single-minded in their focus on Israel’s security and its disputes with the Palestinians, Iran, and the Arab world.  This is understandable.  That is what they are most often presented with in the news, and it is what they are virtually always asked to be involved in.  And, because America and American Judaism stresses universal values, it is natural that they would be uncomfortable when Israel engages in particular, nationalistic behavior that nations engage in, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes as an option, sometimes smartly and sometimes stupidly.

(For insight into the origins of some of the discomfort between Israelis and American Jews, read We Stand Divided, a short book by Daniel Gordis. He argues that the divisions between the communities has a lot more to do with the basic purposes and underlining foundations of the U.S. and Israel than with any particular issue.)

Israelis are not exclusively focused on security and our neighbors.  And that also is understandable.  Israelis are living lives.  They are daily dealing with what citizens of other countries are dealing with: making a living, traveling on crowded highways, seeing that their kids are fed and educated, confronting a pandemic, trying to have a little fun and enjoyment in life.  The conflicts and threats are important, no doubt. But they are not all of life.

An American Jewish Zionist recently fretted about the risks of Israel having American friends on the right, and then he wrote “but also the Israelis have been voting right-wing since 1973. It is a difficult situation for Zionists supporting a ‘light unto the Nations’!!!”

First some facts: It is misleading when one attaches American “right-wing” and left-wing” labels to Israeli politicians. “Right-wingers” here in Israel favor government intervention, involvement, and support in ways and levels that the American right-wing would never dream of supporting. For example, no Israeli politician would ever suggest eliminating Israel’s universal health care system. No Republican president would ever write the kind of supportive message that the Prime Minister wrote last year for the annual Pride Day celebrations.

If by “right-wing” and “left-wing” reference is being made to perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, then it would be correct that the right-wing is less willing to take steps aimed at compromise, and it less willing to give up territory.

Regarding the voting pattern since 1973, the writer is inaccurate. Between 1973 and 2001, 28 years, there were 17 years with a Likud Prime Minister and 11 years with a Labor Prime Minister.

Ariel Sharon was the Prime Minister from 2001-06. He started out as Likud and then formed Kadima in order to accomplish the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Kadima continued to lead with Ehud Olmert as Prime Minister until 2009, during which period he made the most generous proposal for a two-state solution since 1948.

The summary: For the 36 years from 1973-2009, 19 were led by Labor or by a Likud/Kadima that did a unilateral withdrawal and made an expansive two-state proposal. Which brings up an interesting point: It was under “right-wing” governments that Israel: 1) gave up the Sinai in exchange for a peace agreement with Egypt and agreed to a proposal for Palestinian “autonomy” which could very have led to a state; 2) unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, clearly signaling that more withdrawals were possible if it led to peace.

It is true that for the last 11 years, Netanyahu and Likud have led. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu, who now seems hell-bent on an annexation that four percent of the Israeli public lists as its top priority, acknowledged acceptance of a Palestinian state in 2009 and, again, in his acceptance of the Trump proposal.

As Yossi Klein Halevi and others point out, as far as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute goes, the left/peace camp is almost non-existent in Israel. It is now a battle between the right and the center-left. While there are many causes that contributed to the left’s demise, three major ones are:

1) The Israeli left. It would never blame the Palestinians for the failure to move forward. It placed all the blame on Israel. That did not reflect reality and it did not wash with a great majority of the Israeli public.

2) The Palestinians and, in particular, their leadership. Arafat rejected the Barak/Clinton Camp David proposal and the Taba proposal, and then the Palestinians engaged in three years of the carnage of the Intifada. It is impossible to overemphasize how the terror and death of those three years undermined the belief that the Palestinians would give Israel peace in exchange for land. And then Abbas walked away from Olmert’s 2009 offer.

3) President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. When they refused to recognize and honor the George W. Bush letter issued around the time Israel withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, that told many Israelis that they cannot rely on assurances from the U.S. that, if Israel took risks for peace, the U.S. would have its back. Along with many other things, it led the Palestinians to believe that they could sit back and the U.S. and the world would pressure Israel into making concessions.

Also, whereas prior administrations had made distinctions between “settlements” out in the middle of nowhere and neighborhoods to the east, north, and south which everyone, including the Palestinians, had thought would remain part of Israel in any deal, Obama and Clinton made no such distinctions. They were all “settlements.” This caused Abbas to become less flexible in his demands. He could not be seen as being “softer” than the President.

So, there are reasons why Israelis have chosen “right-wing” governments in the recent past. And while it is possible that Israeli governments more to the left may have taken more far-reaching steps, it is inaccurate to  imply that right-wing governments did not take some bold steps for peace, or that the Israeli public would have tolerated left-wing governments offering much more without some clear and concrete steps indicating that the Palestinians were abandoning violence and the “right of return” for millions of people who never lived here, as well as recognizing the right of Jews to a nation here in our ancestral homeland.

For a supporter of Israel to say that this history and the current situation makes it difficult to support Israel, or difficult to see its many accomplishments and contributions as a “light unto the nations” is painful. It is also a very narrow view of Israel.

Israel is much, much more than the Palestinian issue. Spending a lot of time here shows that to people. Israel is fascinating, enlightened, narrow, fulfilling, frustrating, joyful, spiritual, depressing, fun, and sad—all on the same day.

Elan Ezrachi, Ph.D, is a several-generation Jerusalemite, former IDF helicopter pilot, author, consultant, fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, and a dedicated worker for tolerance, understanding, inclusion, and peace. He recently made these comments relating to American Jewish opposition to annexation:

“To my American friends who oppose annexation of the West Bank.

For starters, I want to state that I am also opposed to this senseless and dangerous move. So are many Israelis who took to the streets in recent weeks and demonstrated under the Covid restrictions. In addition, there were multiple privately-paid newspaper ads and social media campaigns in Israel that explained the dangers of annexation.

As we were anxiously waiting to see what was in the making (the July 1 deadline), I was following the discourse in America regarding the upcoming annexation. I read multiple opinion items in Jewish newspapers, followed social media posts and received organizational newsletters. Most of those items warned that if annexation will happen, there will be an irreparable damage to the relations between American (and other Diaspora) Jews with Israel and that this will be the end of Zionism, end of Jewish Peoplehood, and of Israel advocacy – choose your term. The message was: stop annexation or else. . .

Moreover, the annexation became the single issue of conversation. Women of the Wall, human rights violations, political corruption, racism, anti-immigrant policies – out. We only talk about annexation. Not to mention the devastating social and economic hardships that were inflicted on all Israelis in the new pandemic reality and pushed this issue to the margins of the Israeli discourse.

This is where I feel uncomfortable. Israel’s virtues and flaws do not stand on a single issue. Israel is a universe of 9 million people, with multiple identities and worldviews. The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is a 100 years-old and the Palestinians also have some share in the failure to resolve it. And the world is going through a major economic shake-up. So let’s put things in proportion. The annexation (that currently is not happening) is not the end all and be all of what we call: Israel.

We should all be critical and firm regarding this possible move, but this is not a single issue. Not to mention that the proposed annexation is derived from an American ‘peace plan’ released in January 2020 that gave Israel the green light to add West Bank lands to its map in a future two-state solution with the Palestinians.

As in the past, Israel is a joint venture of world Jewry and we are all responsible for its successes and failures.”

Dr. Ezrachi hits the nail on the proverbial head. Three things predictably happen when Israel does or considers doing something that many American Jews are uncomfortable with:

1) In expressing their view, they seem to think that there are no Israelis who think about these issues and who might have a different and legitimate view given their perspective from living here;

2) They often sound like they don’t realize that Israelis are involved in these issues, care about them, and argue about them. They often come across as thinking they are the moral and ethical parents lecturing to errant children;

3) They seem to narrow the relationship and Israel itself down to the single issue at hand, and they often seem to condition their connection with, love for, and support of Israel on that one issue.

We often only see and hear from some of these American Jewish Zionists when we are doing or thinking of doing something that troubles them or that causes them discomfort in the U.S. For example, I know American Jews who jump into criticize Israel seemingly at the drop of a hat, but they haven’t bothered to visit in 15 years, or they visit every 15 years. This conditional connection and this single focus, often without context and understanding, lessens the credibility and impact of their criticism.

I would suggest that those Zionists who are uncomfortable with some of Israel’s actions or possible actions, who are finding it “a difficult situation for Zionists supporting a ‘light unto the Nations'” to try to see Israel as a whole country with, as Dr. Ezrachi put it, “multiple identities and worldviews.” Get to know the country and the people. Don’t rely on the New York Times. Spend some real time here, not touring and seeing, but living.

Seeing Israel from a wider lens may not make one completely comfortable. That’s o.k. When you love something, when you care strongly about something, you often are uncomfortable when you think it is making a mistake. But seeing Israel from a broader perspective should, one hopes, not allow a disagreement, even over a crucial issue, to fracture your relationship.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California for 30 years. He currently lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, California and consults on governmental affairs, communications, politics, and business development. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. Inquiries regarding speaking engagements: ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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