CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
May 14, 2007 – Page 1418
By Jonathan Broder, CQ Staff
JERUSALEM — For the past six years or so, Yaron Ezrahi, a respected political theorist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, disengaged somewhat from politics. He was frustrated with what appeared to be the futility of Israeli pro-peace activism following the failure at Camp David in 2000 to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Ezrahi, a son of Israel’s founding generation and a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army, proudly describes himself as a Zionist, meaning he supports a democratic Jewish state in Israel. But as a member of Israel’s left-wing camp, he says that state should not include the occupied Palestinian territories, the Syrian Golan Heights or the vast majority of Jewish settlements that have been built on those lands. He also is willing to give up Arab East Jerusalem to Palestinians in exchange for peace.
Lately, Ezrahi and other members of Israel’s left have become increasingly vocal about their political views and their frustration with the
government’s policies. Appearing recently in a debate on Israeli
television, Ezrahi called the occupation — now in its 40th year — “a classic colonial enterprise” that uses an “apartheid system” of economic and political discrimination to separate Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the territory. He readily defends a book by former President Jimmy Carter, whose title —“Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” — provoked American Jewish critics to vilify the 39th president as an anti-Semite.
“If Carter were to give a lecture in Jerusalem and he were to say this is apartheid in the West Bank, I would say, yes, I support you. This is exactly the case,” Ezrahi said in an interview.
What has shaken Ezrahi and like-minded Israelis from their political torpor is a trio of major peace initiatives in recent months by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestinian moderates — and the skeptical responses to each of them from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Ezrahi and other Israelis on the left say his reluctance to seize upon the Arab offers represents not only a radical departure from Israel’s own diplomatic tradition of exploring all avenues for peace, but also an ill-advised obeisance to President Bush, one of whose priorities in the Middle East is to isolate some of the Arab players offering talks.
These are strong sentiments that are not often heard in the United States when the subject of Israel arises. But they reflect both a desperation on the Israeli left for some kind of breakthrough in the stalled Middle East peace process and deep concerns that Israeli leaders — and the vast majority of their countrymen — have grown too accustomed to the diplomatic stalemate and numbed by the violence, accepting it as a way of life. None of these sentiments have been blunted by Olmert’s current political problems, including widespread calls for his resignation following an official report that criticized his failures during Israel’s war in Lebanon last summer.
Indeed, for the first time since the Camp David talks, the concerns of the left are driving a resurgence of full-throated political discourse in mainstream Israel. Every day now, the debate can be heard in the cafes of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, on Israeli radio and television programs, and in the op-ed pages of Israeli newspapers. Calls for Israeli-Arab dialogue, as well as greater understanding of the Palestinians’ plight, are also surfacing as themes in Israel’s playhouses and cinemas, even in its rap music.
These voices are up against the country’s broad political center, which has come to accept — in principle — the left’s call for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem but is not ready to do anything about it. Many in this group have not recovered from the 2000 failure at Camp David, which made them turn inward. In August 2005, when Israel
unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, most of the nation heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be finally rid of that toothache of a territory. And after Israel managed to reduce suicide bombings by constructing a new security barrier roughly along the pre-1967 lines, it became that much easier for Israelis at the center to simply tune out the Palestinians altogether, as well as adjust their psyches to the absence of any peace process.
For Americans, what is noteworthy about this emergent debate in Israel is
how far removed it is from the discussion in the United States on the same subject. When Ezrahi embraces Carter’s critique of Israel’s West Bank policies, for example, he is expressing ideas that are not out of the mainstream in Israel. But in the United States, it is a position that generates such intense hostility that few dare express it.
The reaction to Carter’s book illustrates the point. Some of its critics in the United States have accused Carter of playing down the significance of the Holocaust. “One cannot ignore the Holocaust’s impact on Jewish identity and the history of the Middle East conflict. When an Ahmadinejad or Hamas threatens to destroy Israel, Jews have historical precedent to believe them. Jimmy Carter either does not understand this or considers it irrelevant,” Deborah Lipstadt, a historian at Emory University, wrote in a widely published commentary in January titled “Jimmy Carter’s Jewish Problem.”
What accounts for this dichotomy of discussion? The very question
generates such bitter cross-currents of debate that anything approaching a clear answer remains elusive. But many Israelis who follow the U.S. discourse believe hard-line Zionist organizations in the United States stifle the kind of debate that is taken for granted in Israel. Stuart Schoffman, an American-born Israeli writer who questions Israel’s current policies toward the Palestinians when he lectures in the United States, says he sees evidence of this intimidation. “Sometimes people come up to me after my talks and whisper, ‘I feel the same way, but I’m not allowed to say that in my circles,’ ” he said.
Further, some Israelis believe the limited range of the American debate contributes to U.S. policies toward Israel that lack a full understanding of the realities confronting the Jewish state. Ezrahi, among others, castigates Bush for pursuing policies that he believes ignore the toxic reality taking root in the region. This in turn, he says, undermines Israel’s hopes for two states — one Jewish, the other Palestinian — living side-by-side in peace. Indeed, at a time when the unresolved Palestinian conflict is driving up recruitment for al Qaeda and stoking Islamic extremism throughout the region, Ezrahi says Bush has abdicated the traditional U.S. role as honest broker between Israel and the
When Israelis debate their future, their reliance on the United States for military, political and economic support is always a factor. This time, however, many on the Israeli left have serious reservations about where Bush’s Middle East policies are leading, cracking the solidarity that once defined the relationship. The Iraq War, launched in part to make Israel safer, has in fact left it less secure, these skeptics say. They add that Bush’s determination to isolate nations such as Syria is pressuring Israel to forgo opportunities for peace that the Jewish state has been seeking since its founding 59 year ago.
“We always extended our hand for direct talks, and when the Arabs refused, we reaped the propaganda benefit,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who conducted secret peace
negotiations with Syria. “Olmert has broken from that policy. Now the Arabs want to talk, and we are the ones who are saying no. This is an American policy. It is not in our interest.”
The Capital of ‘No’
Israelis have come a long way to reach the barricades of today’s political debate. Shifting events have led to shifting positions on the part of the Israeli right, the left and a large contingent of centrists that these days is sometimes called the “passive center.” The state of discourse comes into focus through an understanding of these three groups, beginning with their traditional political views.
On the right were those bent on ensuring that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip extended indefinitely. These people believed the establishment of settlements in those areas, particularly the West Bank, would create new realities on the ground that would serve to lock in the occupation and essentially expand Israel into those territories.
On the left were those who wanted a settlement with the Palestinians and were willing to give up those occupied territories in order to get it. Indeed, many in this camp actively opposed the occupation because they feared it would lead to a permanent communal conflict with the
Palestinians, whose higher birth rates would allow them eventually to outnumber the Jews. At that point, Israel would no longer be a Jewish state, and perhaps no longer a democratic one, according to this view, which held that Israel’s Jewish identity was more important than Jewish expansion.
And then there was the traditional center, which generally saw merit in both positions and wielded the country’s balance of power, nudging it in one direction or the other based on events.
But in recent years some powerful shifts have occurred, largely a result of the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks. The right concluded that the left was correct in warning that Israel faced a threat posed by the occupation.
The result was the formation of the new Kadima (Hebrew for “forward”) Party of Ariel Sharon, which adopted a policy of Israeli unilateralism. Kadima galvanized large segments of the vast political center, which had concluded that Israel had no Palestinian partner for any real peace talks. This growing sentiment helps explain Sharon’s impressive political success before his stroke in 2005.
Meanwhile, the left’s political orientation also was shifting.
Traditionally focused on negotiations with the Palestinians and a dream of two neighboring states, these people also were affected by the collapse of the Camp David peace efforts and by the resumption of Palestinian
violence. The result was that the left abandoned for a time its commitment to negotiations. The Arabs just weren’t ready for serious talks, they concluded.
That was the state of play as Sharon, the founder of the right-wing Likud Party, abandoned that group and created his new, unilateralist party. Without consulting Palestinians, he withdrew Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005. He continued construction of Israel’s controversial security barrier, built along a route that was most advantageous to Israel’s security and demographic concerns. After Sharon’s stroke, Olmert went even further, announcing plans to withdraw unilaterally from much of the West Bank as well.
Then last year the Sharon strategy of unilateralism fell apart because of two dramatic developments. First, Palestinian militants in Gaza began firing homemade rockets at nearby Israeli towns. Then the militant fundamentalist Hamas movement won Palestinian elections, thus becoming a powerful and unwelcome force within the population that would have to accept any peace structure.
The rockets convinced many Israelis that no good deed goes unpunished: Despite their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Palestinian violence was following them into Israel proper. Israelis saw the election of Hamas as proof that a majority of Palestinians still refused to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Many Israelis concluded, with considerable frustration, that the country lacked any policy option that could possibly bear fruit. After all, the right’s drive to annex conquered territory collapsed when the Israeli right abandoned it as a threat to Israel’s Jewish identity. The left’s hopes for a negotiated settlement dissipated with the breakdown of the Camp David effort. And now, the bold move toward unilateralism seems spent.
“The problem is that every option that has been proposed by successive Israeli governments has failed,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a conservative research institute in Jerusalem. “Today the Israeli public is left without a viable blueprint. So if you ask me where we should go now, I have to say that I feel checkmated by reality.”
But for the Israeli left, something has changed: namely, offers for peace talks over the past few months from Saudi Arabia, Syria and the
Palestinian Authority. Most significant is the Saudi plan, endorsed by the 22-nation Arab League, which offers Israel full peace, recognition and normalization with the entire Arab world. The price: Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and an “agreed” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
This approach, even if entirely sincere, poses enormous challenges because it forces both sides to confront their separate — and sacred —historical narratives of the events that led to both Israel’s creation and the Palestinian exodus. For Israelis, it raises the question of what
responsibility they bear in the creation of the refugee problem in Israel’s first year of existence.
But for Israelis of the left, these developments insert a new hope into their calculations, and they are urging the country’s political center to recognize the opportunities presented by the peace initiatives. This new hope and the left’s calls for engagement are recasting the Israeli debate in important ways. The key, as always, will be the so-called passive center. Can the left induce that center to become less passive?
This is where the historical narrative is key. Palestinians say they were driven from their homes in a deliberate Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Israelis say the refugee problem was caused when Arab states attacked the fledgling Jewish state in 1948. Modern Israeli historians say both factors contributed to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Olmert sees no room for compromise. He says he does not accept any Palestinian right of return, arguing — as do most Israelis — that such a right leaves the door open to a flood of returning refugees who would eventually overwhelm Israel demographically, turning the Jewish state into a binational state.
“I’ll never accept a solution that is based on their return to Israel, any number,” Olmert told the Jerusalem Post in a March 30 interview. He then added: “I don’t think we should accept any kind of responsibility for the creation of this problem. Full stop.” He said the return of even a single Palestinian refugee to Israel is “out of the question.”
Many Israelis at the country’s political center agree with Olmert. At issue is not only the validity of the Israeli narrative, but also the consequences of acknowledging that it might be flawed. “If we recognize the Palestinian right of return at least in principle, that means saying we were wrong and you were right, and the state of Israel was born in sin,” said Yossi Alpher, a former officer in the Mossad, Israel’s
intelligence service, and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Alpher says such acknowledgement would “lay the foundation for more conflict.”
The left, however, argues that Olmert, along with many at the political center, has deliberately misconstrued the Saudi peace initiative to avoid peace talks.
To begin with, they say the call for Israel’s return to its pre-1967 lines has been the universally accepted basis for every Middle East peace plan since the 1967 war, including the current “road map,” which Israel says it fully supports. They note that Saudi officials have said the initiative does not rule out mutually agreed territorial adjustments to incorporate large Jewish settlements inside Israel’s final borders, in exchange for comparable Israeli lands going to the Palestinians.
On the issue of shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, left-wing Israelis note that Saudi officials have said a Palestinian capital in the eastern, Arab part of the city does not preclude Israeli sovereignty over the city’s western Jewish neighborhoods, the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. In other words, both peoples would be able to claim the city as their capital.
And on the refugees, Israeli critics say Olmert is waving a red herring. In a commentary last month in The Jerusalem Post, David Kimche, a former deputy director of the Mossad, recalled a recent conversation with an unnamed Arab prime minister in Madrid, where Kimche asked him how he thought Israel could accept U.N. Resolution 194, which called for the return of Palestinian refugees or compensation for their lost property.
“You don’t have to,” Kimche quoted the Arab leader as saying. “The key word in the refugee article is still ‘agreed.’ You can say you are willing to negotiate on the basis of the initiative and state your reservations about 194. We would understand it and accept it. No Arab leader believes you are willing to accept the return of the refugees.”
The problem for the Israelis now, leftist commentators and scholars like to point out, is that their leaders’ reluctance to engage on the Arab initiatives contradicts the Israelis’ self-image as people who are ready to negotiate peace.
Israelis often refer to their offer soon after the 1967 war to negotiate a withdrawal from territories taken in that conflict in return for peace and recognition from the Arabs. In the same breath, they remind the world that the Arab League, meeting later that year in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, responded to Israel’s offer with its famous “three nos” — no negotiations, no recognition, no peace.
Now, Israelis on the left openly question whether their government is actually afraid to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Arabs because of the price it will have to pay. And that skepticism is spreading to some in the political center as well.
“Jerusalem can either replace Khartoum to become the capital of the word ‘No,’ ” Kimche said. “Or our prime minister can display initiative, courage and leadership and meet the challenge of Riyadh head-on. Which is it to be, Mr. Olmert?”
Bolstering the Moderates
The reason Israel’s leaders give for this “no” posture has been that they always have lacked a partner for such peace talks: Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was untrustworthy; his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was too weak; and now, the Palestinian unity government is dominated by Hamas hard-liners, who refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Nevertheless, Abbas, a moderate who has worked with Israel before, remains president of the Palestinian Authority, and under the terms that brought his Fatah party into the unity government, he holds the portfolio for negotiating peace with Israel. And Abbas has offered to begin such negotiations — an offer that Olmert has rejected until the Palestinian government recognizes Israel, forswears violence and agrees to honor all previous agreements with Israel.
Halevi, of Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, says the question of recognition is central to the political center’s support for Olmert’s hard-line posture toward the Palestinians. “You make peace with an enemy that at least recognizes the legitimacy of your existence on the planet,” he said in an interview. “If your enemy says you have no right to exist, you can’t make peace with that kind of enemy. Germany and France fought a 100-year war over territory, not over each other’s existence.”
Halevi notes that the Israeli government and the public have come a long way since the days 20 years ago when both refused to recognize the Palestinians as a legitimate nation.
“On the Israeli side, you now have a majority that understands that this is a struggle between two legitimate national movements,” he said. “On the Palestinian side, we have seen no reciprocal transformation of
consciousness. What you have on the Palestinian side is a minority — and I stress minority — which says we can’t destroy the Jews; they’re too strong, so let’s try to settle this and stop killing each other. . . . But you don’t have anywhere near a majority on the Palestinian side that says what the Israeli majority says, which is that we both have a right to exist.”
Halevi added: “What I’ve learned is that without the basic element of recognition, there is no chance for reconciliation. This is a conflict about many details: settlements, terrorism, water, Jerusalem and refugees. But at the end of the day, this is a conflict over intangibles, and the intangibles are existence and legitimacy. That’s why peacemakers keep failing — because there is no precise point on the map that will resolve the grievances of both sides.”
For Israelis on the left, such arguments, as emotionally satisfying as they may be, only help Olmert justify his refusal to speak to the
Palestinians, perpetuating the broader diplomatic stalemate. What is needed, they say, are pragmatic strategies that will strengthen
Palestinian moderates such as Abbas and weaken the popular appeal of Hamas.
Yossi Beilin, the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, is one who thinks the Olmert approach is too rigid. In an interview at his Tel Aviv office, Beilin noted that for the past six and a half years, Israel has had no Palestinian address for its peace proposals. The unity government, however imperfect, provides that address, he said.
“Is this the government I would have liked to negotiate with? No. The fact that Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel is awful, just awful,” he said. “On the other hand, since there is a unity government and very moderate, pragmatic Palestinians are part of this government, I would like to give it a chance and not say that because they are together, we are not going to talk, neither with Fatah nor Hamas. This is not serious.”
Ret. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defense minister and a former military governor of the West Bank, presents the pragmatic proposal that many on the Israeli left support. “Abbas is authorized to negotiate,” Sneh said in an interview. “Let’s reach a draft peace agreement with him, which he can then take to a referendum. I believe Abbas will win that
referendum, and on this basis, he’ll be authorized to continue
negotiations with us. When we finish negotiations on the details, he’ll go to elections. And we will also go to elections. This is in our interest.”
Road to Damascus
Israel’s debate over the Syrian offer for peace talks has nothing to do with the weighty issues of history or recognition. In this case, the question is whether Israel is obligated to follow the Bush
administration’s policy of resisting talks with Damascus in order to isolate the regime there.
Increasingly, serious scholars are questioning the conventional wisdom that it makes strategic sense for Israel, a tiny country surrounded by Muslim hostility, to hew closely to the policies of the United States, its most important ally.
With the Bush administration taking a tough line on Syria, Olmert, with the support of many Israelis at the country’s political center, has spurned the Syrian offers for peace talks, citing the damage that such negotiations would do to the Israeli-U.S. relationship.
“We can’t afford to break with Washington on such issues,” said Yossi Kucik, who was chief of staff for Ehud Barak when Barak was prime
Bush is unhappy with Syria because of its alleged assistance to insurgents in Iraq, its moves to topple the pro-U.S. government in Lebanon and its efforts to evade any responsibility for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Bush’s strategy has been to try to isolate Damascus as much as possible, insisting that allies such as Israel join the effort. Bush made an exception earlier this month when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, during a regional conference on the future of Iraq. But White House spokesman Tony Snow said the meeting did not represent a change in U.S. policy toward Syria.
The question for some Israelis is whether it still makes sense for Israel to stay uncritically supportive of Bush’s policies. Unlike the United States, they say, Israel has an existential interest in making peace with its neighbors and does not have the luxury of passing up such
opportunities. Moreover, they say, Olmert has a moral responsibility to explain these priorities to Bush.
“I understand that there is a difficulty with the Americans,” said Beilin, a former deputy foreign minister. “But rather than say we are American allies and can’t do something against their will, we have to go to the Americans as allies and tell them how wrong they are.”
Israelis learned in January that unofficial peace talks between a former Israeli official and a Syrian-American representing the interests of Syrian President Bashar Assad had been conducted in secret for the two previous years — and that those talks had produced a blueprint for peace between the two longtime enemies. The details of the accord were made public after Olmert, citing Bush’s opposition, refused a call by Assad to elevate the talks to an official level, with the presence of a U.S. diplomat.
According to Alon Liel, the former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who served as the Israeli negotiator, the blueprint called on Israel to declare publicly that it recognized Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981. In return, Syria would open the border and turn much of the Golan into a “peace park,” where Israelis could continue to work and visit, as long as they returned to Israel by nightfall. Syria also agreed to deploy its armed forces much farther back from the Golan than Israel’s forces, acknowledging the imbalance in the geographical size of the two countries.
But most important, Liel said, Syria agreed that it would break its alliance with Iran, halt its support for Hezbollah and the militant Islamic Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories, and realign itself into the U.S. orbit, along with other moderate Arab states.
“They were after two things: the Golan and Washington,” Liel said of the Syrians. “We couldn’t imagine how important Washington was for them.” But Olmert turned down Syria’s offer to begin official talks because, Liel added, “he didn’t want to embarrass the United States.”
Beilin and others point out that an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement, with Damascus’ break from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, would benefit the United States as well.
“Why should you, the Americans, prevent us from negotiating with the Syrians?” Beilin said. “It has never happened before — never, ever. And it has never happened that Israel was the one who rejected the readiness of an Arab country to make peace with us. It is inconceivable and a crime not to try.”
‘With Friends Like You’
Such resentment over U.S. interference in a possible Israeli-Syrian peace negotiation is just one aspect of a growing unease in Israel with the Bush administration’s Middle East policies and the hawkish pro-Israel advocates in the United States who support them.
Indeed, more than at any time in the nations’ relationship, Israelis are questioning the competence of a U.S. president as he deals with the Middle East. To be sure, no public criticism of Bush’s policies has come from Olmert or any members of his Cabinet, for obvious political reasons. But on the left, many Israelis are openly expressing deep reservations that go far beyond Bush’s effort to isolate Syria. They also voice skepticism toward Rice’s current diplomatic efforts in the region, and deep concerns that Bush’s performance in Iraq has strengthened Islamic militants, as well as Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
“I have to be wiser to understand the motivations of President Bush,” Beilin commented dryly. “But it seems to me that the American
administration’s view of this region is very simplistic — black and white, the good guys and the bad guys. This is something that is very far from reality.”
Israeli critics of the Bush administration say U.S. reluctance to get deeply involved in Middle East peacemaking stands in sharp contrast to the diplomatic commitments that previous U.S. administrations made over the past three decades.
Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger shuttled for months between
Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus to negotiate the end of the 1973 Middle East war. Carter spent weeks at Camp David and in the region to coax Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin into their 1979 peace treaty. Secretary of State James A. Baker III flew to Damascus 15 times to secure Syria’s participation in the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid. And President Bill Clinton personally oversaw Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that culminated with the Camp David summit in 2000.
“Now look at Condi Rice,” said Alpher of the Jaffee Center. “She comes here every few months for one or two nights and talks about reviving the peace process. Nothing ever happens. . . . I don’t think anyone takes her seriously.
“Either she doesn’t care and she’s just going through the motions to give everyone a fig leaf, or she and Bush actually think that this is the way you promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Alpher said. “I don’t know. But I can only say you look at what she’s doing, and it’s pathetic.”
Some Israelis, such as Sneh, the deputy defense minister, applaud the White House for maintaining diplomatic contact with the moderates in the Palestinian unity government. But they can’t understand why Rice doesn’t demand a similar policy from Olmert, who will meet with Abbas only to discuss issues such as roadblocks and travel permits, not the key
questions of a peace negotiation. There is also disappointment at the Bush administration’s tepid response to the Saudi peace initiative.
“With friends like you . . . ” says Yossi Sarid, a former left-wing Knesset member.
While he’s on the subject, Sarid also articulates a growing Israeli concern about the impact that the Iraq War has had on the security of the Jewish state. Israeli leaders faithfully supported the war back in 2003, echoing the Bush administration’s line that the removal of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a democratic government in Baghdad would make Israel more secure in the Middle East. But with the U.S. mission in Iraq now in trouble, Sarid notes that many Israelis fear that the war has brought al Qaeda closer to their borders and strengthened Iran, whose nuclear ambitions are viewed here as the country’s most worrisome threat.
“From an Israeli point of view, it makes us much more vulnerable,” said Sarid, one of the few Israeli politicians who opposed the war from the beginning. “Sooner or later, the Americans will withdraw from Iraq. But we’re in the neighborhood to stay.”
When Israelis on the left vent their feeling about the United States, their frustrations don’t stop with the Bush administration. Many are also growing increasingly fed up with right-wing pro-Israel groups in the United States who they say support Bush’s hands-off policies toward Israel and muzzle any debate over Israel’s actions on Capitol Hill, in the media, and within the academic and foreign policy communities.
These Israelis deeply resent such efforts as unwelcome intrusions that only encourage U.S. and Israeli leaders to resist opportunities for making peace. Especially galling, some complain, is the fact that these hawkish Israel boosters don’t have to live with the consequences of their
hard-line convictions, such as their support for Jewish settlements, but Israelis do. According to Israeli military officials, one of the reasons the Israeli army performed so poorly in Lebanon last summer was that soldiers spent more time guarding settlers than training for combat.
Ezrahi, the Hebrew University political theorist, says pro-Israel lobbies in the United States, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have accomplished many important things for Israel. But he adds that over the past two decades, they have also “caused Israel some unbelievable damage” with their support for right-wing policies and the significant political pressure they exert on Congress and the
administration not to question those policies.
“Their fanatical patriotism lacks the sensibility of the enormously complex situation in which Israel exists,” he said.
An AIPAC spokesman declined to comment on these observations. The group maintains that it does not take sides in Israel’s political debates and focuses on the broader U.S.-Israel relationship.
Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz who served as the paper’s Washington correspondent, challenges that line. He says pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC pounce on any criticism or
perceived threat to Israel because it justifies their existence as so-called Jewish defense organizations. Their antennae are also tuned to political developments in Israel that could weaken their influence, Eldar says.
He recalls covering the Oslo accords in 1993, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Arafat on the White House lawn.
“The AIPAC people were depressed because there was a tangible threat that Rabin was going to take away their agenda,” Eldar said in an interview. “God forbid that the Arabs would lift their embargo of Israel! What then would be left of the lobby? Who would need them?”
An angry Eldar continued: “Peace is the worst scenario for them. So a book like Carter’s is oxygen. He played right into their hands.”
Eldar is one of a number of left-wing Israelis who have been traveling to the United States to educate Jewish audiences about the reality on the ground in Israel in an attempt to wean them away from their ingrained right-wing views. Another is Schoffman, who noted that some Americans come up afterwards to confide that they agree with his criticisms of Israeli policies but feel constrained about expressing such doubts.
Schoffman said he has a ready answer for such people. “I say, ‘It’s okay. I’m here to empower you.’ ”
~ Churches for Middle East Peace -- 110 Maryland Ave., NE #311 -
Washington, DC - 20002 -- 1-202-543-1222 ~