Monthly Archives: June 2013
Today’s Israel Hayom has an important article about an Israeli Greek Orthodox priest that every Christian in the West should read. Father Gabriel Nadaf and his family are suffering harassment and even death threats from their fellow Arabs for arguing that Israeli Arab Christians should serve in the Israel Defense Forces. On Tuesday, he was even summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the local Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilus III, which ended with Theophilus keeping Nadaf in office but asking him to lower his profile. The account of the hearing given by one of Nadaf’s close associates, Shady Halul, is revealing:
“The patriarch told Father Nadaf that he is not an opponent of the state of Israel,” he said. “On the contrary, he is very appreciative of the security enjoyed by Christians in Israel. He did ask Nadaf to tone down his statements concerning his work with the forum so as to ensure the safety of Christians in the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states.”
It has become a truism among some Christian groups that Israel is primarily to blame for the suffering of Middle East Christians. In 2010, for instance, a synod of Catholic bishops from the Middle East blamed the Christian exodus from the region on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus it’s worth listening to what these Israeli Christians have to say: that Israel is actually the one place in the region where Arab Christians enjoy security; elsewhere, they are oppressed by their fellow Arab Muslims.
Even more noteworthy, however, is that since the Arab Spring erupted, the “forum” to which Halul referred in the above quote–the Forum for the Enlistment of the Christian Community, founded by a group of Christian IDF veterans–has seen a marked increase in the number of Christians seeking to enlist, though they still represent a minority of the Arab Christian community. Previously, many Arab Christians bought into pan-Arab ideology, and thus believed their interests lay with their fellow Arabs. But the Arab Spring shattered this ideology: In country after country, Arab Islamists have turned on fellow Arabs who fail to toe their religious line, and this, naturally, includes Christians. By comparison, Israel is a haven.
“We feel secure in the state of Israel,” Nadaf explained, “and we see ourselves as citizens of the state with all the attendant rights as well as obligations.”
Indeed, the shift is so marked that the forum even lobbied (successfully) to get Arab Christians integrated into Jewish units rather than into Bedouin units (Bedouin are the only Muslims who serve in the IDF in significant numbers), thereby opting to forgo the comfort of serving with other Arabic-speakers.
As I’ve written before, a similar sea change is occurring among the Druze of the Golan Heights: Since the Syrian civil war erupted, the number seeking Israeli citizenship has soared by hundreds of percent, after decades in which most preferred to retain Syrian citizenship. As one explained, “People see murdered children and refugees fleeing to Jordan and Turkey, lacking everything, and ask themselves: Where do I want to raise my children. The answer is clear-in Israel and not Syria.”
All this leaves only one question: When are those western Christian groups that reflexively view Israel as the root of all evil going to reach the same realization that Nadaf and his followers have?
When an acclaimed historian says he sees a terrifying historical pattern repeating itself, he deserves to be taken seriously. And Benny Morris is assuredly one of Israel’s most famous historians. Unfortunately, his warning is unlikely to be seen by many, since it’s buried at the end of a somewhat tedious book review. And it’s liable to be ignored by those who need to hear it most.
Morris reviewed Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country–and Why They Can’t Make Peace for the summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books. Most of the almost 5,000-word review was devoted to detailing Tyler’s numerous egregious errors and showing how they undermine his conclusions. But by itself, Morris wrote, Tyler’s spurious history would be insignificant. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s part of a much larger trend:
Fortress Israel is just the latest in a spate of venomous perversions of the record that have appeared in the past few years in the United States and Britain, all clearly designed to subvert Israel’s standing in the world. Deliberately or not, such books and articles are paving the way for a future abandonment of the Jewish state.
I am reminded of the spate of books and articles that appeared in Western Europe in 1936 through 1938 repudiating the legitimacy of the newly formed Czechoslovakia before its sacrifice to the Nazi wolves. In 1934, the Conservative weekly Truth hailed Czechoslovakia as “the sole successful experiment in liberal democracy that has emerged from the post-War settlement.” By the end of 1936, The Observer was writing it off as “a diplomatic creation with no sufficient national basis either in geography or race.” By March 1938 The New Statesman, in the past a great friend to central Europe’s only democracy, was writing: “We should urge the Czechs to cede the German-speaking part of their territory to Hitler without more ado.” Of course, as all understood, this meant leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless. Hitler conquered the rump of the country a few months later without a shot. The appeasement of the Arab-Islamist world at Israel’s expense is in the air and Tyler is one of its (very, very) minor harbingers.
Reasonable people can disagree about how we should deal with this dangerous trend. But the first step is to recognize that it exists: that we’ve seen this historical pattern before, and it has deadly real-world consequences.
Unfortunately, Morris today is persona non grata with many of the people who most need to hear this warning. For years, he was a hero of the self-described “peace camp,” due both to his role as a leading “new historian” who challenged accepted Israeli historiography (he catapulted to fame in 1988 when he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949) and to his outspoken left-wing politics: He favored a Palestinian state before it was fashionable and was jailed for refusing to do military service in the territories.
But after the second intifada broke out, he became convinced that what the Palestinians wanted wasn’t peace, but “to extinguish the Jewish national project and to inherit all of Palestine.” That made him anathema to many well-meaning and genuinely pro-Israel people who can’t abide that conclusion–and they are also the people who find it hardest to accepting the delegitimizers as enemies who must be fought at all costs. Instead, they often favor “dialogue” and “an inclusive big tent.”
But Morris is a historian, not a politician, and his politics shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the validity of his historical analysis. The Czechoslovakian analogy he sees is frightening–and we ignore it at Israel’s peril.
If it weren’t for one flaw, I’d agree completely with Daniel Gordis’ column in this paper last Friday. He’s right that the endless debate over the peace process has sucked all the air out of the international Jewish conversation “for far too long,” leaving no room for crucial topics like “why the Jews need a state and the values on which it ought to be based.” He’s right that we can’t afford to keep ignoring these issues. And he’s right that the impossibility of an Israeli-Palestinian deal in the foreseeable future creates space to finally start addressing them. Indeed, that’s precisely what happened in the last Israeli election, which, for the first time in decades, revolved around domestic issues – i.e., what kind of state Israel should be – rather than the peace process.
Yet these important arguments are undercut by the flaw hidden in one seemingly innocuous statement: “Reasonable minds can differ as to whether saying publicly that the two-state solution is dead is healthy for Israel’s standing in the international community.”
Actually, where Gordis stands on that question seems pretty clear: Just last July, he signed an open letter urging Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to adopt the Levy Report, lest it “place the two-state solution and the prestige of Israel as a democratic member of the international community, in peril”; he then wrote an op-ed in Haaretz explaining his objections in more detail. Yet all the Levy Report said is what every Israeli government has said for decades: that the West Bank isn’t “occupied Palestinian territory,” but disputed territory to which Israel has a valid claim – which in no way negates Israel’s ability or willingness to cede part or all of it for peace. If Gordis views even that as too dangerous to say publicly lest it paint Israel as a peace rejectionist, I can’t imagine him not objecting to a blunt public statement that “the two-state solution is dead.”
And therein lies the flaw. For if prominent Israelis, and especially Israeli leaders, aren’t willing to say this publicly and repeatedly, the “peace process” will keep right on monopolizing the conversation, and we’ll never have time and space for those other topics that Gordis rightly considers vital.
First, this is because nobody can be more Catholic than the pope: Neither American Jews nor world leaders can declare the two-state solution dead as long as Israeli leaders insist ad nauseam that it’s achievable.
Moreover, the benefits of peace as envisioned by the optimists are enormous: no more terror, an economic boom, reduced defense spending that frees up funds for other purposes, unassailable international legitimacy instead of creeping delegitimization. Most Israelis by now consider this “peace dividend” a mirage: 83% think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the conflict, meaning that terror, high defense spending, the economic hindrance of being in a “war zone” and delegitimization of Israel’s efforts to defend itself would all continue. But people who still believe a deal is possible generally also believe it really would produce those benefits.
Thus as long as Israeli leaders encourage the fallacy that an agreement is possible, overseas Jews will naturally think this should take precedence over the issues Gordis rightly wants to discuss. For unless you think Israel would forfeit its heart by ceding its historic heartland – which two-state enthusiasts don’t – then whatever kind of state you want Israel to be, the above-mentioned benefits would make it easier to achieve.
The biggest problem, however, is that Israeli leaders don’t just say peace is possible; whether out of genuine belief or merely to prove their peacemaking bona fides, they also repeatedly declare it essential for Israel’s very survival: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished” (former prime minister Ehud Olmert); “it’s impossible to survive in the long run without a political settlement” (Netanyahu); without a Palestinian state, “Israel will not be the Jewish nation-state” (Justice Minister Tzipi Livni).
When Israel’s own leaders – to whom Israelis routinely demand that Diaspora Jews defer on vital security issues – deem a two-state solution the most vital security issue of all, necessary for Israel’s very survival, how can overseas Jews be expected to care about anything else? If Israel truly will expire without a two-state solution, then there’s no point in discussing either why we need it or what kind of state it should be; all such questions are irrelevant until we first ensure its survival by implementing such a solution.
Thus if the conversation is ever to change, Israelis must first explain to the world why the two-state solution is indeed dead, and why Israel can nevertheless survive and even thrive without it, just as it has for the past 65 years.
In fact, explaining this is absolutely vital – because Israel can’t survive and thrive without peace unless we invest in building a state capable of doing so, and that entails a lot of very hard work. We have to reform our economy and education system, promote our case overseas, foster social solidarity, better integrate our minorities, and much, much more. Yet none of this can happen if Israel continues wasting vast amounts of political time and energy on the peace process – which it must keep doing as long as world leaders and overseas Jewry keep insisting on it. And they will keep insisting until Israeli leaders persuade them of what most Israelis already know: that it’s a lost cause.
It may be the world isn’t yet ready to hear this from the very top (even assuming Netanyahu were capable of saying it, which I doubt). But it never will be ready unless other Israelis start laying the groundwork. Thus even if more diplomatic phrasing might be preferable, second-tier politicians like Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon are performing an essential service by stating this truth.
The more Israelis are willing to join them in saying this publicly, the more likely overseas Jews are to finally start believing it. And only then will we be able to have the conversation Gordis (and I) so badly want to have.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.
Ever since Hassan Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new president last Friday, many Westerners have been enthusing over the prospects of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. But these enthusiasts should take a long, hard look at what Rowhani actually said at his very first press conference: Asked whether direct talks with Washington were possible, he replied, “First of all, the Americans have to say… that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Second, they have to recognize all of the Iranian nation’s due rights including nuclear rights. And third, they have to put aside oppressive… policies towards Iran.”
In other words, the U.S. must first promise to let the nuclear program proceed unhindered, lift all sanctions and recognize the mullahs’ regime as legitimate. Only then, once there’s nothing left to talk about because America has already capitulated fully to Iran’s demands, can negotiations begin.
If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s the exact same tactic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been using to evade negotiations with Israel for four years now. As his Fatah party’s central committee reiterated for the umpteenth time yesterday, the PA won’t agree to talks unless Israel first freezes all settlement construction (by which the PA means even huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that everyone knows would remain Israeli under any deal), accepts the 1967 lines (including in Jerusalem) as the basis for the final border and releases Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. In other words, it will agree to negotiate only after there’s nothing left to talk about, since Israel has already capitulated fully to its demands on several key final-status issues: borders, Jerusalem, settlements and prisoners.
As Alan Baker, a former legal advisor to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, explained in detail on Tuesday, these preconditions are completely groundless.
“Nowhere in the history of the peace process negotiations is there any commitment to the ‘1967 borders’,” he wrote. “The opposite is in fact the case. All the agreements between Israel and the PLO, as well as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, base themselves in their preambular paragraphs on the call by the international community, in UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, for ‘secure and recognized boundaries.'”
And though Baker didn’t mention it, not only doesn’t that resolution demand a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, but it was explicitly worded to allow Israel to retain some of the territory it captured in 1967.
Baker also noted that “Israel has never, in any of its agreements with the Palestinians, undertaken to freeze settlement activity in territory it continues to administer pursuant to the agreements with the Palestinians.” Indeed, he wrote, the Oslo Accords explicitly permitted Israel to keep building in the part of the West Bank known as Area C, and designated the settlements as “one of the agreed-upon final-status negotiation issues, together with borders, refugees, water, Jerusalem and security.”
While Baker doesn’t address the prisoner issue, that, too, is a classic final-status one. In Northern Ireland, for instance–a precedent Westerners love to cite–the prisoners were freed only after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, not before negotiations even began.
Thus the PA’s insistence that Israel agree on all these final-status issues before talks even start effectively ensures that the talks never will start–and that is equally true of Rowhani’s preconditions.
But Rowhani has assuredly noticed that this tactic has worked beautifully for the Palestinians: Much of the world continues to insist that the absence of talks is Israel’s fault, for not accepting the PA’s preconditions. So who can blame him for hoping it will work equally well for Iran?
There’s a popular saying in Israel that if you really want to know what’s going on, you should talk to the taxi drivers. That’s the Israeli version of a worldwide truth: Ordinary people sometimes have a better grasp of reality than intellectuals. A classic example of this truth played out in Western cultural milieus this week, when representatives of both highbrow and lowbrow culture coincidentally weighed in on the Israel issue.
On the highbrow end, we had American literary lion Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She has just published a new book, and as Jonathan Tobin detailed here yesterday, it is so vile that even the Anti-Defamation League was moved to denounce its “vitriolic and hateful rhetoric” as blatantly anti-Semitic. As Jonathan noted, Walker also has a long history of anti-Israel activism: Last year, she famously refused to let The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew, to protest what she termed Israel’s “apartheid.”
Across the ocean, over in BDS Central (aka Great Britain), we had the lowbrow riposte, when boycott, divestment and sanctions activists tried to persuade the electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys to cancel their planned appearance in Israel this weekend. That the group, considered “the most successful duo in UK music history,” rejected the activists’ demand isn’t in itself anything extraordinary: For all the publicity BDS activists receive whenever they do manage to get some performer to cancel an Israel gig, the vast majority of artists refuse.
What was extraordinary, however, was the reason the duo gave. Usually, performers offer some perfectly valid but neutral explanation, such as that boycotts are antithetical to art, or that boycotts impede efforts for peace. But Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist, Neil Tennant, chose instead to challenge the “apartheid” canard head-on. In a statement posted on the group’s website, he wrote:
I don’t agree with this comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa. It’s a caricature. Israel has (in my opinion) some crude and cruel policies based on defence; it also has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens both Jewish and Arab. In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.
I might quibble with the “crude and cruel,” but other than that, you couldn’t find a clearer and more succinct explanation of the essential difference between democratic Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.
As George Orwell once wrote of a previous intellectual fad, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Unfortunately, the “Israeli apartheid” canard appears set to become yet another example of this truth: It is increasingly becoming the bon ton among the global intelligentsia.
That makes it all the more important for the “ordinary man” to speak out against it. And Pet Shop Boys has just provided a welcome example of how to do so.
One surprising side effect of Syria’s civil war is that it’s causing a few people in the Arab world to question their society’s accepted view of Israel as evil incarnate. These people are still very much a minority: The majority’s attitude is exemplified by the Syrian rebel commander who, without batting an eyelash, last month espoused the delusional theory that “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel” to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, two notable examples of a rethink have surfaced recently.
One involved a seriously wounded Syrian treated at an Israeli hospital this month. He isn’t the first Syrian to be treated in Israel, but he was the first to arrive with a note from the Syrian doctor who treated him initially. “To the honorable doctor, hello,” it began, before launching into a description of his symptoms, his treatment to date and suggestions for further treatment. “Please do what you think needs to be done,” it concluded. “Thanks in advance.”
The Syrian doctor who wrote that note clearly didn’t view Israelis as enemies, but as colleagues who could be trusted to give his patient the care he himself couldn’t provide. It indicates that word has filtered out to at least parts of Syria: Good medical care is available in Israel, and patients who need it can safely be sent there.
Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was a Friday sermon given earlier this month by a cleric in Qatif, a Shi’ite-majority city in Saudi Arabia. Discussing the conflict in Syria, Sheikh Abdullah Ahmed al-Youssef informed his congregants that more Muslims have been killed by fellow Muslims than were ever killed by Israel.
That isn’t news to anyone familiar with the facts. As I noted last month, the Syrian conflict alone has killed more than five times as many people in just two years as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in all of Israel’s 65 years of existence. And that’s without even mentioning the ongoing Muslim-on-Muslim carnage in places like Iraq (almost 2,000 killed in the last three months) or Pakistan, much less historical events like the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which killed more than one million people.
But most Arabs aren’t familiar with the facts, having been fed delusional atrocity tales about Israel for decades by their media and their political, religious, cultural and intellectual leaders. Thus for a cleric to stand up in the mosque and tell his congregants this home truth borders on the revolutionary.
If this attitude spreads, it would benefit not just Israel, or even the elusive quest for Mideast peace, but above all, the Arabs themselves. This isn’t merely because Israel has much to offer Arab countries on a practical level (like water management technologies essential for agriculture in a drought-stricken region), but mainly because Arab society’s biggest problem has always been its habit of blaming outsiders–Israel and the West–for all its ills. By so doing, they not only absolve themselves of responsibility, but also nourish the belief that these ills are beyond their control, and hence beyond their own power to fix.
By recognizing that Israel is not the monster of their own imagining, Arabs can begin the process of recognizing that their problems are of their own making rather than the product of malign outside intervention. And only then can they begin the long, hard work of fixing them.
Despite widespread disagreement about how Hassan Rowhani’s election as president affects the chances of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, just about everyone appears to agree on one thing: The victory of a “relative moderate” came as a complete and unwelcome surprise to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I’d been wondering whether anyone was ever going to challenge this blatantly irrational consensus, but finally, someone has. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win,” said Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, in an interview with the Tower.
Shahvar pointed out that not only was Rowhani handpicked by the regime to be one of only eight candidates, while hundreds of others were disqualified, but the candidate list was blatantly tilted to ensure that he would place first: It pitted a single “moderate” against five conservatives (two candidates dropped out before the vote), thereby ensuring that the conservative vote would fragment. “If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race,” Shahvar said.
Indeed, though Shahvar didn’t mention it, that’s precisely what happened on the “moderate” side. Initially, there were two “moderates,” but former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami persuaded one, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw so as not to split the moderate vote. It beggars belief that Khamenei couldn’t have engineered something similar on the conservative side had he so desired.
It’s also worth noting that throughout the campaign, Khamenei carefully avoided giving any hint as to which candidate he preferred. The widespread assumption that he preferred a conservative is unsupported by any evidence.
But the most convincing argument, to my mind, is one Shahvar didn’t make: the final vote tally. According to the official results, Rowhani clinched the contest in the first round by winning 50.7 percent of the vote. But for a regime widely suspected of committing massive electoral fraud to ensure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009, it would have been child’s play to alter the vote count by the tiny fraction necessary to put Rowhani under 50 percent and force a second round. Moreover, it would have been perfectly safe, because none of the pre-election commentary foresaw Rowhani coming anywhere near victory. Thus had his tally been announced at, say, 49 percent instead, there would have been no suspicions of fraud; rather, everyone would have been amazed at his strong showing. And then, with conservatives pooling their forces behind a single candidate in the run-off, a narrow loss for Rowhani would have been equally unsuspicious.
It’s not hard to figure out why Khamenei would have wanted Rowhani to win: He desperately needed someone who could ease the international sanctions and stave off the threat of a military strike without actually conceding anything on the nuclear program. And Rowhani’s performance as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-05 proved his skill in this regard. Indeed, he boasted of it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan,” Rowhani said in 2004. “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”
In the aftermath of Rowhani’s victory, American and European officials are already talking enthusiastically about a new round of negotiations, while Israeli analysts say the election has almost certainly delayed any possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program until 2014. Thus Khamenei has gotten exactly what he wanted. The only question is why all the “experts” are still portraying this as a defeat for the regime.
Congratulations to the price-tag vandals and the more extreme settler rabbis: in their zeal to protect the settlements, they have undermined the very cause they claim to support.
A new poll by Ariel University, which examined how Israeli Jews inside the Green Line view the settlements, found that support for them has dropped significantly since last year’s poll, by almost every measure. The proportion of respondents that supported dismantling most or all settlements under an agreement with the Palestinians rose to 33 percent, from 22% in 2012 and 13% in 2011. The proportion that deemed settlements a waste of public funds rose from 24% last year to 39% this year. The proportion that deemed them an obstacle to peace rose from 22% to 31%. The proportion that considered them “true Zionism” fell from 64% to 52%. And the proportion that viewed them as Israel’s “safety belt” fell from 57% to 46%.
But the punch line was people’s response when asked what kept them from identifying with the settlers. The number-one factor was the “hilltop youth” – a term that to most Israelis is shorthand for extremists who engage in violence against Palestinians and/or Israeli soldiers (though in reality, of course, not all “hilltop youth” are extremists and not all extremists are “hilltop youth”). It was cited by 53%, up from 42% in 2012. The extremist views of settler rabbis, especially toward women, followed close behind, cited by 50% (up from 37% last year).
Granted, pollsters sometimes slant questions to get the results they want. But a poll commissioned for a conference on “Judea and Samaria studies” by the only Israeli university in the territories would almost certainly have preferred to find an increase in support for settlements rather than a decrease. And double-digit declines can’t be dismissed as mere statistical error.
Yet it would be simplistic to conclude from this that violence and extremism simply don’t pay. In some situations, they pay handsomely: for instance, threats of Arab violence have kept Jews from praying on the Temple Mount for 46 years now. And though there’s no hard evidence, it seems likely that the violence accompanying outpost demolitions in recent years truly has reduced the number of demolitions, while also spurring the state to promise compensatory settlement construction when court orders make demolitions unavoidable. Last year, for instance, the government promised to build alternative housing nearby if settlers peacefully evacuated two sizable outposts, Migron and Beit El’s Ulpana neighborhood. But it might well have refused to undertake this extra trouble and expense had it not badly wanted to avoid violent clashes.
Religious extremism also serves a purpose: By erecting walls between group members and outsiders, it strengthens the group’s internal cohesion and reduces attrition.
But these benefits come at a high price – especially for groups like the settlers, whose future ultimately depends on public opinion. After all, it’s the government that will decide whether to evacuate settlements, either unilaterally or as part of a peace deal, and whether to freeze construction there in the meantime. And while public opinion isn’t the only factor affecting government decisions, it is an important one; few governments will risk a decision that they know is deeply unpopular with the electorate. It’s very unlikely, for instance, that the Knesset would have approved the disengagement from Gaza had public opinion polls not consistently shown a roughly 60% majority in favor of the plan.
Moreover, because people are emotional rather than strictly rational beings, emotional revulsion often trumps rational considerations. There’s no logical reason, for instance, why price-tag violence and rabbinic extremism should reduce the number of respondents who view the settlements as Israel’s “safety belt”; the settlements’ security function isn’t dependent on the views or behavior of their residents. Yet the poll indicates that they did.
Violence and extremism are particularly self-defeating because there are strong arguments to be made for the settlements. And as the poll shows, most Israelis would be open to hearing them were it not for this behavior.
By way of example, I’ll stick to the easiest of these arguments: security. First, settlements protect the rest of Israel by serving as the front line. It’s no accident that rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel shot up hundreds of percent after the Gaza pullout; until then, most such attacks targeted the Gaza settlements, but post-disengagement, the Negev became the new southern front. And without the West Bank settlements, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be the eastern front.
Perhaps even more importantly, settlements anchor the army. Even advocates of unilateral withdrawal now say they favor evacuating West Bank settlements, but not the IDF, since the army is needed to prevent the area from becoming a rocket-launching pad like Gaza has. But without the settlements, the army wouldn’t stay. It’s no coincidence that Israel’s first unilateral withdrawal was from Lebanon, where there were no settlers, and the second from Gaza, where there were only about 8,000, while in the West Bank, with some 350,000, the IDF still operates freely. Israel is always under immense international pressure to withdraw, but redeploying soldiers is much easier than either evicting people from their homes or leaving them unprotected in the heart of Palestinian-controlled territory. Without that human brake, the army would soon quit the West Bank as well.
To many Israelis, however, an even more powerful argument is the area’s identity as the Jewish people’s religious and historical heartland. That’s why, despite the alarming decline, a majority of respondents still view the settlements as “true Zionism.”
Nevertheless, most Israelis don’t consider either vandalism or religious extremism to be “true Zionism.” Thus the more they associate such behavior with the settlements, the less they will view the settlements as a Zionist enterprise.
For this reason, the short-term gains achieved by the “hilltop youth” and extremist rabbis (like preventing house demolitions) pale beside the long-term cost. They are discrediting the entire settlement enterprise among mainstream Israelis at a time when international pressure to dismantle the settlements is intensifying. And given the important functions the settlements serve, they may thereby be imperiling not just their own cause, but all of Israel.
As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, the Palestinian Authority has voiced vehement opposition to Natan Sharansky’s plan to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. But I think it’s too soon to call this an “impassable obstacle,” as he does; there’s an important step that needs to be taken first: a thorough survey of American Jews asking whether, in light of this opposition, they favor proceeding with the plan. By this, I don’t just mean a telephone poll of 500 or 1,000 random Jews; ideally, I’d like every Reform or Conservative congregation in America to discuss this question with its membership–for two reasons.
One is that the new egalitarian section seems to matter more to American Jews than to Israelis, since Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements are so much smaller (about 7 percent of all Israeli Jews). Therefore, it’s only fair to get their input before making any decision. The more important reason, however, is that this could provide a genuine teachable moment in the kind of trade-offs Israelis face every day in dealing with the Palestinians, to which liberal American Jews–i.e. the majority of the American Jewish community–have lately grown increasingly unsympathetic.
Most liberal American Jews have two main demands of Israel: They want it to recognize the non-Orthodox denominations, and they want it to make peace with the Palestinians, right now. The latter demand isn’t confined to fringe anti-Israel activists; it’s routinely voiced by long-time Israel supporters like Rabbi Eric Yoffie or Leon Wieseltier. So I’d like all these Jews to seriously consider this question: When these two primary demands conflict, what do you do–capitulate to the PA in the interests of “peace” and give up on being able to pray at the Western Wall in your own fashion, or insist on your rights at the Wall at the cost of further antagonizing the Palestinians, for whom modifications of the Western Wall Plaza are no less objectionable than new outposts in the heart of the West Bank?
Dilemmas no less wrenching confront Israel every day in dealing with the Palestinians, but because they don’t affect American Jews directly, the latter are often too quick to accuse Israel of being intransigent over a trivial point it should just concede in the name of peace. They deplore Israel’s refusal to agree to a border roughly along the 1967 lines, not understanding the enormous security risks this creates; they deplore Israel’s refusal to release murderers to woo the Palestinians to the negotiating table, not understanding the major role freed prisoners have repeatedly played in fomenting new terrorism; they deplore Israel’s reluctance to redivide Jerusalem, not understanding how unlikely it is that the city would remain open afterward, or how devastating a repartition would therefore be.
American Jews won’t understand the details of these issues any better after confronting their own Palestinian dilemma over the Western Wall. But just maybe, they’ll understand that dealing with the Palestinians isn’t quite so simple as they seem to think it is. And if so, the Palestinians will have done a great service to Israel’s relationship with American Jewry.
I’ve given up expecting peace-process zealots like Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union to pay any heed to mainstream Israelis (i.e., the 83 percent who think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But recently, even Israel’s far left has become too “right-wing” for these zealots. That begs an obvious question: Since any peace deal requires two sides, how do they expect to close one by adopting positions so extreme even Haaretz columnists won’t support them?
Two regular Haaretz contributors and long-time peace advocates wrote columns this month decrying the current approach. First, former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau blasted Kerry for treating veteran Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as “settlements.” Next, psychology professor Carlo Strenger explained why the Syrian crisis makes a full West Bank withdrawal impossible.
Much of Landau’s piece restated what has long been obvious: the “indiscriminate lumping together of Jerusalem suburbs with far-flung” settlements has encouraged mainstream Israelis to do the same–and therefore oppose a construction freeze in either–and made it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate without a total freeze, because he can’t demand less than Washington does. But Landau also added a new twist: “Kerry’s ham-fisted lumping together of Ramot and Gilo with West Bank settlements” has even forced Israeli leftists to side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Washington (and, he might have added, the EU as well). It is “veritably forcing myriad moderate Israelis, who long for peace and the two-state solution, to bridle, with the Netanyahu camp, at the entire admonishment.”
Strenger’s piece, however, tackled a broader problem: the ongoing implosion of Syria. Peace activists have long advocated a deal with Syria, he noted, but “most Israelis now shudder when they think what would have happened if Israel had returned the Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups would be at the shore of the Kinneret, creating an unbearable security risk.”
This lesson matters for the West Bank, he wrote, because despite his conviction (incidentally not shared by most Israelis) that Abbas truly wants peace, “Israelis ask a simple question: do you have the ability to prevent a takeover of Palestine by extremists?” And the obvious answer is no: Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and Abbas can’t guarantee it won’t take power following an Israeli pullout.
“After all, Hamas once won the elections in Palestine,” Strenger recalled. Hamas also routed Abbas’s forces in less than a week when it staged a military takeover of Gaza in 2007–a fact Strenger bizarrely omits, but that most Israelis haven’t forgotten. Hence the inevitable conclusion:
In the Middle East’s current situation no Israeli government will renounce security control of Palestine’s eastern border and no Israeli government will return to the 1967 borders in the foreseeable future, when there are chances that radical Jihadist elements might attack Israel from there.
But another failed push for a deal demanding exactly that won’t merely increase distrust on both sides and thereby reduce the chances of peace in the future–a point both Strenger and Landau make. It also means diplomats aren’t pursuing interim measures that could defuse the conflict and actually increase prospects for future peace–measures that, as political scientist Shlomo Avineri noted in this insightful analysis, are routinely employed in other conflicts where final-status deals aren’t immediately possible, like Cyprus or Kashmir. Thus by pushing a final-status deal now, Kerry and company are actively making things worse at the expense of steps that could make things better.
And if that’s what even Israel’s far left is saying, isn’t it time for international diplomats to start listening?