A while back, I wrote about “Giving up on Obama.” A natural corollary to that declaration is, as my friend, Rabbi Brant Rosen inquired, “what then”?
Before I answer that, I wanted to clear up a misapprehension some took from my piece. I have, indeed, lost faith in Obama’s ability to confront the considerable political forces and act in the interest of the United States, Israel and the Palestinians and put force behind the nice-sounding words about a two-solution.
But I have not given up on a two-state solution. I still feel as I always have—I’ll take whatever solution will work and will be acceptable to the people that live in the region. And the two-state solution still has the advantage of being the preferred one by the overwhelming majority of Israelis and still, from all indications, a majority of Palestinians. It is also the solution endorsed by the United States, Europe and the Arab League as well as the PLO. If a two-state solution has been rendered impossible by the massive expansion of Israel’s settlements, as many argue, that isn’t very different from one-state proposals which seem to me at least equally fanciful. And, in any case, it remains true that a one-state solution will mean a very long period of time to reorient international diplomacy towards it.
But the issue is not how many states a solution will ultimately encompass. Whatever solution finally comes about, we are very far from that point. We all knew from the first that Obama’s notions of solving the conflict within two years were ridiculous fancy or, at best, empty political rhetoric. Now we also know that he is not the president who will reverse two decades of American deferral to Israel on all central policy matters.
So, what is the answer to Rabbi Rosen’s question: how can we bring about the new political reality I spoke of?
The More Things Stay the Same
Actually, it means changing very little. Our task in the US remains the same, and that is to change the prevailing thinking on Israel and Palestine. It’s important for Americans to keep in mind that resolving the conflict is not our job. Our job is to change America’s behavior and policy.
We need to understand the pros and cons of the playing field as it stands now. It’s got more pros than you might think. Here are a few.
- The current election cycle has driven the so-called “pro-Israel” ideology farther rightward. The Republicans have made Obama’s perceived “hardline” on Israel and settlements an election issue, aided by the fanatic “Emergency Committee for Israel,” which launched attacks on several candidates. This is something we should exploit by helping to turn support for settlements and Israeli intransigence into a Republican, right-wing stance and differentiating it from support for Israel. In the long run, this will help us work with Democrats and some few isolationist Republicans (who will become more numerous if the Teabaggers continue to gain influence in the GOP) on changing US Mideast policy.
- There is mounting evidence for the damage US Mideast policy is doing to American interests in the region. Turkey’s relationship with the US is strained for one reason, and that’s Israel. Indeed, Israel has brazenly moved to poison its own relationship with Turkey without ever considering what this meant for America. From insulting the Turkish ambassador to attacking the Mavi Maramara unrepentantly, Israel has forced a choice on America between itself and Turkey. And now, Turkey is moving closer to cooperation with Iran. This has even prompted greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- Israel’s anti-democratic actions in the past year have opened a widening gulf between Israel and American Jews, and this needs to be expanded upon. I have no wish to see Israel become a pariah in the eyes of the American people, but the strong identification with Israel has seriously harmed Israel’s own interests and been a key tool in the ability of so-called “Pro-Israel” groups to resist any movement toward peace. That identification now, sadly, must be undermined. Israel is doing that job very well by itself, but we need to translate it into an American call for change. Not to oppose Israel, per se, but to distance America enough from Israel that at least a somewhat more balanced policy becomes politically feasible.
- There are more and more prominent and mainstream voices that are criticizing Israeli policy and the American and Jewish approach to Israel. Peter Beinart’s work, in particular, has caused shock waves. This needs to multiply. And it needs to be done in ways both big and small—through well-known academics and well-placed personalities as well as letters to the editor and op-eds.
- Selective boycotts. There is no good reason I can see for any supporter of peace to oppose boycotting goods produced in settlements. Nor can I see any sense in opposing economic action to stop corporations from profiting from the occupation, settlements and the security barrier. This is something everyone should agree on, and those who want to extend that to a boycott of Israel should be able to sensibly support these actions while calling for what they want.
We know the obstacles very well. In my view, however, the first one we need to overcome is the deservedly awful image the Palestinian leadership has in the United States.
The US Did Much to Create The Problem
Obviously, there isn’t all that much we can do about that. The Palestinians themselves must come up with a more credible leadership, and the last thing they need is American interference, governmental or popular, even if it is well-intentioned. But the US also has considerable responsibility here, and it is rooted in 2006.
Readers of this space will know very well how much I detest Hamas. But, like them or not, they are a permanent part of the Palestinian body politic. It is useless and pointless to try to pretend otherwise. The United States played no small part in elevating them to that status (note: the link there is to JVP’s piece on the Hamas elections, which I wrote, though I’m not credited there) by first insisting on the 2006 Palestinian elections and then turning around and boycotting the PA as a result of them.
We must remind Americans of that fact and we must push for Palestinian unity. It will be difficult, of course, because this opens us up to being “supporters of Hamas” or “supporters of terrorism.” The way to defend ourselves from such charges is to pursue the lifting of the siege of Gaza and to promote talks between Fatah and Hamas. From there, it will be up to the Palestinians to create a united leadership (it’s not a government as long as there is no state to govern).
The Left Must Stop Eating Itself
Above all, the fractured nature of peace activism in the US has got to start healing. The problems come from both ends of the left/liberal spectrum. We need to stop attacking one another and work together on what common ground there is.
Like what, you ask? Here are some examples:
- Settlements. The two-state opposition to settlements must harden. It might accept that some land swaps will be necessary, but those cannot be taken as a given. As of now, all settlements, including the Etzion bloc and East Jerusalem are illegal and illegitimate. Period. If negotiations allow some settlements to remain Israeli, fine, but that has to be worked out and we must state loud and clear that the null position is that they all must go. One-staters should support this strongly as well—after all, even in a one-state scenario, there would have to be some agreement regarding confiscated Palestinian land for settlements and the expansion of those settlements must immediately cease in order to preserve the existing Palestinian villages.
- Palestinian unity. This has got to be a key plank in any realistic American policy. Hamas must be brought into a broader Palestinian government. This doesn’t necessitate any recognition of Hamas, or talking to them. The US would talk to the Palestinian leadership. We don’t ask Israel to exclude parties like Habayit HaYehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu or Shas, all of which oppose past agreements, and some of whose members advocate expulsion, a clear form of violence. We simply talk not to them but to the Israeli government. Palestinians deserve the same.
- End the siege on Gaza. This is an obvious humanitarian point. The fact of the matter is that the siege has done nothing to enhance Israeli security, and it is, in any case, a harsh and draconian measure that has caused enormous suffering in Gaza. Gazan homes and buildings, destroyed in Operation Cast Lead and earlier Israeli attacks need to be rebuilt. That has to be facilitated. Gazans, regardless of who is governing them, still have the right to engage in commerce and export.
Those are a few examples. There are more. But it is these areas of common ground that people need to come together on. I’m not saying J Street needs to start issuing joint statements with the US Campaign to End the Occupation. But neither should either organization be afraid to take a stand the other has taken simply because the other has taken it. The right wing and the pro-status quo crowd are willing to brave criticism of their positions. Progressives and liberals have yet to show the same courage on this issue.
Even More for The Jews
For American Jews, we have an extra task. We need to work much harder in our synagogues and community centers. We have to stop being afraid to have these conversations, and, yes, some of us will have to face community censure, at first. But if we do not let this deter us, we can open up a dialogue. We can start to discuss ways that Jewish cultural and national self-determination can exist without meaning that Israel must discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens and hold Palestinians under occupation. We can remake our community so that it doesn’t want leaders who cynically use anti-Semitism as a shield against criticism of Israel, as do the likes of Abe Foxman and David Harris.
This also requires a multi-level approach. It needs both the strong pro-Israel voice of J Street and the more critical voice of JVP, and even the voices of groups who believe Zionism to have been a mistake. We Jews must abandon the foolish canard that our safety depends on stifling public disagreement and embrace our more time-honored tradition of open debate and discussion.
There are far more people in the US, in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories who want peace and who believe that Arabs and Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians are all humans deserving of the same rights and opportunities than believe otherwise. We need to exploit that advantage.
Political realities are what they are. Obviously, different groups have to be concerned about who they are associated with because they target different communities. I’m not suggesting caution be thrown to the wind. But I am saying that we need to all recognize that our opponents are those supporting settlements, obstructing peace and doing violence of all types. We may not all share the same endgame vision, but other peace advocates are not the enemy here. If the left can’t find common ground, how can we expect DC politicians, much less Israelis and Palestinians, to do so?