On Israel

As political parties gear up to elect their candidates to the presidency, support for Israel, that old chestnut, is once again dusted off. This year, nuclear negotiations with Iran have caused the rhetoric to ramp up.

I lived in Israel for a total of eight years, many of my friends live there, and I visit every few years. I generally choose not to write on Israel because there is a lot of suspicion floating around people who hold passports from two different countries. I do not want to be suspected of putting Israel’s interests above America’s. I love Israel, but have not voted in Israeli elections since becoming an American citizen. The US is where I live, where I vote, and where my top loyalty rests.

This being said, I think there are too many misconceptions about Israel. Support for Israel is not automatically support for the government of Israel, if that government is undermining what the United States considers to be an equitable road to peace in the region. Israel is a true democracy. For the past few years, Netanyahu’s Likud party has dominated Israeli political life. For as long as I remember, however, Likud (the “right”) and Labor (the “left”) have been unable to obtain a majority wide enough to rule alone. They rely on smaller parties to form a government, and those small parties are able to leverage their position into major political influence for their representatives. In former years, religious parties managed to obtain major concessions from both Likud and Labor. More recently, Israeli Arab parties and parties with limited agendas, such as immigrants’ rights or pensioners’ rights, have been able to make a dent in the traditional political landscape.

Another misconception is that the Palestinian issue is always foremost in the minds of Israelis. Although it looms large, Israelis are also concerned about “kitchen table” issues, and Israeli society is crisscrossed by major fault lines: some Orthodox Jews do not believe Israel is a legitimate state at all, but some are fervent believers in a “greater Israel”, which would cover the same ground as Biblical Israel. There used to be, and maybe still are to a lesser degree, tensions between Jews of Sephardic origin and Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who came with the first waves of immigration when Israel was under the British Mandate, and who saw themselves as the “intelligentsia”. In the 1980s waves of immigration, mostly from Russia, but also from places such as Ethiopia, added to the ethnic mix. And, at least under written law, Israeli Arabs, the fastest growing segment of the population, have the same rights as any Israeli, although they are often regarded with suspicion.

Israel has been receiving a huge chunk of change from the United States for years. It is the only country in the region that can lay claim to the title of true democracy, and America’s most reliable ally. Since its foundation in 1948, it has lived under existential threats from its neighbors. The Independence War (1948), the Six Day Way (1967) and the Kippur War (1973) were all-out conflicts. Since then, war has taken a different form, and has mostly been at the northern border with Lebanon, where Palestinian groups have used a weak local government and support from Syria to build bases from which they attack Israel, mostly Galilee.

I believe that Netanyahu’s last visit to the US at the invitation of House Speaker Boehner was a shameless attempt to influence the Israeli elections. I believe Boehner wanted to thumb his nose at the White House. More importantly, he wanted to position the Republican Party as Israel’s Savior, her true ally, a line that works well with the Republican Party’s evangelical base at a time when the race for the American presidency is heating up. He allowed Netanyahu to take the podium and make assertions that are contrary to what has been the US approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years. Netanyahu, having won the election, is now walking back those pronouncements of his that there would not be a two-state solution under his watch. And Boehner hopes the American public will forget that he undermined not only Obama, but every American president of the past decades to curry favor with the American voter.

Israel is in a particularly difficult position. America’s help is indispensable to its survival in a really tough neighborhood, but resentment inevitably follows heavy-handed efforts to impose a settlement on two peoples who cannot let go of one another’s throats. My go-to question for people who mention that Israelis are guilty of abuses towards Palestinians – and they frequently are – is “Would you rather be a Palestinian on an Israeli street, or an Israeli on a Palestinian street?”. Peace is hard to achieve because Palestinians are filled with rage fueled by years of sometimes oppressive occupation, and Israelis are reluctant to trust them with controlling a ridge of land from which they could easily overrun Israel – only 9 miles separate the West Bank from the Mediterranean Sea at Israel’s narrowest point.

So, what to do? I honestly do not know. I believe that we need a two-state solution, with long-term supervision from an international force led by the United States. I believe that Iran’s ayatollahs must at some point lose influence, and that young Iranians may hold the key to terminating their country’s support of terrorism. Treading lightly seems to be the best approach, and I therefore support the treaty-in-progress. Yitzhak Rabin used to say that you don’t make peace with your friend, you make peace with your enemies.

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1 Comment on "On Israel"

  • Karen Jacobs says

    I read a book recently by Thomas Friedman. His summation was that Israel can have two out of the following three – but not all three. They need to decide.
    1. A Democracy
    2. A Jewish State
    3. Have all the land