American Jews and Israel’s Upcoming Elections: Will Flagging Support Spell Enough of Netanyahu?

Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting

One of the hardest positions that I find myself feeling the need to take in politics involves harsh criticism of Israel.  I do it not because I especially want to do it, but because I feel that I have to do it, that it needs to be done.  I find myself on the same side of the debate about Israel and the Palestinians as many Jews, and many many others, who proclaim themselves as “anti-Zionists.”  That is, they do not believe that there should be a Jewish state — at least not in the Middle East.  The problem that I have fitting in with them, and this creates some tense conversations, is that I am a Zionist.

By that I mean that I believe in the existence of a Jewish state for much the same reasons that I believe in the existence of a Palestinian state and a Kurdish state, and a Tibetan state and a Uighur state in China, too.  I believe that when a minority group has been oppressed, both within its home area and beyond, for a long time by other powers, it warrants the extra measure of protection that statehood confers.  That description applies to both Jews and Palestinians, largely at different times, within the eastern Mediterranean.

What I am not — and this leads to even more tense conversations with the majority of Jews that I know in Orange County and elsewhere — is a Zionist at any cost.  Some Jews I know would see the region blown to smithereens if they cannot have the self-determination that comes so much more easily to so many more peoples.  Not me.  What happened this year in Gaza — a story that for some reason doesn’t seem to be highly placed in the “Year in Review” stories I’ve seen — sickened me; moving me towards, if not past, the point of believing that it would be better to have no Jewish state than one that committed these sorts of atrocities.

You may shrug at that, but I find it a very painful position to take.  After all, other countries commit atrocities without facing the penalty of being removed from existence; Jews complain often that Israel is being held to a higher standard.  To which I say: damn right we are — and we had better be.  We are still a despised minority in many quarters.  Some Jews have responded to that by opting for tradition of insularity; others have tried to become powerful members of the commercial and political establishments.  But many of us — a disproportionate number, I think — have dealt with “despised minority” status by pouring our efforts into serving, generously and often at great personal cost, the general public good.  I’m talking about doctors who work in free clinics, scientists, writers, civil rights lawyers, crusaders, and yes, often radicals and unionists.  That is the birthright that makes me proud of our heritage; it’s a tradition that Israel, for all of its problems, had pretty firmly embedded in its traditions in its first three decades, prior to election of Menachem Begin — and the residue of that history remains.  A peaceful Israel would probably return to its cooperative, largely social democratic roots.

Getting Israel to that point, in recent years, has seemed increasingly improbable — less so because of Palestinian intransigence (as I think that a majority of Palestinians would welcome fair treatment, including control of their own land and water) than because the progressives in Israel have largely — though not entirely, given its own Occupy and Peace movements — fled abroad.  American Jews have faced the prospect of having to say, in the name of one peace organization with roots in the Israeli military, Yesh G’vul — “there is a limit.”  And if Israel won’t stay within the bounds of what we think it must be to survive, we have to — with sorry, regret, and apprehension and what havoc it may wreak — be willing to let it go.  That’s not because we want it to go away, but because our shielding it from the consequences of its choices simply lets it act worse — without a limit.

I lost much of what optimism I had about the prospects for Middle East peace this year.  But then, a recent story developing in relation to the upcoming Israeli elections has given me hope: It may be that giving up on the dream of a Jewish homeland living peacefully in harmony with its neighbors could work.

The story linked above comes from the excellent political website “Talking Points Memo,” whose author, Josh Marshall, is a supporter of Israel with clear eyes and a strong conscience.  He’s writing about the upcoming elections, where one of the hardest-core right-wingers, and another of the most respected establishment right-wing diplomats, have both begun to warm up to the idea of serious, significant compromise.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made this startling statement, breaking even more clearly with Netanyahu. Lieberman says Netanyahu’s ‘status quo’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a failure and that Israel faces a diplomatic “tsunami” if it doesn’t achieve a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians and also a regional settlement with its Arab neighbors.

“We must reach a diplomatic agreement — not because of the Palestinians or the Arabs, but because of the Jews,” Lieberman said, according to Haaretz. “This is important for our relations with the European Union and the United States. For anyone who doesn’t know, our largest market is the EU, in both exports and imports. I’m pleased with what we’ve done with the Chinese; there’s been growth in our trade with them. But in the end, our biggest market is the EU. It doesn’t work, and we must internalize this. When diplomatic relations deteriorate, you see what happens to the economy. I can cite the example closest to me, that of Russia.”

There are two points to draw from Lieberman’s statement. The first is that his argument is pretty much the same in its essentials as what centrist two-staters have been arguing for going on two decades – that whatever you think about the ideology of land or the rights of Palestinians, Israel cannot permanently hold on to the West Bank in any way the world (let alone its own democratic principles) will ultimately accept. Doing so places Israel on a road to creeping diplomatic isolation, delegitimization and finally economic strangulation. You can be the archest anti-Arab racist, and this reality should be no less clear. Which is to say, you can be Avigdor Lieberman.

The second point is about Lieberman himself. I don’t think for a moment that Lieberman has changed his spots or that he’s suddenly seen the light on peace and two states. Lieberman is about power and opportunism, both personally and in his fundamental political outlook. What I think we can draw from his statement is that he senses where the wind is blowing politically in Israel. I do not think the ‘wind’ is blowing toward peace. But it is blowing against Netanyahu. Lieberman clearly thinks so. And his speech also suggests that the Israeli public is increasingly nervous – perhaps crossing a critical threshold of concern – about troubled relations with the US and the prospect of economic sanctions from the EU and realize that both pose severe perhaps even existential threats to the future. The status quo, he says (and what he says we can perforce assume he believes the Israeli public is ready to hear because, remember, opportunist) is not sustainable.

Those “troubled relations” appear most clearly in what is called the “BDS movement” — for “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” — modeled on the movement that after many years forced Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African prison and in short order propelled him into its Presidential manor.  “BDS,” of which the Eurozone’s aforementioned activities are part, still makes me queasy — many of its main proponents proponents are entirely sincere, but the movement include many who do not give a damn about Israel or Jews generally, which is simply not where I’m coming from — but after Gaza I’ve found myself without the will to resist it.  Is it unfair that it apply to Israel but not other rotten-actor countries?  Yes, despite the fact that one can make a technical case for distinguishing Israel from other countries, it is unfair.  But the “facts on the ground” there are no less unfair.  And at some point, if Israel perceives no moral limits upon its actions, there’s no stopping BDS.

For Jewish Americans, the notion that coming to grips emotionally with the prospect of abandoning Israel to face the consequences of its own misbehavior may really, at long last, rein in that misbehavior is very good news.  The emotional toll on us is huge; you may find reflected that in comments here.  (Not in comments from Fiala, by the way; he has used up his annual quota.)  But the prospect that Israel senses that it has gone too far, that in laying waste to Gaza it also laid waste to itself, provides a faint glimmer of hope that — if neither side gets too greedy or tries to capitalize too much — cooler heads may prevail.

My guess is that if there is effective intervention, it will probably come from the offices of Pope Francis, much as has been the case in Cuba.  We really have to take advantage of this peacemaking Pope — and his awe-inspiring following — as much as we can while we still have him.  Maybe, 2/3 of a century after the establishment of Israel, hope may still prevail.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-disabled and semi-retired, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally ran for office against jerks who otherwise would have gonr unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.) His daughter is a professional campaign treasurer. He doesn't usually know whom she and her firm represent. Whether they do so never influences his endorsements or coverage. (He does have his own strong opinions.) But when he does check campaign finance forms, he is often happily surprised to learn that good candidates he respects often DO hire her firm. (Maybe bad ones are scared off by his relationship with her, but they needn't be.)