Israel's problem is the settlements, not J Street
Israel's problem is that an ever-increasing proportion of U.S. Jews feel they are being forced to choose between universal human rights and equality, and their involvement with Israel.
The Netanyahu government's refusal to meet with the leadership of J Street during its visit last week reflects a deep and truly worrying process, in which the Israeli cabinet and Knesset are increasingly locked into a deep bunker with no communication with the outside world. The assumption is that J Street creates a problem for Israel, and that if Israel delegitimizes J Street this problem will go away.
But Israel's problem is not J Street. Israel's problem is that an ever-increasing proportion of U.S. Jews feel they are being forced to choose between the values by which they define themselves - universal human rights and equality, regardless of their race, religion or gender - and their involvement with Israel. Since Israel violates these principles and demands unconditional support for its policies, these Jews basically have two choices: Either they adhere to their ideals or support Israel. The result, as Peter Beinart argued in a widely quoted essay, is that many younger American Jews simply disengage from Israel.
J Street tries to solve this problem by offering liberal U.S. Jews another option, saying: You can be engaged with Israel and it can be central to your Jewish identity even as you criticize Israel's actions.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the logic behind this: True friendship often involves voicing frank and direct criticism. Nobody would say that those who criticized U.S. policy during the McCarthy era, or the human rights violations of the George W. Bush administration hated the United States or denied it legitimacy.
But the Netanyahu government and many right-wing MKs are trying to sell the Israeli public a pack of lies: that there is no connection between Israel's policies and its international isolation and that all criticism of Israel is tantamount to delegitimization. While it is true that there are anti-Semites who hate Israel no matter what, this is simply not the position of the European mainstream nor of the many liberal-leaning Jews who criticize Israel.
The primal sin of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that it links Israel's security concerns with settlement policy, with the expropriation of Palestinian property and the "Judaization" of Jerusalem, a tactic that the world perceives as nothing less than ethnic cleansing. What the world sees is a state that tramples human rights and seeks territorial expansion. And it sees no logical connection between Israel's security concerns and the racist rhetoric and actions of the current government, because there is no such connection. The Netanyahu government has a vested interest in maintaining this confusion, because many of its members do not want the two-state solution.
This systematic conflation of Israel's security concerns with indefensible policies creates an unbridgeable communication gap between Israel and the rest of the world. Israel's citizens feel that the world doesn't understand them, because they don't realize that by creating the linkage to colonial expansion, their government is delegitimizing Israel's security concerns.
Hence it is up to Jewish liberals, in Israel and abroad, to create clarity. Mainstream Israelis are primarily worried about security. Since the start of the second intifada and the shelling of southern Israel from the Gaza Strip they have been asking the simple question, can anyone guarantee there will never be a terror attack on Israel from a future Palestinian state along the 1967 borders?
If J Street wants to reach the hearts and minds of Israelis it needs to tell them that their security concerns are legitimate. It also needs to tell them the truth, that there is in fact no iron-clad guarantee of an absence of terror attacks after a final status arrangement is reached.
Moving toward peace is a calculated risk. Leaving the occupation behind opens up the possibility for peace and security in the long run, but also for terror attacks. Yet horrible as these may be, such attacks do not endanger Israel's existence.
Continuing the occupation, however, jeopardizes Israel's long-term survival because it will drive Israel into ever deeper isolation. It will lose its friends in the free world and will live in eternal conflict with the Arab world.
It needs to be made clear that the choice is not between a safe Israel that occupies the territories and an unsafe Israel alongside a Palestinian state. The choice is between an Israel that takes a limited security risk in exchange for long-term peace and one that endangers its own existence in the long term.
It is this kind of straight talk that has been missing in Israel's discourse. Israel's left has disappeared because it never squarely addressed the risks involved in peacemaking. If J Street commits to clarity of thought and an honest approach it could create the model for a new Israeli left, with a viable message.