Israel is losing the battle for public opinion in America
U.S. commentators are talking more loudly in the media about Israel's failure to engage with a two-state peace process – which could leave Israel out in the cold when it comes to fateful decisions on Iran as well as disconnecting Israel itself from a democratic future.
The government of Israel wants to talk about Iran, but a lot of people did not get the memo.
For an important group of public intellectuals, the occupation of the West Bank is becoming more rather than less important. And we are not talking here about the usual cast of anti-Israel characters, but of mainstream journalists, scholars, and opinion makers – those who write in middle-of-the-road, general publications with a broad readership.
Something is happening—a turning point, I suspect. No matter how much Israel’s leaders want to change the subject, it’s not working.
Exhibit A, of course, is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose already-famous column of August 1 ripped into Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel and, in the process, castigated Israel for its building of settlements and its less-than-aggressive advocacy for a two-state solution. Friedman has made these arguments before, although rarely with such vehemence. In the last week, efforts have been made yet again to dismiss Friedman as an Israel hater, and yet again, they have failed; Friedman is a centrist, a moderate, and, by the way, the most important foreign policy columnist in the world.
But especially interesting are the many other voices, silent until now, that are suddenly being heard. Jonathan Tepperman, the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in August that Israel’s case against Iran would be immeasurably strengthened by taking the initiative to diminish its presence in the West Bank. Alan Dershowitz, a ferocious and admirable defender of Israel who rarely addresses settlement issues except in passing, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in June that Israel’s leaders, under certain conditions, needed to consider a settlement freeze. And Alan Wolfe, of Boston College and The New Republic, a political scientist and brilliant observer of American religious life, wrote a few months ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education about his personal struggles with Israel and his rejection of leftist anti-Israel critiques, while sharply criticizing the lack of energy on Israel’s part to advance a two-state plan.
These voices are very far from identical; I have had my disagreements with all of them and with Wolfe especially. But the point is that we are now seeing, even as the threat from Iran escalates, a broad spectrum of respectable, pro-Israel opinion that is emphatically suggesting the need, right now, for some movement by Israel on the Palestinian issue. And it is not idealistic dreaming; every one of these voices talks about the poisonous nature of Palestinian politics and makes clear that the failure to achieve peace cannot be placed primarily at Israel’s door.
Why are we hearing these voices at this moment? I am not entirely sure.
It has to do, I suspect, with the cumulative impact of a 45 year occupation; with the fundamental illogic of Israel’s government calling for a two-state solution and then building settlements in a way that makes such a solution far less likely; and with the sense that Israel’s moral standing is being gradually eroded and that this is a tragedy. But this too: They know that Israel must be seen at all times as aggressively pursuing peace, and fairly or otherwise, that is not the case now.
Interestingly, these voices have been given additional weight by Dani Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, the primary arm of Israel’s settler movement. The settlers are an in-your-face movement in Israel, but generally have kept a low profile in America. But Dayan decided to proclaim for all to see the vision of the future that the settlers hold. Writing in the New York Times recently, he announced that the two-state solution is dead, that it must be declared dead, and that what the settlers want is for the status quo to continue in exactly its current form. The word democracy was never mentioned.
Dayan cannot be dismissed as a marginal voice. He is the official representative of a movement that is warmly embraced by much of Israel’s current government. To all who, for years, have asked about the endgame of the settlers, we now have the answer: It is to build more settlements so as to keep things in the West Bank as they are and to formally reject the two-state solution that has been the heart of American foreign policy for decades. And it is to insist that in talking about the future, one need never mention democracy or the needs of the Palestinians.
In light of all this, the voices of the critics seem not only eminently reasonable but welcome. And it is essential that these voices be listened to. No matter who wins the election in November, Israel cannot afford to lose the support of the sensible center; that is the territory that most Americans inhabit and that sets the tone for American political discourse.
And the best way to keep that support, of course, is to disavow Dayan’s extremist views, restrict settlements to the major blocs, and make it clear that Israel’s leaders have no higher priority than keeping their country both Jewish and democratic.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.