Segregated Buses Make Conference on Israel’s Isolation Seem Urgent and Naive

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Palestinian workers stand under a shelter as they wait for transportation at the Israeli army's checkpoint near Kibbutz Eyal in central Israel, 2009.Credit: AP

On Tuesday night I returned from a two-day conference in Long Island in which some 50 well-placed and well-meaning American Jews tried to come up with suggestions how to improve Israel’s image, its ties with the United States and its relations with world Jewry. When I got home, however, the first thing I heard was that Palestinians would no longer be allowed to ride on the same buses with Jews in the West Bank, making the conference and its deliberations seem like nothing more than an elaborate exercise in futility.

The “brainstorming conference” was organized by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People’s Policy Institute (JPPI) and its tenacious president (and my former Maariv colleague) Avinoam Bar Yosef.  Chaired by former U.S. administration officials Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross, participants included organizational leaders as well as pollsters, academics, think-tank types and a smattering of journalists. Politically, the forum ranged from center left to center right, with very few exceptions; demographically and predominantly, the group was mostly comprised of older, mainly secular men.

Titled “Jewish Solidarity in an Age of Polarization”, the aim of the of the conference, according to Bar Yosef, was to examine “if current polarizing processes are so extreme that they threaten our 'togetherness' - and how to mitigate and neutralize this danger threatening the internal cohesion of the Jewish people and its pluralistic spirit.” Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as well as Google founder and CEO Eric Schmidt were among the speakers at the conference, which was held under Chatham House Rules that allow for publication of content without any direct attribution.

The basic premises of most of the participants were not in dispute: Relations between Israel and the United States, at the leadership level, have never been worse, at least since Dwight Eisenhower was president; anti-Semitism and support for BDS are on the rise; Jerusalem is facing an imminent avalanche of diplomatic challenges, including the [mostly bad] Iran nuclear deal, a Security Council resolution on Palestine, a UN report on the last Gaza war and aggressive Palestinian moves at various international forums;  and while the American Jewish community is still likely to support Israel in times of crisis, it is increasingly divided over, and distant from, Israel and its policies.

Most of the participants, including those presumably in the know, seemed to believe that there was no realistic option for advancing negotiations with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, with or without a parallel effort to incorporate Israel’s new “regional buddies”, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan, into the process. The range of predictions about the near-term course of events in the Middle East ranged from grim to cataclysmic, with many pointing fingers in President Obama’s direction. The solitary but nonetheless harsh accusation that Obama was a born and bred anti-Semite, though later rejected by many, went shamefully unchallenged in the plenum in which it was uttered.

The participants were asked to make policy recommendations, some of which will be incorporated into Ross’ presentation before the Israeli cabinet on June 28. These were many and far-between: Israel should negotiate far-reaching American compensation for the Iran deal; it should restrict settlement building to the areas inside the West Bank security barrier; it should cultivate ties with minorities and bring them over to Israel to see for themselves; and it should be more sensitive in its treatment of African migrant workers. Most participants also agreed with the general formula that the American Jewish community should be more tolerant and inclusive, though many balked at suggestions that this might include full acceptance of the left-leaning J Street into Jewish communal bodies.

Indeed, the kind of center-right narrative that views J Street as residing outside the bounds of organized Jewish legitimacy seemed to dominate most of the discussions. Although criticism of some Israeli policies, such as Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress or restrictions on religious pluralism in Israel was not lacking, there was very little acknowledgement of the “contribution” of Israel’s 48 year occupation of the West Bank, either to its own moral fortitude or to its deteriorating international image. And while a paper penned by JPPI’s Shmuel Rosner and Michael Herzog raised the issue of “Jewish Values and the Use of Force in Armed Conflict,” the discussions devoted to the topic tended to veer to a critique of Israel’s failed efforts to explain these matters on the international stage.

The same point is being made concerning the now-suspended decision on the “segregation buses”: that it was a hasbara disaster for Israel. Far more troubling, of course, is the fact that such a decision would have enjoyed the support of a large section of Israel’s new ruling coalition – and is most likely endorsed by a majority of the public at large. Israel may have temporarily averted an image meltdown, but it will have a hard time postponing what seems to be inevitable.

What this and other well-intentioned American Jewish/Zionist conferences cannot and probably will not come to terms with is the possibility that the “polarization” isn’t only between left and right but between Israel itself and the bulk of the great American Jewish Diaspora- and that the growing gulf between the two will eventually turn into irreconcilable and irreversible differences. Or that quixotic conferences devoted to getting Israel to change course, admirable as they may be, could also soon become just a thing of the past.

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