“We will all rue that day,” if Israel becomes a partisan issue in the United States, former U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert Dennis Ross said on Tuesday at the Haaretz Israel Conference on Democracy.
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“You don’t do business that way,” Ross said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress next month, which has led to a deep rift with the Obama administration. “And when you make a mistake, admit it.”
Bipartisanism has allowed support for Israel to flourish in the U.S., Ross stressed, and “the last thing you want to do is have Israel become a partisan issue – especially at a time of demographic change in America.”
He pointed out that demographic change meant that “in another 20 years, communities such as the African-Americans, the Asian-Americans and the Hispanics will constitute the majority in the U.S.” Those communities, he said, “do not have an historic connection with Israel. And so Israel as a democracy becomes even more important for those kind of communities.”
Some of the actions of the current government, such as its proposed nation-state bill, “set off alarm bells,” he said. Democracy is one of the core elements that bind Israel to the U.S. and “in a way that’s more important now than ever before.”
Whoever heads the next government in Israel will need to take the initiative on the peace issue, even if the Palestinians are not going to respond, Ross said.
“The legitimization movement internationally is such that Israel needs to take the initiative in order to demonstrate that it’s prepared to do something. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s not because of Israel.”
For Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state it needs to contend with the occupation, the former peace talks envoy said.
“We need to remember the demographic issue,” he cautioned. “At some point it will happen. You want to be a Jewish-democratic country; you can’t be a bi-national country. Is there even one country in the Middle East in which two strong national identities are living in peace side-by-side? That’s not the solution.”
Ross suggested three steps which, he said, would change the situation internationally and potentially with the Palestinians, as well: “Make your settlement policy consistent with your two-state policy.
Make a declaration: ‘We will not build on what we think is the Palestinian state.’
“Embrace the idea of ‘67 and mutually agreed swaps; and accept that the Arab peace initiative is an umbrella that can be used.”
Dennis Ross, interviewed by Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn, at the Haaretz Israel Democracy Conference.
Asked by Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn whether it was difficult to be Zionist liberal in America today, Ross responded: “When you see signs of illiberalism, it challenges that. For people of my generation, the Shoah and wars created an indelible connection. Younger people don’t have those historical connections. You can establish them, but they need to be along the lines of Israel as a contributor to civilization. When you see [proposals such as the nation-state bill] you erode the connection with next generation of Jews in America.”
Ross described the BDS (boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) movement as “a new kind of anti-Semitism,” but acknowledged that it had gained significant momentum in Europe and on U.S. university campuses.
“I think it can be defused, but to do that, you need to take away the settlement issue,” he said. The movement, he added, is divided between those who genuinely accept Israel but think settlements are wrong and those who want to delegitimize Israel.
Europe is not lost for Israel, Ross said, but the situation in Europe is “more complicated than it has been in the past. The settlement issue has become an emblem of Israel not accepting two states.”