American View(s) on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian debate changes substantially in the United States depending on who's doing the talking.

"I don't like to use this word 'settlers,'" says the speaker, who notes he's as Israeli as Israelis who don't live in the territories. No objections from the Jewish Community Center audience in Silver Spring, Maryland. The event, entitled 'Meet Israelis Living in the Heartland of Israel," took place last Sunday.

David Wilder, spokesman for Hebron, says there are about 90 Jewish families in Hebron, which "would like to grow. He told the audience: "There are a lot of people that want to come to live in Hebron, but we've run out of room, and the Arabs are fighting hard to prevent us from bringing people in, to prevent us from expanding."

IDF, Hebron
Olivia Snaije

Wilder shows a film about the Cave of the Machpela and life in Hebron, but not what first strikes many visitors - empty Shehada Street, once the Arab market, with stores shut for years.

Wilder says: "For 700 years, Jews were born in Hebron and died in Hebron and never could access that holy site - turned into mosque. Now, everybody can access it but our neighbors tell us that if they control it, they won't us go there, because for them it's a mosque."

Another speaker is David Ha'ivri from Itamar. I ask him the whether American administration's view on the settlements affects donations.

"The donations from abroad are tiny part of Judea and Samaria budget," he says. "Maybe a million dollars a year. We are not living on donations from abroad. The New York Times a year ago did their investigative report on American donations to the settlements - and the worst thing they found after all their efforts was that donations to settlements are still tax exempt. But where does this money go? The outposts - 99.9 percent of the money comes from the pockets of people who live there. Money from the United States goes to educational programs, to the armored ambulances. During the intifada, we got donations for ambulances and to train the rescue teams. Now the security situation is better, so these teams with their pagers are called to take care mostly of road accidents - and 80 percent of the road accidents involve Palestinians. So who benefits from these donations? Both communities, Arabs and Jews, enjoy them."

Ha'ivri met with "very friendly" members of Congress and laments that President Barack Obama damaged his reputation with the Jewish community by putting pressure on Israel. The chances that Obama, who might visit Israel before the 2012 presidential elections, will go to the settlements, are slim. Ha'ivri has another invitation to extend.

"About half a year ago, we had a visit by Norm Eisen, who used to be the White House ethics adviser [Eisen is now ambassador to the Czech Republic]. He enjoyed it very much. We showed him the biggest organic farm in Itamar, and he told me about Michelle Obama's kitchen garden. So I said that she's invited, too, because our biggest enemy is ignorance."

The audience includes men wearing skullcaps and women with their heads covered but also Christian supporters of Israel. Marshall Godwin, who came with his wife from King George, Virginia, has visited Israel and West Bank settlements and believes Israel made a mistake backing the two-state solution. For him, "G-d intended this land for Israel. And I don't believe we'll reach peace by giving away G-d's promised land. We went very far to reach peace. I don't have any hope of it working in the future."

This week, Godwin will attend a much bigger event in support of Israel, in Washington, D.C., the annual Christians United for Israel conference, which draws thousands of activists from all over the U.S. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck will be there, after speaking earlier this month in the Knesset. He's planning to come to Jerusalem in August for a pro-Israel really before the September vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

Glenn Beck's efforts

Jonathan Peled, who this month finishes his three-year job as a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, doesn't say whether Israel's government welcomes Beck's initiative. "We are open to any approach as long as it doesn't cancel another approach, and respects the laws. We are interested in a big tent."

That doesn't seem to jive with Israel's rocky relationship with J Street or the Boycott Law, I suggest to Peled.

"I think our approach to J Street was correct," Peled says. "We disagreed on many issues, but we didn't boycott them. They are a unique example because they are a Jewish organization that calls itself 'pro-Israeli.' To bring some extreme example, if the Ku Klux Klan suddenly proclaim themselves pro-Israel, will it mean they are pro-Israel, or does it contradict our own understanding of what pro-Israel means? They are entitled to their views, but it doesn't mean we want to invite them to our home. They did attract attention and stir debate, but, without minimizing the supporters they have .... I don't think their influence is that big.

"Talking about the press, The New York Times is the most challenging from our perspective, because it's a liberal newspaper, and their editorial line is critical - but toward Israel's policy, not Israel. It doesn't question Israel's legitimacy or its right for self-defense."

Israeli diplomats, says Peled, have to prioritize with whom they talk.

Peled says: "For most Americans, when they hear about Israel, they say it's an ally, a democracy, an island of stability surrounded by problems and threats, and don't bother much further about it. And we have some groups who will become more influential - but have no immediate interest in this conflict, so we are trying to build coalitions with such groups as the Hispanic community, which are not necessarily immediately interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. With this community we talk about Israel as a model of immigrants absorption, as a center for the Jewish Diaspora communities. When you have a common agenda, it's easier if happens something, it's easier for them to understand Israel's position opposing the Palestinian right of return, etc. But you can't start with it. This is coalition building for the long run. "

Would you rather see Israel keeping a high profile or a low profile in foreign press?

"I'd rather see a realistic profile, that will reflect what is really going on in Israel. Recently, I saw in the Washington Post a huge story about the eviction of Bedouin in the Jordan Valley. The story might be true, but it was out of proportion with other things happening in Israel. If the choice were between only these two, I'd rather take the low profile, because most of the articles about us are about the conflict, and there is an Israel beyond it - lots of relevant issues, new energy and economy, science. I don't like this term, "the beautiful Israel," but rather the real Israel, with all its complexities, that makes many efforts in technological and educational fields, and has to deal with problems like gas supply that goes through Egypt."

Ali Abunimah, the founder of the website Electronic Intifada is not one of those likely to be welcomed in Israel's tent. He thinks The New York Times is too pro-Israel. Abunimah says there is groundswell being ignored of Palestinians and Arabs who oppose 'dialogue' initiatives aimed at normalizing Israel's relations with the Arab world."

Why is he so opposed to dialogue?

"As long as there is no pressure on Israel, Israel will not change. Following the Oslo Accords, there were a lot of 'joint projects' - in health, environment, training, and many of these were funded by the European Union and others," he answers. "These were generally popular with Israeli participants because they allowed the Israelis to feel good and to present themselves as peacemakers and to normalize Israel's image in the world. However, the Palestinian experience, in general, was that such joint projects, while offering clear propaganda benefits to Israel, were not helpful, or were even harmful to Palestinians because they presented a false image of harmony while, in fact, the occupation and settlements were advancing.

"So across Palestinian civil society there is now a strong antipathy toward such organized joint projects. They are largely seen as patronizing and offering nothing that changes the power dynamic or advances the struggle to end Israeli occupation and oppression. By way of contrast, pressure and isolation is having a quite dramatic effect on Israel. First, there was an effort to ignore it, but now there is panic. Israel has launched a global campaign against what it calls 'delegitimization' and recently we saw the Boycott Law passed. This reminds me of the final years of the apartheid regime in South Africa."

Comparing J Street to the Ku Klux Klan

Regarding the Washington, D.C. Israeli Embassy's spokesman Jonathan Peled's comparison of J Street to the Ku Klux Klan, J Street asked for an official response from the Israeli Embassy, and got the following response from the spokesman Jonathan Peled:

During my conversation with Haaretz, I was not intending to compare J Street to an extremist or offensive organization. I regret any misunderstanding. Such a comparison would be clearly inappropriate and unacceptable. The comments do not reflect the view of the government."

J Street added: "We appreciate the clarification and believe it speaks for itself."