Opinion |

No, Diaspora Jews Won't Divorce Israel Over Annexation

It's a pipe-dream to expect that annexation will trigger a wholesale disengagement of Jewish Diaspora communities from an Israel running towards formalizing its undemocratic occupation

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents annexation plans at a press conference ahead of the second round of Israel's elections, September 10, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents annexation plans at a press conference ahead of the second round of Israel's elections, September 10, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last Friday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, published an opinion piece in The Washington Post. Dermer wrote that "the extension of Israeli sovereignty to certain territories in Judea and Samaria will not, as many critics suggest, destroy the two-state solution. But it will shatter the two-state illusion. And in doing so, it will open the door to a realistic two-state solution."

In other words, the man closest Benjamin Netanyahu, who at times has been called "Bibi’s brain," is now on record expressing support for a two-state solution.

Of course, Dermer’s vision of a Palestinian state is not the one that the Palestinians want, or the one that previous prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered. It is a shrunken series of truncated enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza. Not what anyone would call a state. Except for Dermer and Netanyahu that is. And only when they speak in English.

On Sunday, when Netanyahu’s mouthpiece Israel Hayom referred to Dermer’s piece, the quote was tweaked: annexation "will open the door to a solution for the two peoples." The s-word is taboo in Hebrew.

One settler leader said to me the next day: "Bibi has a such low opinion of us, he thinks we don’t understand English."

Rina Matzliach, an anchor on Israel's Channel 12 was pilloried by right-wingers on social media this week for saying that "Netanyahu’s supporters say they will vote for him even if he rapes their daughter." Matzliach was merely giving viewers a flavor of what some Bibistim are actually saying on Facebook and Twitter, but her fearful employers suspended for a week instead of defending her.

If anyone has a low opinion of Netanyahu’s supporters, it’s the prime minister himself, who thinks they are incapable of going online and reading what his ambassador wrote in the Washington Post.

It’s not just Likudniks who Netanyahu holds in contempt. Plenty of Diaspora Jews whose first language is English and would have read Dermer’s piece are also capable of reading Hebrew and can see how he was intentionally mistranslated in the Bibiton. But perhaps in their case the contempt is justified.

Mainstream Jewish organizations in the West have kept the two-state solution as part of their stated aims for years now, even though it has long been clear that where it matters, back at home in Israel, Netanyahu and his people have made it very clear he has no intention of ever realizing it.

It was clear already after the Bar Ilan speech, in 2009, in which Netanyahu, under pressure from the Obama administration, made a mealy-mouthed commitment to a Palestinian state, with a pile of caveats that it was clear the Palestinians would never agree to.

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence, on the day when Netanyahu's corruption trial starts, in Jerusalem May 24, 2020. Credit: Reuters

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If Netanyahu had any plans to follow through on his promise, he would have made at least a token effort to convince his own party. Not only has that never happened, but no Likud MK or minister who publicly contradicted the promise, as nearly all of them have, has ever been disciplined by the prime minister. What’s more, in every election since then, Likud has refrained from publishing a policy platform to avoid having to adopt, or contradict, Bar Ilan.

And of course, it’s not only Netanyahu. Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, even before its miserable capitulation, didn’t mention a Palestinian state, just "separation from the Palestinians." (Yesh Atid, now the main opposition party and independent from Kahol Lavan, does state clearly in its platform that "the right solution for Israel is two states.")

Whatever slender excuse mainstream Jewish organizations in the Diaspora had to pretend that the Israeli consensus is still in favor of a two-state solution will disappear next week. No matter what annexation course Netanyahu chooses, with Gantz’s support, to take, it will be a unilateral one and the final confirmation, if any was necessary, that a two-state solution is no longer an alternative, at least until a very different government is formed in Israel.

Some think this will be a watershedmoment for the Jewishestablishment in the Diaspora. A moment in which they will finally be forced to reckon with the true and enduring non-democratic nature of the occupation. They are wrong.

Yes, there will be some grumbling, and a lot of frustration. But you can bet that new formulations will be found to deny the already bleedingly obvious fact that there is a gaping gulf between the democratic sensibilities and sensitivities of the majority of Jews living in western liberal democracies and the nationalistic certainties of most Israeli Jews.

Sure, if you live in a social media bubble of left-wing activism, you will feel a cathartic release of pent-up glee that finally EVERYONE has to see grim reality for what it is. But for the majority of Diaspora Jews, even those who are deeply engaged with Israel, things will go on as before. There will be a shrug of a disappointment - and then carrying on, this time with dissonance.

A participant wears a shirt that reads "This is what a Zionist looks like" during the "Celebrate Israel" parade along 5th Ave. in New York City, U.S., June 4, 2017Credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/ REUTERS

Any expectation that the mainstream Jewish Diaspora communities will somehow disengage from Israel following annexation is a pipe-dream. With the exception of a small group of disillusioned Jews who are uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish nation-state as it already is, the overwhelming majority will find a way to tune out the awfulness of the situation. And they would be doing so even if things were much worse.

It isn’t difficult to imagine a much worse Israel.

Say that in 1949, after the armistice agreements that followed the War of Independence, there hadn’t been 160,000 Palestinians within Israel’s borders who had been given citizenship and it was a Jews-only country. Say that instead of parliamentary democracy, David Ben-Gurion had opted instead for some form of dictatorship, like the overwhelming countries that gained independence in that period.

Imagine the Israel that had evolved over the last 70 years was not "the only democracy in the Middle East," but it was still the country where millions of Holocaust survivors and refugees had found sanctuary and was still the place where nearly half the Jews in the world lived. A place where Diaspora Jews were welcome nevertheless and Hebrew culture had developed.

Somewhere which in the annual freedom and democracy surveys rated more or less between Morocco or China - autocratic countries where many westerners still visit for vacations while conveniently ignoring the political situation. What would their feelings and connection to Israel be in such a situation?

I’m pretty sure the majority of Diaspora Jews would still treat Israel pretty much in the same way. They would still come on visits and have a good time. They would still lobby and support. Lack of democracy would be regrettable, but it would bother you in the same way it bothers you on a vacation to Singapore or Dubai. Which is to say, very little. In fact, it would probably bother you less than the occupation or annexation bothers you today, because your expectations wouid have been much lower.

I’m not saying for one moment that your expectations today should be that low. And I’m certainly not making excuses for Israel’s situation by saying that it could be much worse. I’m simply saying that expecting the majority of Jews to repudiate the Jewish state because it isn’t a western democracy and occupies millions of Palestinians without national rights just isn’t realistic.

A small people of only 15 million members worldwide with a history of persecution and precarious survival isn’t going to split that easily.

There is no issue more morally corrosive to Israeli society than the enduring occupation. It can’t be belittled. But those in the Diaspora who think this will be defining issue which will distance their communities from Israel are not reckoning with the all the other historical, religious, cultural and familial ties that bind, and will continue to bind Israel to Jews across the world.

Those ties were strong enough to obscure the widening political chasm for decades and there is no reason to think that will change if and when Israel does go ahead and annex parts of the West Bank.

To have any hope of changing the situation, those of us who believe that the occupation is abhorrent, and fervently want to see it end in our lifetimes, need to reckon with the strength of those ties and not entertain any illusions that Israeli politics, no matter how toxic, can render them asunder.

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