Bringing Back the Jewish Liberals Who 'Have Become Less pro-Israel’

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U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010.Credit: Reuters

As the war in Gaza has progressed, the American media has been increasingly critical of Israel. And I am not referring to biased TV coverage, with its preference for gruesome pictures of devastation in Gaza, or even to publications like The Economist, which provides solid reporting with a somewhat anti-Israel slant.

I refer rather to insightful and widely-read liberal commentators, such as Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Roger Cohen. All are Jewish and have a significant measure of sympathy for Israel. And all have written very tough articles recently, criticizing Israel’s policies. These articles are not anti-Israel rants but carefully argued analyses that cannot be dismissed as borderline anti-Semitism.

This is not to say that I agree with what the three authors are saying. I disagree with much of it, find some of it outrageous, and often don’t like their tone. But they get some things right. And since they have a wide following in America, many people are now discussing their points. And this means that advocates of Israel need to be prepared to engage with their ideas.

These ideas substantially overlap, but let’s focus on Chait, whose piece drew the most attention. Writing in New York magazine in an article entitled “Why I Have Become Less Pro-Israel,” Mr. Chait offers a stinging critique of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, based largely on Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s detailed account of the recent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Liberal Zionist support for Israel, Chait says, has rested on the assumption that Israel has offered a reasonable statehood plan to Palestinians, even if they chose not to accept it. But drawing on Birnbaum and Tibon, Chait argues that Netanyahu has capitulated to the settler movement and is no longer serious about a Palestinian state. The campaign in Gaza, therefore, must be seen in that context.

Chait’s key point: “Netanyahu and his coalition have no strategy of their own except endless counterinsurgency against the backdrop of a steadily deteriorating diplomatic positionThe operation in Gaza is not Netanyahu’s strategy in excess; it is Netanyahu’s strategy in its entirety. The liberal Zionist, two-state vision(that) once commanded a mainstream position within Israeli political life has been relegated to a left-wing rump within it.”

There are a number of problems with Chait’s thesis. First, the Birnbaum and Tibon account presents Abbas as moderate but also fearful and equivocating; from reading it, it seems unlikely that Abbas would have had the courage to make peace even if Netanyahu had acted very differently. Second, it is absurd to suggest, as Chait does, that Netanyahu’s fumbling on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority led inexorably to war with Hamas, and even to hint that the Prime Minister somehow takes delight in the carnage. Hamas is terrorism personified and war was likely no matter what; it is no accident that the Israeli public, which knows a true threat when it sees one, is divided about the West Bank but overwhelmingly supports the war in Gaza. And Netanyahu, who is far from quick-on-the-trigger, enjoys strong backing from Israeli voters right now for his handling of the conflict.

Chait ultimately assures his readers that he is “far more sympathetic to Israel than to Hamas.” That is nice to hear, but not too reassuring. Nonetheless, Chait is basically right in what he has to say about the two-state solution. Liberal Jews—and most American Jews are still liberal—believe that the only possibility for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two-state solution, even if such a solution is beyond reach for now. If Israel is offering this and the Palestinians are rejecting it, Israel’s hands are clean. But Jews despair when they think that Netanyahu has in effect withdrawn the two-state plan in order to accommodate settler interests in his government. And here, relying on Birnbaum and Tibon, Chait makes a convincing case that that is so.

Ultimately, the idea that Israel has abandoned a two-state vision is what ties Chait, Cohen, and Klein together. Klein, the most sympathetic of the three to Israel’s situation, expresses this point with distress and regret, but without illusions. And he notes that not only the critics of Israel share this view. He quotes Jeffrey Goldberg, an effective and influential friend of Israel, as saying in the Atlantic that Israel must do far more than she has to buttress Palestinian moderates. “Reversing the settlement project,” according to Goldberg, “and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, butwould convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace.”

Right now, Israel’s priority is to end the process of destroying the tunnels and the rockets that are the instruments employed by Hamas to strike at Israel’s citizens. But these writers serve as a reminder that once a permanent ceasefire is in place, political matters will quickly return to the agenda. And ironically, the prime minister is likely to see things differently at that point, even if Chait et al are correct about what has previously been the Netanyahu mindset. The Israelis, the Americans, and the Egyptians all agree that any political arrangement that will offer an alternative to Hamas will depend on an enhanced role in Gaza for Mahmoud Abbas and the PA. But absent a settlement freeze, Abbas will have no incentive to play such a role.

So Mr. Netanyahu, who so recently rejected a freeze and other enticements to the PA, may find himself obligated to reconsider his position because only by strengthening Abbas can an ultimate victory over Hamas be assured. It will be interesting to see if Netanyahu can make that leap, and if he does, what Chait, Cohen, and Klein will have to say about it.

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 in Westfield, New Jersey.  

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