The first 100 days of the new government have without a doubt improved Israel’s global image. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid scored an impressive achievement in convincing so many countries to boycott the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, which turned out to be a conference against Israel, thereby sending a message of hope of mutual trust between nations and marking a break in the idea of “us against the world.”
In an article appearing in Haaretz on September 20, Lapid called for substituting political pessimism for optimism and for establishing a dialogue based on shared values. He is right, but we mustn’t forget: The enthusiasm of the democratic world over the replacement of the Benjamin Netanyahu government is temporary. The moment it becomes clear Netanyahu won’t be returning to power, the world will start expecting diplomatic initiatives from Israel. These expectations will influence public opinion in the United States, which over the last decade has grown increasingly critical of Israel.
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Netanyahu did damage to Israel’s relations with the U.S. not only by his crude involvement in America’s domestic policies but because he cultivated the idea in the world media that Israel is Bibi and Bibi is Israel – an extreme right-wing country and a friend of racists. This erroneous image served our enemies. The Israeli left, which had turned inward to focus on domestic issues and was cut off from government power, never succeeded in creating an alternative image. It failed to tell the world a different story that could advance peace. The Palestinian movements moved into the resulting vacuum.
This week a member of the U.S. Congress’ progressive wing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, proposed a legislative amendment that would suspend weapons sales to Israel. Ocasio-Cortez avoids dealing with the complexity of the dispute out of fear of alienating her pro-Palestinian supporters. Nevertheless, steps like this harm Israel and can block appropriate strategic aid. She almost certainly has a long political career ahead of her because she has raised the banners of social justice and the environment that speak to her young supporters more than her foreign policy stands. We must consider how we can capture her heart, rather than turning her into another enemy.
Under Netanyahu, Israel invested hundreds of millions of shekels in the fight against BDS. Not only did that fight fail, but the movement calling to boycott Israel is thriving thanks to the publicity he gave it.
Think what we could have achieved if the same scale of activity had been invested in leading a new initiative to rebuild Gaza in exchange for demilitarization and regional cooperation, including a political process with the Palestinians – or at least an end to the policies that hinder a two-state solution.
Does it sound like a dream? Science has yet to find proof that our political reality has to be the stuff of nightmares.
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A new strategy must search for ways to form friendships with the young generation of leaders rising to positions of power in the United States. Not all of them will be willing to meet with Israeli leaders, but diplomacy isn’t just about politics. Building channels of communication is no less important. To develop these connections, Israel must take the initiative.
A festival on the scale of the kind staged by the BDS movement but dedicated to advancing this political initiative could redraw the lines of political discourse. The story of Jews and Arabs uniting to rebuild democracy could very well speak to a world tired of populism and fake news.
Naftali Bennett won’t advance a diplomatic solution. But it would be enough for him to lead an undertaking like this – even a modest one – that changes the terms of discourse. Israel has nothing to lose: Progressive activists in the U.S., who are pained by Israel’s actions in the West Bank, will come to understand that there are Israelis who aspire to peace, including Israelis living close to the Gaza Strip who have suffered 20 years of terror.
If there is a peace camp in Israel, it would be best to help it rather than boycott it. In the long term, it presents the only ethical solution that meets the needs of national security. It’s both optimistic and pragmatic. Lapid is right in claiming that “pessimism in diplomacy is a mistake.” Optimism calls for greater responsibility: It obligates us to move forward.