Israel and its Diaspora Jewish supporters face two monumental but very different challenges: Iran and the John Kerry-led peace talks with the Palestinians. On Iran, Israeli leaders have spoken out at every available forum. They haven’t been bashful in urging Diaspora leaders to push for a commitment to the sanctions regime. The tragedy for us in the Diaspora is that the same effort is not being made by Israeli leaders for the peace process.
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Just before the signing of the Geneva agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries, Minister Naftali Bennett wrote to Diaspora Jewish organizations urging them to lobby their governments against lifting sanctions. I had already spoken to very senior levels of the British government, cautioning them against relaxing sanctions without substantial Iranian reciprocation. However much Mr. Bennett and Prime Minister Netanyahu are right to be distrustful of the Iranian regime, even they suggest that a diplomatic solution is both a possible and the most desirable outcome. We join with them in hoping that Geneva does not snatch defeat from the jaws of potential success.
Then came former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin’s remarks about Israel’s approach to the Kerry talks. With a marked urgency, Diskin warned that the current failure to articulate a credible Israeli vision for a settlement with the Palestinians opens a whole new dimension of risk different to, but just as potent as, the Iranian threat. “We need an agreement now, before we get to a point of no return, after which a two-state solution will be impossible. ... I want a homeland that does not require the occupation of another people in order to maintain itself. ... The [current] situation [with both Palestinians and Arab Israelis] is very tense, and can explode at any moment.”
The rebuttal from the Israeli government was swift and revealing: it set up a “straw man” – claiming that Diskin was “disconnected from reality” for setting the Palestinian issue above the threat posed by a potentially nuclear Iran, despite this not being Diskin’s position. Suggesting he was making a false equation is easier than addressing the core premise of his argument: that the Palestinian issue cannot be sidelined.
Like Diskin, but from the perspective of a Diaspora Jew, I also want to talk about the dangers of failure in the current talks with the Palestinians. In this regard, the address for my conversation is not the British government. I rather want to talk to you, Mr. Bennett, and your colleagues who are responsible for managing this process.
The Kerry initiative creates a moment of paradox. It has the potential to deliver massive opportunity but also presents huge risk.
Whatever the outcome, the implications will be enormous. Most of us have no inkling about what is happening inside the negotiating room. But when I read of new settlement construction announcements, I worry. When I read Netanyahu’s latest Bar-Ilan speech, a masterful account of Palestinian rejectionism and Nazi collaboration, but no vision of the future, I am anxious. When I read that senior figures in Israel’s governing parties dismiss the two-state solution and allude to annexing the West Bank, I am deeply troubled. When Diskin flags the risk of a Palestinian “Arab Spring” uprising by a people whose only frame of reference is the occupation, and who have little credible hope for a Palestinian state, I am profoundly concerned.
The long-term survival of the Jewish state requires a settlement with the Palestinians. If current talks falter we could see Palestinian unilateralism, violence and the intensification of the assault upon Israel’s legitimacy. I fear the possible consequences of that, including BDS and other punitive measures.
My fears and concerns about the direction of Israel’s leadership are rooted in Zionist and Jewish values. The BDS movement is set upon isolating Israel and its supporters and seeking to drive a wedge between Diaspora Jews and Israel. If the window on a two-state solution slams shut, there will be devastating consequences for Israel and its economy, its future as a Jewish state and for the identity of Diaspora Jewry. This threat should be mitigated by the prime minister articulating a credible, courageous and viable approach to peace with the Palestinians rather than dwelling on their historical shortcomings.
If talks succeed, it will, rightly, be the citizens of Israel who make the final decision via a referendum on any agreement. In tandem, the Jewish people as a whole will need to get behind its implementation while enhancing Jewish peoplehood and unity. This prize will mute the corrosive voices of those who question Israel’s legitimacy and provide for an open and secure set of regional alliances to effectively combat the forces of Iran, Hezbollah and the Salafists in Syria and Egypt, reducing the existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people.
The prize on offer just received a major boost with the EU announcement of a “peace dividend” comprising enhancements to political, economic and security collaboration coupled with upgraded bilateral relations. For some time, I have pressed the U.K. government to encourage the European Union to adopt this type of “carrot” rather than “stick”-based approach - on the basis that sanctions designed to isolate Israel create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The EU development creates an even starker choice. Blame, boycotts and isolation on one hand. Opportunity, potential to move beyond the conflict and the possibility to stop the “delegitimizers” in their tracks on the other.
To mitigate the risk of the former and grab the opportunities presented by the latter is a strategic imperative for Israel’s future. Such a course would be a reaffirmation of the values of Jewish nationhood, which are the bedrock of modern Israel and the Zionist world. Which way, Mr Bennett?
Mick Davis is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the U.K.’s Jewish Leadership Council.