My entire adult life, American Jewish leaders have been telling Americans that Israel can save itself. Just wait until Israel gains a respite from terror, they said; then its silent, two-state majority will roar. Give Israelis constant reassurance; never pressure them. If they know “the United States is right next to them,” Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations promised Barack Obama in 2009, Israeli leaders will “take risks” for peace.
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Israel has been disproving that theory throughout the Netanyahu era. Now, with this election, Israel has killed it.
This election was not fought in the shadow of terror, at least not the kind that traumatized Israelis during the terrible Second Intifada. Thanks in large measure to security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, Israelis no longer shudder, thank God, before boarding buses or entering cafes. Nor was this election fought in the shadow of American pressure. Yes, Washington and Jerusalem are clashing over Iran. But the Obama administration has not come close to punishing the Israeli government for repeatedly rebuffing its efforts to broker a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines.
This campaign, in other words, offered an excellent test of the theory that the American Jewish establishment has peddled for decades. And look what happened. In the absence of Palestinian violence and American pressure, Jewish Israelis at first pretended the Palestinians did not exist. “As Israeli election nears, peace earns barely a mention,” noted Reuters. During a 90-minute debate in late February, eight candidates, together, mentioned the word “peace” only five times. And three of those mentions came from the Arab candidate.
Then, in the campaign’s final days, the Palestinian issue surfaced. On March 6, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan warned that by deepening Israeli control of the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was leading Israel toward “apartheid.” And Netanyahu proved Dagan right. The day before the election, Bibi gambled that if he explicitly repudiated a Palestinian state, Israelis would reward him. Then, on Election Day, he gambled again, warning, in a nakedly racist appeal for right-wing votes, that “the Arabs are voting in droves.”
It worked. Trailing in the polls by five seats, Bibi engineered a stunning comeback to win the election by six.
The American Jewish establishment will never admit that its theory of change has been discredited. It will go on insisting, no matter how laughable that insistence becomes, that Israel is serious about creating a Palestinian state. The establishment's disconnection from reality will gradually make it irrelevant. Already, the trend is clear: AIPAC, which claims Israel will end the occupation, is being supplanted by Sheldon Adelson, who celebrates Israel for entrenching the occupation. Adelson is not taking over the institutions of American Jewish life only because of his money. He’s taking over because he looks reality in the eye.
We must too. “Power,” said the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “concedes nothing without a demand.” For almost half a century, Israel has wielded brutal, undemocratic, unjust power over millions of human beings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And as this election makes clear, Israel will concede nothing on its own. This isn’t because Jewish Israelis are different than anyone else. It’s because they are the same. Which leaves just one question: how best to make the demand? The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement offers one path. In the wake of Netanyahu’s win, it will grow, gaining more mainstream support. But the logic of the BDS movement is toward a single binational state that, while tempting to some liberals in theory, would in practice likely mean civil war. It would also mean the end of the one state in the world that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life. Those of us who still believe in such a state, alongside a Palestinian one need another way.
Our principle should be this: Support any pressure that is nonviolent and consistent with Israel’s right to exist. That means backing Palestinian bids at the United Nations. It means labeling and boycotting settlement goods. It means joining and amplifying nonviolent Palestinian protest in the West Bank. It means denying visas to, and freezing the assets of, Naftali Bennett and other pro-settler leaders. It means pushing the Obama administration to present out its own peace plan, and to punish — yes, punish — the Israeli government for rejecting it. It means making sure that every time Benjamin Netanyahu and the members of his cabinet walk into a Jewish event outside Israel, they see Diaspora Jews protesting outside. It means loving Israel more than ever, and opposing its government more than ever. It means accepting that, for now at least, the peace process is over and the pressure process must begin.
For many Diaspora Jews, this transition will feel painful and unnatural. It certainly does for me. But there is now no other way. We know in our bones, even without Meir Dagan telling us, that Israel is headed toward moral disaster. We know that a non-democratic Israel is a dead Israel. We know that if Israel makes permanent an occupation that reeks of colonialism and segregation, an America that is becoming ever more black and brown will eventually turn against it. We know the BDS one-staters are winning. We know that if Israel continues on its current path, our children will one day live in a world without a Jewish state. We know that our grandparents’ generation of Diaspora Jews will be remembered for having helped birth the first Jewish country in 2,000 years, and that ours will be remembered for having helped destroy it.
Yes, our influence is limited. But it is not irrelevant. Israelis have made their choice. Now it’s time to make ours.