I have a friend who is a Protestant minister. Let’s call him Reverend Bill. When I want to know what a certain segment of America is thinking about Israel, Reverend Bill is the person I go to.
He spent a few years working in the Middle East, and he retains strong ties to Arab culture and the Palestinian people. But he respects and admires Israel, abhors violence, and is committed to Israel’s existence and to a two-state solution.
I learn a lot from talking to Reverend Bill because he is exceedingly knowledgeable about the Middle East. Unlike some of my acquaintances who are left-wing in their politics, he will not immediately criticize every action of the Israeli government, and unlike some of my conservative, Evangelical acquaintances, he will not automatically support everything that Israel’s government does.
Our most recent conversation focused on two issues.
Reverend Bill has gently suggested that perhaps the time has come for both Israel and the United States to establish regular contact with Hamas. He wonders if there might be an opening here to move Hamas in a new direction. He argues that the Hamas leadership has abandoned its Syrian patron, is taking direction from Egypt, and has made some vaguely conciliatory statements about its future intentions; in addition, it has shown signs of internal division that can perhaps be exploited by Israeli and Western leadership.
I vehemently disagree with him. I express the hope that Hamas will recognize Israel, renounce terror, and accept American and European conditions for participating in peace talks. But I point out that Hamas is still a perpetrator of the violence that Reverend Bill so detests and it is officially not only anti-Israel but anti-Semitic. The burden for change rests with the fanatics and not with Israel, I say. Our exchange on this point is heated and tense.
Reverend Bill’s second concern is the issue of Israel’s illegal outposts, more than 20 of which remain in place. He and I have discussed settlements a thousand times, sometimes agreeing and sometimes disagreeing, but he argues that the matter of illegal outposts is cut and dried. He reminds me that in 2003 Israel made an explicit commitment to remove these outposts, repeating this commitment in a 2004 letter from Ariel Sharon to Condoleezza Rice. He wonders how Israel’s democratic government can tolerate an arrangement that is contrary to its own laws. Taking the example most recently in the headlines, he points out that Israel’s Supreme Court has asked that Migron be dismantled and that no one disputes that the outpost was built on private Palestinian land—and yet it still stands. Current efforts to “legalize” illegal outposts leave him shaking his head in dismay, since such efforts are contrary to promises that Israel has repeatedly made.
Reverend Bill looks at me in exasperation. When other countries violate commitments to Israel, he says, Israel’s government and American Jews scream to the heavens. But here Israel is violating unequivocal commitments of its own, and you are silent. How does this enhance Israel’s credibility and demonstrate her readiness for peace?
I mumble a few things, but they are unconvincing—even to myself. And eventually I acknowledge that he is right. In this case, Israel’s government is being bullied by a few thousand lawbreakers, who damage Israel’s case and create precedents that will be used against her. Israel will only be strong if she does what the Palestinians do not generally do—keeps her word and fulfills promises publicly made and solemnly undertaken.
I leave my conversation with Reverend Bill frustrated, uncomfortable, and a little angry. Because he has said things that I think are wrong. And other things that I think are right.