These are not easy times for the pro-Israel community.
As Secretary of State John Kerry pushes forward with Israeli and Palestinian officials in the latest iteration of the peace process, there has been a repeated theme of urgency – not only urgency to make the deal, but also an implication that should the process once again fail, dire consequences await the Jewish state. Even President Barack Obama implied as much in a recent Bloomberg interview published just days before his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Moments like these prove to be remarkably challenging for those of us supporting Israel in the United States. As we work to build support at home, we are essentially confronting two narratives: one outright destructive and the other well-meaning but corrosive.
We need to build up our support network among key opinion leaders in order to maintain and strengthen support for Israel in the years to come.
The first challenge is the delegitimization narrative, which asserts that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. This narrative has gained ground in Europe and on the radical Left of American society, arguing that Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state is morally indefensible.
Thankfully, very few mainstream leaders in the US buy into this poisonous perspective.
A second challenge is what I’ll call “the ticking time bomb” narrative. Numerous American policymakers and even thoughtful lovers of Zion buy into this perspective. It holds that Israel is running out of time to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and that if it fails to do so, the country will eventually lose its standing in the international community, consign itself to permanent occupation and thereby subject itself to narrative number one.
The ticking time bomb narrative, however, is overstated – perhaps intentionally so, in order to create this sense of urgency among American and Israeli policymakers.
Adherents seem to forget that Israel can always do what then prime minister Ariel Sharon did with Gaza in 2005: unilaterally disengage from large swaths of territory, and thereby free itself of the demographic burden of ruling over Palestinians. This might not bring peace, but neither might a peace deal. It would, however, undermine the pretense of the ticking time bomb.
Nevertheless, this ticking time bomb narrative has gained traction among the American policy elite, and could eventually, when all hope is supposedly lost, give new life to the delegitimization narrative. While the average American would continue to instinctively support Israel, as the latest Gallup Poll shows, the policy elite will begin to lay the groundwork for a change in US foreign policy, leaving Israel alone in the world – rendering the ticking time bomb a self-fulfilling prophesy, even if flawed in its dogged certainty and dire forecasting.
To protect ourselves against the very real possibility that such a narrative gains traction, we need to strengthen our support among policy, business and civic elites. This is especially critical on US college campuses, where future support for Israel hinges. Just over a decade ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee campus department moved away from the reactive advocacy of the past, instead instructing its student leaders to engage in strategic advocacy and systematic relationship building. This helped forge a generation of policymakers with strong connections to Israel.
But our work is not done.
My organization, The David Project, has also thrown its weight behind strategic advocacy and outreach, focusing on a broad array of ethnic groups, civic leaders and interest groups in the campus space. Our Relational Advocacy Platform makes the case for doubling down on relationship building and further broadening our support network.
Other campus groups have begun moving in this direction as well. We need to continue to send more non-Jewish elites to Israel, hold more joint programs with non-Jewish groups, sit down over coffee with non-Jewish leaders, enlist more members of faculty, and attend more meetings with potential allies. We also need to move away from reactive advocacy, whose efficacy is questionable at best.
Simply put, we must reject the old strategies of confrontational debate and extend an open hand of engagement.
Rather than allow these false narratives to box us in, we must reach out to friends old and new and take a proactive approach. We must focus on the aspects of Israel’s complex and diverse culture that can bring together a new generation of supporters, rather than drive potential allies away with harsh debate and confrontation.
We have no time to spare.
The current dialogue has ensured that a failure to make peace could be catastrophic to the Israeli-American relationship.
Let’s not allow the ticking time bomb to become anything more than a theory.
We must disengage from rhetoric and extend a hand to old friends – and new.
The author is the executive director of The David Project.