Dems beware of the occupation preoccupation; Republicans, the terror error

I trust that in their briefings the legislators will learn that Jews are a people, not just a community of faith.

August 8, 2019 17:32
4 minute read.
Men wear Trump yarmulkes while waiting for U.S. President Donald Trump to address the Republican Jew

Men wear Trump yarmulkes while waiting for U.S. President Donald Trump to address the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

Welcome to the Members of Congress who are generously devoting their precious time to learn about Israel, and to celebrate the extraordinary friendship between two sister democracies: Israel and the United States.

I trust that in their briefings the legislators will learn that Jews are a people, not just a community of faith. That unique mix explains why you can have a Jewish state that is not a theocracy. It’s based on our nationhood, not our religion.

America’s bipartisan support for Israel is not just a generous gift from Americans to Israel, but a gift that gives back to America, too. Healthy democracies need some issues on which they agree, transcending left-right differences.

Still, we live in highly charged, destructively partisan times. While such visits reinforce this mutually beneficial, bipartisan support for the Middle East’s only democracy and one of America’s most reliable friends – an addition to the tiny club of aspirational, redemptive democracies – most Democrats and Republicans nevertheless come with different concerns.

In general, Democrats must beware the “Occupation Preoccupation,” Republicans, the “Terror Error.” At its most extreme, The Occupation Preoccupation sees Israel only through the Bash-Israel-First lens of Palestinian rejectionists who say it’s all about “the Occupation” and “the Settlements.” At its most extreme, The Terror Error defines Palestinians by their murderous, corrupt leaders, giving up, saying, “You can’t work with them,” and overlooking millions of Palestinians who want to live normal, quiet, apolitical lives. The anti-Israel voice in the Democratic Party – and unfortunately there is one – will just blame Israel. The don’t-rock-the-boat voices in the Republican Party will just blame the Palestinians.

Reality is more complicated.

We’re seeing the Occupation Preoccupation on the campaign trail. Even Joe Biden recently said, “I think the settlements are unnecessary” and “Occupation is a real problem.”

Beware, both words mean very different things to different people. When most Israelis speak of the “occupied territories,” they mean the territories Israel won legitimately in the 1967 war of self-defense. To Palestinian rejectionists, the “occupation” means all of Israel. To Palestinian extremists, all of Israel is a settlement and all Israelis are settlers.

The term “occupation” evokes the Nazi oppression in Europe. It, like its sister term “colonialism,” implies a foreign force without ties to the land imposing itself on the land. But much of the land Israel freed in 1967 are the Jews’ biblical lands, which is why many people call the territories “Judea and Samaria.” Moreover, under the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s, Israel withdrew from “Area A.” The Palestinian Authority controls most Palestinian lives in all the major cities. Israel has been out of Gaza since 2005. Are Gaza and Area A as “occupied” as the sparsely-populated Area C? Can you call Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, where Jews lived for centuries until the Jordanians expelled them in 1948, “occupied”? Are the Jews there “settlers”?

WHAT ABOUT the children of Kfar Etzion, whose parents were killed or expelled in May 1948 from this suburban settlement outside Jerusalem and who yearned to return for 19 years until 1967? That “settlement” and others are within the Clinton parameters, within the Israeli and international consensus of what territories to keep, even with a two-state solution.

Now, admittedly, many right-wing Israelis use the terms “occupation” and “settlements,” too. But each should come with a warning longer than the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of Marlboros. And the sloppiness is lethal. When American politicians say “end the occupation” or that “the settlements” are unnecessary, the rejectionists’ spines stiffen. They continue pushing the maximalist demand stated in the Hamas charter to destroy Israel, believing Americans support their cause.

The Terror Error lurches us to the opposite extreme. Now it’s true the Palestinians are led by terrorist-supporting, corrupt, thugs. The United States arranges a $50 billion aid package in Bahrain and these spoiled brats scoff. Palestinian leaders can be dismissive because most are wealthy aristocrats who line their pockets thanks to all the international aid flowing in with little scrutiny. It’s easy for them to reject America’s plan to add one million Palestinian jobs, reduce unemployment below 10% and ease the flow of goods.

But just because your enemy is unreasonable doesn’t mean every demand is unreasonable. Most Israelis don’t trust the PA, let alone Hamas. Israelis have lost faith in naïve dreams of peace and unilateral withdrawals. But few Israelis want to control Palestinian lives – or want their kids patrolling Palestinian areas.

So watch your language. It’s fairer to call the territories “disputed” and speak of the “Palestinian Problem” or the “Conflict” not the “Occupation.” And let’s distinguish between historic settlements returning Jews to their homes, security settlements protecting strategic assets, suburban settlements established in once-empty areas close to Israeli cities, and the limited number of in-your-face political settlements which I call outposts.

Or call them what they are – communities: some within the consensus like Kfar Etzion and the Jewish Quarter, some of uncertain status, and some flash points.

Let’s also think creatively. Read the pragmatic philosopher Micha Goodman’s illuminating book Catch ‘67. Goodman recently detailed in The Atlantic “Eight Steps to Shrink” the conflict, to limit clashes and to improve Palestinian lives. Learn from the freed refusenik Natan Sharansky who explains why international aid should be contingent on Palestinian progress in building civil society, because dictatorships always need an enemy and won’t make peace.

Finally, let’s tap the creativity of two of the most forward-thinking countries, America and Israel, to solve this conflict fairly and justly.

The writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas (Jewish Publication Society), an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology; a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University; and the author of 10 books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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