Hello Israel: What are you doing?

Many of Israel’s supporters can't understand why Jerusalem continues to build settlements on land it says it would be ready to evacuate in a peace agreement

Netanyahu Ratner 521 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Netanyahu Ratner 521
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
During the recent US presidential election campaign, many American Jews kept hearing the same question from friends and relatives in Israel: how can you vote for Obama, he’s so anti-Israel? While vigorously disputing that proposition, we explained that unlike them we were not looking at the election solely through an Israeli lens or comparing the candidates’ positions on the Middle East. We have to live in this country and we could not support a political party that was against women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage, that was antiimmigrant, contemptuous of science, hostile to workers’ rights and which aimed to further punish the poor and needy while further enriching multi-millionaires.
Now the boot is on the other foot. Watching the unfolding Israeli election, many American Jews find the proceedings quite unintelligible. Why did Netanyahu climb into bed with Liberman? Why did Likud kick prominent moderates like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who represent its reasonable face, into the gutter? Why can’t the various opposition parties unite and provide a real challenge to the right? Most of all, why are Israeli politicians of all stripes almost totally disregarding what we see as the main issue facing the country, the need to reinvigorate negotiations with the Palestinians toward a two-state solution? We understand that elections are always fought on domestic issues and whether people feel better off than they did four years ago. But Israel had always been different because of the hostile neighborhood in which it lives and because of its constant search for peace. In this context, some of Netanyahu’s recent actions seem not only inexplicable but deeply damaging.
For example, his decision to respond to the symbolic upgrade in Palestinian status at the United Nations General Assembly from non-voting entity to non-voting state by declaring the construction of thousands of new housing units in the West Bank and especially the area known as E1.
In general, many of Israel’s most fervent supporters have difficulty understanding why Israel continues to build settlements on land it says it would be ready to evacuate in the context of a peace agreement. But the E1 decision was particularly egregious because it would destroy the possibility of ever having a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank. Is Netanyahu still committed to a two-state solution? Many in the top spots on his electoral list are not. We know Liberman is not. Shouldn’t Israeli voters demand that Netanyahu make his intentions clear? Guess what? Israel has exactly the same problems in America as the Republicans. Its support is strong among whites but weak among minorities, who will eventually become the majority. It is stronger among men than women who are more numerous; Israel is strong among old people but weak among the young.
This is not a formula to make Israelis comfortable about the future of their relationship with the United States, which remains the indispensable alliance for Israel.
I have sat in countless focus groups where voters discussed Israel and the Middle East and in every one the issue of the settlements came up. Americans simply don’t understand what Israel is up to, what Israel wants to achieve. They see the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as one between two peoples who both seem incapable of compromise and are drifting further and further into extremism.
The election campaign in Israel is not over and things can still change but, so far, it has been a deeply disappointing event for many of Israel’s friends in this country.
The aftermath of the election could be painful for both countries.
Alan Elsner, a veteran journalist and author, is communications director of the left-leaning Jewish American J Street advocacy group.