American Jews are getting what is ‘right’ on Israel wrong

Many American Jewish critics of Israel define themselves as avowedly pro-Israel, seeking to save the country from itself by pushing for a Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton addresses AIPAC in Washington DC (photo credit: screenshot)
Hillary Clinton addresses AIPAC in Washington DC
(photo credit: screenshot)
‘I’ve been really surprised by the support for the two-state solution that I’ve seen from the AIPAC leadership.” That was the opening remark from a leading Israeli liberal journalist, participating in a panel at the AIPAC Policy Conference earlier this year.
His surprise no doubt arose from his presumption that AIPAC is an Obama-bashing cheerleader for the Israeli Right; a notion he would have absorbed from his friends in J Street, and from left-leaning bastions of the American Jewish establishment.
As a comment it actually tells us less about AIPAC and more about the disconnect between Israeli and American Jews, in particular the very different notions of what constitutes being “right wing” in the two countries.
In Israeli terms, AIPAC reflects the mainstream majority position: supporting a two-state solution and willing to trade land for peace in principle, but essentially unconvinced that the Palestinian Authority is a serious partner and deeply worried about what kind of regime would replace Israeli administration of the West Bank. Poll after poll in Israel reveals this formulation to be accepted by 60%-70% of Israeli Jews.
Among American Jews however, it appears that to take any position which does not regard PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a moderate and the Netanyahu government as the obdurate obstacle to peace is “right wing.”
The 2016 Pew Survey comparing Israeli and American Jewish opinions on politics and religion provides statistical evidence for this disconnect.
Using country-appropriate terminology, the research has just 9% of Israeli Jews self-defining as left-wing, compared to the 49% of American Jews calling themselves “liberal.”
A majority of Israeli Jews (55%) do not define themselves as right-wing, however, but rather as “centrist” (translated as “moderate” on the American sample).
Unlike so many American Jews, most Israelis do not regard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a hardline conservative, but as an ultra-cautious realist. Israelis do believe that ultimately most of the territory over the Green Line will have to be relinquished, but do not trust the Left to approach it in a way that is sufficiently security-conscious.
Netanyahu’s vague endorsement of two states, while constantly sounding the alarm about Palestinian intentions, has therefore been a consistently winning electoral strategy.
Peter Beinart, one of the most eloquent and oft-cited spokespeople for the “Israel needs tough love” faction, has praised those Jewish Americans who visit the West Bank and now understand “the human consequences of holding millions of people as non-citizens, without free movement, under military law, for almost 50 years.”
Many Israelis also understand this.
Except the majority of them understand something else, too: that this wretched situation has continued principally because of the Palestinians themselves.
As Hillary Clinton reminded us (and Bernie Sanders) in their debate in New York, the Palestinians would already have a state had Yasser Arafat not rejected her husband’s parting proposal – the unprecedented offer of a Palestinian state on 93% to 97% of the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in east Jerusalem and de facto control over the Temple Mount.
Arafat’s decision was referred to by the then-Saudi ambassador to the United States as a “crime against the Palestinian people.”
“But that was Arafat,” argue the Beinarts of this world. Israel is now blessed to have a true moderate at the helm of the PA. Abbas is desperate to reach a just and lasting peace, we are told by J Street. If only he had a true peace partner on the Israeli side instead of Netanyahu.
Except that it was Abbas, not Netanyahu , who twice walked away from American-brokered negotiations, even after Israel’s “intransigent” prime minister froze settlement building (in the first instance) and released Palestinian terrorists (in the second).
The “right wing” position of AIPAC and others is the mainstream understanding among the majority of Israeli Jews.
The current iteration of Palestinian terrorism, including the shooting in the Sarona market in Tel Aviv and a Jerusalem bus bombing in the past couple of months, was initially incited by the libelous accusation spread by Abbas himself that Israel planned to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, or even to damage the Aksa Mosque. Early on in what was then primarily a “knife intifada,” Abbas declared on Palestinian television: “The Aksa [mosque] is ours...
and they [the Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet...We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing.”
Both opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid (whose Yesh Atid party is currently polling second behind the Likud) are liberal on the issues that matter to Democrat-voting American Jews. Both are supporters of gay rights, religious pluralism and government action to address societal inequalities. Both however have concluded that there is no possibility in the immediate future for a negotiated peace deal with the PA.
Shomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most respected political scientists and historians and a veteran of the Israeli Left expertly dissected the root cause of the conflict in Haaretz last October; namely, the refusal of the Palestinians to come to terms with the legitimacy and permanence of a Jewish sovereign state anywhere on this land: “Most Israelis view the conflict as a struggle between two national movements: the Jewish national movement – Zionism – and the Palestinian national movement as part of the wider Arab national movement...
According to the Palestinians’ view, this is not a conflict between two national movements but a conflict between one national movement (the Palestinian) and a colonial and imperialistic entity (Israel). According to this view, Israel will end like all colonial phenomena – it will perish and disappear.”
This reality is felt by Israelis in a way it is not – and perhaps cannot be – by American observers.
Many American Jewish critics of Israel define themselves as avowedly pro-Israel, seeking to save the country from itself by pushing for a Palestinian state. They have every right to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. What is problematic is when they see only Israel’s flaws and mistakes, and not those of the Palestinians. When they buy into the soft bigotry of low expectations – so dominant now on university campuses – that infantilizes the Palestinians as helpless victims; as an oppressed people not responsible for their actions, that must be coddled and supported at every turn, no matter what violence they commit – and no matter that their poverty and despair is as much a result of the corruption and criminality of the PA as it is of the occupation.
It is we here in Israel who live the consequences of Palestinian rejectionism; we and our children are the targets of the violence incited and then celebrated by our putative peace partners. We will live with whatever regime or chaos emerges in the West Bank in the days and weeks following an Israeli withdrawal. Many of us also worry about the future of our democracy and the moral cost of occupation. We also want peace. But not at any cost.
The author has written on the Middle East and the Jewish world for a number of Israeli, British, American and Canadian titles. He is the director of the Israel Government Fellows program in Jerusalem but writes in a personal capacity.