Center Field: Harried Kerry, Can we talk peace without demonization, bullying and sideshows?

Kerry is not wrong for trying to broker a peace. However, he and his allies err by trying to bully Israel to the peace table.

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis face two fundamental peace-process puzzles: how to stay safe if Israel withdraws from any territories, and how to remain ethical if Israel keeps all the territories.
These issues require careful analysis and alternating leaps of faith – either trusting the Palestinians to stop seeking Israel’s destruction or imagining away the political and moral problems with undemocratically controlling 2.7 million Palestinians.
The latest peace-processing should inspire weighty debates by various smart people explaining their particular security and moral calculus. Alas, instead of the nationwide seminar we need, we get a three-ring circus we could do without, with US Secretary of State John Kerry demonized, Israel bullied, and sideshows promoted as main events.
Calling John Kerry anti-Semitic is as foolish as was calling Rahm Emanuel or Henry Kissinger “Jewboys” in their day. Can’t Israeli rightists disagree with Kerry substantively, honorably, without falsely charging him with bigotry? If anything, Kerry is motivated by a different “a-word” than anti-Semitism: ambition.
Yet speculating about Kerry’s Nobel Prize or Oval Office fantasies is also irrelevant.
Israelis should evaluate Kerry’s peace initiative by its chances of success, not his hunger for glory. Demagogic libels demean the accuser, not the accused. And with so many anti-Semites around today, Jews should not recruit others by treating friends who disagree as enemies who wish to destroy.
Kerry is not wrong for trying to broker a peace. However, he – and his allies – err by trying to bully Israel to the peace table. Intifada threats encourage violence, buoy extremists and risk more decades of stalemate.
Boycott fears are exaggerated – 200 universities denounced the ASA and I generated nearly twice as many “likes” with my personal anti-boycott “Troycott” than there were pro-boycott ASA voters. Fear-mongering about “last chances” is silly – years from now, considering security cooperation on the ground, we may view this period as the necessary consolidating calm after Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian bloodbath of 2000-2003.
Peace-processors forget that tough love with Israel often backfires. Israel must be waltzed into the compromises and genuine risks serious peace talks require, not slammed into them. Browbeating Israel triggers an instinctive rigidity, not the bold fluidity required to make peace with people still dreaming of your destruction.
That is why delegitimizing Israel must be repudiated, especially by the Left (which should not be called “the peace camp” as if the Right is “the war camp).” Pro-compromise activists should fight boycotts and Apartheid slanders, understanding that peace requires trust, not fear. Israelis cannot imagine Palestinians as responsible neighbors when Palestinians call them racists and imperialists.
The condescending assumption that Israel cannot determine its own destiny insults the Zionist movement – and Israeli history. Jewish sovereignty entailed returning to history, taking responsibility for tough calls. David Ben-Gurion chose to accept the 1947 UN Partition and to proclaim Israel’s independence in 1948, defying naysayers each time. Levi Eshkol resolved to destroy Egypt’s and Syria’s air forces in June, 1967 after Egypt blocked Eilat’s waterway. Menachem Begin decided to compromise with Egypt in 1978.
Ariel Sharon opted to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. These decisions which shaped Israel’s destiny suggest that Israel has a good track record.
Remember, Israel is the thriving state with a booming economy, a healthy society, and a strong army. Perhaps Kerry and his American Jewish enablers should pressure Palestinians, who have a terrible track record – from rejecting the 1947 UN partition to undermining the Oslo Accords to turning a freed Gaza into an armed terrorist “Hamastan” rather than a model of governance and good citizenship for a future Palestine. With Palestinian society in shambles and their state a still-distant pipedream, the Palestinians need tough love and political coaching, not the Israelis.
Seeing issues in proper perspective would also highlight the absurdity of the distracting campaign to make freeing Jonathan Pollard a sweetener for an Israeli peace deal.
How does freeing a convicted spy – no matter how unfairly punished he might be – guarantee Israel’s security in any way? If the peace deal is good, safe, viable, Israel should take it; if the deal is dangerous, Israel should resist, regardless of Pollard’s fate.
I have called repeatedly for Pollard’s release, and have labeled his continuing imprisonment “the worst of American anti-Semitism” (noting, of course, that grading America on the world scale, this atypical incident shows that overall American anti-Semitism is quite mild indeed).
But I have also long argued that the Pollard case is a question of justice, American- style, and should be unrelated to American- Israeli relations. Americans, from Right to Left, Jews and non-Jews, should demand Pollard’s release because he has been wrongly jailed for so long (after having been rightly convicted).
Making Pollard’s fate a bargaining chip obscures the injustice done to him in serving far longer sentences than far more dastardly Soviet spies served, while involving a foreign country, Israel, in what should be an American domestic matter. Just like Israel’s freeing convicted terrorists to encourage peace negotiations undermines Israel’s rule of law by foolishly politicizing and relativizing its justice system, America’s freeing Pollard for diplomatic rather than legal reasons would undermine America’s rule of law.
The charges and counter-charges, the posturing and bullying, the distractions and contradictions, offer a backhanded compliment to John Kerry. His peace-processing is stirring emotions because he is making progress. As usual, the right thing to do is also the shrewd move to make. A serious, substantive civil debate in Israel would demonstrate Israel’s maturity and mass desire for peace.
Israel is best off having Palestinian rejectionists reject Kerry’s deal because they still yearn for Israel’s destruction – Israel gains nothing with demagoguery or negativity and should only reject any offered peace deal if it endangers Israeli lives by discounting the Palestinian threat. Borders are negotiable; Israel’s existence is not.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just published by Oxford University Press.