In Washington: Signifying nothing

What does 'supporting Israel' mean devoid of context?

mjrosenberg88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Driving in the Maryland suburbs of Washington last weekend, I noticed that all the synagogues I passed now announce, on prominently displayed billboards, "We Support Israel In Its Struggle For Peace and Security." It's a nice sentiment, to be sure, but rather empty. Who is the sign directed at? Random folks who drive by? The President? Members of Congress? Or is it just a feel-good statement not directed at anyone in particular? In any case, the fact that a synagogue supports Israel is less than noteworthy. But the larger question is what does the sign mean? What does "supporting Israel" mean devoid of detail or context? In my opinion, not a whole lot. Peace does not just happen. Achieving it requires diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. The same with security. Neither is won by simply sitting back and accepting the status quo. These synagogue statements are, in a sense, good metaphors for much of what passes for "support for Israel" these days. They are slogans - passive and meaningless - and don't change a thing. In fact, this passive "support" has often in the past proven to be detrimental to Israel itself. Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami makes that clear in his excellent new history of what he calls the "Israeli-Arab tragedy." The book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace makes a strong case that Israel, contrary to the sentiment expressed on those signs, has not exactly been struggling for peace over the past half-century. On the contrary, he argues that, like the Arabs, Israel has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The costliest example of Israel's missed opportunities took place 30 years ago. It was 1971, four years after the Six Day War. Up to that point, no Arab leader had indicated a willingness to negotiate with Israel. But then, Anwar Sadat, Egypt's new president, announced that he was ready to negotiate with Israel. Furthermore, he did not link negotiations to Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territory. He was only interested in the Sinai Peninsula and, particularly, in regaining the east bank of the Suez Canal so he could re-open the canal to international shipping. As for Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Palestinian issue, that was for the other Arab states to worry about. Israel took note of Sadat's statement. Prime Minister Golda Meir acknowledged that Sadat was "the first Egyptian leader to say he was ready to make peace." But neither she nor Israel was particularly interested in negotiating with Sadat over Sinai, not in 1971. As Meir said later: "we never had it so good." Israel had security and the territories. Who cared what Sadat offered or didn't? So when Sadat said that in return for an Israeli pullback of 2-3 miles from the east bank of the canal he would begin negotiations toward a full peace, the Israeli government said "no." The United States pushed hard to get Israel to explore the offer, as did defense minister Moshe Dayan. But the majority of the Cabinet felt that Israel should reject the pressure and reject the peace offer too. It was at that point that Sadat decided the only way for him to regain his territory would be through war. He spent two years preparing an attack and then, on Yom Kippur 1973, the Egyptians crossed the canal, wiped out the Israeli defenders, and came close to defeating Israel itself. The war cost Israel 3,000 young lives - all of which might have been spared if Israel had taken up Egypt's offer. In the end, Israel did not surrender a mere 2-3 miles of the Sinai, but every last inch of it. TO THIS day, Israelis are torn up over the 1973 war and whether it could have been avoided, or, at least, prepared for. (The Israeli government was so self-confident that, just prior to the Egyptian attack, it ignored King Hussein's warning that war was about to break out, although he personally flew himself to Tel Aviv to deliver his warning to the Israelis!). The point here is not to criticize those who badly misread the situation in 1973 but to question whether support for Israel that amounts, essentially, to support for the status quo has any real value at all. In 1971, the pro-Israel community here might have helped Israel by backing the Nixon administration when it encouraged Israel not to rebuff Sadat. Instead, the community was silent. (The late Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco, a great diplomat and friend of Israel, told me that he tried to get pro-Israel organizations here to encourage Israel to be open-minded about Sadat's offer but failed). Following the war, America's Israel supporters - unlike Israelis - did not examine whether their pre-war inertia had harmed Israel rather than helped. No one acknowledged that the voices in the community who had urged Israel to follow the US lead were, in fact, right. Along these lines, it is worth noting that neither the United States nor anyone else told Israel that it must accept Sadat's offer. The issue was whether the Sadat initiative was worth exploring. That is what Israel said "no" to. For Ben-Ami, it all gets back to the question of whether Israel has historically done everything in its power to achieve peace. He thinks not; he thinks that neither the Israelis nor the Arabs made peace a priority. "Peace was not a priority for Israel's leaders; settling the land and absorbing immigrants was. Willing peace and making it can be two entirely different things; the question is the price one is willing to pay and Israel was clearly adamant in resisting any erosion of the territorial status quo that had emerged out of its victory." Much of that has changed now. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon led Israel out of Gaza and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is planning major withdrawals from the West Bank. Neither leader put a great value on a status quo that is neither peaceful nor secure. And the polls continue to show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis favor not standing still but negotiating with any Palestinian party willing to recognize Israel's right to peace and security - and particularly with Mahmoud Abbas. They don't want slogans or professions of pity or support. They want movement and they want the Bush administration to help broker negotiations. For Americans, supporting anything less is tantamount to not supporting Israel at all. The writer is the director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum.