Will American Jewish Leaders embrace the Netanyahu-Lieberman Regime?

Israel’s newest government has turned away from the peace process and the goal of a two-state solution enunciated by Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations alike.

Late in April, Israel declared that it would not move ahead on the core issues of peace talks with the Palestinians until it sees progress in U.S. efforts to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon. “It’s a crucial condition if we want to move forward,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, a former ambassador to the U.S. “If we want to have a real political process with the Palestinians, then you can’t have the Iranians undermining and sabotaging.”

This flies in the face of the Obama administration’s hopes to do precisely the opposite–to use progress in the Israeli-Palestinian political talks to curb Iranian influence.

In what The New York Times called “a blunt and belligerent speech on his first day as Israel’s new foreign minister,” Avigdor Lieberman declared that “those who wish for peace should prepare for war.” He also maintained that Israel was not obligated by understandings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached at the Annapolis peace summit in late 2007. Lieberman said the Israeli government will suspend negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on so-called “final status” issues–borders, settlements, refugees, and the status of the city of Jerusalem–until the Palestinians take verifiable steps to end attacks against Israelis.

With this statement, the new Israeli government reversed the policies of its predecessor, led by Ehud Olmert, which had been quietly attempting to negotiate a final settlement of the conflict with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Editorialized The Washington Post on March 31, 2009, “Though he has promised to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Netanyahu has never endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state–and he has said that he will support the ‘natural growth’ of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”

How will the U.S. government–and the leaders of established American Jewish organizations–respond to Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to accept Palestinian statehood, which in the past decade has been the anchor of U.S. policy in the region, and which most American Jewish groups have supported? The answer, of course, remains to be seen. What we do know is that more and more prominent American Jewish voices are being heard in opposition to the Netanyahu government’s stance.

“It took an unconscionably long time for the Palestine Liberation Organization to accept the idea of a two-state solution,” wrote columnist Leonard Fein in the April 24 issue of The Forward. “Yet today, its most ardent advocate is Mahmoud Abbas, still president of the Palestinian Authority. And the Saudis are not far behind. In the meantime, Israel has a prime minister who is steadfast in his distaste for the two-state idea. The world has turned upside down. Fortunately, President Obama is apparently quite serious in his commitment to the two-state solution, even if that means provoking a real divide between Jerusalem and Washington…So we approach a moment of truth for pro-Israel American Jews: Accept the sterile Netanyahu perspective, all foam and no beer, or stand firm, with Obama, against the status quo and for a two-state solution, which is to say, for a Jewish state.”

Fein, a respected observer who is the former editor of Moment magazine and a long-time leader in Reform Judaism, puts the question this way: “Let there be no mistake: a one-state solution with Jews in control and the Palestinian majority offered less than full rights of citizenship is morally and politically bankrupt. It is an invitation to continuing violence. A one-state solution with the Palestinian majority in control means an end to the Zionist enterprise, to the Jewish state. But: A two-state solution is not an option that will always be available. Unfolding facts on the ground–growing Palestinian resentment, growing Israeli settlement–are already subverting its prospect. In Khartoum in 1967, the Arab world famously issued its ‘three no’s’: No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel. First Egypt, then Jordan rescinded that doctrine. Now the Saudis and the Syrians are willing, even eager, to negotiate, as are significant elements among the Palestinians. And the Israelis? By turning toward Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, they turn away from the serious pursuit of peace, hence away from an enduring Jewish state. There are times when what seems to be mere irony is in fact tragedy.”

States Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the new Jewish lobby JStreet, which challenges the “Israel right or wrong” posture of AIPAC and other Jewish organizations: “The second coming of Netanyahu may…bring us to a fork in the road. On this side of the ocean, American Jews just helped usher in a new progressive era–with 78 percent of us voting to elect Barack Obama president. American Jews overwhelmingly have opposed the war in Iraq and favor engagement, not conflict, with Iran. By and large, we want a sophisticated foreign policy that pragmatically advances American interests and security–”not the simplicity of a neoconservative outlook that views the world in black and white.”

At the same time, he notes, “Israeli politics has taken a hard turn rightward. The…prime minister cannot bring himself to support a two-state solution, a proposition at the heart of American and Israeli policy for a generation. And the settler movement seems bent on making a viable Palestinian state a physical impossibility–putting at risk the notion that Israel can be both a democratic state and a Jewish homeland….For organizations at the heart of the established Jewish community, the best strategy would be to welcome and encourage an open and respectful airing of differences of opinion over policies and strategies and on what it means to be pro-Israel. Insisting on unquestioning loyalty–and communal consensus–when it comes to Israel will become ever more difficult if the interests and values of the two largest Jewish communities in the world continue to diverge.

“If the organized Jewish community won’t accommodate within its tent civil debate and questioning of Israel’s actions, I fear many American Jews may be driven away,” Ben-Ami warns. “This will risk not only their support for the State of Israel, but also their connection to the Jewish community and even to the Jewish religion itself. An Israeli government built on rejecting peace, with coalition members who show little regard for democratic values, can expect far more loyal dissent than unquestioning loyalty from the broad base of Jewish Americans. The challenge on which our community’s leadership and institutions should focus…is not how to maintain rigid loyalty to Israel in the Netanyahu-Lieberman era but how to welcome vibrant debate and healthy dissent within the pro-Israel tent.”

Discussing Israel’s new government, Tikkun in its May/June 2009 issue provided this assessment of the duo Uri Avnery dubbed “Biberman”: “Their policies will increase the number of West Bank settlers; legitimate the demeaning of not just Palestinians outside Israel but also of Arabs who are citizens of Israel; and maintain the power of religious fundamentalists to impose religious restrictions on the lives of secular Israelis, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism have any legitimacy or right to do weddings or conversions. And it will be even harder for the Israeli government to hide the fact that the primary obstacle to peace is not terrorism, but Israel’s insistence on holding onto territory won through military conquest–territory that provides little security but instead intensifies the anger of the world toward Israel and toward those Jews who are willing to shut their eyes to the human rights abuses committed by Israel in order to maintain its occupation of the territories it has dominated since 1967.”

Tikkun charges that “AIPAC is gearing up…to make the ultra-right-wing government appear normal rather than acknowledge, as we do, that it is an extremist rejection of many of the values that made Israel a society deserving of respect even when its policies toward Palestinians were oppressive.”

A recent survey for JStreet conducted by Democratic strategist Jim Gerstein found that President Obama is “considerably more popular” among American Jews than Netanyahu, by a 73-58 margin, and that Lieberman’s views are “resoundingly rejected by American Jews.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that making Israel “central” to Jewish life in the United States has had a corrupting influence. This problem is examined in an important new book, Judaism Does Not Equal Israel (The New Press) by Professor Marc H. Ellis, a leading authority on contemporary Judaism and founding director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, where he is a professor of Jewish studies.

Judaism Does Not Equal Israel

“Coterminus with the Holocaust and the founding of Israel have been the conquest and destruction of much of Palestine,” Ellis laments. “The creation of Israel forced an ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 Palestinians to create room for the Jewish state. The removal of the Palestinians from their own land continued through the early years of Israel’s existence. It accelerated in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. These policies continue today in the Jewish ‘settlements’–really expansive towns and small cities–that mark the future of Israel’s dominant and permanent presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank…’Ethnic cleansing’ has been protested and mourned as something that happens to Jews. That Jews used ethnic cleansing to form the state of Israel introduces another, profoundly disturbing factor in the formation of modern Jewish identity. It appears our empowerment is tainted with the same abuse of power others have used against us, an abuse we have condemned.”

Historically, Jews were schooled in the abuse of state power, particularly when they were its victims. “Despite this schooling,” writes Ellis, “when it came to us, we felt there would be a difference. The Jewish tradition of ethical concern would be strong enough to discipline Jewish power. Like most Jews, I felt the strength of my tradition. As it turns out, Jews were wrong. So was I…All power needs an ethical accounting.”

The Biblical prophets held their fellow Israelites to the most exacting standards. Today’s “Israel right or wrong” standard would be anathema to them. It was God who was the object of their worship, not themselves. The idea that a sovereign state could be the proper object of their worship, and “central” to their religion, would never occur to them. They would view it as idolatry and nothing more.

Now, as Israel moves away from the peace process, away from a two-state solution, away from the creation of a Palestinian state, American Jewish leaders must decide where they stand. More and more thoughtful American Jews have already decided.