Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

The New Zionist Imperative Is to Tell Israel the Truth

by Jeremy Ben-Ami

I'm really pleased that I've gotten the chance to know Michael Lerner over the past few months and to discover that we share a very deep and personal bond in our goals related to Israel, to the passion to try to bring peace and justice. We do it in our own way.

I am a creature of Washington, D.C., for better or for worse, and part of the system that is broken. I've worked here for twenty-five years and know it inside and out. That is one of the reasons that I started J Street, because the system is so broken and you need to know the rule book to be able to fix it. Of course I would love to throw out the rule book. That would be the ultimate way to fix it. But until you all fix the rulebook, I know what the rules are and I know how to change, a little bit, the way in which this town works. So I thank you very much for the invitation to speak. I've told Michael that I'd like very much for the Tikkun Community and for him personally to participate in our next conference in February 2011.

This is an extremely interesting and terrible time for the issue that I work on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We all had huge expectations from the new president on this issue. On day one he pledged that he would work diligently and energetically. He appointed George Mitchell, he made his first phone calls to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority, and so there was a glimmer of hope. I think it's fair to say that not only over the weeks since Israel's attack on the Gaza aid flotilla, but also since early 2009, that glimmer of hope has really diminished. I'd like to think together about some reactions to the flotilla incident and about where we go from here—what are the policy options, the implications for our politics, and, from my perspective, the implications for the American Jewish community.

The Flotilla Tragedy

I spent the week after the flotilla tragedy with a man named Ami Ayalon, who was the commander of the Israeli navy for five years and the head of the Israeli Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service. During his thirty-five-year career he actually commanded the very unit that carried out the raid. I saw Ami speak in Philadelphia probably eighteen times over the course of six days, and learned a lot from him about how Israel could have and should have dealt with this problem but chose not to.

The thing that I find so troubling and dissatisfying about the conversation about the flotilla is that the emails that come to my inbox focus on "Here's the video of what happened on the ship," and "Don't you see the gunfire erupting before the soldiers actually did something?" And on the other side they say, "Don't you see the soldiers opening fire before they even land on the boat?" The thing that I took away from the conversation with Ami was how this misses the point. We could spend all of our lives talking about blame and about who did what to whom in any tragic event that took place over the last one hundred years. But the issue that should be front and center for us, for all of the peoples of the region, and for all of the politicians and policy makers—especially in Israel—is, how do they intend to move forward? How do they intend to build a future?

When they sent those young men onto that boat, what did they expect? They sent the elite of Israel's trained warriors: bright wonderful kids, trained to be killers. And they sent them onto a civilian ship in the middle of the night and said, "take it over." If they didn't know that this was going to be the outcome, then what were they doing making these decisions? That's where the problem is. That's where the blame lies: with the politicians, the policy makers, and the decision makers. So I'd like us to think about some of the lessons that I hope we'll take from this, and I'll give credit to Ami.

Five Lessons to Inform Our Approaches

The first lesson is to try to help people to distinguish between victory and revenge. For too long in this conflict, the reaction has been, "You hit me, I'm gonna hit you harder." Joe Klein in Time magazine today calls it Ari Ben Canaan Disorder or ABCD (Ari Ben Canaan is the macho hero of Leon Uris' novel Exodus). It's this desire to reflexively act tough and strong because you feel you've been picked on your whole life. If you feel that sense of victimhood and you feel you need to strike back, then you'll take every opportunity to strike as hard as you can. I think the Israelis have lost sight of what it means to win. Victory to the Israelis and the Jewish people should mean a safe, Jewish, and democratic Israel, and that's it. Every action they take should be judged by the standard of whether or not they are advancing the ball in that direction. Nearly every action that seems to be taken these days moves in the wrong direction, satisfying a lust and a need for revenge, rather than having a clear strategic eye on how to win and the actual meaning of victory.

The second lesson involves the concept of fighting Hamas. Hamas is an idea, and you can't beat an idea purely with military force. To the Palestinian people, the idea of Hamas is about liberation, an end to Occupation, and independence. If the Israeli army can't beat that idea, they need a better idea, and the better idea is peace, diplomacy, and the end of the Occupation. Surprisingly, according to Ami Ayelon—who ran Israel's security forces and navy—the best way to beat Hamas is to pursue an immediate end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and watch Hamas shrivel up as a political force. Because if you empower Salam Fayyad and Abu Mazen and give them results, and show a true sense of progress for the Palestinian people on the path to independence and freedom, then there won't be an attraction to a fundamentalist way of life that most Palestinians don't fundamentally believe in. That's the way to beat Hamas.

Lesson number three, from a military standpoint, is, don't rely purely on force. Strength exercised in the absence of diplomacy is weakness. I thought that was extraordinarily important.

Fourth, we are not witnessing a (Samuel) Huntingtonian clash of civilizations. What we're watching is a clash within all our civilizations, between people who are extremists and people who are moderates. If we tend to look at this conflict as the forces of good and the forces of evil, with somehow us in the United States and the Israelis as the forces of good, and "them"—the Palestinians and the Arabs on their side—as evil, we are completely missing the nature of the conflict. This is a fundamental flaw in the ways in which the American Jewish establishment views this conflict, the Israeli government looks at this conflict, and the U.S. government for the previous eight years approached its foreign policy. Misunderstanding a battlefield means you are doomed to lose the war.

Fifth, the role of the United States is absolutely pivotal to the end of this conflict. Left to their own devices, the Israelis and the Palestinians will not be able to come to a reasonable resolution. For eighteen years we have watched diplomacy fail time after time after time. An outside party must come into the mix and help the parties close the gap, understand what the differences are, and bridge the way to a final peace agreement. Israelis look at the world and say, "We have offered everything, we gave up land, and all we've gotten in return is rockets and terror." Palestinians look at the world, and say, "For eighteen years we have negotiated, and all we have is double the number of settlers that we had when we started this whole process." So the two communities and the two peoples look at the world through extremely different lenses, and only somebody coming from the outside in the form of the United States, and this president, really has the chance to close the gap.

So this brings us to the fundamental question that I would have talked about if the flotilla hadn't happened: the options that the United States has in addressing this conflict.

Why We Have Only Until Mid-2011

Let me start by saying what I assume is obvious to all of you: time is of the essence. We are nearly out of time for the two-state solution. For those who hope to see a democratic and Jewish Israel on the one side, and a Palestinian state that is viable and contiguous on the other, time is nearly out. It is 11:59, and if we don't act now, I believe that one year from now we will not be able to have this conversation—that is how serious the timing is.

Here's why: First, the settlement freeze, which I call a settlement chill, is over in September, so from the Israeli point of view, a critical decision point is, do they extend the settlements? Second, from the point of view of the Arab world, they gave four months of cover to these proximity talks for the Palestinian side, and that period ends in August. Third, from the American political calendar, Barack Obama will have a narrow window between November of this year and probably the fall of next year, in which he can actually deal with this issue. In the heat of a political season, whether it is the midterms now or his re-election in 2012, he will not be able to deal in any meaningful way with this issue. And finally, fourth, from the point of view of the Palestinians, Salam Fayyad's two-year clock for creating the institutions of statehood runs out next August, and Abu Mazen is already beyond the time limit of his own personal presidency and has said he will not run for re-election. So all four of these clocks are running out and we can see them all heading toward a deadline at some point in the middle of next year.

Four Options for Action

So the question is what to do. I've heard four options.

Aaron Miller, who is the former number two negotiator for the American side, has said, "Give up, walk away, tell both sides to call you when they're ready." There are many within the administration, many in Washington, and many people like Tom Friedman who write prominent columns who have echoed that call. So that's one option, to simply say: "You know what? It isn't solvable. We can't do anything. They seem determined to kill each other—it's their problem and let's walk away." As you can imagine, I reject that option. I reject it not simply because I care about Israel and care about Palestinians, but also because I also care about the United States—the resolution of this conflict is absolutely fundamental to American interests, so we simply can't walk away.

Option number two draws on the fact that many people are ready to get very angry. I see this in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement and in people who say: "Why don't we just cut off Israel? Why don't we just take away the $3 billion of military aid? Amazingly quickly, we'll have a peace deal." I am not a big fan of approaches that rely on anger. I don't think that would be productive: I'm not at all convinced that, if the heat is turned up, we won't watch the Israelis draw even further into their defensive crouch and their shell. I think that is not the way to bring about very difficult and painful compromise that is necessary to achieve peace.

Option three is to impose a solution: the president of the United States or someone with the power of the United Nations behind them could just say, "this is the solution" and impose it. I don't think a peace deal that the two sides don't actually buy is going to solve this conflict. You can say it, you can vote on it, you can pass as many resolutions at the security council as you want, but if the people of the region haven't voted on it and accepted it themselves, then I don't think we've resolved this conflict either.

So I've just about eliminated every other track except the one that we're on, and that's not going so well, and that is the track of strong and assertive American diplomacy. I think the president needs to double down on the efforts that he personally is putting into this conflict. It isn't enough to send George Mitchell to the region or to have the secretary of state make comments. I believe it is time for President Obama to go to the region and speak directly to the people of Israel and to the people of the Palestinian territories and say: "Here's is what peace looks like. You have a choice—it is in your hands." I believe the answer will be a resounding yes. The people of Israel and of the Palestinian territories want this to end, and everybody knows the outline of a reasonable solution. So it's time for the president to step up his game and do it in a timely manner. Everything that J Street will be doing in the coming year, during this critical window, will be to force that moment, to demand from this president that he step up to the plate on this critical issue that is vital to American interests, vital to justice, and vital to the stability of the region and the peace of the world. It is up to the president to step forward.

So that is our sense of the policy dynamic. The politics, however, continue to be the most serious brake on that happening. J Street has made itself into a political machinery that attempts to change the dynamics of American politics on this issue. To me, the meetings that happen at the White House almost certainly don't have a lot of objections, on policy grounds, to what I've just outlined. The issue is the political team saying, "I don't think this is such a good idea for you, Mr. President, or for the Democrats up on Capitol Hill—it's going to turn against you, it's going to turn into a political football." That's why all we Americans (Jewish and non-Jewish) who actually believe that this issue must be resolved and that there must be peace and justice in the Middle East have to form a political constituency that can act as a counterweight to the political forces that have controlled this issue for far too long. That is what J Street is all about, and I invite you to join us in all of this.

What the American Jewish Community Needs to Do Now

Let me finish with a comment about moving from the politics to the Jewish community. I know that a number of you here at the NSP conference are actively involved in Jewish communal life and are very deeply concerned about what is happening within the Jewish community on this issue.

People try to steer the conversation away from the larger questions and into the behavior of a few people on the deck of one boat, and to portray all of these events as a broader campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel: anything but focus on whether or not the larger strategy and policy are fatally flawed. My deepest wish for the American Jewish establishment is that they would spend a few hours with Ami Ayalon—the man I spent that week with, the commander of the Navy and head of the Israeli Secret Service—and learn a few things about what it means to be a true friend to Israel at this critical moment in the country's history. What Israel needs from its friends has changed. In the old days, they collected money in little tin cans. Then they came and they told us to make Aliyah. Then they told us, well, at least visit: send your kids on Birthright. But today the new Zionist imperative is to tell Israel the truth, even if it is painful. As Israel becomes increasingly isolated, as it becomes insecure and scared, it is finding it harder to see for itself what is truly happening, how its actions are deepening its isolation and dooming its chances of maintaining a Jewish and democratic home. I believe its future hangs in the balance in these next months and years.

Without a major course correction, American friends of Israel are poised to witness, on our watch, a tragic fate for the Jewish and democratic state that we have loved and supported over the past century. It is a true act of friendship for us to help Israel to see how critical it is to end the Occupation and create two states, to make this a centerpiece of American and Israeli policy, and to rely again on our people's moral compass to get us there.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is founder and executive director of J Street, a pro-peace, pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

Source Citation: Ben-Ami, Jeremy. 2010. The New Zionist Imperative Is to Tell Israel the Truth. Tikkun 25(5): 53

tags: Analysis of Israel/Palestine, Israel/Palestine, NSP Speeches