Why American Jews Matter

The New York Times
By Roger Cohen
June 21, 2013

LONDON — New ideas are scarce on Israel-Palestine but Secretary of State John Kerry may have the semblance of one: If major American Jewish organizations are among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most important constituencies, perhaps those same groups can exert leverage over Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

It is a long shot — these organizations have shown deep reluctance to criticize Israel — but then along came Kerry’s trump card in the form of Naftali Bennett, the Israeli economy minister. This nationalist neophyte has performed a public service by clarifying the objective inherent in Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank: “The attempt to establish a Palestinian state in our land has ended,” he said this week.

Speaking to a settlers’ conference, Bennett urged Israel to “build, build, build” in order to establish an “Israeli presence everywhere,” called for the rapid annexation of more than 60 percent of the West Bank, declared that the land had been Israel’s for 3,000 years, and characterized the quest for a two-state solution as a colossal exercise in futility.

In short, two states? Fuhgeddaboutit.

His comments followed equally dismissive remarks early this month from Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister. He said most Israelis had “given up the idea of land for peace” and urged Israel to annex wide swaths of the West Bank.

Bennett and Danon were being explicit about an aim implicit in Israeli actions — as opposed to words — since the lightning victory in the 1967 war delivered all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and ignited a strong vein of Israeli religious nationalism. The “miracle” of annexation of East Jerusalem and control of the West Bank was proof of a mission to hold all of Eretz Israel — the biblical “Land of Israel” to which Bennett referred. (At the age of 41, Bennett has never lived in an Israel that did not exercise humiliating dominion over West Bank Palestinians.)

This Messianic view of the Jewish state’s destiny has grown for the past 46 years, despite undertakings from various leaders, including Netanyahu in 2009, to seek a two-state peace. If the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, outside East Jerusalem, has almost doubled in the past dozen years to over 350,000 (Bennett put the number at 400,000), it is because the notion that all the land belongs to Israel by divine decree has been ascendant and compromise increasingly seen as a deficit of faith. Construction has spelled out what official government policy could not quite say: We have no plans to leave.

It is in this sense that Bennett’s statement is a true public service. Far better to have clarity about the meaning of Israel’s actions in the West Bank than to have a fait accompli — the growing settler presence — cloaked in governmental opacity about the ultimate objective. If the aim is known then a judgment can be made, not least by American Jewish organizations.

Kerry, in a speech this month to the American Jewish Committee (A.J.C.), laid out what holding all the land means: “Israel will be left to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state, but it will not be able to fulfill the founders’ visions of being both.” That is no less true for being a tired refrain. Then, after evoking a menacing future in the absence of peace, he made his pitch: “No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. And as President Obama said in Jerusalem, leaders will take bold steps only if their people push them.”

The AJC executive director, David Harris, decided to push — with a punchy denunciation of Bennett. The minister’s remarks, he said, were “stunningly shortsighted,” must be “repudiated by the country’s top leaders” and offer “only the prospect of a dead-end strategy of endless conflict and growing isolation for Israel.” To say such language is unusual at major U.S. Jewish organizations is an understatement: Israel has had near carte blanche from them, with negative consequences.

Of course the no-state view of the other is not peculiar to Bennett. Many Palestinians, their national movement split, still dream of all the land, the destruction of Israel, the 1948 borders rather than compromise at the 1967 borders, or unworkable one-state options that are code for the elimination of a Jewish state.

Nothing would advance the just cause of Palestinian statehood faster than the irrevocable renunciation of violence by all factions and reconciliation between them on the basis of territorial compromise with Israel. But Israel must make up its mind. Netanyahu has distanced himself from Bennett, saying he sets foreign policy. The fact is, however, that Bennett has articulated the policy that exists. He is not an outlier.

Harris deserves applause for his stand. American Jewish organizations must go further if Israel is ever to turn its back on the maximalist territorial temptation that inflicts on disenfranchised Palestinians the very exclusion Jews lived over centuries.

Irish-Americans played a significant role in the Northern Ireland peace. American Jews can have similar influence on Israel-Palestine.