The Diaspora Lag Once Israel’s Staunchest Backers, Likudniks in U.S. Freely Criticize

Since at least the days of President Jimmy Carter, readers of The New York Times could count on columnist William Safire for a strong and eloquent defense of Israel.

So imagine their surprise when, last November, no less prominent an Israeli than U.N. Ambassador Gad Yaacobi wrote a letter to the editor, gently but firmly taking issue with Safire.

While Safire had written that “this is the moment to discover whether direct negotiation between Arabs and Jews has a future,” Yaacobi cautioned that “if direct negotiations do not succeed, the stakes are too high to allow the process to fail.”

In short, while Safire was repeating the case made by the previous Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir, the representative of this Israeli government was saying thanks, but no thanks.

The willingness of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to reverse long-standing Israeli policy and consider dramatic concessions at the negotiating table has opened a rift between his government and those American Jews who had considered themselves among Israel’s firmest supporters.

It is a rift increasingly evident in debate within the Jewish community and on the editorial pages of publications widely read by Jews, including the Times.

Some observers see Safire’s position as epitomizing the failure of some American Jews to get with Rabin’s new program — a problem they dub the “Diaspora lag.”

But in the months since November, it has become clear that Safire, as well as fellow Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal and other neoconservatives who manned the pro-Israel lines during the 1980s, have no intention of joining up with the Labor Party just to show their support for Israel.

BETTING ON NETANYAHU

Much as liberal columnist Anthony Lewis rooted for Shimon Peres when he headed the then-opposition Labor Party, Safire and Rosenthal seem to be placing their bets on Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the next election, Safire enthusiastically predicted last month, Rabin “is likely to be ousted” by Netanyahu.

All this raises a question, which as phrased by Safire himself in a column last month, goes like this: “Should longtime hard-liners, who used to assail any criticism of Israeli policies by U.S. doves as divisive, now abandon that principle and denounce the Labor Government’s willingness to welcome a P.L.O.-ish state?”

The answer, clearly, is yes.

The only question is, how to justify the apparent about-face.

Safire went on to answer that support of Israel “should be thoughtful, not knee-jerk; no democracy needs right-or-wrong loyalists,” and says he had never accepted the argument that criticism is itself harmful.

A lengthier answer was given by Norman Podhoretz. The editor of Commentary, a neoconservative publication, has over the years maintained that “American Jews had no moral right to criticize Israel’s security policies.”

Now, writing in a recent Commentary editorial, Podhoretz said he feels compelled to speak out against the peace process and the new policies of the Rabin government because “if those policies are meeting with so much approval in certain quarters, it must mean that they are not good for Israel.”

There is, he wrote, “not only a political but also a moral distinction” between “criticizing Israel when it is under attack by everyone — and criticizing Israel when its policies are meeting with general approval.”

There is a further distinction, Podhoretz continued, “between accusing Israel of all sorts of heinous crimes, as many of its critics on the Left did in the past, and questioning the prudential wisdom of its policies.”

Not surprisingly, some Labor Party officials find these distinctions less than compelling.

TURNING OLD ARGUMENT ON ITS HEAD

Again on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, Labor Knesset Member Ephraim Sneh turned on its head the old argument against American Jews criticizing Israel.

During the Likud era, American Jews were told they were in no position to criticize the hard-line tactics of a nation besieged by enemies. Now, Sneh argued, American Jews, watching from their distant perch should not judge a battle weary nation seeking peace.

Americans who disapprove of the peace process “may not have experienced the horrors of war and the tough conditions of daily life in Israel,” Sneh wrote.

“Hard-line criticism from a safe distance of 6,000 miles will not change the situation,” he continued.

What hard-line criticism from American Jews can do, fear some Israeli officials, is succeed in stalling the fragile peace process.

The Times’ Rosenthal, one target of this Labor broadside, took a dim view of the critique against speaking out.

“If Labor takes the position that people have no right to comment on the most important thing (affecting Israel), and that if they do they’re anti-Israel, then they’re making one hell of a mistake,” Rosenthal told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“During the Likud regime, not only was there criticism, but people like Peres and Abba Eban came to the United States openly trying to influence the U.S. government to be harder toward Israel in its policies,” he continued. “Nobody said they were anti-Israel for doing so.”

American Jews who criticized Likud policies in the past say they remember a harsh reception to their critique.

But while not buying the efforts of Podhoretz to distinguish between criticism from the left and from the right, they admit that the turnabout is fair play.

They have long maintained that there is a role for American Jews to play in Israeli politics.

They just wish that Podhoretz and others would be more honest about it.

“I think American Jews need to get rid of this idea that Israeli politics are off-limits or treif,” said Jonathan Jacoby, who is forming a new American Jewish organization to support the Labor Party.

“If you ignore politics, and party politics as well, you exclude yourself from having an impact on what happens in Israel, and from helping Israel in a significant way,” he said.

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