Op-Ed: Moderate middle must be heard on Israel debate

NEW YORK (JTA) — The intellectual food fight over Israel that has played out over the Op-Ed pages of virtually all Jewish and many mainstream newspapers in recent weeks may have settled down, but the passion of the discussion has made one thing very clear: The boundaries dividing American Jewish opinion on Israel, and its policies regarding Palestinians, have become as contentious as the borders between Israel and the West Bank.

In the American Jewish dialogue on Israel, extreme polarization reigns. With the most dominant voices coming from the far left and right, the discussion has become alienating in its endless — and more importantly, ineffective — moralizing by both camps. The vast majority of American Jews is deeply concerned about Israel’s security and recognizes the need for a two-state solution that would ensure it. But in a world divided between the antagonistic right and left, centrists are being shut out of the conversation.

What is the way forward for American Jews who want to be effective advocates for Israel but not apologists for its continued presence in the West Bank?

In truth, American Jewish advocacy, like Israel’s political realities, is complex and cannot be addressed effectively through sound bites. But that is exactly what voices on the fringes have offered as their efforts have been directed at rallying political bases rather than advancing reasoned policy concepts. Instead of staking out principled, nuanced positions that reflect an understanding of competing narratives, both sides have adopted an oversimplified rhetoric that feeds fierce debate in the American Jewish community and shrinks political space for pragmatic policy.

Ironically, while the American Jewish left is more vocal than ever, it also has become more irrelevant. While correctly promoting the idea that there is not only one way to be pro-Israel, the left has joined with the right to fuel a with-us-or-against-us paradigm that has resulted in the highly charged debate. The left’s vocal and consistent condemnation of the Israeli government, as well as its lack of sensitivity to Israeli public opinion, has significantly undermined its pro-Israel claims. Consequently, it has never been more politically expedient for politicians and community leaders to disassociate from liberal Zionists.

The American Jewish right shares equal blame. It has sought to capitalize on the left’s failings, seeking to turn Israel into a partisan tool that can be wielded against President Obama and undermining bipartisan consensus support for the Jewish state. Faced with a choice, many organizations, community leaders and politicians quite naturally align themselves with the right, lest they risk alienation from a comfort zone of support for Israel. Others are disengaging from Israel advocacy altogether to avoid the seemingly endless debates that often resemble a dog chasing its own tail.

The net result is a ridiculous and ineffective way for the pro-Israel community to proceed if it wants to lobby effectively for ensuring Israel’s future. The tenor of the discussion has taken American Jewry further away from being able to lobby for a two-state solution and a secure Israel. Successful pro-Israel advocacy today requires mobilizing the majority and moving away from the extremes. This means rejecting the left-wing notion that peace will be achieved only by pressuring the Jewish state to capitulate to Arab demands, and the right-wing notion that Israel must never be questioned.

Successful pro-Israel, pro-two-state advocacy requires engaging the broader American Jewish community, the democratically elected government of Israel and the Israeli public. It also requires rejecting all efforts to undercut bipartisan support for Israel based on the with-us-or-against-us mentality. To be sure, American Jews do not need to support everything that the Israeli government says or does to be pro-Israel. But just as knee-jerk support for anything the Israeli government does is unhelpful, so too is knee-jerk condemnation.

The past few weeks of mudslinging have highlighted how alienating and polarizing many of the tired left- and right-wing arguments about Israel have become. Enough already! It is time for the moderate majority to come together to form a centrist, pragmatic, pro-Israel, pro-two-state message that drowns out the noisemakers on the fringes and leads to a secure, realistic and effective path forward for Israel to thrive.

(Peter A. Joseph is the chairman of the Israel Policy Forum.)

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