Op-Ed: ‘Tough love’ for Israel would pain pro-Israel peace camp


NEW YORK (JTA) — A new Zogby International poll shows that 71 percent of Obama backers think the United States should “get tough with Israel” in order to stop settlement expansion, while 26 percent of McCain supporters feel that way. Eighty percent of likely Obama voters also agreed with the statement, “It’s time for the United States to get tough with Israel,” in contrast to most McCain supporters.

No doubt many Israelis and their right-wing American backers are mortified by the fact that President Obama’s base wants him to do something about the settlement enterprise and to impose costs on Israel if it does nothing. No doubt the far left and other attackers of all things Israeli will rejoice at these poll numbers.

In contrast, while I am in the camp that wants Obama to have the political wiggle room to take a fair, evenhanded approach to the conflict, I hope that Netanyahu will NOT put Obama in a position where the U.S. president is forced to “get tough” with Israel. Like others on the pro-Israel left, I believe there is no chance to unravel the Gordian knot of the Israel-Palestinian conflict without bold American diplomacy, and the U.S. must insist that the settlements project comes to a dead-stop even as it presses for an end to Palestinian violence and incitement.

But that doesn’t mean that I and my fellow travelers in Americans for Peace Now, J Street, Israel Policy Forum, Ameinu and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom will be happy if the U.S. is forced to exercise tough love. If a bitter public confrontation has to happen, so be it. But it will hurt, in the same way it hurts to argue bitterly with a recalcitrant family member.

Israeli pundits on the right do not seem to understand this. Nor do they understand what the pro-Israel peace camp in the U.S. is advocating. They seem to believe we would be delighted by a confrontation and are rooting for it because of our hostility to the very idea of Israel, and our ardent desire for it to make one-sided concessions.

A column in the Jerusalem Post on this topic by Lenny Ben-David was titled “Rapture over the Rupture.” A diatribe from Isi Liebler calls us “fake Zionists“ and expresses outrage at “the favorable media exposure provided to fringe groups … whose prime objective is to ‘balance’ AIPAC activities by lobbying the Obama administration to force Israel to make further unilateral concessions.”

The Jewish right finds it inconceivable for us to believe what we believe and still worry about Israel’s security and well-being. In fact, we are taking our cues from experienced Israeli diplomats and other international experts who understand it is fruitless for a well-armed, occupying power to negotiate the terms of a viable settlement with an almost defenseless occupied people unless a third party mediates and presses both sides to take politically unpopular steps they otherwise might not take.

In my book, a whole chapter is devoted to interviews with a broad range of Israelis who favor various forms of interventionist American diplomacy, including former diplomats and officials such as Shlomo Ben-Ami, David Kimche, Daniel Levy and Ephraim Sneh. None of them want the United States to sell Israel down the river by compromising its core security requirements or forcing it to make unilateral concessions. All of them want America to stop both sides from taking steps that will destroy the possibility of a two-state solution and to come up with creative proposals to bridge the gaps between them.

But even if Israelis feel that way, we are not permitted to, according to the Israel-must-be-left-alone crowd. Moreover, the fact that we are Americans who believe it is in our own nation’s interests to bolster the forces of moderation in the Middle East is an inconvenient truth they don’t even mention.

While the Jewish right denounces people in my camp for turning our backs on Israel, much of the international left despises us for having emotional ties to Israel and/or Israeli Jews. Believing that Israel is an evil empire with no redeeming characteristics, they can only abide Jews who reflexively find everything about it to be contemptible. Any other sentiment is considered “Jewish particularism,” a synonym for vile and unjustified tribalism. Essentially they object to our desire to belong to something that is larger than ourselves and smaller than the entire human race.

Sorry, universalists, tough love for Israel will be tough for me to bear because my identity as a Jew is bound up with Israel and I am emotionally and spiritually connected to it. Sorry, supporters of the status quo, if I endorsed Israeli behavior or policies that I believed were deplorable and misguided, if I stopped trying to help progressive Israelis who are trying to fix what is broken in the Jewish state, that would be turning my back on Israel.

If my camp’s sentiments and ideas are mercilessly bashed by both the Jewish right and the far left, it is a good sign that the sentiments are justifiable and the ideas have merit.

Dan Fleshler, a media and public affairs strategist, is the author of "Transforming America’s Israel Lobby — The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change" (Potomac Books, May 2009). He is on the advisory council of J Street and is a board member of Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu.


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