Op-Ed: Overcome denial in Israel advocacy

Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now. ()

Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now. ()

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Some people see the world not as it is but as they would like it to be. Psychologists have a term for this: They call it living in denial.

Sadly, denial colors the way too many leaders of established institutions in the American Jewish community look at Israel when it comes to matters of peace and security. 

Decades of telling and retelling a comfortable narrative in which Israel is always extending its hand in peace, only to have it rejected by the Palestinians, understandably makes it hard to accept when the facts show otherwise.

Yet when it comes to the state of the peace process in the Middle East today, the facts do show otherwise.

Granted, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has spoken about freezing settlements. But in reality, construction continues unabated on the West Bank.

Granted, the prime minister has spoken about pursuing a two-state solution. Yet Israel’s foreign minister tells the world that there is “no chance” for a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future and, in East Jerusalem, barely a week passes without provocative Israeli actions that directly undermine peace efforts and destabilize the city.

Similarly, facts don’t support the charge that the present Palestinian leadership is not a partner for peace.

Israel today does have a partner for peace: pragmatic, moderate Palestinian leaders who genuinely support the two-state solution and are working to establish order and security in the West Bank. The looming threat of more extreme alternatives to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad only underscores the urgency of taking advantage of the opportunity that exists today for peace and the peril of failure. 

The real issue, however, is not the existence or quality of a Palestinian partner, it’s what course of action best advances shared U.S. and Israeli interests, including securing Israel’s future as a democratic home for the Jewish people.

No matter who leads the Palestinians, Israel needs permanent, secure and recognized borders. Israel has to make clear both in word and in deed that it is ready to end the occupation, not with a verbal nod to the two-state solution but with a solid commitment to a Palestinian state on territory equivalent to 100 percent of the pre-1967 land with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

Of course, Palestinians and the broader Arab world both could be doing far more to advance solutions rather than pointing fingers, and we are not saying only Israel bears responsibility for the present state of affairs. But the reality is that, partner or no, the status quo is unsustainable and the long-term outlook for Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic homeland is bleak without an immediate change of course.

The United States and Israel do not benefit from making excuses for maintaining a self-destructive status quo. American pro-Israel advocates owe it to the Israel they love to stop hiding behind the latest incarnation of the “no partner” excuse for inaction.

No matter what you think of Abbas and Fayyad, there is no justification for expanding settlements, blockading Gaza (a point we have longargued and that now has been belatedly recognized by the Israeli government) or systematically planning the expansion of the Jewish presence in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Americans — Jews and non-Jews — can see with their own eyes what is happening in Gaza, in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. It is clear to any objective observer that the actions of the present Israeli government have yet to match the promise of the rhetoric. Pretending otherwise does not help Israel; it risks further alienating the American and American Jewish publics. 

Many Israelis, too, are asking us to break out of this mode of Israel advocacy. In a poll commissioned by B’nai B’rith, half of Israeli Jews recently said that it was essential that America pressure both sides to make progress toward peace. Those living in denial seem to be deaf to this plea.

It is tempting to let ourselves fall under the spell of the siren song that Israel is today extending its hand in peace, and that if there is no peace it is not for lack of effort. We may badly want it to be true. We may want to believe that Israel — the country that we love, support and defend — is living up to our hopes and dreams. 

But siren songs have a tendency to leave ships wrecked on rocky shores. Those of us who care about Israel must be courageous enough to see things as they are and act accordingly.

(Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street. Debra DeLee is the president of Americans for Peace Now.)

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